Stamp Writing

Stamps have been written about since they first started being collected (for over 150 years now) so any avid philatelic reader has millions of philatelic words to brighten his cold winter evenings. Over time, readers have realized that stamp writing comes in four major types. Each collector has his favorite type and writers rarely write in more than one of these different philatelic genres.

The first major type of stamp writing, the largest in terms of words written and books and articles published in the more high-brow journals, is technical writing. The first issue of the London Philatelist, published in 1892, had as one of its first articles a long study on the stamps of New South Wales. Articles about plating and stamp use and printing varieties are the staple of scholarly journals and have changed very little over the last century, except for the fact that articles today have a more postal historical edge than they used to. These articles are a bit like the Rolex of philately-an article that everyone knows the value of and can aspire to, but which almost no one has a need for and which most people can do without. These articles are great efforts on the parts of their writers and deserve admiration but they are little read and appreciated. This is proven by how many times over the last century scholarly articles of the same type (and often the same facts) have appeared in different nations’ literature at roughly thirty year intervals. If the original articles had been read and appreciated, the later articles would be an expansion on the previous work; too often, however, they are the work being redone by a new generation unaware of what has already transpired.  Further proof of our lip service to philatelic scholarship (and not real appreciation) is the woeful sales of most technical books.

The second major form of philatelic writing is New Issue and Sales news. Scoffed at by the cognoscenti, New Issue news is really why philatelic writing began. Collectors always want new additions to their collections and before the weekly philatelic press developed in the 1920s the more high-brow magazines had long articles on new issues and auctions and better collections that had been sold. The attempt to divide philately into the higher intellectual aesthetic and the lower brow acquisitive side is a post-1960 phenomenon and relates to our current discomfort with the perquisites of money. Philately has always been a hobby where the wealthy had their choice of what they wanted and less well heeled collectors had their pick of what was left. This is a basic fact of life that earlier collectors never glossed over or even seemed to resent with the degree that is more common today. Back then, no one ever stopped collecting stamps because they couldn’t afford all that they wanted. Such a feeling is common today.

The third major form of stamp writing is proselytizing literature and “How To Collect” tracts. This form of writing was far more common in earlier periods. One of the major changes in our hobby over the last twenty- five years in the acceptance that ours is a niche interest that will not appeal to everyone. A large portion of stamp writing in generations gone by was devoted to extolling the virtues of collecting, its intellectual benefits and the possibility of financial reward that could be accrued by collectors. Much of this was self serving, for behind the idea of selling the benefits of the hobby, one can see a fear about the possible paucity of consumers to which the writers could sell their precious stamps. Probably the stagnant philatelic market of the last thirty years has shaken out from the hobby most of those who were in it to make money by collecting. Remaining stamp collectors are content with their philatelic religion and know there will always be other newer collectors who are drawn to hobby the way they were. They don’t need to make converts.

The last major form of stamp writing should be called “stamp stories and reminiscences”. Writers of this type include Pat Herst and my grandfather Earl Apfelbaum. Writing like this tells stories, treats stamp collecting as a process, and has a human interest component. Herst’s books were avidly read by non-philatelists and my grandfather used to get letters from wives of collectors thanking him for writing something that they could enjoy with their spouse. This writing tends to be personal, usually relating experiences with stamps and more prominent philatelists. Different writers in this area emphasize different things. Herst tended to be on what we would call today the more narcissistic end of stamp writing (“look what a great buy I made and how clever I am”) whereas Earl Apfelbaum was a proponent of the “Wise Sage School”. This writing has held up extremely well and if you haven’t done so you should take a look at my Grandfather’s columns at the above link.

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