Featuring Research Volunteer Contributions

Philatelic Hobby

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Amelia Earhart

As industrious as Americans are in the workplace, they approach leisure-time activities with similar passion, whether it is for reading, sports, handcrafts, music, theatre, art, dance . . . or collecting! The kinds of objects people collect range widely, and there is no explaining preferences. There are those who collect coins, while others collect barbed wire, match book covers, great art, and vintage linens. The list is virtually infinite. And, of course, there are literally millions who collect stamps. Since the mid-1800s stamp collecting has ranked among the world’s most popular hobbies. It has a rich culture and vivid history and can be enjoyed in ways and at levels that appeal to the nation’s culturally and economically diverse population.

In response to the demands of its burgeoning industrial economy and the international market, Great Britain issued the world’s first postage stamp on May 1, 1840. Brazil issued its first stamp in 1843, and the United States released its first stamp in 1847. Before the American Civil War ended, industrializing countries worldwide followed these path breakers and issued stamps of their own. As the public discovered stamps’ practical uses, their beauty, and their design and production intricacies, interest in philately surged. Unwittingly, a whole new culture was created based on small, colorful pieces of paper.

Industrialization organized days and weeks in new ways. Fortunate members of the middle class now enjoyed leisure time and new diversions . . . such as stamp collecting. Always keen to grasp opportunities, entrepreneurs recognized not only philately’s financial potential but also the public’s desire for deeper knowledge about those colorful pieces of paper and the stories they told. Entrepreneurs became educators in their own right. Buying, selling, trading, expertising, and describing stamps . . . all satisfied the public’s enthusiasm. Likewise, collectors created a market for numerous hobby tools, including products such as catalogs and magnifying glasses.

Whether zealots or more casual fans, people with a little free time began meeting to compare, discuss, and trade stamps. Some meetings occurred in stately libraries; others took place around kitchen tables or in after-school sessions at country school houses. The joy of shared interests led to social bonding and to the creation of hobby-related organizations such as local stamp clubs, philatelic societies, and specialist societies. And because philately is as much about the study of stamps as it is about collecting, philatelic publications sprang up to promote the hobby. Stamp dealers issued many of these early papers, which included price lists and catalogs, to both educate and drive sales. Philatelic societies created journals to publish the research results of members.

The philatelic exposition is perhaps the hobby’s premier activity. Expositions occur on the city, national, and international levels and are occasions for displaying personal specialized collections and rarities and competing for awards. Whether one has achieved national recognition within the hobby or has simply wandered in off the street, everyone finds a window into new worlds at this 'creme de la creme' philatelic experience.

Housing collections of these small, effectively weightless pieces of paper should require no space at all, but depending on a person’s lack of constraint or boundless enthusiasm, a collection of stamps mounted in albums might require an entire room . . . or more! Stamp collecting is an educational hobby of enormous scope that has appealed to and enlightened kings and presidents, CEOs and Supreme Court justices, doctors, laborers, and school children for generations. This sophisticated hobby, which is accessible to all people, truly enriches the world with its surprises and its many and varied pleasures.

Alexander T. Haimann