A Brief History of Stamp Collecting

United States of America: 1893 Columbus $3 yellow-green. Scott 243, cat. United States of America: 1893 Columbus $3 yellow-green, unused without gum, otherwise fine. Scott 243, cat. Sold for £320 via Grosvenor Philatelic Auctions (March 2012).

It’s the hobby that literally falls on your doormat and has enraptured people for over a century. Stamp collecting offers a window into the past; reflecting times of feast and famine, war and peace. Stamps have commemorated success, and depicted the highs and lows of popular culture. The humble stamp has been present through some of the most momentous moments in history, providing an accessible hobby in which 10 per cent of the US population once participated. 

Posing as miniature windows into the world, stamps not only transport letters from door to door, but also showcase the people, history, and places that shape a national identity in each country across the world. And since the introduction of the world’s first pre-paid postage stamp, the Penny Black in the UK in 1840, people have delighted in collecting this form of functional art. 

In the United States, the 24c Inverted Jenny from 1918 enjoys special status as a renowned and revered stamp that has even lit up the silver screen, with the help of Richard Pryor in the film, Brewster’s Millions. Beloved among collectors, individual Inverted Jenny stamps have been known to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. 

Not limited to centuries-old rarities, stamps have covered a wide variety of topics from superheroes to space exploration, cats to stars of stage and screen, and even war. Known as philately, the collection and study of stamps is a life-long hobby for many, thanks to its educational characteristic, and the fact that, although rare stamps can fetch high prices, it doesn’t require significant money or time to begin.

Stamps have introduced young collectors to art, culture, history, science, geography, and much more bedsides, and as technology today threatens the very existence of the stamp, a new tribe of collectors are discovering the perfectly sized and intricately designed windows into the past 100 years.

The British postal reformer, Sir Rowland Hill is to thank for introducing the world to the Uniform Penny Post in 1840. His introduction in the UK was intended to revolutionize the costly and complex process of sending a letter. Mail rates had previously been based on distance, but Sir Rowland Hill’s Penny Black stamp, featuring a portrait of Queen Victoria, changed how the world communicates and introduced a new hobby that would enchant famous names like Charlie Chaplin, King George V of England, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as John Lennon and Freddie Mercury.

The Penny Black brought about a revolution in communication in Britain. Millions were produced, and thousands are still in circulation among collectors, making it an ideal place for those looking to start their collection with an accessible slice of history. Keep an eye on the numbers in the corner of each Penny Black, as they denote the row and column placement in the printed sheet of stamps – and its subsequent value. 

The United States followed suit in 1847 with the introduction of 5 and 10 cent stamps. Like the British stamps before them, the US stamps were cut from printed sheets with scissors, before the skyrocketing volume of letters demanded that perforated stamps be produced. And, as with most collectibles, early stamp issues prove more valuable due to their delicate nature and rarity.

Hugely popular, the US actually had two stamp-issuing bodies from 1860 to 1864, as the Confederate States introduced their own postal system. And it wasn’t until 1874 that the Universal Postal Union was formed.

One sought-after stamp from the period is the 1879-1883 issue 3c stamp, thanks to its beguiling blue/green color and its scarcity, with perhaps fewer than 20 believed to exist, of which only 14 have been certified by the American Philatelic Society. A magnificent example of one of the rarest Bank Note Special Printings (above) commanded keen interest when it appeared at auction in 2005.

It’s the Inverted Jenny though that commands the most attention among collectors. The name refers to a printing error of the original airmail stamp, when a full sheet of 100 were discovered at a post office in Washington D.C. – and a modern collectible was born. 

One aficionado was British zoologist John Edward Gray, who is cited as the world’s first stamp collector. It’s suggested that he purchased a number of the Penny Blacks on the day of release with the intention of saving them. Similarly, collector oganizations such as The Royal Philatelic Society London emerged in 1869, making it the oldest collector organization in the world. In the United States, it’s the American Philatelic Society, or APS.

China Postage Stamp Group.

China Postage Stamp Group. Sold for $720 via Doyle New York (October 2019).

The real heyday of the stamp proved to be the 1950s and 60s when, incredibly, the US Postal Service estimated that almost 10 per cent of the US population collected stamps; equivalent to an impressive 20 million collectors.

Stamp collecting continued to flourish and even boom into the 1970s thanks in part to a burgeoning artistic approach to themed stamps, while technology helped bring the world closer together.

As new markets in developing parts of Africa and Asia became more accessible, places like India and China experienced an explosive growth in the popularity of stamp collecting, with this demand helping to fuel a growing interest in collecting in other parts of the world.

While some collect stamps the old fashioned way by sourcing them from one country and collecting each stamp issued and looking for tiny variations, one of the most popular approaches to stamp collecting is thematic. The variety of choice is almost endless thanks to a near infinite range of topics. This could include butterflies on stamps, or space exploration. It could be military related, or even have a sporting focus. And because most of the stamps were produced after 1950, starting a thematic collection can be very satisfying, offering great choice at relatively low cost.

While the digital age has threatened the very future of the stamp, advances in technology have provided greater variety with improved printing techniques. Plus, the internet has opened up the world to collections and curiosities like the Swiss stamp that smells like chocolate, stamps in Braille, or circular stamps with holograms.

Whatever the reason, each stamp illuminates a story from the past 100 years – whether it’s a slice of history, the stamp designer, edition, or function. Aesthetically pleasing, intricate and skilfully executed prints of stamps have the ability to transport a collector to the past, with some even being miniature works of art. 

And who knows! Perhaps your collection is waiting to arrive on your doormat.