Hotchner: Stamps As Art

Stamps As Art
By John M. Hotchner

We as stamp collectors have a narrow focus on stamps. We think of them as stamps that belong in a given space in an album, rather than as miniature art works. The difference may be critical to our ability to repopularize stamp collecting.

As stamp collectors, we certainly notice and have opinions on design and general attractiveness. But we are not professional art critics. Each of us knows what he or she likes. But we come at the subject from a hard-wired view that is heavily influenced by what we grew up with in the hobby, and by what we saw as we used stamps before getting into philately.

What this means is that most of us who are 50 and above long for the good old days of engraved stamps; which we think of as more intricately designed, and with ink raised off the paper that gives both a feel and a visual impression of quality. Indeed, a well-designed stamp produced by intaglio is a thing of beauty.

But this is not what I am talking about when I speak of Stamps as Art. As a percentage of our population of roughly 320 million, people with an interest in stamp collecting who have gone beyond throwing the occasional interesting stamp in a box, probably are less than half of 1%. But the figure is much, much higher for people who have enough interest in art to visit an art museum, buy prints to collect, or even buy art to decorate their homes.

How wonderful would it be for our hobby if even a small percentage of that much larger group could be lured into stamp collecting using as a hook, the beauty of these miniature art works. Virtually every type of art with a following in the general population can be found on many stamps. So, how do we appeal to those who love art?

I think we have to start with the fact that most people have only the sketchiest idea of what it means to be a stamp collector; and a good share of those impressions are wrong. A part of this ignorance is that many think of stamp collecting as an expensive hobby; yet art-oriented folks don’t know that the form of art in which they have an interest is available for relatively pennies on the dollar, as compared to what original art, and even prints, can cost.

Perhaps the closest model we have within the hobby today is the people who collect Christmas subjects on stamps, especially those who collect traditional religious images which are overwhelmingly classic artworks.

A good share of these collectors don’t fit the mold of the classic collector, but they love their stamps; yet without those subjects most would not be stamp collectors. But having started with the theme, many have become collectors who appreciate and are interested in stamp printing, seek varieties, like first day covers and commercial usages, bid in auctions, join clubs and societies, and come to be both stamp collectors and art appreciators. I’d also suggest that we need to think of art on stamps writ large: not just works using brush strokes, but other forms of art including sculpture, ballet, stage and screen, photography, the artists themselves, and many other categories. And yes, even art produced specifically as models for stamp designs and the stamp designs themselves.

So, I will posit that one major way to improve the reach of our hobby is for those of us in it to put a great deal more emphasis on outreach to non-collectors appealing principally to their love of art and the arts — both in terms of themes, and in terms of artistic styles.

How? Here are a few ideas:

1. The USPS/CSAC might consider issuing more stamps showing artworks, and in larger formats (One thinks of the beautiful and immensely popular large French stamps releases.)
We can look for opportunities to hold rstor second-day ceremonies at institutions displaying and promoting art and the arts—especially those with large public support/volunteer groups behind them.

2. Let’s have much more publicity by the USPS about the design process, the rejected designs, and why the design chosen was selected. As part of this effort (which stamp collectors also find fascinating), have the CSAC Design Coordinators make “YouTube” videos on their craft to circulate to art appreciation groups, and have them address conventions of appropriate groups.

3. The Postal Service, which already sells greeting cards, can expand that product line using stamp images.

4. Hobby institutions (USPS/APS/Specialty societies focused on a design theme that includes art) can partner with art museums to present the art of philately in featured exhibits.

5. Specialty societies with a design theme that includes art also can present philately in the institutional publications of non-collecting affinity groups (e.g., American Medical Association for medical related, DAR and others for history related, religious groups for Christmas related, aeronautical groups for airplane illustrations, U.S. Naval Institute for stamps honoring naval history, ornithological groups for bird designs, etc.)

6. We can work with school art appreciation programs/teachers to include the miniature art of stamps in the curriculum, and use stamp design contests to teach elements of composition. There could even be doctoral dissertations looking into the progression of artistic style in U.S. stamps, and other art/stamps subjects.

7. Posters featuring the art of stamps can be provided by the USPS to post offices and libraries.

8. Collectors/stamp clubs can make presentations to art appreciation societies.
Production of coffee table books emphasizing different themes and art styles can be co-sponsored by a philatelic organization and an art museum.

9. We also could have more articles in the philatelic press and society journals that focus on the art of the stamp, art and the arts. This need not be every issue, but often enough to support and encourage those whose collecting motivation is in this sector.

10. Finally, let’s moderate the complaining about artistic style within the hobby. There needs to be more recognition that it is legitimate to portray a wide range of artistic style. Like what you like and ignore what you don’t. Issuing broadsides against what you don’t like simply leaves a poor impression of the hobby — especially among those who might get serious about it.

Blaise Pascal is quoted as saying that “All the great maxims have been written. It only remains to put them into practice.” I am certain that there are more ideas that readers can think of to add to the dozen above, so let’s hear from you! But all the ideas in the world remain sterile unless they are put into practice. So, I am hoping that those who can move these ideas forward will try them out, improve on them, and help us grow the hobby!


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: More Stamps???

“Why Do You Need More Stamps?”
by John M. Hotchner

Early on, as my wife watched my stamp collection take over more and more square feet in our house, she asked the $64,000 Question: “Why do you need more stamps? You have so many already.” It is a reasonable question; perhaps akin to “Why do race car drivers keep going around in circles?”

It all makes sense to the participants — and to those who enjoy the ride vicariously; but why a collector collects, and why enough is never enough, are more difficult questions. Over the years I have tried to explain my reasons for pursuing more and better stamps and covers, and it is fair to say that I have never quite hit the mark, and certainly have not been able to overcome her assumption that there is a point at which a collection is complete; somewhat like the point at which the house has enough curtains and needs no more.

It fact, collections are never complete unless the collector wants them to be. And I don’t. Completeness signifies the end of collecting that particular thing, and moving on to something else — or nothing else. It is not where I want to be.

I like stamps and covers, and the discovery of new pathways of the hobby. In fact, what my wife sees as my collection — writ large — is really made up of a lot of small collections. And I like the feeling of having many philatelic balls in the air, and knowing that I can go to a bourse and be certain that I can find something new to enhance one or more of them.

I may add nothing to one collection for years, but another may grow like Topsy because I luck into a good source. Furthermore, it is not unusual to trip over something that is so interesting, it leads to yet another collecting category.

My wife and I have not buried this issue. Instead we have agreed to disagree. I’ve tried to compare the question to the issue of why she needs yet another pair of shoes, but it’s not the same thing she says: She doesn’t collect shoes for their beauty, for their story, to categorize…. She wears shoes; they have a functional value. The only things stamps are good for is mailing a letter.

So, it is time to gather in one place the six reasons (or excuses, if that is how you look at it) I’ve advanced for why I keep buying more stamps, ad to try to look beyond them. I think that the list makes a compelling case. But to accept that it does, requires being able to walk in my shoes, and understand the pleasures I get from the hobby.

Anyway, here goes:

  1. One of the characteristics of Mankind is acquisitiveness. Not many can avoid it, and there are many different degrees. But it is normal. And for those born with what I like to call The Collector Gene, a specific area can start as an interest, progress to a passion, and somewhere along the line turn into an addiction. Different people may assess that hold over an individual’s actions differently. I don’t see my addiction to philately as a bad thing. My spouse is not so sure that my level of self-control is up to the task of keeping me within practical limits. I like to point out that unlike some, we have not had to buy a larger house, or a second home, to house the collection; though I do have to admit that the collection does get in the way of downsizing!
  2. I buy individual stamps to complete album pages. I find it very satisfying to complete an album page. Of such little victories is life made up.
  3. And I buy specific stamps and covers to add to exhibits. Often this is just to fill a perceived gap, but sometimes the item ads to the body of knowledge about what is being exhibited. Previously unreported significant items in an exhibit are worth their weight toward a gold medal, but it is also a wonderful feeling to know that you have advanced the frontiers of knowledge.
  4. I buy collections because I am a passionate searcher for varieties. It is not enough to fill preprinted album pages. I am fascinated by interesting cancellations, revenue stamps, per ns, precancels, sheet markings, color varieties, misperforations, printing flaws. As often as not these are 10¢ items that dealers hardly ever stock, and the best way to find them is in old collections. (What I don’t use from collections gets traded, sold or donated. Unlike some, my house is not burdened by boxes of collection remainders.)
  5. I buy stamps and covers to write about in my various columns. Deadlines are harsh taskmasters, and finding new material is not only a necessity, but helps me to manage deadlines. Especially given the breadth and depth of U.S. philately, something new is always popping up that will with a little research to complement it, will make an interesting story.
  6. In my old age, with all our children on their own, and our physical needs taken care of, I buy the occasional stamp or cover (unrelated to an existing collection) that I have always admired and wanted. Why? Because it pleases me!

As I reread this, there is surely an element of self-indulgence in philatelic acquisitiveness. It prompts the question, Would I be a better person if I were spending the same money on diamond earrings for my wife — or annual vacations in Paris — or simply padding the savings account? Perhaps by some measures.

But these are questions each of us has to answer for him- or herself. As for me, stamp and cover collecting is my one extravagance. I don’t spend money on cigarettes, alcohol, caviar, thousand dollar suits, or the gambling tables in Atlantic City. Philately is not about acquiring mountains of money or social status — in fact to the average non-collector — it may type a collector as a bit of an odd duck.

But it lets us ‘believers’ slow life down, de-stress, and play in ways reminiscent of childhood. A constant stream of new ‘toys’ is the price of admission. No apologies.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Dealing With Self-Sticks

Dealing With Self-Sticks
By John M. Hotchner

Hardly any stamp collector is happy with the Postal Service’s practice, begun in earnest in 2007, of producing increasing numbers of self-stick issues that when used, can’t be floated free of the envelope paper.

The reason given was that they were saving on the cost of the stamp paper. But this developed later. Initially there was no announcement. Collectors made the discovery through trying to wash new issues so as to have a nice clean example to put in the album.

Actually about a quarter of what is issued these days can be soaked off — even today. But the remainder either have to be specially treated, stamp by stamp, to be removed. Or, they have to be left on neatly clipped (hope- fully thin) paper and put in the album.

The latter will not bother some people, but as most of us are creatures of habit, the change from the old way is annoying. It makes the presentation of a used collection on album pages a bit disorderly with different thicknesses and colors of envelope paper. Even mint self-stick stamps have to be left on their backing paper when displayed in albums. Thus, fewer stamps will t on a page, and albums get thicker faster. Not a few collectors have reacted to this new era by combining this problem with ever higher face values of stamps, and using these excuses to stop collecting U.S. stamps issued after 2000, or to leave the hobby altogether.

But are the changes really fatal, or do they simply force changes in collecting with which we are unhappy? Are we over-reacting to what we see as high handedness on the part of the USPS? Personally, I feel it, and there can be little doubt that there is some of this in the reaction of collectors. As confirmation, we saw it in letters to the editor in the philatelic press as the USPS went to unwashable self-sticks, and then decreed that all issues would be self-sticks.

The latter decision was popular with the public, but it was anything but for collectors. It is still my belief that this could be “fixed” by leaving mail-use stamps self-stick, and issuing commemoratives as lick-and-stick since their purpose is to be sold to collectors. And I would like to see the Postal Service return to the days of washable self-sticks. This would seem to be only rational given that reporting in the philatelic press indicated that the stamps issued without that feature actually cost more than washable stamps.

But I’m dreaming. Back to reality.

The basic question is this: Will you let the changes wrought by the USPS drive you out of the hobby? Or will you find a way to adapt? I can’t picture life without stamp collecting! So adapting is the way I have gone, and the way I recommend.

For those who think that they will teach the Postal Service a thing or two by dropping out with a blast in the Letters to the Editor column, forget it. They have set their course, and are “driving hard to the basket”, to mix a metaphor.

The only power you have is the power of the purse. If you do not spend money on their products, that has an impact. But the USPS is busily about the task of recruiting new collectors who take as a given the new reality. Apparently, they are having success sufficient to offset losses of old-line collectors who are dropping out.

So, the first way to adapt, is not dropping out alto- gether but limiting U.S. stamp collecting to those issues that are pleasing; say ending with the issues of 2000 or 2005. You save on supplements as well as stamps. And this allows you to spend available money on lling in older spaces with those beautifully engraved stamps of yesteryear.

But if, like me, you maintain your interest in the cur- rent issues of the USPS, then there are several avenues you can take:

1. In choosing stamps-on-paper for your album, consider the color and thickness of stamps to be part of condition. Thin white paper is the goal, and just as you would replace a heavily cancelled stamp with one that is lightly cancelled, replace thick red paper when you can.

2. Choose the margin size you will use for consistency, and trim the excess paper so that your album page looks nice.

3. Obtain and learn to use the Scott U.S. Specialized Catalogue, which has a feature identifying those modern stamps that can and cannot be washed. Then wash what you can. I am hopeful that Scott will eventually add this feature to the U.S. listings in Volume I of the Standard Catalogue. (Note: Keep in mind that I have found several stamps that Scott indicates can be washed are at best very difficult, and at worst, actually won’t wash. Best to try one or two before trying to wash quantities.)

[Note: For three years, The Virtual Stamp Club kept track of which U.S. self-adhesives were soakable, through the hard work of volunteer John Cropper. Then he had to move on, and no one else was able to undertake this task. But the “Soaking Stoplight” information is still online here for 2008, 2009 and 2010. — VSC]

4. Consider removing the envelope paper from stamps destined for your album using one of the spray or chemical products that have been discussed in Linn’s [Stamp News] and The American Philatelist (mostly in letters to the editor). Although it takes more time than the old float-free method, and for that reason is not suitable for large quantities, it works well on individual stamps. I use non-aerosol “Pure Citrus” Orange Air Freshener which is available at Home Depot and other locations. It is effective and non-toxic.

I will close with an offer. I will provide a write-up on how I use “Pure Citrus”, and/or a write-up of how to separate some of the more difficult soakable stamps from paper to any reader who requests one or both. If you want these, please write to me, specifying which, and enclose 10¢ in mint postage to cover photocopying, and a stamped addressed envelope. Send to me at PO Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

John Hotchner’s Philatelic Bucket List

A United States Bucket List
By John M. Hotchner

Not so long ago bucket lists burst on the scene. If your nose was in your albums and you missed it, the idea was put forward that all of us approaching the September of our lives should make a list of those things we wished to do or see before December 31st of our lives.

Well, here I am at about October 25, and as a charter member of the procrastinators’ club, I’m just getting to this task. I’ve recently done such a list with a worldwide perspective, and found it interesting to put a laser-like focus on what I really want to get done. A friend who saw it suggested that I ought to narrow the scope to U.S. philately only, and provide it here as a means of encouraging our U.S. collector community members to do their own lists.

The size of the list is an issue. Some are satisfied with ten items. It is said that too many disappointments are the result of too many expectations, but I’ll chance it. Thus, my list presented here is 20 items; which actually works out to one a year until I’m 93. That seems do-able, if maybe a tad ambitious.

But the point is not so much to get it all done as to help the mind to have a sense of what is really important versus what is passing fancy. This can be useful for resource allocation–what will we spend both time and money on–and for sense of satisfaction as items are crossed off.

Given that no one wants to reach the end of the list and have nothing to live for, so to speak, my method will be to add something to the list every time I cross something off. It is important to have a challenge to get up for every morning!

This is a highly individual exercise. Which is a way of saying that my list won’t work for you. But perhaps it will serve as a guide on the sorts of things that you want to consider for your own list. So, even those of you who are at March 1st of your lives, I hope you will do this exercise. Dream big!

Here is my effort:

1. Find a U.S. Scott #613, the rotary press-printed 2¢ Black Harding, perf 11. There are about 65 examples known, and I believe there are more waiting to be discovered. Since buying one is out of the question (Cat. Value: $40,000), I measure every 2¢ Harding I come across. Maybe lightening will strike!

2. Get up enough courage to start collecting U.S. revenues. I have a set of Scott album pages, but the project looks daunting. Yet much of it is affordable, and interesting, and I want to get started, but just have not been able to nd the time–or make the time.

3. Solve the mystery of the 3¢ Servicewomen commemorative of 1952, Scott #1013, which features four servicewomen as portrayed by professional models. I know the name of one. Who are the others? Research in the les of the USPS, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Defense Department have failed to bring the names to light. Someone must know.?

4. My hoard of Korean War postal history awaits. I bought a first class exhibit several years ago, and have my own material gathered over 30 years to add to it; and continue to find new covers. The task now is to recast and improve the exhibit.

5. My U.S. clipping files have as much unfiled material as what is in the folders. This is a project that needs some serious work.

6. Get used copies of the USIR-watermarked 8¢ Sherman (Scott #272a) and $1 Prexie (#832b) for my collection.

7. Do or update at least one one-frame exhibit a year: Pending are #C22 international uses, C32 international uses, methods of marking repaired and rejected material in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and The Naked Maja in U.S. philately. (Readers may notice a theme here: there is an awful lot of exhibiting going on, but it has become over the years one of my favorite creative outlets, and I can’t get enough of it!)

8. Update my 1934 and 1935 Christmas seal multi-frame exhibits.

9. Encourage those who can make it happen to get a U.S. philatelic periodical on U.S. newsstands. I’m convinced that this could make a real difference in bringing 30-somethings and beyond into the hobby.

10. Give a presentation on U.S. Error, Freak and Oddity Collecting at the Royal Philatelic Society, London.

11. Reread the George Brett book on Giori Printing; the best exposition of a complex subject that marked a turning point (in the mid-1950s) in U.S. stamp production; enabling multicolor printing, and bringing life to what had been almost entirely a monocolor stamp program.

12. Convince Scott Catalogue editors to include the Allied Military Government issues from Austria, France, Germany and Italy in the U.S. Specialized Catalogue; not to mention the Korean issues. Scott includes Ryukyus, but that is only a good start.

13. Organize a 40-year accumulation of Washington-Franklin (3rd Bureau Issue) local precancels, and while I’m at it, try to discover a Scott #544, the 1¢ Rotary Press sheet waste stamp; often seen precancelled.

14. Do a booklet or book on the 60+ instances where living people are shown on U.S. stamps. This has been one focus of my Linn’s reporting over the years, and there are many interesting stories to be told.

15. Find for my mourning covers collection, a cover to or from a funeral home that was sent to a dead letter office (preferably in Deadwood, South Dakota).

16. Make sense, and maybe an exhibit, of a 50-year accumulation of U.S. postal cards with printed messages on the back that show the everyday and often mundane activities of Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; from birth to death.

17. Judging at the next U.S. international: 2026 in Boston!

18. Write an article on U.S. postal counterfeits each year for the book-length Fakes Forgeries Experts, produced under the auspices of the International Association of Philatelic Experts (AIEP).

19. Spend some time every day, washing, organizing, cataloguing, and putting stamps in my albums. It is surprising how easy it is for that set of activities to take last place.

20. Be around, at age 97, to celebrate and ponder the glorious 200th anniversary of postage stamps in the year 2040, and maybe even the equally glorious 200th anniversary of U.S. postage stamp general issues in 2047. Medical science is making great strides in extending life!

Fulfilling some of the entries in this list will depend upon luck (rather than bucks), medical practitioners, help from friends, will power, and the grace of God. But hopefully in 20 years or so, I can look back and say I’ve crossed at least half off the list. Now, get started on your list!


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Collecting American Flags

Dealing With American Flags
by John M. Hotchner

With the presidential election behind us and the inauguration coming up, we are seeing the American Flag as the backdrop of much TV reporting. It got me wondering what might be found in the pantheon of American stamp issues that might make for an interesting way to give more depth to U.S. collecting. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional approach of collecting one of every U.S. stamp issued. And yet for many of us, new challenges beckon, and U.S. Flags is one that comes with a high level of knowledge, enthusiasm, and even offers a way to connect with non-collectors who have a love for America and its symbols.

With the 1963 5¢ Flag Over White House (Scott #1208, right) issue, the U.S. Postal Service began an unbroken run of definitive (regular postage) stamps that extends to today. This movement really got into high gear with the issuance of the first plate number coil (18¢) Flag stamps in 1981. One of the post-1963 definitives (Scott #1891) is shown below.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Postal Service contracted out the printing of more and more definitives to the private sector, and multiple printers were needed to produce the multiple billions of Flag stamps needed by the public. Ultimately, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) got out of printing U.S. stamps altogether in 2005. Multiple printers meant not just different plate numbers, but many different versions of each issue including: lick-and-stick, self-stick, tagging varieties, separation (perforation and die cut) varieties, print dates in the lower left corner, microprinting entries, slight design differences, and counting numbers on the back. Most of this is reflected in increasingly complex Scott U.S. Specialized Catalogue listings.

There is enough variety in the modern issues since the 1990s that there are collectors specializing in a single definitive issue. I might also mention that there is the allied area of counterfeits that can be added. As the USPS transitioned from engraved designs to photogravure-produced designs, the incidence of credible postal counterfeits has gone up exponentially; and enforcement of the anti-counterfeiting statutes became a huge challenge. Today, armed with an ultraviolet detector, those collectors with access to quantities of modern definitives can find postal counterfeits easily because most are not tagged; and those that are, aren’t tagged properly. It seems that replicating the tagging is much more difficult and expensive for the criminal class than replicating the design!

But I digress. There are many older U.S. stamps showing representations of the flag, even though the earliest examples show the flag in monocolor. Let’s look at some of them.

To the extent we think about it, most U.S. collectors would assume that the 30¢ 1869 stamp (Scott #121 at right) is the first issue with a U.S. flag. See the all-blue flags in the lower corners of the stamp? In fact, if one includes representations of the flag in the form of a shield, then the first U.S. stamp is the 30¢ Benjamin Franklin 1860 stamp (Scott #38). Note the stars-and-stripes shields in all four corners (below left).  Had you ever noticed it before?

Would you like to guess how many face-different U.S. stamp designs include the various forms of the American flag? 25? 50? As many as 100? When I sat down with the catalogue to count them, I was surprised to tally over 200! Now, that does include denominated and non-denominated flag stamps that are otherwise the same, and the different color denominations of the 32¢ “G” definitives; but it does not include Stars-and-Stripes shields, or hard-to-identify dots flying from flag poles on federal buildings and ships, on monuments, uniforms, and airplanes.

The first U.S. flag to be shown in color is the handsome 4¢ 1957 48-star flag (Scott #1094) shown on the right. The 1957 stamp also has the distinction of being the first U.S. stamp to be produced on the BEP’s new Giori press, which could do up to three colors from a single plate. Up to that point, multicolor stamps produced by BEP required separate plates for each color; a situation that required more time and effort, but also made the Bureau invert-prone. One of the inverts that resulted is on the 30¢ 1869, and you can see the upside down flags in the proof shown on the left (Scott #121aP4). One of the interesting aspects of U.S. stamp collecting is the search for what are called “design errors”; mistakes in the final design attributed to inadequate research, oversight, artistic license, and pure sloppiness.

They are not valuable as every one of the stamps produced has the same error, but they do show that the public is watching, and they make take what might be an ordinary postage stamp and make it into a conversation piece. We’ll review a few of them, and a few that were questioned, to complete this column.

The 5¢ Norse-American stamp on the right (Scott #621) might be called a non-design error. It caused a bit of a sensation when it was issued in 1925 because the ship, clearly early Norse, not current American, is flying an American flag (arrow). The Post Office Department patiently explained that this was no mistake. The craft is a replica of a Viking “Dragon Ship”, and actually sailed from Norway to the United States between April 30, and June 13, 1893, to participate in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The stamp was designed using actual photographs of the replica.

The 3¢ White Plains issue on the left was released in 1926 (Scott #629) for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of White Plains, which took place on October 28, 1776. But the Stars and Stripes at the bottom left did not come into being until June 14, 1777.

The 5¢ Flag over White House above raised a few eyebrows when it hit the streets. Note that it does not carry the words “United States” or the short form “U.S.”; one of only a few stamps to take that liberty. Nor does it contain the word “postage.” The latter is curious, but the former was likely deemed appropriate because the Flag design component marked this as an American issue in the same way that Queen Victoria’s presence on Great Britain #1 left no room for doubt as to its origin. The stamp did generate another question as there are only three red stripes next to the blue field of stars, while the correct number is four. Discussion resulted in a finding that the fourth stripe was present, but is hidden by the ripples of the flag.

“Register & Vote” is a laudable message as portrayed on the 1964 5¢ commemorative stamp in Figure 8 (Scott #1249). But it is partially printed across the American Flag. This contravenes the Federal law governing use and presentation of the flag, which provides that nothing must be placed over it or on it when it is illustrated.

Another breach of etiquette is seen on the 25¢ “Bill of Rights” commemorative from 1989 (Scott #2421) seen in Figure 8. It should have been displayed with the stars on the left, and the stripes on the right; not as shown. A result is that we sometimes see the stamp applied upside down on covers as people observe correct flag —if not philatelic — etiquette.

We have a case of an impossible design with regard to the flag on the 32¢ Flag Over Porch stamp in Figure 9 (Scott Design Type A2212). This is complicated, so I will quote from “Flag Faux Pas;” a short article in the July, 1996, Scott Stamp Monthly:

“Those who know the flag well will immediately see something amiss, but identifying the problem is slightly harder. The U.S. flag has 13 stripes, seven of which do not span the entire width of the flag, because of the field.

“The field contains 50 stars in nine rows (five rows of six and four rows of five). Because there are only seven incomplete stripes, all nine rows must feature stars shorter than any stripe. Those on the stamp are larger. It would therefore be an impossibility to fit all 50 stars in this flag’s field.”

There are many other stamps and many other stories that go with them, but we have only so much space here. For the flag connoisseur there are also cancellations with flags in them, cachets with flags part of the design, covers in the form of flags, and a wide variety of Errors, Freaks and Oddities on U.S. Flag stamps.

And if that is not enough to keep you busy, you can branch out into military and State Flags on U.S. stamps, Confederate Flags (dare I say), and even foreign flags on U.S. stamps. The Flag subject is a gift that keeps on giving! (Show at left: The 2017 U.S. Flag stamp.)


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Dealing With Stamp Design

by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerIs there one unalterable truth for stamp collectors? If so, I would propose that it is a universal feeling that U.S. stamp design is less than spectacular, and many of us share a belief that if we were running things, we could do better. Perhaps.

In the past two days, I have heard complaints about the Forget-me-not stamp (It needs a frame to focus the design), the last George Washington stamp (It is too dark and George is lost in the dark framing), the Winter Flowers issue of 2014 (They look too much like Easter seals), and the World Stamp Show publicity stamps (A lost opportunity to picture stamp collecting or classic American stamps.)

monalisa1While any or all of these criticisms may have merit, it is all second-guessing. And my guess is that all artists — even the great ones — had to put up with similar carping (“That’s supposed to be a smile on Mona Lisa? Looks more like she’s
suffering a gas attack after too many baked beans!”)

Well, we as collectors have the right to criticize, but it is all hot air unless we actually do something about it. And there are several strategies.

  1. Don’t buy what you don’t like. Avoid such issues for use as postage, for your albums, and for gifts for children and grandchildren. The USPS tracks closely what sells, and just as important, what doesn’t. Vote with your wallet.
  2. Learn how to draw a neat “X” in the album page box for stamps you will not add to your collection because you don’t like the art style, or you class them as just plain ugly. You are the arbiter of what makes the cut. And no one has to agree with you.
  3. Create a Hall of Shame — a special section of your album in which you place all the stamps that annoy you.
  4. If you have more stamps in that section than on your printed album pages, maybe it is time to curtail your collecting by ending at a given year.

You will need to be careful to differentiate whether it is the design you dislike or the subject. Sometimes, our view can be so colored by dislike of the subject that no design will hit the mark. On the other side of that fence, the flood of multi-colored fruits, flowers, foliage, fauna, flyers, food, and flags may have great popularity with the American public, but only a few stand out as clever and original depictions.

CoastGuardIn my view about 10% of U.S. issues really rank high on both subject and design scales.

One in the 2015 crop is the U.S. Coast Guard commemorative released August 4. Full disclosure: I was involved in development of the subject while a member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (1998-2010) but it had not gone to the artists at the point that I timed out from the Committee. So I was surprised and delighted by the exceptional art that illustrates the s_wse2016subject.

Contrast that with the New York 2016 publicity pair (right) — a good subject that in my opinion is a generic and uninspiring design that will inspire no one to attend the show.

What can we reasonably expect from U.S. stamp design? Certainly, we need to recognize that in stamps as in art generally, there will be a range of style. This is right and proper as stamps are a reflection of the breadth and diversity of American art; much like the stamp program having a commission to reflect the breadth and diversity of America itself and its population.

finearts1259I well remember when modern art first made its appearance on a U.S. stamp with the 5¢ “Fine Arts” issue of 1964 (left). One would have thought listening to the reaction of collectors that the world as we knew it had come to an end.

There were similar protests when children’s art in the form of stick figures on the 20¢ Family Unity issue was included in 1984. And when cartoon-type art made its first appearance with the 1991 “Comedians” set of 29¢ stamps using the pen-and-ink impressions of Al Hirschfeld.

They were later followed by actual cartoons from the comics section of our daily press.

The latter complaints were especially mystifying to me as both political cartoons and the so-called “funny papers” are features of American journalism that have been developed to a high level in the United States. Stamps celebrating these American institutions are right on the mark, and the art is appropriate.

SummerHarvestI personally don’t enjoy much of the poster art that has been and is used. The “Summer Harvest” issue is an example (right). And as to modern art, I think much of it is a fraud on the public when presented as works of inspiration possessed of deep and profound meaning. And yet, a portion of the public buys it and goes to see it in museums.

Can the U.S. stamp program ignore that? Should it? Regretfully, I have to admit that
it has its place.

So, my conclusion is that it is irrational to expect that every issue will please every collector. In fact, the USPS can expect criticism of some sort on the majority of its issuances if for no other reason than that the American public has a wide variety of likes and dislikes, and a wide variance of art appreciation, from those of us who merely know what we like, to those of us educated to know what we should like.

Which means that criticism will be plentiful and conflicting. And the USPS needs to listen to it, but act on it sparingly.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: How to Collect U.S. Commemoratives

How to Collect U.S. Commemoratives
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerIn the last column, we talked in this space about How to Collect the Presidential Series of 1938-1954. This prompted a couple of readers to remark on a trend that has been growing among stamp show exhibitors: They are picking a specific commemorative or commemorative series, and finding everything about it that can be collected in order to tell the story of how it came to be created, to how it was used to move the mails.

How big a trend is this? I have either seen or been told of exhibits that have already appeared centered on the following commemoratives: 1904 Louisiana Purchase set of five (1¢, 2¢, 3¢, 5¢, 10¢) 1909 2¢ Hudson-Fultons 1909 2¢ Alaska-Yukon-Pacifics 1926 2¢ Sesquicentennial Exposition 1929 2¢ George Rogers Clark 1939 3¢ New York World’s Fair 1945-6 Roosevelt Memorial set of four (1¢, 2¢, 3¢, 5¢), 1945 5¢ Toward the United Nations, 1947 3¢ Centennial Philatelic Exhibition commemorative & 15¢ souvenir sheet, 1956 3¢ King Salmon, 1958 3¢ International Geophysical Year, 1958 4¢ Forest Conservation, 1959 4¢ Oregon Statehood, 1959 4¢ St. Lawrence Seaway, 1959 4¢ Dental Health, 1962 4¢ World United Against Malaria, 1964 5¢ New York World’s Fair, 1965 5¢ Churchill Memorial, 1968 6¢ Walt Disney, 1984 20¢ Smokey Bear, 1984 20¢ Roberto Clemente, 1928 5¢ Beacon Air Mail, and 1948 5¢ New York City Air Mail.

In addition, there are exhibits that are focused on the Black Heritage stamps, a series that began in 1978 and continues; and on the Chinese New Year series that began in 1991 and was capped with a 2005 sheetlet showing all of the 12 designs that had been previously issued. Finally there is also a very well done exhibit that covers the joint issues that the United States has had with other countries; usually with similar designs.

I know of other exhibits being built but not yet ready for prime time, and there are undoubtedly others both on the circuit and in planning that I’m not aware of. Even so, with fewer than 100 commemorative stamps having been given this kind of attention, there are still plenty of commemoratives to choose from if this form of collecting appeals to you.

There are a few exhibits I have not included here because they are totally focused on usages of the stamps and do not include the development of the stamp(s) themselves. Among these are, for example, the 1940 Famous Americans series, and the 3¢ 1946 Smithsonian issue.

Which brings me to the question of what a comprehensive exhibit contains. They start with the photo, painting or other basis for the stamp design, then come such essays as are in public hands. Next in the frames would be photo essays and publicity photos of the stamp(s) released by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and/or the Postal Service; followed by such proofs as may be in public hands. Check the Scott U.S. Specialized Catalogue to see what might exist in the way of essays and proofs for your favorite stamp(s).

Next come the first day ceremony souvenirs, which should include a program (autographed if possible), and perhaps other items such as covers or blocks of the stamps signed by dignitaries not on the formal program. Then come the issued stamps starting with an absolutely superb copy of the featured stamp, plate blocks or other memorabilia signed by the designer/modeler and the engravers involved in the production of the stamp.

Issued stamps showing the type and location of normal or exceptional marginal markings are featured next, followed by such errors and varieties as have been discovered. It can be especially difficult to find these as errors (which exist in very small quantities) are listed, but there is no central listing for varieties such as misperforations, constant plate varieties, and color misregistrations — most of which will be equally scarce — and the collector has to search high and low for whatever may exist.

Now we get to the First Day Cover cachets. It will probably be the longest section of the exhibit. Much of what exists in this category has been recorded in publications of the American First Day Cover Society, but there are often small unrecorded productions of cachets that can be found randomly in dealer stocks, other collections, and in the archives of cachet makers. And there may be, especially with older stamps, uncacheted covers from unusual sources such as U.S. Navy ships.

Finally, the exhibit will end with commercial usages of the stamp showing how it was used to pay various rates and on mail to unusual destinations. This section is often frustratingly small. Why is this?

While definitives were and are often produced in quantities of many hundreds of millions, and sometimes in billions, commemorative production figures have mostly topped out in the 150 million range up until the 29¢ era (early ‘90s, when per-stamp production dropped to under 100 million in most cases, reflecting the larger number of stamps being issued). In addition, definitives are available for years; sometimes a dozen or more. Commemoratives can sell out much earlier, but in almost every case what is still not sold after 18 months is withdrawn and destroyed.

The result is that finding usages of any given stamp beyond routine first class, in the period when the commemorative was current, requires a lot of searching, a lot of knowledge as to where to look, diligent advertising of what is being sought, and much correspondence. The good news is that when you find the covers cost is generally pretty reasonable. It isn’t affording them, it is finding them that is the challenge; made more difficult by the fact that most dealers don’t stock “modern” (which is often anything in the last 75 years!) covers, because it is low profit margin material.

So, to do a commemorative exhibit requires, usually, years of acquisition and learning about what exists to be found. The learning is not trivial as it encompasses knowledge of production, EFOs, the range of First Day cachets, and contemporary rates and possible usages. I have a couple of ongoing projects in the acquisition/learning stage, and it may be that I will never be able to come up with enough material to get to an exhibit. But the journey in that direction is much of the fun of forming a commemorative collection.

If you are working on such a collection, D.A. Lux has continued my original list and publishes it monthly. If you would like your commemorative interest(s) included on The Hotchner Commemorative List, contact D.A. at dalux2041@gmail.com and include the Scott number and first day of issue of your stamp. Once on the list, other list members will be able to search their collections for the covers you need and will know your interests when they dig through the dollar and quarter boxes at their local stamp shows. This could be a way of helping to unearth new material to improve your collection!


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Collecting Prexies

How to Collect the Presidentials of 1938-1954?
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerA friend recently told me he had accumulated quite a lot of Presidential Series material, and was thinking about what to do with it. He knew of my interest in the issue, and asked me “How do you collect the area? I want to get my material organized and developed into a collection. But I sure don’t want to start out on too grand a scale, and be overwhelmed — or worse, lose interest.”

He also suggested that I turn my response into an article, and I’m happy to oblige. First, let’s acknowledge that this is not an issue for most U.S. collectors. Most of us are pleased to have one Very Fine-or-better mint example of each value and/or one lightly cancelled used example. But over time, many of us acquire a few covers, maybe some color varieties and precancels, and the idea occurs to us that ratcheting up the challenge level might be fun.

prexies1Keep in mind that the Prexies (as they are often called), despite being 78 years young, are relatively modern by collecting standards. Thus, they combine — for 90% of the material — ease of availability with reasonable prices.

Still, a lot of people have gotten involved in “Prexie” collecting in the last 20 years (and the Liberty series after that, and Prominent American, Great Americans, etc.) So, the best material is going up in price, and the scarcer items are getting harder to locate. If you really want to get in on the ground floor of a collecting area, pick one of the more recent definitive series and start gathering material now.

But, back to the Prexies: There are three formats: the sheet stamps from 1/2¢ to $5, the coil stamps of two types (horizontal coils from 1¢ to 10¢; vertical coils from 1¢ to 3¢), and 1¢, 2¢ and 3¢ booklet panes. One approach to the Prexies is to specialize in the coils or the booklet panes. Of the available covers from the period, I would estimate that less than 5% are usages of coils or booklet pane singles or multiples. But the stamps themselves can be a challenge; especially if you enjoy plate number collecting. Miscuts of coils and booklet panes abound, and they are relatively inexpensive as used plate singles and even as mint miscut panes with a part of a plate number. For the 3¢ booklet pane there are 63 different plate numbers that can be found. The 3¢ horizontal coil has 224 plate numbers; while the four values (1¢, 1-1/2¢, 2¢ and 3¢) have a total of only ten plates for all.

There are also various booklet covers for different size booklets, and leader and end strips for coils.

coolidge_prexyRegarding the sheet stamps, meaningful subdivisions include the following possibilities:

    • One or more specific values, or for higher values that were less utilized, in groups such as the 11¢-14¢, or the dollar values. Of course it is possible to add the coils and booklet pane stamps to a specific value collection, too. (The dollar values have an extra dimension as they are bicolors, and thus have registration problems that result in the portrait being registered high and low, to left and to right with respect to the frames).
    • If you collect a specific value or group of values, you will need to look for varieties such as the following:

a. mad_pre_prexyPrecancels — both Bureau-printed (in the high hundreds of locations), and locally-printed (in the thousands of locations).

b. Perfins — the punched holes inside stamp designs that were meant to discourage employees of companies and non-profits from stealing the stamps intended for business use.

c. Socked-on-the-nose cancellations that can be focused on locations or dates.

d. EFOs, including color varieties, wet/ dry printings, misperfs, imperfs, counterfeits, plate varieties, rejection markings, double papers/paper splices, ghost plate numbers, thin papers, and more.

e. Plate numbers — used singles, or mint plate blocks — trying to get one of each number, or matched sets showing all sheet locations.

f. Canal Zone overprints on the 1/2¢ and 1-1/2¢.

You can add any or all of these to a collection by value, or make a specialty out of any one of these, or combine them in unusual ways. For example, I collect precancelled plate singles, and perfin EFOs (doubled, missing, inverted, etc.).

And if this is not enough to whet your appetite, going into the covers arena can be fun. In this realm are

  • Any of the above on cover, by value or groups of values, or by location.
  • The range of services available, from various classes of mail to Air Mail, Special Delivery, Registered, Insured, Postage Due, Special Handling, and more.
  • Solo uses for each stamp in the set.
  • How rates for services changed over the course of the 16 years from 1938 to 1954. This is especially challenging with International Air Mail
  • The progress of WWII as shown by mail sent to and from servicemen and women.
  • sc803eeFidelity1The dangers of transportation of the mails as shown by wreck and crash mail (air, ship, train, mail trucks, etc.)
  • A wide range of cachets on First Day Covers, including a second set of FDCs for Prexie stamps perforated by the new Electric Eye process (as shown on the right; three varieties on one FDC). The conversion took place from 1938 to 1942, and included three types of new marginal markings and plate number locations.
  • Auxiliary markings on Prexie covers showing difficulties and delays in delivery of the mail.
  • The wide range of commemorative and informative slogan cancellations that were used in the Prexie period.
  • The Prexies on envelopes with thousands of different patriotic cachets used during the Second World War.

lincoln_prexyA consequence of getting involved in specialties like the Presidentials is the need for information to explain the things you have found, and to inform your search for new material. Essential to every Prexie collector is the book by Roland Rustad, titled The Prexies, released by the United States Stamp Society (USSS) in 1994. Happily, it is still available from the USSS Executive Secretary, PO Box 6634, Katy, TX 77491-6634 for $24 to members, and $30 to non-members, postpaid.

The USSS is also an excellent resource, and its $25 annual membership fee is well worth the cost. Among its active committees is one devoted to the Presidential series, chaired by Jeffrey Shapiro, PO Box 3211, Fayville, MA 01745-3211.

There are also several other national specialty societies that can be helpful in learning about Prexie material; among them the Auxiliary Markings Club, the Precancel Stamp Society, the Perfins Club, the EFO Collectors’ Club, and the Wreck and Crash Mail Society.

Collectors are sometimes a bit alarmed by the idea of leaving the safety of the printed album page and digging deeper into some aspect of U.S. philately. Let me assure you that the enjoyment of doing so is worth the effort, and there are lots of collectors accessible through the societies noted above, who will be delighted to help you navigate the challenges.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Get Uncomfortable

Trying Something New — The Benefits of Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerStamp collecting is for most of us something that has grown to be distinctly within our comfort zone. That after all is its purpose, right? A refuge from the daily grind — A haven from the base of Maslow’s pyramid/hierarchy of needs, worrying about such things as breathing, food, water, employment security, the family, health, getting the roof fixed, etc.

And yet, comfort can be our enemy in the sense that sometimes, comfortable activities morph into dullness if they lack an element of challenge; and once you have filled 75% of the spaces in your album, and can’t afford much of what you are missing, the challenge tends to slip away.

At its most elemental, the answer to this is to simply start working on a new interest. A U.S. collector might delve into the Washington-Franklin series of 1908-1922, which has always seemed especially interesting with its multiple watermarks, perforations, die types, printing formats, etc. Or, another collector could venture into a specialized collection of space-related stamps: the errors and varieties, uses on cover, covers commemorating various events in the evolution of the space program, and more.

But there is another path. What I’d like to propose is that you consider stretching yourself — trying something that is perhaps counter-intuitive, something you recognize is a bit out of your comfort zone. In doing so, you can not only banish the dullness, but you can discover and exercise new skills that have lain dormant just waiting to be discovered. Mainly, as I will describe, this means going out into the multi-faceted world of philately and getting involved! Yes, it can be risky to do this. Not every one will agree with your opinions and ideas. Not everyone will take to the essential you, and you may trip over an occasional person you wish you had never met.

But the upside is that you will be challenged, and you will find new ways of enjoying your hobby and gaining from it. What am I talking about? Here is a short list:

  1. Join a local stamp club and enjoy the sharing of information about stamps and hobby resources with others; who, if they don’t collect precisely what you do, at least understand the challenges of finding new material, using a catalog and finding the right blank pages for your album. This also offers the chance of connecting with others who might become trading partners, and putting together group visits to nearby stamp shows, which most collectors find enjoyable once they have been introduced to the show scene.
  2. Serve. One step up from simply joining a club is to be active as a committee worker, chair, or even as an officer of the club. It is a truism that 5% of the club’s members do the work for all the rest to enjoy the benefits of the club. And the result is that there are never enough willing workers, and anyone who will help is welcomed with open arms. If you have never done anything like this before, not a problem. The jobs are manageable in scope, and allow for learning on the job; often from others who have had the job before. And this is one of those areas where you can exercise talents you didn’t know you had in a relatively low stress atmosphere.
  3. Club By Mail. If you would prefer to do your stamp clubbing by mail and Internet rather than in person, join a national society. We have listed the ones that cover U.S. subjects on page 18 of this issue, but you can find many more that cover virtually every facet of worldwide stamp and cover collecting by going to the American Philatelic Society’s website: www.stamps.org ? and finding the listing of affiliates. Incidentally, every stamp collector should be a Member of America’s Stamp Club, the APS. The benefits in collecting resources are huge, and the monthly magazine will inform and expand your horizons. National clubs also need willing workers and officers. Once you have become familiar with what the club’s services are, you too can be part of the activities.
  4. Be A Writer. Be it in a national publication like USSN or a society quarterly, or your stamp club’s newsletter, articles (be they short or long) about your special interests, your favorite finds, puzzles you are trying to solve, and lessons you have learned, are eagerly sought by editors. You don’t need to be a professional writer. Philatelic periodicals are low stress. Editors are oriented to help new writers put across their message(s), and are happy to work with you. And it is a wonderful way to connect with others who share your interests and have both material and information that will contribute to your enjoyment of the hobby.
  5. Be A Talker. If you are comfortable with public speaking, and you belong to a garden club, a church group, have kids in a school that welcomes parent participation, are a member of a professional group (doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, etc.), you can be an ambassador for our hobby by showing stamps that relate to their interests, with some points on the joys of the hobby from your experience.
  6. Do A Display. Public speaking may not be your thing, but you can still be an ambassador by putting a few pages from your album(s), or specially prepared pages, up in your local library, school, post office, law firm, or doctor’s office. The stamps you use can relate to the reason the office exists, or can match up with a current event, such as space exploration, elections, national garden month, or cancer awareness. The subjects are limitless. One page of your display can be used to tell viewers how to get involved with the hobby: when and where your local club meets, how to find the American Philatelic Society on the Internet, the dates and location of stamp shows in your area, etc.
  7. Try Exhibiting. This is not for everyone as there is no other stage in philately where you actually invite others to evaluate the work you have done; which is to create a philatelic story illustrated by stamps and/or covers. Because of the judging aspect it is often difficult to get people to realize that the hardest part is getting started. Once you have decided that exhibiting is something you can and would like to do, there are lots of resources, starting with the website of the target=”new”>American Association of Philatelic Exhibitors? Many of AAPE’s members like to work with newcomers to help them do their first exhibit, and seeing your efforts in an exhibit frame is a payoff that will give you a great deal of pleasure. And, if you prefer, you can opt for your exhibits to be non-competitive, so that you don’t even need to worry about the judging.

The point of all of this is that there are a great many ways to make the hobby more interesting. Some may involve moving out of your comfort zone, but the rewards can be immense in discovering new aspects of the hobby, new talents in yourself, and often, deep friendships with people with whom you have common interests. And in many of these activities you will also be helping to bring new stamp collectors into the fold; helping to assure the future of the hobby we all love.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Roots

The Evolving of a Stamp Collection
by John M. Hotchner
hotchner If I ever began a column with a subject and little idea what I would say about it, this is it. I’m prompted to think about it by a realization that my journey in the hobby has come a long way from the days when my father gave me as an 11-year-old a packet of 1,000 worldwide stamps, and said, in essence, “Have fun!” He did know that I would, as I had pressed him to let me get started as early as age 5.

So I began what I now consider my apprenticeship as a worldwide collector with no date limitations. And I assumed that would be my approach forever. In 1954, this was not an unreasonable approach. Today, what I see happening is that this is not the way that most who come to the hobby begin. Rather they start as topical collectors based on another interest they may have; be it trains, space, cats, Princess Diana, Chinese New Year, or anything else that might tickle a mind engaged in today’s events or other aspects of their lives.

I believe this trend is equally true whether the new collector is young or an adult, though I think that the urge to collect one’s own country of origin or citizenship is probably more an adult way to approach the hobby than the topical approach.

Worldwiders are a vanishing species, and where I see it continuing to be a presence is in the realm of collecting time periods. The early trend was to collect the first century, 1840-1940, because it limited the challenge. And to hear it discussed, the stamps of this period were if not more colorful and attractive, then they at least represented the time when stamps were actually issued to be used, and the quality of production resulted in aesthetically beautiful engraved designs.

Today, there seem to be more worldwiders who prefer later time periods, or worldwide stamps from the year of their birth, or stamps that are blue, or stamps that feature in their designs a particular type of subject. Yes, we are back to topicalists, who are indeed a species of worldwide collector!

What I have learned is that however our collecting interests end up, they are likely to have become something very different from where we began. There are many reasons. Regardless of how generally we begin, or with what subject, as we play with our stamps, and acquire more, it is only natural that we are attracted to some stamps more than others. For the true worldwider, that may be because of the attractiveness of the stamps, the content of the designs, a connection to family origin or history (to include service in an area under military occupation or in combat), and for other reasons.

For the country collector, usually a particular issue (The Prexies, The Liberties, Washington-Franklins, may stand out; or you may be attracted especially to the Columbian issues, or Revenues.

So long as the bank account holds out and you can buy anything you wish, collecting broadly is no problem. You can add to your collections what you find. But for those of us, in fact most of us, who have limited funds to spend on our hobby, there usually comes a time when we have to decide to focus on one or more particular areas of interest, and to stop spending our scarce resources on things that do not give as much pleasure.

For me there was another pressure to retreat from worldwide collecting. At age 12, I began going with my father to the New Delhi, India Stamp Club. At a particular meeting, the club was holding its members-only auction. I had just gotten my 5 Rupees allowance, and flush with cash decided to bid on a lot of inexpensive India official overprints. Trouble was that in my enthusiasm to win the lot, I did not realize that I was bidding against my Dad. He won the lot, but not until he had been bid up to a level beyond my 5 Rupees. He was not, in today’s jargon, a Happy Camper.

This led us, once he started speaking to me again, to dividing up the world into his countries and my countries. In the course of that division of labor, I was also forced to consider what my slim resources could support, and I ended up with about 15 countries that I really liked. He ended up with about the same number, but countries that stamp-for-stamp cost a lot more. We agreed that we would each pursue our own USA collections — only his would be mint and mine would be used. We, mostly me, also agreed that we would not bid against each other any more.

I ultimately dropped a couple of the countries I had chosen, and again, ultimately, inherited his collections. I have continued most of his countries along with mine; a combined total of 22 countries plus a few that I have picked up along the way like Italy (my wife’s heritage) and Peru because a nephew married into a Peruvian family.

The countries I have kept up have been for a variety of reasons. For example, Poland (heritage), China (interesting complexity of the overprints), France (attractiveness of the stamps), Russia and Soviet Union (academic interest; especially in the period up to 1925), the early stamps of Great Britain (the fascinating number cancellations), and India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh (because of the history they represent and the fact that I lived in the region as a teenager).

For true worldwide collecting, my early collection of stamps honoring every aspect of United Nations involvement got cut down to what I could afford, including World Refugee Year, and World United Against Malaria. And my early interest in number and letter cancellations has evolved into a collection of stamps costing no more than 10¢ with a clear number and/or letter cancel. In my U.S. collecting, I fairly rapidly reached a point where I had everything I could reasonably afford — as a teenager, everything that cost under $2! But I discovered a wide range of specialized material that cost next to nothing at the time, but found interesting. And based on the prices, apparently this material had not been discovered by the mass of collectors.

Among these were the “F” category of Errors, Freaks and Oddities. I could not afford the Errors. But I could and did seek out misperforations, color varieties, paper folds and creases, and anything else from the production process that was defective and classed by most collectors as damaged stamps.

Also of interest and added to my U.S. collecting were in depth interests in plate singles of the Liberty issue, all Bureau precancels, non-Bureau precancels of the Washington-Franklin issue, and Christmas seals — which eventually evolved into specialized collections of the 1934 and 1935 seals.

But along the way, I was also bitten by the U.S. postal history bug, which never interested Dad. Specifically, I found fascinating the wide range of reasons that mail might be delayed through the fault of the mailer, the fault of the postal system, or how blind luck might intervene, such as with a plane crash, hurricane, or pranksters throwing firecrackers into a mail collection box.

While retaining my interest in stamps, the lure of covers has pushed me in new directions: for examples rates paid by the stamps used, covers rerouted because of the exigencies of war, and covers that were used to comply with the social practices surrounding the mourning of relatives, friends and high profile leaders.

Bottom line (a truly appropriate term), my trek through the by ways of stamp collecting has been influenced by financial resources, family and professional considerations, the aspects of specific countries that I have found interesting, and blind luck — the specialties I have been introduced to by other collectors.

The result of how my collecting has evolved is that I went from a worldwide collector to a collector of several of the world’s countries, and in many cases, have delved into one or more aspects of the philately of the countries I enjoy.

Along the way I have made peace with the fact that I will never own the great rarities of the countries I enjoy but in just about all cases I have collections that are over 90% complete, and there is enough variety of things to work on and update that I am never bored. Nor do I come close to breaking the bank in order to maintain my interests.

Who could ask for more?!


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.

Or comment right here.