The “Common” versus the “French” School of Philately

Philatelists who have pursued our hobby for thirty years or more will possibly remember the famous controversy occasioned by the introduction of the French School of Philately. For the benefit of the younger element, I will give a brief account of the controversy and the principles advocated by the debaters on both sides.

The young collector will first be contented with the many types to be found, but as his collection becomes larger, he will find minute varieties, some stamps being exactly of the same type but may differ in the shade, the quality of the paper, the watermark, or may exist with or without perforations. Then again in some countries he may find that on a sheet of fifty or more apparently similar stamps there may be fifty or more varieties because of some minute difference in the types, due to inaccuracy in the engraving. If the collector has an abundance of the “useful,” he will usually purchase such minute varieties, often at a very high price. If he pursues this course he is said to belong to the French School of Philately, because the Parisian Stamp Collectors adopted this method as early as 1862. Their principle was “specialism and completeness, every variety and every specimen.” The collectors who disagreed with the French School were termed the Common School of Philately. Many were the arguments in the debates between the two schools, and at last things came to such a stand that the members of the French School were accused of being afflicted with soft spots on their craniums, and the collectors of the Common School adjudged by their opponents as being of the “small boy” class.

So the contest went on, all the stamp journals of the time taking an active part. At last no interest was taken in the debate, and they all with one assent agreed with Charles Mackay to

“Let the long contention cease.
Geese are swans and swans are geese.”

Many collectors may regard this controversy as being of no importance but I believe it was the cornerstone of philately. And why?

Well, had the Common School triumphed there would have been very few scientific collectors and certainly very poor, if any, philatelic literature of a scientific nature, and collectors would rarely, if ever, have become acquainted with each other had there been no stamp journals.

The collectors of the French School, while they knew there were more varieties issued than they could secure, took to a sort of specializing, the result of which lead to scientific collecting, which has laid the foundation of philately.

In the United States today there are many who do not take into consideration the qualities of the stamps. For instance, how many collectors concern themselves about the sizes of the grille in the embossed stamps of the U.S.? In revenue stamps, how many make a distinction between perforated and unperforated stamps or the quality of the paper? In U.S. envelope stamps, how many collect the various sized entire envelopes according to the Hornerian method? Very few indeed, but the few they are, are collectors according to the French School. They are scientific collectors – philatelists. The many who do not collect thus are collectors of the Common School. They are non-scientific collectors – stamp collectors.

There is a wide chasm between the two schools which can only be crossed by study. Have you crossed it?