Why are there postage stamps? Roland Hill reformed the British post office in the late 1830s. Postage stamps were his answer to three problems. First, the old system where the recipient of the letter always paid for the postage was inefficient, because it required many trips to find the recipient and the recipients frequently wouldn't pay for mail they didn’t want to receive. Second, postmasters were pilfering revenue, and stamps provided an effective inventory control method: each letter needed postage stamps to transit the mail (not a rubber stamped "Paid" marking, as had been the practice), and the government needed correct payment from the postmaster for each stamp. Finally, postal rates were exorbitant, and it was believed more efficiency would be derived from greater volume resulting from lower rates. Roland Hill’s invention of the postage stamp was a great success; and, as a result, Great Britain is the only country in the world that does not have to put its name on its stamps, a reward for his innovation. Early adopters of postage stamps were Great Britain in 1840, Switzerland and Brazil in 1843, the United States in 1847. Most of the western world adopted postage stamps in the 1850s, and the rest of the world did so by the end of the 1860s.
Evolution of Stamp Collecting
Soon after postage stamps came into use, people started saving them. One young lady in London in 1840 completely wallpapered her apartment with used copies of the world's first postage stamp, now known as the famous British Penny Black. Today those stamps would be worth several hundreds of dollars or pounds each. Stamp dealers soon arose to meet the demand for collectible postage stamps, and dealer price lists began circulating around the time of the United States Civil War. Those early price lists later evolved into the massive catalogs that we have today: the Scott Catalogue in the United States, the Stanley Gibbons Catalogue in England, the Michel Catalogue in Germany, the Sassone Catalogue in Italy, and the Cérès Catalogue in France, among others. The stamp collecting hobby today enjoys more literature and scholarly articles than any other hobby in the world.
Famous people contributed to the popularity of stamp collecting, indeed it became known as "The King of Hobbies and the Hobby of Kings." King George V of England built the Royal Philatelic Collection, still one of the finest in existence. Franklin Roosevelt greatly popularized stamp collecting in the United States during the depression, and always took part of his collection with him on foreign trips for relaxation. King Farouk I of Egypt amassed a fabulous royal collection. Many captains of industry around the world assembled renowned collections.
Not only is stamp collecting an enjoyable pastime, the laws of supply and demand created investment opportunities. Investment returns on quality philatelic materials compare favorably to returns on other collectibles and alternative investments. Rare and popular stamps have recently realized fantastic prices such as $1.3 million for a United States C3A – depicting an upside down Curtis Jenny airplane from 1918, $2.3 million for the Swedish 1855 Three Skilling yellow error of color, and $9.3 million for John DuPont’s British Guiana 1cent Magenta of 1856.
How Do You Get Stamps?
Common stamps are ubiquitous - acquiring investment grade stamps requires specialized knowledge and foresight. Ironically, the mail is the source of many stamps, including those used on envelopes, price lists and approvals mailed from dealers, mail trade clubs, and subscription stamp collecting services. Stamp and coin stores used to be in every community, but high overhead and reduced foot traffic has led to other retail outlet methods, most notably weekend stamp shows and the internet. On any given weekend, hundreds of stamp shows are held around the country. EBay, Delcampe, Stamp Net, HipStamps, and other internet sites do tremendous volumes of philatelic sales every day. There are dozens of in-person, mail, and internet auctions which close every weekend, including many well-known high-end auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Siegel's, and Harmers, and many other specialized, international, regional, or local auction firms.
Windows on the World
Postage stamps are miniature works of art. Similar to currency, they possess value that required security measures be used. Stamps of the classic period from 1840-1940 were printed by security bank note companies or government printing offices, and involved highly skilled workman hand engraving designs frequently on a par with major works of art. Modern technological advances led to photolithography, computer-aided design, and many innovative production techniques. Stamps exist that you can put on a record player to play a country’s national anthem; there are scratch and smell stamps; the U.S. Lunar Eclipse stamp goes through the phases of an eclipse when you put your warm thumb on it; and you can personalized stamps with your own picture, your cat's, or with whatever statement you wish to make.
Postage stamps reflect the history, geography, politics, religion, and values of the communities they represent. Depictions on postage stamps, such as territorial claims, have even led to wars. Pictured with this article is a relatively primitive stamp printed in 1874 by typograph in Boulac, Egypt, by the Egyptian government printing office shortly after Egypt adopted postage stamps in 1866. Egypt had defeated Napoleon's army that had occupied it early in the 19th century (hence the French language used on the stamp: "Postes," meaning "postage"). The Ottomans then established a Khedive in Egypt as part of the Ottoman Empire and caliphate, and the Turkish Sultan recognized a Viceroy as the governor of Egypt shortly before the stamp was printed (hence the words "Khedevie Egiziane," meaning "postage of the Egyptian Ottoman Governor"). Britain soon after asserted a presence in Egypt in 1882 in connection with the construction of the Suez Canal to provide seaway access to its colony in India. Thereafter, the Ottomans lost their empire including Egypt after siding with Germany and the Central Powers in WWI, and Egypt eventually became independent. Did you notice the 5s were inverted on this Egyptian stamp? – The government print shop workers in Boulac in 1874 likely weren't very familiar with Western-style numerals.
Stamp collecting is a great way to establish relationships with persons from other countries and communities. It fosters cultural knowledge and sensitivity, and an understanding of the history and values that motivate people – goals and purposes quite similar to those of the International Relations Council.
About the Author
Kirk Doan is a business lawyer with Stinson Leonard Street in Kansas City, Missouri, and is an avid stamp collector. He is a member of the International Relations Council Board of Directors, and on the International Relations Council Speakers Bureau. You can often find Kirk at an IRC program with a country-specific stamp collection.