Stamp collecting is the collecting of postage stamps and related objects. It is related to philately, which is the study of stamps. It has been one of the world’s most popular hobbies since the late nineteenth century with the rapid growth of the postal service, as a never-ending stream of new stamps was produced by countries that sought to advertise their distinctiveness through their stamps.
Stamp collecting is generally accepted as one of the areas that make up the wider subject of philately, which is the study of stamps. A philatelist may, but does not have to, collect stamps. It is not uncommon for the term philatelist to be used to mean a stamp collector. Many casual stamp collectors accumulate stamps for sheer enjoyment and relaxation without worrying about the tiny details. The creation of a large or comprehensive collection, however, generally requires some philatelic knowledge and will usually contain areas of philatelic studies.
Postage stamps are often collected for their historical value and geographical aspects and also for the many subjects depicted on them, ranging from ships, horses, and birds to kings, queens and presidents.
Stamp collectors are an important source of income for some countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries may exceed their postal needs, but may also feature attractive topical designs that many collectors desire.
A few basic items of equipment are needed to collect stamps. Stamp tongs help to handle stamps safely, a magnifying glass helps in viewing fine details and an album is a convenient way to store stamps. The stamps need to be attached to the pages of the album in some way, and stamp hinges are a cheap and simple way to do this. However, hinging stamps can damage them, thus reducing their value; today many collectors prefer more expensive hingeless mounts. Issued in various sizes, these are clear, chemically neutral thin plastic holders that open to receive stamps and are gummed on the back so that they stick to album pages. Another alternative is a stockbook, where the stamps drop into clear pockets without the need for a mount. Stamps should be stored away from light, heat and moisture or they will be damaged.
Stamps can be displayed according to the collector’s wishes, by country, topic, or even by size, which can create a display pleasing to the eye. There are no rules and it is entirely a matter for the individual collector to decide. Albums can be commercially purchased, downloaded or created by the collector. In the latter cases, using acid free paper provides better long-term stamp protection.
Many collectors ask their family and friends to save stamps for them from their mail. Although the stamps received by major businesses and those kept by elderly relatives may be of international and historical interest, the stamps received from family members are often of the definitive sort. Definitives seem mundane but, considering their variety of colours, watermarks, paper differences, perforations and printing errors, they can fill many pages in a collection. Introducing either variety or specific focus to a collection can require the purchasing of stamps, either from a dealer or online. Large numbers of relatively recent stamps, often still attached to fragments or envelopes, may be obtained cheaply and easily. Rare and old stamps can also be obtained, but these can be very expensive.
Duplicate stamps are those a collector already has and are not required, therefore, to fill a gap in a collection. Duplicate stamps can be sold or traded, so they are an important medium of exchange among collectors.
Many dealers sell stamps through the Internet while others have neighborhood shops which are among the best resources for beginning and intermediate collectors. Some dealers also jointly set up week-end stamp markets called “bourses” that move around a region from week to week. They also meet collectors at regional exhibitions and stamp shows.
A worldwide collection would be enormous, running to thousands of volumes, and would be incredibly expensive to acquire. Many consider that Count Philipp von Ferrary’s collection at the beginning of the 20th century was the most complete ever formed. Many collectors limit their collecting to particular countries, certain time periods or particular subjects (called “topicals”) like birds or aircraft.