Stamp collecting is the collecting of postage stamps and objects related to postage stamps. It is one of the world's most popular hobbies, with estimates of the number of collectors ranging up to 20 million.
Collecting is not the same as philately, which is the study of stamps. A philatelist often does, but need not, collect the objects of study.
Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries far exceed the postal needs of the countries.
Some collectors, observing the generally rising prices of rare stamps, have taken to Philatelic Investment. Rare stamps are among the most portable of tangible investments, and are easy to store. They offer an attractive alternative to art, other collectible investments, and precious metals.
Postal stationery - includes government-issued post cards, aerograms, air letter sheets, etc.; interestingly, the earliest postal stationery predates the earliest stamps- the Kingdom of Sardinia issued the first postal letter sheets in 1819.
Postage Due stamps
Federal Duck stamps (stamps for duck hunting licenses, mainly U.S. with some other countries such as Canada); the first Duck stamp was designed by noted conservationist Ding Darling, and was issued in 1934. Each year, a contest is held, in which thousands of wildlife artists compete to design the new duck stamp. The winner of the contest becomes instantly famous. Duck stamp collecting is very popular with hunters, and U.S. Duck stamps are sold by the Department of the Interior, as well as by individual states. The revenues generated by the sale of Duck stamps are used to purchase wetlands, so that they remain unspoiled.
souvenir sheets - the many postal services sometimes release stamps in a format that look like a sheet with a big picture. Various parts of the picture can be torn out and used as postage stamps. See example with 10 stamps in one picture. (Souvenir sheets should be distinguished from souvenir cards, which are souvenirs of a philatelic meeting or exhibition but are not valid for postage.)
first day covers - (FDCs) - envelopes with stamps attached and canceled on the first day that the stamp was issued. Most modern FDCs bear designs, called "cachets," related to the theme of the stamp issued, although the earliest do not. The first cacheted FDC was produced by prominent philatelist and cachetmaker George W. Linn in 1923, for the Harding Memorial stamp issue. Cachetmaking is considered an art form, and cachets may be produced by using any number of methods, including drawing or painting directly onto the envelope, serigraphy, block printing, lithography, engraving, laser printing, attachment of photographs or other paper memorabilia, etc.. The largest and best-known cachetmaking companies, which typically produce thousands or tens of thousands of printed cachets for U.S. stamp issues, are Artcraft, Fleetwood, House of Farnam, and Colorano.
First Day Ceremony Programs - these are folders or brochures given out to attendees of the First Day Ceremonies of postage stamps, with historical information on the stamp, a list of speakers, and an attached stamp, canceled on the First Day of Issue. Collectors of "FDCPs" generally prefer their programs autographed by those who spoke at the ceremony.
souvenir pages - with first day cancelled stamps on a page describing all design, printing and issuing details. This is similar to first day covers except that it is done on a printed sheet of paper instead of an envelope, and the specification of the stamp is printed by the official source. See picture of first souvenir page in the US.
Topical - many collectors choose to organize their philatelic collection on the theme of the stamps, covers, or postmarks. Popular topical themes are animals, dogs, cats, butterflies, birds, flowers, art, sports, olympics, maps, Disney, scouting, space, ships, Americana (topics relating to the US), stamps on stamps, famous people, chess, and many others. For more information see American Topical Association and Philately.
Government issued material associated with postage stamps (e.g., envelopes)
non-stamp items picturing actual postage stamps
non-stamp items picturing stamp-like labels
counterfeit/forged postage stamps (Before purchasing a rare and valuable stamp for which there is any doubt as to authenticity, it is always advisable to obtain an expert's certificate stating that the stamp is authentic. The most prominent stamp expertising organizations in the U.S. are the Philatelic Foundation and the American Philatelic Society.) There are several types of collectible faked postage stamps:
postal counterfeits are produced by criminals for fraudulent use as postage stamps; frequently, these are scarcer than the stamps which they were intended to represent
forgeries of rare stamps
reprints are produced by government printing offices or private organizations using the plates used to produce the original stamps; stamp catalogues often contain information on how to distinguish reprints from the originals
faked stamps are common stamps which have been altered to resemble rare stamps; examples of such "fakery" include forged overprints, forged cancellations, chemical alterations of a stamp's color, added perforations.
The first postage stamp, the One Penny Black, was issued by Britain in 1840. It pictured a young Queen Victoria, was produced without perforations (imperforate), and consequently had to be cut from the sheet with scissors in order to be used. While unused examples of the "Penny Black" are quite scarce, used examples are common, and may be purchased for $25 to $150, depending upon condition.
Children and teenagers were early collectors of stamps in the 1860s and 1870s. Many adults dismissed it as a childish pursuit.
During the late 1800s many of those collectors, now adults, began to systematically study the available postage stamps and published research works on their production, plate flaws, etc.
It was not until the 1920s that publicity about valuable stamps encouraged a large increase in the number of stamp collectors. This rapid increase in postage stamp values was largely due to very few of the older stamps being saved in good condition. Especially difficult to find were pairs, triples, and large blocks of older stamps.
Because many U.S. stamp issues of the 1920s rose rapidly in value, during the 1930s many American collectors stockpiled mint U.S. stamps with the hopes of selling them for a sizeable profit in a few years' time. This never materialized. Even today, more than 60 years later, one can find many 1930s U.S. issues in mint condition for close to face value, and many stamp dealers and collectors still use stamps issued as far back as the 1930s for postage when mailing letters.
Most U.S. postage stamps issued since the 1930s are easy to obtain and have minimal value. Some high face value stamps, such as the $2.60 United States Graf Zeppelin issued in 1930, are worth substantial amounts of money. Other stamps issued since 1930 that are usually worth something are souvenir sheets from popular countries, hard to find plate number coils, and errors in printing.