Read an Excerpt
Coast-to-Coast Collecting Seeing the Country Through Stamps
This year, the Greetings From America stamp pane shows just how fascinating stamp collecting can be. Did you know that it's the first pane of 50 stamps in 10 years? Or that the designs evoke retro "large-letter" postcards used to advertise cities, states, and tourist attractions? Stampcollectors know -- because they keep an eye out not only for distinctive stamps but also for the diverse American landmarks that appear on them. Issuances such as Greetings From America suggest the richness of the American scene, with its many extraordinary icons, monuments, and natural wonders. You never know what will turn up on a stamp, and that's all part of the fun.
Stamp collecting can be a lifelong hobby. It's fun andeducational for all ages, and it's easy to start without a big investment. Read on to find out how to start or build your very own collection.
What is philately?
The word philately (fi-latt'-eh-lee) means the study of stamps and other postal materials. Stamp collectors are sometimes called philatelists.
How do I start collecting stamps?
It's easy. You can start by simply saving stamps from letters, packages, and postcards. Ask your friends and family to save stamps from their mail.
Neighborhood businesses that get a lot of mail -- banks, stores, travel agencies, and others -- might save their envelopes for you, too.
Or, start your collection by choosing one or two favorite subjects. Then, collect stamps that fit your theme -- art history, sports, transportation, science, animals, and others -- whatever you choose! Thisis called topical or thematic stamp collecting. See the stamps pictured in these featured articles for ideas to get you started on a space theme!
Will it cost me a lot to start a collection?
No! Start with used stamps and a few inexpensive accessories (such as a small album and a package of stamp hinges), and you can have a great time on a limited budget. Remember to put stamps, albums, and hinges on your birthday and holiday wish lists, too!
What kinds of stamps are there?
There are a number of different types of stamps. Their purposes can be described as commemorative, definitive, or special; their formats can be in sheets, booklets, or coils. And all of these now exist with conventional adhesive (the "lock-and-stick" gum) or self-adhesive (the "no-lick, peel-and-stick" type).
Definitive stamps (also called "regular issues") are the most common type of postage stamp. They feature everything from statesmen to animals and from the American flag to historic vehicles. They tend to be fairly small (generally less than an inch square), with denominations (the face value printed on the stamp) from one cent to many dollars. They are printed in large quantities, often more than once, and tend to be available for several years.
Commemorative stamps are usually larger and more colorful than definitives. They are printed in smaller quantities and typically are printed only once. They remain on sale for a limited period of time, generally about a year; many post offices carry them for only a few months. They are issued for specific rates, most often the prime letter rate. They honor, or commemorate, important people, events, or subjects, all of which reflect some aspect of American culture.
Special stamps supplement the regular issues and tend to be more commemorative in appearance (larger and more colorful), while meeting specific needs. They may be reprinted, but tend to remain on sale for only the life of the specific rate for which they are issued. These include Christmas and Love stamps, Holiday Celebration stamps, international rate stamps (previously known as airmail stamps), Priority Mail, and Express Mail stamps.
Sheet stamps are printed as large press sheets, then trimmed into smaller units called panes, most of which measure less than eight by ten inches. Panes generally contain twenty stamps, but may contain up to a hundred or as few as one stamp; smaller commemorative panes, with fewer than ten stamps, are often called souvenir sheets, depending on their purpose. Individual stamps tend to have perfs (perforations) or die-cut edges (generally with a wavy pattern) on all sides.
Booklet stamps are designed to be folded into a convenient unit. Booklets generally contain twenty stamps and may contain separate panes of stamps in a small folder or may be issued in a flat unit designed to be folded into a booklet by the customer. Most individual booklet stamps have at least one straight edge (no perfs or die-cuts) andsometimes two adjacent straight edges.
Coil stamps are issued in rolls. Customers often buy them in rolls of a hundred stamps; business mailers can buy them in rolls of up to ten thousand stamps. Individual coil stamps usually have two straight edges on opposite sides.
How do I remove stamps from envelopes?
If you wish, you can save whole envelopes with stamps on them and store them anywhere -- from shoe boxes to special albums. These are called "covers." Collecting entire envelopes reflects a specialty called "Postal history." It's a good idea to save the whole envelope if there's something special about the address or return address (famous places or people for example), or the postmark (a date or location of some historic significance). See also the information below on collectible "first day covers" later in this article. If you want to remove stamps from envelopes, it pays to be careful. The best way to remove stamps from envelopes is to soak them. Here's how:
- Tear or cut off the upper right-hand corner of the envelope leaving enough margin around the stamps to ensure they aren't damaged.
- Place it, stamp side down, in a small pan of warm (not hot) water. If the stamp is affixed to a piece of colored envelope, use colder water; it may take longer, but any dyes from the paper are less likely to run and discolor the stamp. After a few minutes, the stamp should sink to the bottom. Remove the envelope piece from the water as soon as the stamp is off.
- Wait a few more minutes for any remaining gum to dislodge from the stamp. The newer self-adhesive gums tend to take a bit longer.
- Lift the stamp out. If you use your fingers, be sure your hands are clean, since oil from your skin can hasten discoloration of the stamps over time. Tongs -- a good stamp-collecting tool like tweezers -- can be used to minimize contact. Wet stamps are delicate and should be handled carefully.
- Place the stamp between two paper towels and put a heavy object, such as a book, on top. This will keep the stamp from curling as it dries. Leave the stamp there overnight.
- If the stamp shows signs of remaining adhesive, even after lengthy soaking, dry it face down on a single paper towel with nothing touching the back. If necessary, it can be flattened after it's dried; otherwise, it may stick to surfaces when drying.