Philatelic literature

From Academic Kids

Philatelic literature is written material relating to philately, primarily information about postage stamps and postal history.

It is generally divided into the following categories:

  1. Stamp catalogs
    1. Single country catalog
    2. Worldwide catalog
    3. Geographic area catalog (e.g., Africa)
    4. Timeperiod catalog (e.g., Reign of King George V)
    5. Specalized - postmarks, plate blocks, perfins, etc
  2. Periodicals
    1. Journals
    2. Newspapers
    3. Society newsletters
    4. Other
      1. Stamp market
        1. Auction catalogs
        2. Other - stamp dealer price lists
  3. Books
  4. Background material - Usually not focused on postal or stamp collecting but containing reference material useful to stamp collectors. For example, currency exchange rates between European countries for a given year.
  5. Bibliography of philatelic literature - Including everything from a topic by topic list of just book or article titles to a short abstract of each and every item listed in the bibliography

The nature of the postal system, as a ubiquitous but humble function of governments, means that there is a huge amount of information to be discovered, but at the same time it can be quite difficult to discover it. Consider for example a letter found in the attic, pressed between the pages of a grandparent's Bible, sent from a relative working on a plantation in a remote part of the world. How did the letter get from there to here? Was there a company mail boat that carried it to civilization, or was there a remote town with its own post office? Was the plantation in an independent country, or a colony too small to issue its own stamps? Why did the recipient's country accept the expense of carrying the letter the rest of the way, and if it didn't, how did it arrange to get paid for delivering the letter? Come to think of it, how did the letter cross the border?

Philatelic and postal history research answer these sorts of questions, and the results are then published in a variety of books and journals.

Perhaps the most basic sort of literature is the stamp catalog. This is basically a list of types of postage stamps along with their market values. The tradition was started by the stamp dealer J.W. Scott, who in September 1868, just 28 years after the introduction of stamps, issued the first of the annually-updated Scott catalogs. Some catalogs, especially the Michel catalog and various one-country catalogs, offer quite a bit of information going beyond the basic properties of each type.

Another common sort of book is the comprehensive "Stamps and Postal History" of a single country. These go beyond the basic date, denomination, and market price seen in the catalogs, explaining why particular stamps were issued, where and how they used, and more generally how the country's postal system worked in various periods. A good book will be profusely illustrated with must of the following types of information:

  1. Stamps
    1. Picture of the stamp itself
    2. Short description of the design and where the design came from
    3. Major and minor varieties of the stamp
      1. Perforation varieties
      2. Paper varieties
      3. Watermark varieties
      4. Printing errors
      5. Gum varieties
      6. Tagging varieties
    4. Trial printing proofs
    5. Forgeries
  2. Postal Rates
  3. Postal markings
    1. Postmarks
      1. Typical postmarks used for the country
      2. Example covers (envelopes)
      3. Illustrating slogan cancellations
      4. Postmark types
      5. Town, city, or post office list with postmark types used, dates of use and relative rarity of postmark
    2. Other postal markings
      1. censor markings
      2. Special handling, air mail, postage due handstamps, etc.,
      3. Forwarding agents, mail steamship postmarks
  4. Other
    1. Crash covers
    2. Postal rates
    3. Packet mail steamships - schedules, dates of operation, postal rates, postal markings
    4. Revenue usage cancellations - handstamp, signature, or perforated punch
    5. Post office listing - opening and closing dates, postmaster name

The next level of specialization is remarkable both for the level of minutiae and the number of works that have been published. Specialists write monographs summarizing everything that is known about a single type of stamp - the history of its design, the printing process, when and where the stamp was sold to the public, and all the ways it was used on mail. If the stamps is particularly rare (the Inverted Jenny or the missionary stamps of Hawaii), the book may actually include a census of every single copy known to exist. As might be expected, the audience is small, and the print runs of these books are small too. Classic works out of print may be much-sought-after, sometimes even more than the stamps they are describing!

Other kinds of specialized work include comprehensive studies of postal usage in limited areas and times, perhaps mail in Montana Territory before it became a state, or mail carried by steamboat on the Mississippi, or mail from missionaries in Uganda before it became a British colony.

In addition to books, there are a great number of philatelic journals, again ranging from the general, such as the American Philatelist, which has been published continuously since 1887, to those for specialties such as the US "Bureau" issues (printed by the government itself instead of being contracted out), to newsletters for local clubs. Again, the audience being small, many journals only run for a few numbers and then fail. But one of those numbers may have had an especially insightful or informative article, and modern-day collectors must work hard to find a copy of that article.

Perhaps ironically, the scale and complexity of philatelic literature is such that it has its own journal, the Philatelic Literature Review, published quarterly by the American Philatelic Society.

To give some sense of the scale, between 1912 and 1917 William Ricketts published his "Ricketts Index", a bibliography of philatelic articles published up to that time (which we now view as a youthful and primitive period). The Index was 400 pages long, covering some 2,000 different journals. No one today expects to be able to find and index the totality of modern philatelic literature anymore.

Well Known General Philatelic Periodicals

  • America Philatelist (USA) - worldwide topics with a focus on USA
  • Canadian Stamp News (Canada) - worldwide topics with a focus on Canada
  • Gibbons Stamp News (UK) - worldwide topics with a focus on Great Britain and British Commonwealth
  • Linns Stamp News (USA) - worldwide topics with a focus on USA
  • Mekeel's Weekly Stamp News (USA) - worldwide topics with a focus on USA
  • Scott Stamp Monthly (USA) - worldwide topics with a focus on USA
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