When most people begin to collect stamps, they are general collectors, that is, they collect the entire world and try to get one of each particular philatelic variety. In the late nineteenth century all collectors were generalists. By the year 1900, there were only a few thousand varieties that could be collected, most of which could be purchased for less than a penny. Beginning about 1893, with the Columbian Exposition stamp issued by the United States, postal authorities discovered that stamp collectors could be a valuable source of revenue.


The stamps issued for the Columbian Exposition came in denominations of 1 cent, 2 cents, 3 cents, 4 cents, 5 cents, 6 cents, 7 cents, 8 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents, 30 cents, 50 cents, $1, $2, $3, $4, and $5. The total face value (postal value) of the set is $16.34, a princely sum in 1893 and certainly far more than the average weekly take-home pay of that time. But collectors, though they complained loudly both in the United States and abroad, needed the stamps for their collections. And the post office discovered an increasingly important fact of post office economics— that any stamp purchased by a collector will never be redeemed for postage, representing nearly pure profit for the post office (“nearly” because there are printing and distribution costs included).


This lesson was not lost on other nations’ post offices, which, like the American Post Office, have long struggled to balance revenues and outlays. Between 1894 and 1904, North Borneo— a minuscule country on the Malay Archipelago with a literate population estimated at the time to be only several hundred— issued over sixty stamps, far more than were needed for postal purposes. This trend has accelerated worldwide. Today, nations customarily issue many more new stamps than strict postal need would dictate. Some countries’ postal past is so replete with schemes to the disadvantage of collectors that even today philatelists refuse to buy their stamps. An American, Nicholas F. Seebeck, in the 1890s, received contracts to produce stamps for Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. He was not paid for producing stamps; rather, he received the stamp plates and unlimited rights to produce as many stamps as he wanted for collectors, and to sell them for any price that he desired. He sold his stamps at different prices at different times, bilking collectors. To this day Salvadoran and Nicaraguan philately lies under the cloud of Seebeck.


In 1900, the London Philatelist, a prominent journal, predicted that the number of stamps that would be issued by the year 2000 would exceed 100,000. In fact, philatelic inflation proceeded far faster than that prediction, and 100,000 varieties were known to be in existence by 1930. Today stamps are printed at a pace that is estimated to exceed 8,000 different stamps per year. Many nations’ stamps are never on sale at local post offices; instead, they are brokered to collectors through philatelic agencies in New York, London, and Paris. All of this has changed philately. No one, save Croesus, can afford to even keep up with the flood of worldwide new issues, let alone expand his or her collection backward to include older issues. The situation has produced philatelists who are specialists, which means collectors who restrict themselves to the stamps of one country or one area.