The Future of Stamp Collecting

When I first set up as a collector, some twenty-eight years ago, albums, catalogues, and, I may add, dealers’ stocks were very modest affairs compared with their present proportions. Mount Brown’s catalogue was a monument of philatelic knowledge and research, and a shilling was an extravagant price to pay for a stamp. But in those twenty-eight years there have been so many new stamps issued, and so many new countries have been added to the list of stamp-issuing states, that the young people just commencing to collect are apt to feel rather frightened at the task which they have set themselves. During the last few years, also, since the postal union has been organized, we have seen an enormous increase in the number of stamps to be collected; and it seems to us that we shall have to think seriously of the future of our favorite pursuit.

Now, in most trades and manufactures, division of labor has long superseded the fashion of past days, when the handicraftsman turned out articles made by his own hand from beginning to end; and now-a-days this subdivision of labor has been carried so far that it takes twenty or thirty persons to even make a pin, or a steel pen. This is, of course, greatly to the advantage of the public, whose pins or pens are turned out by millions every week; but of course each workman merely learns that particular stage of the manufacture which is committed to his charge; the fact being that single workmen, endeavoring to cover the whole ground by themselves, would soon be left far behind. Well now, I think it cannot be denied that stamp-collecting in its entirety is getting to be too much for any one person; and, if we go in for adhesives, envelopes, postcards, wrappers, and their corresponding official representatives (not to mention the thousands of fiscals of all sorts), we shall only succeed in getting together a poor stock of each.

My idea is, therefore, that, in the time to come, collectors will have to choose which branch they will take up, in order to have any chance of success. I think that this is already being done in some cases; one of my friends confines himself altogether to postcards, I go in for adhesives, and another of my friends makes a specialty of envelopes. Then, too, in the years to come, I suppose that many stamps, even now very rare, will become altogether extinct, as regards all practical purposes; for, if collectors increase for the next fifty or a hundred years at the same rate as they have done for the last ten years or so, what likelihood will there be of their obtaining obsolete stamps, which, even now, exist perhaps only in the finest collections of Europe?

Some will say that long before the period named has elapsed the rage for stamp-collecting will have passed away. I think not. I know many boys take up the pursuit eagerly for a year or two, and then thrust it aside altogether; but I fancy that, at the very least, one out of every ten perseveres; and so we find the ranks of the philatelic army are yearly swelled by new recruits, who far more than make up for our losses by death and desertion. And then, stamps are like coins; they must always have a special interest of their own, even as coins have, far beyond the artificial interest which has been created in old china, bric-a-brac, etc.; so that it must be many a long year before the dealers, philatelic publishers and album makers find their occupation gone.

A generation ago, now, people would have laughed at our pursuit; indeed, as it is, I don’t know any other hobby that has been so ridiculed; and yet I know one dealer alone at the present moment who has £8,000 worth of stamps in stock; and has taken sixteen tons of paper for the printing of an album now in the press! Then, too, the proportions already assumed by our pursuit are so great, and the demand of collectors so constant and so pressing, that even great governments have found it worth their while to reprint their obsolete stamps, solely for the sale to philatelists; and smaller governments have, I am sorry to say, even manufactured (forged, I call it) new dies to print obsolete stamps of which the original dies have long since been destroyed. Of the former category I would take the United States as an example; and of the latter, Moldavia.

I think, then, we may take it for granted that none of those now living will see the end of stamp-collecting; and we must remember that it is, perhaps, the most innocent and most instructive of all the hobbies yet invented; so that the worst people can say of it is, that it is, in their idea, a waste of time and money.

But I am not writing an apology for philately; I am only supposed to be considering what will be its future. Well, I think that, as I said before, there will be a division of labor. As soon as collectors find that the matter, as a whole, is getting beyond the range of their time, understanding, and purse, they will be tolerably certain to make up their minds that a single branch of our pursuit is about all that can be properly attended to at once. Let it be distinctly understood that I am not advocating this subdivision of the subject, but merely pointing out that there is a strong probability of its becoming a necessity in the future, when the world’s stamps will be numbered by millions.

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