Friday, October 18, 2013

Collecting Stamps

Collecting things can be addictive and, depending on your level of seriousness, it can also be expensive. You can literally collect just about anything. I have known people who have collected stamps, coins, memorabilia specific to a particular rock band, old lp's, comic books, toys, chess boards and pieces, cameras, fossils, fire truck models (particularly antique versions), ship and airplane models, movies, music albums, t-shirts, clothes (my girlfriend has more than three full closets worth), shoes, rocks, beer bottles, rare books, popular movie or television series memorabilia (particularly, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones), art, memorabilia from some old towns and such, and so on and so forth. The list is long and extensive, and I probably am not remembering everything, but trust that you get the idea.

I have mentioned stamp collecting a few different times on this blog by now. The first (I believe) came on a blog entry titled "A shining influence...", which was posted on January 28, 2012, and was a tribute to my grandfather. I believe the next time came when I devoted a n entry to the Inverted Jenny, and then, there was a little bit about stamps during the series of entries about my trip to Washington, D.C., in April of 2013. Finally, more recently, there was a bit about stamps during the blog about the Red Apple Rest, of all things (that probably makes more sense if you read it).

Odd as it might be to start thinking, let alone writing, about stamps following an entry focusing on a now closed and abandoned restaurant, this got me to thinking: maybe I should write more about stamps. You can find stuff online about stamps, true. But for the most part, if you are not already well acclimated to stamps, many of these places will seem far more advanced than most expect, because stamp collectors tend to not only be passionate, but very serious about their collections. The information is often very specific and takes for granted that the reader already knows and understands a certain amount about stamps, which in turn can be rather intimidating to the uninitiated.

Therefore, I have decided to write an entry about the possibilities if one is even considering beginning a stamp collection.

It is not an easy collection to maintain, to be sure. There are a lot of stamps, and always, there are tons more. There is no such thing (at least not yet) of having every single stamp in the world, because even if you are super rich (like the Queen of England), there are always new stamps coming out from every country of the world. New stamps, new first day covers (these are envelopes with special designs that are issued on the first day that a stamp is released; hence, the title) and special editions, new everything. It is noyt hard to keep up: it is impossible. It would be a bit like reading every single book that has ever been published. It might (might) have been possible in the early days, when the numbers and issues were not so frequent and staggering in number. But these days, it is far too extensive and simply cannot be done.

The point, however, is not to obtain every possible stamp or first day cover or other such things. The point is to obtain and take care of a collection from which you derive some satisfaction.

It can be fascinating, truly. It can also be peaceful, a bit of a respite. Some of my personal fondest memories of my earliest interest in stamp collecting was simply watching my grandfather, who was a peaceful and educated man. Perhaps a more apt description, better and more comprehensive than educated, would be that he was intellectually curious. You could see it in his library, which had books ranging from science (particularly Biology, which was his specialty and his career as an assistant professor at a local community college), to philosophy, to literature, both modern and classic.

His stamp collection was right beside this library, and it seemed to just fit right in. It surely is not the most valuable collection. Perhaps mine has even exceeded his in terms of that. However, I still hold his as the standard, simply because of his devotion to it. Remember, he lived in a different era, dying well before the age of the internet. Nowadays, obtaining specific stamps or even whole collections via the internet does not require much effort. You can do it right from home. But that was not the case when my grandfather was building his collection, which was rather extensive. He had stamps from virtually every country, and some really important and impressive pieces, to boot! He derived a great deal of pleasure in this collection, which is something that I would like to achieve myself someday.

There was a peace in his ways, in his approach to life, that looks more and more dignified by my own estimation, when I look at how busy and complicated and yes, superficial, so many people are these days. He valued not so much education, not so that he could hang some degree showing just how smart and accomplished he was, or to hold over anybody else's head. He valued learning, and a lot of that has to do with the flame of an intellectual curiosity that was never extinguished, even into his later years. It can be said that he truly wished to learn more about the world. That is why the stamp collection truly suited him. That is also why his library included not just a bunch of books on science, but also philosophy. Hell, even Kurt Vonnegut - one of my favorite authors, a man with a very different, very unconventional style, and one of my favorite authors, could be found in his personal library.

So yes, his stamp collection seemed to be an extension of the best that of him. He was a smart man, and held himself with a certain dignity that was rare in those days, and is even rarer today. Perhaps I was too young to fully understand and/or appreciate that, and I certainly would not have been able to put all of that into words at the time, being a little kid. Yet, i sensed that there was something about him not just different, but worthy. A certain something to be admired, and yes, even emulated. I have said it before, and will say it again, that my grandfather got me into some things that have stuck with me so far throughout my life since: reading and having a strong personal library, stamps, chess, and football. Also, overall, just that intellectual curiosity, and holding (or trying to hold) a certain measure of dignity, which is not always easy.

Still, there was the question that I asked myself (and perhaps even asked him): why stamps? I mean, there are countless things that you can collect, right? So why stamps specifically? Why not coins, which actually go back much further in history? If his specialty, why not fossils and such other artifacts, which are obviously much older than our modern history, including both coins and stamps? Why not some other collection, or collections? What was it about stamps that he found so fascinating?

I cannot answer that for him, of course. If I asked him (and perhaps I did, but there is no recollection one way or another), then I was simply too young to remember, let alone understand, his answer.

But being an adult now myself, and having become an avid stamp collector in my own right, I can answer on my own terms.

So, what is it about stamps that are so attractive, anyway?

Well, the answer to that varies from collector to collector. Like any collection, some are undoubtedly in it for the money, for the value of the stamps or collections. Perhaps it is a pride thing, or just the satisfaction of obtaining something that is rare and valuable. Perhaps, for some, it is an investment from which they hope to see a good return. Often times, stamps can be more valuable years and even decades after issued, and this is particularly true if there are errors or misprints, which can be rare indeed.

For others, stamps can be interesting in and of themselves. You open a book of a stamp collection, and you are opening a window to the world. You see what other countries honor and celebrate, look like. You see the written language or languages. You see important events and people and documents in that nation's history. Often times, a stamp may reproduce important art work, allowing the stamp collection itself to be lent an air of some kind of art collection. Sometimes, you even see stamps from countries that once exist, but exist no longer (The Confederate States of America, Tibet, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany come immediately to mind). Sometimes, you can gain a better understanding of what that nation is striving for, or perhaps, can see their prejudices and propaganda at play (which can often be the most fascinating aspect of the collection). Sometimes, stamps themselves can be history.

You are able to catch a glimpse of the world through different lens. You can obtain this information through other means, surely. But it would take a very long time, even with today's technology. Even with the internet. With a stamp collection, you open up your collection to whatever country or countries you want to peruse (or study, if more serious about it), and you can truly gain a better understanding of their mindset, their way of thinking and living. This, in a way that would be difficult to obtain by any other means, really.

There are stamps with political statements. Sometimes, these are subtle. Other times, not so much.

There are stamps that protest. I have some stamps from a few decades back that take a stand against apartheid, for example.

There are, of course, stamps that have nothing at all to do with politics. Stamps that focus on animal life within the country. Stamps that focus on the wilderness, or on natural wonders within that country. Stamps that focus on human activities from the past, such as aboriginal artwork (among my personal favorite stamps from my grandfather's collection, and perhaps the stamps that  truly pushed me over the edge and into being a collector myself, were the "Indian Art" stamps from the United States, pictured below:

Yes, something about these really captured my imagination! They might not have been my absolute favorites, although they were close. There was just something about them, you know? But if they were not the ones that truly got me started on my own collection, then perhaps it was the 1981 Space Achievements stamp issues from United States, pictures below:

It is probably easy to see why these stamps would so strongly appeal to a young boy's imagination, right? I still love these stamps to this day. I enjoyed them individually, sure. But to see them all connected like this, forming a colorful picture of what seemed an incredible space adventure? That really appealed to my young and vivid imagination. This has remained among my very favorite stamps right on up to the present as a result.

Another one that really struck me as distinct was his 4 cent stamp honoring the centennial of the Pony Express. I am not sure why, although I think a part of it was that it conjured up images of the Wild West (to me), with everything from the rugged look to the color. It just somehow stood out, in ways that many of the other stamps simply did not. Somehow or other, it appealed to me, and since it was honoring an earlier, rather more primitive system of mail delivery, it seemed to represent stamps (and by extension, stamps for collecting) to me. A part of me still views this almost as an anchor to a stamp collection, although I am probably the only stamp collector that you are apt to meet that will feel that way about this particular one. There are earlier versions honoring the Pony Express, but the one that stood out the most was the 1960 version. Here it is:

My grandfather also told me about one stamp that became a source of absolute fascination to me. It was a stamp that he did not actually have in his collection, nor do I have it in mine, although I did write about it in an earlier blog entry. This stamp is often viewed as the Holy Grail among stamp collectors. He referred it as the "upside down airplane" so that I could understand what made it so desirable and enviable. It was an error, and so it was "scarce", a word I learned about from him. This was a stamp that was worth just tons and tons of money, you know? Still is.. Now, more than ever, in fact. The Inverted Jenny (pictured below):

The "Champions of Liberty" series was another set that made quite a distinct impression. Maybe it is because they looked like medals, and maybe it was because these seemed like obscure men from the annals of history that I should somehow learn more about. Whatever it was, this set has always appealed to me as well, since the earliest days of viewing it amid my grandfather's collection:

There were also the rather plain and simple, yet somehow distinctive (to me, anyway) series of "Liberty" stamps. I particularly liked the more colorful ones, which tended to be rarer, and can be seen to the right, in this illustration of the set:

I have already mentioned another set that strongly appealed to me. It seemed to have an idealism that I could relate to, seeming to suggest a model of the country (and indeed, the world) that we probably could and should aspire to. These were the "Plant For More Beautiful" series, which advocated planting trees and flowers to beautify the country. These came in consecutive years, and were part of the campaign by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. These were reissued in 2012, and I added a picture of one of these Forever stamps down below, which honor Lady Bird Johnson's efforts in this campaign:

Another one that stood out for me, probably because of it's cartoonish qualities, was the Zip Code stamp. I particularly liked the FDC that my grandfather had, with the cartoonish Zip Code postal guy, known as Mr. Zip, on it. Here it is, and Mr. Zip is pictured below it:

Of course, these are mostly individual stamps (except for the Indian Masks and the "Space Achievements" set, which when put together, still looks really neat!). But stamps can be particularly attractive when they are assembled in a full sheet. You can get a sheet of the same stamps, although these sheets can not only look very attractive, but put together a unique collection as well, when they are all different. Case in point, the "State Birds and Flowers" set, which is pictured below assembled in a sheet (although missing a few, because there are less than fifty stamps seen here):

The advantage of the sheet is that it assembles a whole bunch of stamps, all in one unbroken sheet. The perforations are still connected to one another, and thus are still intact. For the most part, these sheets will be mint, never used, although not necessarily. I have a sheet of these that actually has the cancellations. But I remember how nice this sheet looked in my grandfather's collection. These really stood out!

You will have noticed, perhaps, that so far, each of these stamps have been American. But there were others that made an impression on me as well, and these came from other countries. Perhaps that one that stood out the most for me would be the Mount Everest stamps from Nepal, back in 1982:

Sometimes, the most fascinating stamps were joint issues by two different countries. My grandfather had some of these, and among them, there were two stamps that were virtually identical in every way, except that they came from two different countries: Germany and France. They are from 1973, and honor the ten-year anniversary of the Germany-France Treaty for Cooperation.

These were not the only stamps that really caught my attention, but these were the ones that really stood out. They are still the ones that I more or less view as the center pieces of my collection, although most people would likely not view them as such for their own. As I said, I do not actually own an Inverted Jenny, obviously. How rare to be one of the lucky few! I have a replica of it (a few replicas, actually). But the real thing? I can only wish it were so.

Here is one that is kind of a combination. it is sort of a cachet for a first day cover (commonly referred to as FDC's), in honor of Benjamin Franklin's role in setting up the American postal service:

There are other stamps that strongly appealed to me, also. But these were the ones that really captivated me, and which clinched a continued fascination with stamps.

I would go with my grandfather when he visited the old stamp store in Middletown, New York. I remember this was the place when I would officially start my own collection. I would look in the store at the various objects. Binders on the walls. Rare and/or valuable stamps and coins underneath the glass counters. It all seemed so mysterious to me. So specialized. An adult's endeavor, and I felt, as a child, a bit overwhelmed.

Yet, this did not damper my enthusiasm.

My grandfather paid a dollar, so that I could go in the "grab box" and get a handful of stamps for a buck. That was how my collection started. Later, when we got back home, he gave me a few pages to really get my collection going.

He told me there were various ways of organizing and housing a collection. But I did it his way. He was the only one that I knew who actually had a stamp collection, after all, so why not? What else is a little boy to do?

That is the way I continue to organize and keep my collection right up to this day, more or less, with some exceptions, I guess. But he did it his way, and since some of the pleasure that I personally derive from the stamp collection has to do with memories of him, it seems a small way of honoring him, and his role in my continued interest in stamps.

So, what are the possible ways to arrange stamp collections? Well, here are some of them of the top of my head, although there really are countless way to do it. These are just some.

If you arrange your collection by topic, than it can itself become a period piece, so to speak. For example, I have a particular fascination with stamps from World War II. I have a few binders worth of stamps and such from this era, and have tried to obtain things from as many different countries as possible. That includes, then, stamps and first day covers (FDC's)  from the United States at that time, as well as Great Britain. But it also means having stamps and FDC's from Nazi Germany, from Italy, from the Soviet Union. Hell, I even got a special collection honoring the momentous events from World War II from the fiftieth anniversary. This collection is from, of all places, the Marshall Islands.

Perusing through these can not only be neat, but educational. Also, this can be attractive because these things tend to gain value, rather than lose value. That is, if you take care of them and stay true to preserving their best condition.

By no means is my stamp collection the model or ideal collection. I would not, could not, claim any such distinction. It has certainly not enjoyed my exclusive attention since I first started it at the age of either six or seven (I think that was the age that I was when it began, in any case). Nor have I always, or even often, devoted the proper amount of attention, time, or care towards it.

In fact, you can kind of say that through the years, my stamp collection was far too frequently neglected, that I did not provide them the proper amount of protection and care. Some of the stamps were damaged as a result.

Nor, for that matter, can I claim that I have consistently added to my collection with any degree of regularity, thus making it a very valuable collection. There have been spurts of high activity at times. This was the case when my grandfather first encouraged me to start my own collection in the eighties, and this was also true when I began when I first really began to take a renewed interest in stamps in the mid-nineties, years after my grandfather passed. Up to that point, I had more or less preserved the collection that I had "built" early on. I think I even remember the tally - 34 international pages, and 19 pages of US postage stamps. No first day covers that I can remember, and all the pages were the same style that my grandfather used to have -which it to say, similar to the baseball card pages. Transparent pages with large (often too large) cubes where you could store the stamps.

That much has changed. Can't say for sure when the technology improved (it may even have been while he was still alive), but by the time that I worked to restore my collection and actually attempted to make it a real collection, the new, vogue way to house a stamp collection was to store them in black pages that were, as I understand it, chemically enhanced in some way as to best preserve the stamps. That was advantageous, but the black pages also made the individual stamps stand out well. With the transparent pages, you could see the pages underneath, often even several layers of pages. There were blurred images of other stamps, and you could really only store the collection on one side of the page.

Not true for the black pages. Lacking the transparency of the older pages, you could (and should) easily double the storage capacity by using both sides. Plus, these pages seemed to be cheaper, and easier to access. It was a win-win.

There are different ways to assemble a stamp collection as well. I am guessing that almost everyone who collections stamps  separates by countries, which is something that both my grandfather and I did. It makes sense, although perhaps, in some instances, the lines could be blurred regarding this, such as when there are joint issues between two countries, or when a stamp collection is arranged by topic or subject matter (such as when you are collecting stamps that focus on something specific, let's say, like Napoleon or the French Revolution). But otherwise, separating by country seems the most obvious division to make immediately.

When it comes to individual countries, probably the most common way of organizing a stamp collection would be chronologically. This takes some considerable research, which itself could become a source of fascination, not to mention enlightening and educational.

Or, you could do organize by topics, which is another way of doing it.

Ultimately, part of the draw of a stamp collection is the opportunity it affords to organize such a collection. Although I have already mentioned that, mostly, I have followed in my grandfather's footsteps in terms of organizing my collection by price, the truth is that I have separated some of that collection based on subject, or historical content, if you will. I have a couple of binders of stamps dating from the World War II era, and a few other binders with other historical topics. I also often separate FDC's from the rest of the collection (although not always). There are countless ways to do it, and like me, you do not have to stick to just one way, and that is it. It is a mixed bag, and you can choose to do it whatever way you prefer. Whatever works, you know?

My grandfather's collection was by price. The American collection begins with 1/2 cent stamps came first, and then the 1cent stamps, 1 1/2 cents, and so on and so forth.

There are always specialty items that are more difficult to separate, and these in turn offer various different approaches, if you so choose.

Also, one common division is to separate other aspects of the collection such as, say, first day covers. It seems more common to segregate these from the "regular" collection, although it certainly is not mandatory to do it this way.

Yes, there are any number of ways of organizing and displaying one's stamp collection. Collecting itself can be a lot of things. It can be fun. It can be educational. It  can be colorful. It can be expensive. It can be addictive. It can take you down memory lane. It can be a lot of things, and my own collection largely is all of those things that I just specifically listed.

But one thing above all: despite the undeniable fact that I have, at times, more or less forgotten about my collection from time to time, as life can be filled with so many things that take away from what we want to be doing, it is, and always has been, something that, eventually, I turn right back to, one way or the other.

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