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Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Why start collecting stamps?

“It exposes her to the wider world, teaches her about geography, history and art, gets her thinking about ways of approaching and depicting subjects and events, and develops her passion for completeness.”

So speaks one father about the benefits for his young daughter of stamp collecting.

One of the world's most popular hobbies

Stamp collecting is one of the world’s most popular hobbies – there are an estimated 20 million+ collectors worldwide. What is it that has men, women and children excitedly scanning catalogues, visiting post offices on the first day of issue of new stamps, feverishly swapping with other collectors, and excitedly hunting down that last raven stamp to complete the series?


Philatelic Investment

For most collectors it’s not about investment. Some stamps – like the 1930 US Graf Zeppelin or the 1922 Rialtais Sealadac na hÉireann ‘overprints’ - may be worth a small fortune, but collecting as an investment requires a high degree of specialisation, and in the opinion of many, takes the fun out of it. Indeed, a distinction is often drawn between so-called ‘philatelic investors’ and stamp collectors.


Accountant or Rock Star?

Typically, stamp collectors are animated not by money but by interest in history, geography, art, and that “passion for completeness”. The type of child who wants to get every football sticker for the World Cup often goes on to collect stamps.

The stamp collector appears in all walks of life. You might picture the young stamp collector as a future accountant, librarian or other profession that requires thoroughness, concentration and cataloguing abilities, but rock stars John Lennon and Freddie Mercury were keen collectors whose childhood collections are now in British postal museums.


The Generation Game

Since the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in Britain in 1840, people have been buying stamps or steaming them off envelopes, and mounting them in stamp albums or storing them in glassine envelopes.

In this way collections are often handed down through generations. There is an inheritance aspect to stamp collecting. Many collectors fondly recall sitting at the table pouring over exotic stamps with their mother or father. The passion is transmitted from parent to child, and often, to grandchild.

Although albums are now more sophisticated – at one stage stamps were stuck directly to the page, now they are hinge-mounted – collecting remains a stable hobby which has changed little since the 19th century. Parents might struggle to understand a child’s immersion in games consoles, but stamp collecting is truly for all the family. The equipment a grandparent used is not much different to what a child today requires.


The Worldwide Collection

Family albums through the generations show the progression in the way people collect. In the first half of the 20th century ambitious collectors wanted to assemble worldwide collections, comprising the stamps of every country in the world. The Italian Count Philipp von Ferrary dedicated his considerable fortune to the purchase of stamps and probably had the largest collection ever assembled.

These worldwide collections are fascinating archives. One collector recalls his father’s collection – “It was full of stamps from countries like Ceylon, Rhodesia, Sikkim and Transjordan which no longer exist.” A trawl through an old stamp album shows you graphically how the world’s map has changed.


Choose a country, historical period, or theme

However there are now so many countries in the world and each produces so many stamps that a complete worldwide collection would run to thousands of volumes. Therefore most collectors limit their scope – to a particular country, or a particular historical period, or to a type of stamp, or to a theme or subject matter (called ‘topicals’), such as birds or transport.

It’s natural to want to collect stamps of your own country so many Irish collectors focus on Irish stamps, perhaps extending to the British Isles. Others, inspired by An Post’s popular and extensive bird series want to get bird stamps from around the world. Others, impressed by a commemorative Labour Day stamp want to see how other countries depict that festival.

‘The Irish Abroad’ makes a fascinating theme for collectors because noted Irish people have appeared on stamps from far-flung countries. For instance the socialist writer George Bernard Shaw is depicted on stamps from Russia, Romania and Czechoslovakia, and the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton has appeared on various Atlantic and Antarctic stamp-issuing territories. Finding out why for instance so many Irishmen appear on stamps from South American countries gives the collector added historical knowledge.


A design for life

While tiny details like watermarks, perforations, paper differences and printing errors excite some collectors, and are of the utmost importance to philatelic investors, other collectors are roused by the quality of the image or design. Very successful depictions, such as the widely admired 2005 An Post railway series, are highly sought after.

When it comes to deciding what images go on our stamps, An Post starts by appointing a committee to decide on the subject matter. Another committee then decides on the general approach, and finally an artist is appointed to design the stamp. Artists who have designed stamps for An Post include Robert Ballagh, P.J. Lynch, Michael Craig, Vincent Killowry, James Hanley RHA, Peter Curling, Ian Lowe, Susan Sex, Graham Knuttel, Martin Turner and Dr. Tom Ryan.


Your choice

Anyone can get involved in choosing the stamps that adorn our letters and our albums. If you have an idea for a commemorative stamp for the annual stamp programme, simply send your suggestion to the Philatelic Advisory Committee, GPO, Dublin 1 or email But be warned: issuing stamps is a lengthy process so send your suggestions two years in advance.

If you’re lucky, you might have the added pleasure of being able to collect the very stamp which you suggested.