Millions of U.S. Hobbyists Stick With Their Stamp Collections : Leisure: It is the top pastime, followed by coin and doll collecting. A philately museum will open in 1993.


To most people, a stamp is something you lick and put on an envelope to mail bills, greeting cards or some other type of correspondence. But for 22 million philatelists, stamps are a hobby worth sticking with. Among hobbyists, stamp collecting--philately--is the number-one pastime, followed by coin and doll collecting.

“Philately is like a fascinating gem, with its many spectacular facets. It has something to appeal to everyone,” says James H. Bruns, acting director of the Smithsonian’s National Postal History and Philatelic Museum. The new museum, scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1993, will house and display the nation’s philatelic and postal history collection--the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. The collection includes more than 16 million objects, from postage stamps and uniforms to mailboxes and postal vehicles.

“A person doesn’t have to possess any specific skills or have an Olympian’s physique or own any expensive equipment to enjoy philately,” he adds. “All it takes is interest.”

While beautiful and collectible, stamps do serve a utilitarian purpose. “A postage stamp is actually a receipt,” says Donald McDowell, director of the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Stamp and Philatelic Marketing. “It indicates advance payment for delivery.”


The first adhesive postage stamp--bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria--was introduced in Britain in 1840. “Before then,” McDowell explains, “the recipients were responsible for paying for the delivery of their letters. It wasn’t a very efficient system. It wasn’t unusual for people to refuse to pay their fees and thus refuse their mail.”

The United States issued its first federal postage stamps in 1847--a 5-cent stamp showing Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent stamp featuring George Washington. By the end of 1860, more than 90 countries, colonies or other governmental authorities had issued postage stamps.

“Stamp collecting gained popularity in the early 1860s,” says Joseph Geraci, a museum specialist with the Smithsonian’s National Philatelic Collection, which will merge with the National Postal History and Philatelic Museum in the next few months. “The first stamp catalogue appeared in Europe in 1861; catalogues showed up in the United States a short while later.” Stamp collecting has enjoyed a progressively steady growth in popularity since then, he adds.

In the early days of philately, it was fashionable to fill albums with stamps from around the world. But, as the number of new stamps increased, that trend became nearly impossible to keep up.


“Many philatelists today collect along thematic lines,” Bruns explains. “Stamps depicting flowers, animals and space topics are among the most popular.” Some people might collect bird stamps, or within that group, only duck stamps. “Other philatelists concentrate on EFOs--the errors, freaks and oddities of the stamp world.”

EFOs may include improperly perforated stamps, stamps with letters or colors omitted during the printing process or stamps that include an image that’s been inverted. One of the most famous errors is the rare 1918 U.S. airmail stamp picturing an upside down Curtiss Jenny plane. One of these stamps recently sold at auction for more than $1 million.

Stamps are classified into several categories. “Definitives” are printed in unlimited quantities and are usually available for several years. Their subjects frequently are former presidents, statesmen and other prominent people and national shrines. The American flag stamp, traditionally the most popular U.S. stamp, is definitive.

“Commemoratives” honor important people, events or special subjects of national appeal and significance. They are usually larger and more colorful than definitives. Commemoratives are printed in limited quantities and are available for purchase from the post office for two or three months.


“Special” stamps include such issues as the Love and Christmas stamps.

There are about 30 commemoratives and 25 definitives issued each year. This year, songwriter Cole Porter and Vermont statehood are being honored on commemorative stamps. “In a ‘normal’ year, some 40 billion stamps are necessary to meet the postal delivery needs of the United States,” McDowell says. That figure is believed to be about half of the industrialized world’s stamp requirements.

The first U.S. commemorative stamps, issued in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World. “Sixteen Columbian stamps are issued, with face values of 1 cent to $5,” Geraci explains. “The entire set cost a little more than $16--a price that was out of reach for many people, considering the average weekly salary was about $2.50. Sales to collectors and dealers did not meet expectations, and up until the 1920s, the $5 stamps were being sold at a discount.” Today, those high face-value Columbian stamps are considered scarce, though not rare.

Just who decides what is depicted on stamps? “It used to be a very political process,” McDowell says. “Then, in 1957, the postmaster general, Arthur Summerfield, came up with the idea of a citizen’s committee that would be charged with screening all requests from the public and recommending to him a number of subjects and designs for stamps. The process is very democratic now.”


The 13-member U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee meets six times a year. Members--appointed by the postmaster general--include business executives, philatelists, artists, historians and educators. Perhaps best-known are actor Karl Malden and former Notre Dame basketball coach Richard (Digger) Phelps. The committee members are appointed for one-year terms with no restrictions on the number of terms each member can serve. Philatelic writer Belmont Faries, appointed in 1970, is the committee’s longest-serving member.

“The committee receives more than 30,000 suggestions a year,” McDowell says. “Once the duplicates are weeded out, the committee is left with about 1,500 to 2,000 ideas to deal with.”

The committee uses a set of eligibility guidelines to aid in its task. “No living person can be commemorated on a postage stamp. A person must be dead 10 years before he or she can be considered,” explains Bruns, whose father, Franklin R. Bruns Jr., served on the first committee in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. “And all topics must be of national significance.”

“Whatever Americans are proud of, whatever they’re interested in or concerned about can be seen in the flood of letters the committee gets proposing subjects for stamps,” McDowell says. Indeed, over the last 30 years or so, there have been postage stamps for teachers, nurses and homemakers; water, soil and forest conservation; dental health and physical fitness; horse racing and hot-air ballooning; Arctic explorations; architecture; performing arts, and folk art.


Social issues--with such themes as family planning, alcoholism and mental retardation--have also been represented on stamps.

“Three things can happen once an idea is proposed to the committee,” McDowell explains. “The members can say ‘yes’ on the spot--which they almost never do. They can say ‘no,’ which happens frequently, or they can put it on hold for future consideration.

“A suggestion for a stamp is approved on merit, not necessarily on popular demand,” McDowell adds. “And any time there is a new expression of interest in a previously rejected proposal, the idea will be reconsidered by the committee.”

Perseverance does pay off. In 1933, a young man wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that composer and performer George M. Cohan be honored on a stamp. Over the years, dozens of other people made the same suggestion. Cohan, who wrote “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” died in 1942. In 1978, 45 years after the first suggestion was submitted, Cohan was commemorated on a postage stamp.


Got an Idea for a Stamp? Here’s How to Get Design Considered

Anyone can propose a subject for a a U.S. Postage stamp. Each week, the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee receives hundreds of suggestions. “The committee is charged with screening all requests from the public,” says Donald McDowell, director of the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Stamp and Philatelic Marketing. “Once the committee members have made their selections, they submit their recommendations to the postmaster general, who has the final say.” The committee then works with the Postal Service on selecting art for the stamp.

In an average year, about 55 postage stamps are approved--30 commemoratives and 25 definitive stamps. The committee works about three years ahead. Members will soon be considering stamps that will be issued in 1994.

Send suggestions, along with background information on the person, historic anniversary or social concern you’d like to see appear on a stamp, to: Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, Room 4485 E, 475 L’Enfant Plaza West S.W., Washington, D.C. 20260-6753.