What follows is my new project, a series of lively (I hope) commentaries on my stamp collection and stamp-collecting in general under the title, “The FMF Stamp Project.”
Hey! Was that a yawn?! If so, feel free to stop reading. Or put it aside for later. I won’t be insulted. We stamp collectors have few illusions about public interest in our little pieces of paper; indeed, we worry that what interest there is may be waning. However, my bet is that if you start reading my blog posts, you will be beguiled by the stories, anecdotes, vivid glimpses of history and culture and above all, the sheer beauty of the stamps.
That is my fond conceit, at least. Stamp collectors tend to be besotted with their collections. I have been a philatelist for more than 50 years, learning the hobby from my Pa and older brother Jonathan. Over the decades I have traded, bought stamps at post offices here and abroad. As an adult, I have acquired stamps from dealers, auctions, stamp shows and online. The Internet has provided a big boost to my collection, with reliable online locations to bid, buy, even sell. As I write this, several envelopes sit on my desk from online sellers, containing old stamps from places like Seychelles, Grenada and the Orange Free State/Orange River Colony. Some fun!
… Now there are three more envelopes waiting for me, as you can see in the photo at right. I’m usually in no hurry to open these envelopes. I like to leave them sort of lying around, looking pretty with their bright, unusual stamps
(often from foreign lands), and because they are a little bit pregnant — there is a pleasing heft and lift to the envelopes, a promise of what lies within. Altogether a fairly low-key pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. In the the second photo, one envelope is open and the stamps have been removed for a first look (using stamp tongs, of course). It’s always at least a small thrill. Soon enough, the stamps will be safely mounted in their places on the pages of thick stamp albums, and they will take their places in sets from countries around the world — most of which no longer exist. For now, the stamps are out, on the table, colorful artifacts sometimes well over 100 years old. The stamps have survived all these years. Some are a little faded, others have retained their intense colors, appearing fresh in their third century. This is a time to lift the stamps (in tongs of course), turn them over, examine their backs, look for thins or creases, double-check watermarks. (What are watermarks? Be patient, we’ll get to that.)
The next step is to get the stamps into a stock card (with glassine or parchment strips to hold the stamps), and set them on the desk for several days of examination and appreciation. (Of course, while you are doing all this, you are also living your life. Please don’t think stamp-collecting is an all-consuming habit. After all, FDR was an active stamp collector all his adult life, and he still had time for other things …)
Notice how the folks selling their philatelic wares manage to be creative in the stamps they stick on the envelope for mailing. This is because they probably have a sizable backlog of American stamps (or from other countries if they live abroad) that they bought at the post office. The more recent issues have not appreciated in value, for the most part. Indeed, you probably can’t even get face value (the amount paid for the stamp) if you try and sell it It makes practical sense to use these stamps for postage, since they continue to have their stated value for mailing purposes. So the senders combine stamps that add up to the going rate — 49 cents in the USA in 2015 (later reduced to 47 cents, a change made even more confusing by the “forever” non-numerical value) — and load up the envelope with the old beauties. Seeing such colorful mail makes the whole thing more fun. I wonder if the letter carrier even gets a tiny kick out of delivering these substantive letter-packets decorated with such philatelic richness.
As a matter of fact, I believe many stamp collectors do the same thing — like me. I usually have a backlog of stamps in unusual or outdated denominations. Most of these stamps date to before the advent of no-lick stamps (ah, stamp gum: there’s a topic unto itself), “forever” stamps (a long and tangled tale) and other tectonic shifts in the philatelic world. These stamps are basically worth what I paid for them — as postage. So why not use them. Here, for example, is a letter I am preparing to send to my daughter. Don’t you think the letter carrier will look twice? Will the postal agent have to do a little math problem, making sure that numbers on the stamps add up to 49 cents? (Let’s see … two 5s … seven 4s, that’s 10 plus 28 equals 38; then a 1 cent makes 39, plus a 10-cent at the bottom — yep!) Sometimes I affix stamps that I want to have returned, cancelled, so I can add them to my collection. In which case, I scrawl a small note: “pls save” with an arrow pointing to the particular stamp. I imagine this provokes a certain amount of amusement with a measure of annoyance in loved ones, who may or may not feel obligated to cut or tear the stamp off the envelope (taking care not to rip or crease the stamp itself) and store it someplace until Fred comes to pick it up — or to take the extra step of including it in a letter sent back to Fred; or even writing a letter for that purpose alone! (Too much to ask.)
Another way stamp collectors can get under the skin of their loved ones is by asking them to use stamps instead of meter strips on packages, especially the heavy ones around the holidays. This may sound like an odd request, but when you read on and learn the reason, you’ll see. While the U.S. Postal Service no longer issues stamps with denominations for first-class mail (i.e., now you just use “forever” stamps), if you ask at your post office, you will find there are still many different tamps for sale, from 1 cent to $10 and beyond. You just have to ask. The highest-value stamps are for heavier mail, priority mail, express mail and the like. The denominations have progressed upward in recent years — $13.65, $14, $16.50, $18.30 … In 2013, the USPS issued a stamp selling for $19.95 that depicted a bustling Grand Central Station in New York City; in 2014 came a $19.99 stamp picturing the USS Arizona Memorial. What? You’ve never seen these stamps before? Here is a picture of some of them. They all have been available at one time or another for purchase at most post offices — for face value (i.e., the prince on the stamp). Some of the older stamps that have gone out of circulation, that is, no longer are sold by the post office, have increased in value to collectors. If high-value stamps are a good investment, you’d think some residual value would attach to cancelled examples. And you’d be right. The first Express Mail stamp, issued in 1983 with a price tag of $9.35, sells today for about $40 in mint (uncancelled) condition. But cancelled copies are valuable, too, priced at about $35. The $11.75 Express Mail stamp from the space shuttle series in 1998 sells today for about $30 mint, $19.95 cancelled, or “used.” These are reasons I make a point of collecting used as well as unused copies of these high-value stamps — and ask friends and family to use them so I can collect them right off the packages. To me, the mint and used copies are both worth collecting. And who knows? Some day, these rarely used stamps may be more valuable cancelled than mint!
Luckily, I had one loyal co-conspirator in this strategy over the years — my mother. Each Christmas, and probably around some birthdays, packages would arrive from Moscow, Idaho, my parents’ home town, adorned with philatelic gems — high-value definitives, priority and express mail stamps. On at least one occasion, I have accompanied my mother on a trip to the post office in downtown Moscow. It seemed to me the postal clerks saw her coming and either eyed the exit, rolled their eyes, smiled sympathetically, groaned inwardly, or issued a good-natured sigh. Probably some combination of all of these. It wasn’t always convenient for them to go hunting for high-value stamps. There might be a few other customers waiting in line, also sighing, rolling their eyes, etc. Tolerance for philatelic game-playing is not wide or deep. But Mother generally persevered, always with a kind word and good will. More often than not she prevailed, and the resulting packages had enduring value — not just for the contents, but because of the collectible stamps pasted on them. For example, Mother sent me the $13.65 Express Mail stamp from the monuments series in 2002-3 that you see here. The cancelled copy is catalog-priced at around $9. And to think the stamp already did its duty, carrying Mother’s precious package to me … Now that my old mother is no longer around to run this little philatelic gambit, I have not yet figured out how to get used copies of those $19.95 and $19.99 stamps into my collection through legitimate use of the postal system. I shall keep trying, mercilessly cajoling other loved ones into playing stamps with me …
Back to my latest online purchases. After cutting out and saving stamps that came on the envelopes, I take time to examine and admire the stamps sent to me inside those envelopes, now safely displayed on stock pages. Next, I go to my albums, where I locate and lightly mark the proper spaces for each new stamp. I add a note referring to the date purchased and the amount paid for the stamp (if more than $2).
Finally comes the stamp mounting. For cancelled stamps, it’s a simple matter of applying half of a moistened, gummed paper hinge to the back of the stamp. Then, lick the other half of the hinge and stick the stamp in its space in the album. The hinges are peelable, and will not harm the stamp. For mint (uncancelled) stamps, whose gum needs to be protected, readying the stamp for safe display requires special mounts. Using stamp tongs, insert the stamp in a 10-inch-long protective sleeve — the black strips come in numerous widths to accommodate all sizes of stamps. A 22-strip pack costs less than $10 and can accommodate up 100 stamps. Use a razor cutter to lop off the inserted stamp from the rest of the strip. (But be careful not to nick the stamp, including the perforations!). For this cutting operation, I use a little kit I picked up as a lad in Germany …oh, just about 55 years ago. Amazing, how it’s lasted. We stamp collectors do venerate aged things, after all. On the other hand, how can a durable plastic razor holder and a see-through glass ruler wear out? In cutting, I position the stamp on a piece of cardboard, so I don’t mar my desk top or make an uneven cut. I keep a container of recycled pieces of cardboard nearby for this express purpose. I don’t use pieces of cardboard more than once. Cutting through the strip on top of another cut mark in the cardboard could result in an uneven cut. Even if I am only making one cut for one stamp, I still discard the whole piece of cardboard afterwards. Call it wasteful. Call it extravagance. I prefer to think of it as an infinitesimal act of gay abandon. (The cardboard eventually goes out with the recycling anyway.) Now you are ready to moisten a small part of the back of the black mount — careful not to stick your tongue inside, wet the precious gum and ruin the stamp! — and paste the mounted, protected stamp in its designated spot. Aaah! This is what it’s all about — putting stamps in spaces, seeing sets materialize in all their glorious order and color and design …
To be sure, there are still many, many spaces to fill in my stamp albums. But heck, why not admit it: My collection is already spectacular! It deserves to be shared. Who better to start with than my intimates? I hope you enjoy the first installment. Beware, though: The stamps and stories go on and on. My collection is immense, as is my store of notes, comment and anecdotes. I have a thick British Africa album, also a bulging British America album. My British Europe album starts with the 1840 Penny Black from Great Britain, the world’s first stamp. (Current price for a four-margin copy from ZillionsofStamps.com: $200; I got mine for $70 in 1991.) My Mulready Cover of 1841 (bought online for L26 in 2011) has to be seen to be believed …
Then there’s my Congo collection, including Rwanda and Burundi, with sets dating back to 1889, when Belgian King Leopold schemed over his vast Congo Free State; also a valuable USA collection; French colonies, Germany, covers and specialty items galore … Why, this Concordance could go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Is the world ready for this?
Actually, the world should have plenty of time to absorb this modest epic. I have other projects calling to me, so my philatelic Concordance will proceed slowly, episodically, occasionally. After a while, I expect my public will be demanding new postings, much as newspaper readers a century-and-a-half ago clamored for installments in the serial novels of Charles Dickens. Given enough time and continued inspiration, I’ll get there. That’s my meandering mantra.
Why do this at all, when there are so many more important things to worry about? Consider it a personal indulgence. If a few others find it worth dipping into, so much the better. As I post my “chapters” online, perhaps I will gain a wider audience. Hey, I may even help invigorate a superannuated pastime before it fades into the mists of Anachreon. Tant mieux!. Meanwhile, I get to start unburdening myself of a lifetime of stories and memories and pictures and — dare I say it? — adventures in stamp collecting. I’ll do my best to keep things interesting …
Yours in philately, FMF Syracuse, November 2015