The world has had no shortage of collectibles in the past 200 years, but it’s hard to get any more old school than stamp collecting.
Sure, people have collected antiques and fine art since the dawn of civilization, but modern collectors still owe a lot to stamps. While cigarette cards from 1875 are sometimes considered the first manufactured collectibles, stamps in fact predate them by over 30 years. The low cost of stamps made it easy for the average layperson to build their own collections, and the sheer variety of designs allows every set of stamps to be themed or personalized. With stamps selling for a single cent in the 19th century eventually selling for upwards of $10-$20 million today, even the most modest collector can dream of one day amassing a fortune with a lucky find.
The most surprising part about stamps is not that they eventually became collectibles, but rather they became collectibles so quickly.
Prior to 1840, the postal service was a bit of a conceptual mess. According to the the American Philatelic Society, it was not up to the sender to pay for mail, but rather the person receiving the mail. This meant that mail would often be returned if the receiver wasn’t willing to pay for a message, and some unscrupulous scoundrels even printed secret codes on mail envelopes to send messages without needing the recipient to pay for anything. After someone presumably realized how broken the system was, the postal service was changed to make the sender pay for mail, and the stamp was created as a sign that the mail had indeed been paid for.
In 1840, the world’s first stamp was produced. Designed by British Postmaster General Ser Rowland Hill, it featured the face of Queen Victoria against a black background. The stamp would go on to be called the “Penny Black,” reflecting its asking price of a single cent. As the Penny Black was printed in remarkably high quality, it immediately became a collectible that kick-started the boom of stamp collecting. The United States would roll out their own postage stamps in 1847, and by 1860 the hobby of stamp collecting had spread all throughout Europe and the United States.
Because stamp collecting began to transcend cultural boundaries, it was decided that the hobby needed a name that would be applicable regardless of language. M George Herpin, a stamp collector hailing from France, decided on the word “philately.” The term is a combination of the Greek words “Philos” and “Atelia,” which put together roughly translates into “the love of something exempt from taxes.” The wording may seem bizarre by modern standards, but the term is meant to imply that stamps replace the cost of sending mail that existed under the old postage system. In other word, putting a stamp on mail literally exempts it from taxes. While many clubs still use the term “stamp collecting” to describe their hobby, Philately would go on to become a universally recognized term for all forms of stamp collecting.
As more people became stamp collectors, communities were created to help laypeople store and preserve their stamps. When limited commemorative stamps were first produced in the United States to celebrate Christopher Columbus in 1893, the already growing industry skyrocketed in popularity. To this day, stamp collecting continues to entertain collectors all around the world. The American Stamp Dealer & Collector magazine was first published as recently as 2006, and late celebrities such as Freddie Mercury and John Lennon have had their stamp collections placed on display at museums. Modern collectors have no shortage of collectibles to pursue, but in a way we all owe a little something to stamp collectors. Whether we merely use stamps to send mail or keep our favorite designs, they laid the foundation for the collectibles industry as it exists today.
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