Beginner's Guide to Collecting Stamps

Blog Written by Pamela Siegel
Written by: Pamela Siegel
December 15, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM
December 15, 2022 Updated 01:06 PM

by Pamela Siegel

Maybe you’ve heard that stamp collecting, similarly to coin collecting, has a special name for its hobbyists. They’re called philatelists, meaning they are passionate about studying and collecting postage stamps and related materials. What you may not know is that philately is sometimes called the “hobby of kings.”

The late Queen Elizabeth II followed in the footsteps of her father, King George V, as a stamp enthusiast. This is a particularly interesting notion since their portraits appear on so many postage stamps. Plenty of other notable historical figures and celebrities have gone on record as philatelists, too, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, legendary actor James Earl Jones, and tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Exploring the hobby of stamp collecting isn’t just for the rich and famous, though. Anyone can be a philatelist with a little helpful guidance. From a child attracted to animal stamps to a grandpa’s fascination with history, there’s literally something for everyone to love when it comes to stamp collecting. It’s also a great way to learn about geography, art, and world cultures while making new friends if you decide to join a club or partake in social media groups revolving around philately.


A variety of stamps related to France

Stamps: How It All Began

The first prepaid postage stamps, called Penny Blacks by collectors, were used in England in 1840. Prior to that time, fees for postage were collected when mail was delivered. That posed a problem since many articles were refused and had to be carried back to the sender resulting in no income for a roundtrip delivery. A man named Rowland Hill is credited for coming up with a plan to issue both prepaid envelopes and postage stamps with adhesive. The envelopes were a failure, but the stamps with Queen Victoria’s profile – a one-cent design in black and a two-cent design in blue – were a success right away.

The City Despatch Post in New York City followed suit by issuing postage stamps in 1842. Other locales, including the Empire of Brazil and cities in Switzerland, began using stamps shortly thereafter. In 1847, the United States government released five-cent stamps featuring Benjamin Franklin and 10-cent stamps with the likeness of George Washington. By the mid-1800s, postage stamp use had spread around the globe. 

Interestingly, the first stamp collector was a zoologist from Britain named John Edward Gray. According to the Stanley Gibbons website, he purchased four Penny Black stamps (described as a block by collectors when they’re still attached in a grouping) with the intention of saving them as soon as they were offered for sale on May 1, 1840.

Another early collector, a Frenchman named Georges Herpin, coined the term philately in 1864 after noting that the names for stamp collecting at the time – timbromania, timbrophily, and timbrology – weren’t attracting enough interest in the hobby. He came up with philately by joining the Greek words “philo” for affinity and “atelelia” for exemption from tax to lay the groundwork for stamp collectors of the future.

Starting a Stamp Collection

Sometimes starting a collection is as simple as researching and cataloging a cache of stamps you already have on hand. You can also ask family members if they have any stamps they can share with you or a child you’re guiding while building a collection. Other times, it might entail more seriously expanding a collection of random stamps you started early in life.


World stamps gleaned from mail

Once you’re ready to purchase stamps, focusing on the types that most frequently draw your interest is a good way to amass a collection. Places you’ve visited, favorite celebrities, or specific topics like space exploration are all ideas to consider. If you don’t have a clue, buying a lot of miscellaneous world stamps to sift through for favorites is always an option.

Visiting local shows specializing in stamps is also a great way to interact with knowledgeable dealers and other collectors while acquiring stamps and related materials like first day covers, which is an envelope with a stamp attached sold on the first day of issue. The American Philatelic Society offers an online calendar detailing shows around the United States. Utilizing online resources, including AuctionNinja’s estate sales, can yield many interesting examples when growing a collection, too.


Example of a collectible "first day cover" 

Like other hobbies, there are tools of the trade. Some of the things you might want to acquire as you pursue philately include:

A stamp stockbook and albums. Stockbooks are binders with pocketed sheets inside, sized specifically for storing stamps. The inside sleeves should be made of archival-grade materials to protect your collection. Stamp albums have paper pages, and either hinges or mounts are used to hold stamps in place. These are available in many different iterations depending on your interests. 

A magnifying glass and tweezers. Since stamps are relatively small, having a magnifying glass on hand is helpful to look for nuances that make them more desirable and flaws that can make them less valuable. You’ll also want to use tweezers, sometimes called stamp tongs, to delicately handle your stamps to avoid damaging them.

A stamp book or catalog. There are a number of books available on specific types of stamps to help you with your research. Some of the most highly recommended are produced yearly by Scott Publishing, including “Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers.” The drawback is that these catalogs are expensive. Finding a used edition or checking with a local library to see if they have a copy to loan can be a more economical alternative as you begin to collect.

There are also resources available to help new collectors through the Smithsonian National Postal Museum that are worth checking out. You can learn about using advanced collecting tools like perforation gauges and watermark detection devices online as well.

How to Care for Your Stamp Collection

Collectors often learn the hard way that stamps can be easily damaged. Things like tears, stains, and creases can diminish the value of these prized collectibles. Since they’re small and flat, it’s unfortunately easy to lose them as well.

The first rule of stamp collecting care, as suggested by Linn’s Stamp News, is stowing away new additions to your collection as soon as you acquire them. This keeps you from misplacing stamps and keeps them out of harm’s way.

Remember those tweezers you were advised to purchase? This is one of the many times you’ll use them when handling your stamps. If you don’t have time to properly place new acquisitions in an album, storing them in a stockbook for safekeeping is advisable.


Examples of stamp albums and binders holding first day covers

When using albums to curate your collection, never adhere the stamps directly to the page using glue or tape. Always use stick-on stamp hinges, which are small pieces of gummed paper. Pocket mounts are another alternative, as detailed on Stamp Active. Mounts are the more costly of the two but may prove to be a better choice for rare or valuable stamps in your collection as they provide more protection.

Since they are made of thin paper, stamps are prone to deterioration if not stored properly. Be sure to stow your stockbooks and albums in a spot away from excessive humidity and light to avoid damage.

How to Appraise a Stamp Collection

Condition is the first thing to consider when appraising a stamp. Even the tiniest tear, crease, or spot of dirt can bring down the value. How well the color has held up, whether the stamp is centered, and the evenness of margins also have an impact on the value. This is where using your magnifying glass will come in handy to examine each specimen closely.

Once you’ve roughly determined the condition, you can use a stamp catalog to get an approximate idea of the value. Some stamps sell for less than catalog prices, while others will go higher, especially when auctioned, so keep that in mind if you’re planning to sell.

You can also have stamps professionally appraised, as mentioned on the American Stamp Dealers Association (ASDA) website. ASDA members are professionals who follow strict rules when appraising stamps. They do so for a variety of purposes, including general valuations, replacement values for insurance purposes, retail values, and wholesale offers to buy. Be sure to communicate your reason for wanting stamps in your collection appraised to obtain the appropriate value.

Ready to start your own stamp collection? Browse all the collectible stamp auctions on AuctionNinja.com.

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