Exploring the Rich History of Stamp Collecting

A Tour of Philately's Past

Discover the moments and people that shaped the world of stamp collecting, from its humble beginnings to its status as a cherished hobby.

What is Stamp Collecting

Stamp collecting is the accumulation of material related to the payment of postage and the carriage of the mails. In addition to traditional postage stamps, many philatelists — the fancy word for stamp collectors — also collect covers (envelopes that carried mail), postal cards and postal stationery. Some individuals also collect markings or labels applied to mail including postage meters. Others will even collect Christmas Seals, revenue stamps and other ephemera.

Before the Envelope and the Stamp

Primitive message systems have been in place as long as man has been in existence. Until 1840, however, regardless of how primitive or how elaborate, all these systems operated without the benefit of a postage stamp.

In the early days of the postal service, stamps and envelopes did not exist. (For the most part, envelopes were not used because they were considered to be an additional sheet of paper which cost more to send.) When you wanted to send a letter you would fold it up and seal it shut, and the person who received the letter had to pay for the delivery costs. Since rates at that time were very high, many people refused to accept letters. In fact, many people developed secret codes by which they could cheat the postal services. They would place secret marks on the outside of the letter that conveyed their message and all the addressee had to do was read the secret message, refuse to accept the letter, and thus not have to pay for it. Mainly for this reason, postal services turned to a means of prepaying postage.

Post Office Reforms and the Stamp

In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill, the British Postmaster General, introduced the “Post Office Reforms” whereby the mail could go anywhere in the British Isles at the same rate (a penny a half-ounce); the postage was to be paid by the sender — not the addressee; and payment was receipted by placing a small piece of colored paper on the outside of the letter — THE STAMP! Of course.

Hill’s proposal was heavily debated for a few years, but after serious discussion the change was enacted and instituted in 1840. Thus on May 6, 1840 (first date of valid use) the first government-printed postage stamps were born.

Milestones in Philately

A chronological exploration of significant events that have marked the evolution of stamp collecting.


The First Stamp

Sir Rowland Hill himself designed the first stamp which cost one penny and bore the profile of Queen Victoria. Because the stamp was printed in black, the 1-cent stamp soon became known as the “Penny Black” — the world’s most popular stamp. These first stamps were imperforate, meaning that people had to cut apart the sheets of stamps..


First US Stamp

The popularity of this new system of sending mail and collecting the fee in advance spread fast and it didn’t take long for other countries to use similar systems. In 1847, the United States Post Office Department printed its first stamps, a 5-cent stamp picturing Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent stamp picturing George Washington.


First Perforated Stamp

The first perforated stamps did not appear until 1854 in Great Britain.  In the United States, it didn’t appear until 1857. Other countries at many different times.


First U.S. Commemorative

While it’s impossible to determine when stamp collectors met in small groups to share their hobby. The Royal Philatelic Society London (RPSL), the oldest formal philatelic society in the world that still survives , was established in 1869 as The Philatelic Society, London.


First US International Exhibition

United States hosted its first International Philatelic Exhibition (IPEX). It was held at the Engineering Sciences Building at 25 East 39th Street in New York City.  The show included 331 exhibits.  There were no bourse and the USPS didn’t participate.

Who Collects Stamps

In 1841, a women even placed an advertisement in the London Times in which she requested help in collecting stamps so that she could paper a bedroom wall.<br />The two terms philately and philatelist, which refer to the collection and study of postage stamps, were derived from the Greek word phileo, meaning “I love” and ateleia, meaning “free of charges”, in the sense that postage stamps replaced a cash postal charge.

Stamp collecting has often been called “the hobby of kings and the king of hobbies.” Linn’s Stamp News estimates that more than 5 million individuals in the United States collect the small pieces of paper that indicate payment of postage. Stamp collectors include individuals from all walks of life. While President Franklin Roosevelt may have been the most famous U.S. collector, other well known collectors include financial gurus Bill Gross and Warren Buffet; astronaut Henry Hartsfield; actors Gary Burghoff, James Earl Jones and Patrick Dempsey; author James Michener, explorer Jacques Cousteau; former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova; musicians John Lennon, Freddy Mercury and Ron Wood; cartoonist Gary Trudeau; and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

While it’s impossible to determine when stamp collectors met in small groups to share their hobby. The Royal Philatelic Society London (RPSL), the oldest formal philatelic society in the world that still survives , was established in 1869 as The Philatelic Society, London.

Why Collect Stamps

Most individuals collect for relaxation and enjoyment although many secretly hope that they will discover a rare and elusive stamp that will make them wealthy. Some individuals collect as an investment. While the American Philatelic Society does not promote this, stamp collecting is a better investment than many other hobbies. As stamps are miniature works of art, it’s nearly impossible to collect them without gaining a large amount of knowledge. Stamps also usually provide a much greater return on your investment than other hobbies. While you might not get back more than you invest, how much return can you get on your golf scorecard?

World's Rarest Stamp

The British Guiana 1-cent in the rarest single stamp.  Heavily postmarked at Demerara on April 4, 1856, it was discovered in 1873 by a twelve-year-old local schoolboy, Vernon Vaughan, when he was looking through some of his uncle’s letters.  It was already in poor condition, ink-smudged and slightly damaged when Vaughan soaked it off its envelope. Vaughan sold it for six shillings.  The highest price this stamp has sold for is $9,480,000.