Introduction to Stamp Collecting


By Jim Watson

Below are some common terms used in stamp collecting. If there are terms you think we should have included, please email us at with the term and the definition.

The term refers to the moisture sensitive gum (and now pressure sensitive ahesives) applied to stamps. It is often used to distinguish stamps to be glued on letters from pre-printed postal stationery.

Back of the Book
This term derives from the typical arrangement of stamp albums which have the postage, semi-postals, and airmail stamps first and then follow with special deliveries, postage dues, revenues, and other stamps in "the back of the book."

Stamps were first issued in handy booklets by Luxembourg in 1895. Soon many countries were issuing such items. The little books of stamps which you can get at the post office are booklets.

See back of the book.

A marking applied to the stamp to deface it in a manner to prevent its reuse. Dated cancellations also provide a mailing date record.

A stamp issued, generally for a limited period, to note a particular event, person, or anniversary, as opposed to regular issues, sometimes called 'definitives,' which are intended for everyday usage for an extended period.

The color of a stamp is established by the color of the original printing. Often colors are affected by time, temperature, and chemicals. Our perception of the color also is a factor in what the color of the stamp is deemed to be. Careful identification of color often benefits from using a color guide.

An envelope, card, or wrapper which has been used for mail with the appropriate postal markings and stamps.

Cut Square
Envelopes with preprinted stamps that are sold by most post offices. One way that these are collected is by cutting a square corner off the envelope including the preprinted stamp with good margins. When both the front and back of the envelope are cut off, the item is called a full corner. If it is impractical to save the entire cover, full corners are preferred.

A complete envelope, wrapper, or postcard on which a stamp has been printed. The term is used for postal stationery items.

Event Cover
A cover which is prepared to mark a special event such as the opening of a new bridge. It is normally cancelled on the day of the event and has a cachet indicating the event commemorated.

First Day Cover
For some time the first day of issue of a new stamp has been marked by special ceremonies. It is also the date which appears on the cancels of First Day Covers (FDC) or, as they are sometimes called, First Day of Issue covers (FDOI). Most FDCs are not cancelled on the date as the process goes on for weeks due to the quantity of covers to be processed.

Franking Privilege
Post offices often permit officials the privilege of free mail by signing their name in the place where a stamp would normally go. The signature is called a frank.

An oblong piece of tough, thin paper generally rounded on the corners with gum on one side which is used to mount stamps. Hinges are often prefolded. The most desirable hinges are peelable meaning that the dry gum between the hinge and the stamp permits ready separation of the stamp and the hinge.  The best peelable hinges were produced years ago and are no longer available except as collector's surplus.  Hinges first appeared as early as the 1860s. NEVER USE PRESSURE-SENSITIVE TAPE!!

Without perforations or other means for separating the stamps such as rouletting. The first stamps were imperforate and cut apart with scissors.

A copy made by the contact of the inked die or plate on the paper. Impression quality is one of the factors in judging condition.

Inked Hand Stamp
Inked hand stamps are the devices used to cancel stamps or to add handling instructions to mail when it is being not being handled mechanically.

Stamps which have extraordinarly large margins between the image and the perforations are called jumbos.

A term used to define condition of a stamp which has been unused and is just as it was sold by the post office. The gum is original and unmarked by application of a hinge.

On occasion, sheets (or panes) of stamps are used for a special purpose which is marked by printing something on top of the regular image. The result is termed an overprint. Overprints have been used for such things as changed denominations, making the stamp useful for a tax purpose, indication of a political change such as a revolution, etc.

Stamps are often printed in large sheets which are cut apart for convenience in handling at the post office where they are sold. Pane is used to describe the complete sheetlet after being cut apart for sale. Individual small sheets of stamps included in booklets are termed panes as well.

Perforation Gauge
Used to measure the perforations used to separate stamps. Consists of a simple printed or engraved card made of paper, metal, or plastic which is imprinted with various perforations, generally in whole and half measures, which can be compared with the stamp in question. Measurements of perforations less than 1/2 perforation are often unreliable because of paper shrinkage which occurs when stamps are dampened for printing or soaked to remove them from the envelope.  The number describing the gauge of the perforation is the number of holes found in 2 cm.  Roulettes are also measured this way.

The term which was coined in the 19th century by M.G. Herpin, a French collector, to describe stamp collecting. It is a combination of the Greek words philo -- lover, or fond of -- and atelia -- free of payment or tax.

Postal History
The study of the covers, postal markings, routes, postal rates, and anything else having to do with the mail system.

Postal Stationery
Envelopes, postcards, and wrappers with preprinted postage values are often sold by the post office systems around the world. Such items are called postal stationery.

During the plate-making process, trial impressions are taken of the plate to assure that it is satisfactory. Stamps from the printed sheets are termed proofs.

Revenue stamps are those which have been provided to signify the collection of a tax. For example, tax stamps are used to signify payment of document taxes. Such stamps are also cancelled after being applied to the item which is being taxed.

A method for using a line of short slits between stamps to facilitate separation. There are a number of methods which have been used to separate stamps using various forms of rouletting.

Stamps sometimes show the effect of having been face abrasions which have removed some of the printing. Such a defect is called a scuff and should be noted in the description of a stamp. A picture of the stamp will show most scuffs.

Stamps have been used to collect funds for charities by selling a particular stamp with a fee in excess of the basic postal value which is diverted to the charity. This method has been used frequently in Europe and only recently in the United States. The first United States semi-postal was the Breast Cancer stamp of 1998.

Souvenir Sheet
Special events are often marked by printing a small sheet of stamps of significance to the occasion along with a printed inscription describing the event being commemorated. Such sheets make an interesting collection.

Space Filler
A defective stamp which is used to fill a mounting spot in a set of stamps until a better copy can be found.

Often a stamp which has been improperly hinged will be damaged when the hinge is removed. A layer of paper fibers under the hinge gum is torn away leaving the paper of the stamp thin in the area. Such thins are defects and should be mentioned when describing a stamp. The effect on value will depend on the size of the thin.

Similar to tweezers (a term which the British still use) but made of springy brass or steel plated to provide a smooth finish which does not corrode. Having a pair of good tongs and learning to use them to protect stamps during handling is a rewarding skill which everyone can acquire.

Flat sheets of postal stationery have been issued to be wrapped around mailings of such items as newspapers. The newspaper would print the address on the wrapper, roll the newspaper and then wrap it with the wrapper.



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying Stamps
Tips for Listing and Selling
Displaying or Storing
Stamp Collecting Tools
Caring for Stamps
Insuring Your Collection
Books and Other Sources
Building a Collection
Describing Stamp Condition
I Have This Stamp Collection...
Appendix I: Tips for Finding
   and Buying Stamps on eBay

Appendix II: Tips for Listing
   and Selling Stamps on eBay

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