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Changing Fashions

By John M. Hotchner

Things change over time, And stamp collecting is no exception. Yet they don't change overnight, and they usually don't change 100%. Thus, enough usually remains the same so that most collectors, even myself who began 59(!) years ago, recognize familiar elements of their beloved hobby, while at the same time recognizing (and often deploring) changing trends.

The deploring part comes with age, I am convinced. One loves what one knows. Thus change requires getting used to, and at best, integration into today's viewpoints. At worst, changes can be seen and sometimes actually are, a net negative, and are deplorable.

Stamps: Lets look at the objects of our affection. When I was growing up in the '40s and '50s, stamps, especially U.S. stamps, were intricately and beautifully engraved; mostly single color; with crowded and most often traditional designs. They were issued for serious subjects, and in relatively small quantities.

What happened? The ability to mass produce in color arrived in the mid-1950s. Use of the mails increased, which meant many more stamps at greater cost. This pushed the Post Office toward less expensive (non-engraved) postage stamps. More colorful production also allowed for, and even encouraged a profusion of artistic styles, and this over the course of decades has encouraged a much wider range of stamp subjects, including many that are non-traditional, and have no more meaning than being attractive images of flowers, animals, boats, cars, etc.

People of my generation generally don't see all of this as an improvement, but I am not here to make value judgments; only to outline the changes. With broadening of stamp subjects, came much more interest in thematic and topical collecting. Instead of collecting individual countries—and everything that country had issued over the years back to its first stamps, people began to focus on individual parts of the whole. For example, one could specialize in Space-theme stamps, American Indians, Trees and flowers, the Military, and hundreds more themes.

As older stamps issued in small and moderate quantities became scarce in good condition, and therefore more expensive, some people began collecting modern stamps only, perhaps beginning with the year of their birth, or just a discrete definitive issue from the "old days." I gravitated to the Presidential issue of 1938-54.

Getting Started: How collectors get started and develop their interest is another way things have changed. In my day, kids often caught Philately from our friends because most of them tried stamp collecting at one time or another. That is no longer true. It can still be a friend, a neighbor, or a family member who introduces you to stamps, but most kids today never get introduced; and they don't miss it either. As we have talked about in this space before, stamps simply don't provide the immediate gratification that kids are used to getting from iPods, GameBoys, Play Stations, and team sports.

Once the spark is lit, there are most often no longer the corner stamp stores that I knew as a kid where even a ten year old could develop a relationship with a knowledgeable philatelist, learn to select quality, and have a special item held until you saved up the needed 75 cents. The corner stamp store has been replaced by the stamp show, the commercial bourse, and of late, by the availability and impersonal dealing of the Internet. For the most part this is a good thing for hooking the interest of adults who can obtain stamps on the Internet, but not great at inviting kids into the hobby — except to help familiarize them with stamps through games and puzzles. Most kids can't and don't get collectible stamps from the Internet.

Development Of Knowledge And Interest: From the early days of stamps philately has been blessed with an increasingly rich trove of written material about the hobby, its byways, and even its people. The bad news is that too few people have ever taken advantage of this material. The good news is that the Internet has increased that number greatly. The bad news coming from that is that so much information is available and free on the Internet that a shrinking number of serious collectors needs to spend the money to subscribe to print periodicals, and philatelic publishing remains stuck in the circumstance where a book that sells 1,000 copies is an astounding success. It is getting increasingly hard to make a living as a philatelic journalist or publisher, and that does not bode well for the hobby.

Postage Stamps Receding: As the numbers of people interested in traditional stamp collecting declines among kids, and the percentage of the adult population interested in stamps declines, the hobby has broadened itself in ways that many traditionalists don't much like, but which help to keep the hobby dynamic. Added, or much more popular than 50 years ago, are the collecting of covers (or the study of envelopes that have gone through the mail, postal markings, routings, etc.), post cards including the fronts, revenue and Cinderella and even poster stamps, stamp varieties, postal stationery, and philatelically created souvenirs whether sent through the mails or cancelled by favor.

Values: It is inevitable that as the price of gasoline has gone from 20 cents a gallon to $4.00 and up, and every other commodity has risen as well, stamp collecting is becoming more pricey. There are still millions of stamps worth less than a penny, and the varieties of a common stamp can be just as challenging as many more expensive specialties, but in general, the values of high quality material from the first hundred years of the hobby are rising a good deal faster than inflation, and potential collectors are being priced out of large portions of the hobby. That is not all bad, unless you have a burning desire to collect the first 50 years of U.S. stamps.

There are many formerly less popular areas to get involved in that don't cost much money at all. But do you want to collect town cancellations on the low value definitives of France, or 20th Century Afghanistan; which until recently was all but ignored?

Well, perhaps this is enough for this column. The point is that change continues in many ways, each day, but it is best evaluated in a broader sweep.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net.

When were the "good ol' days" of stamp collecting? Join us in the message board and tell us about it.

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