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Commemorative collection

June 4, 2010

Stamp collecting is one of the world’s most popular hobbies, with estimates of the number of collectors ranging up to 20 million in the USA alone. The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in the UK in 1840 and pictured a young Queen Victoria. Today a complete worldwide collection of stamps would be enormous, running to thousands of volumes, and incredibly expensive to acquire. Therefore many collectors limit their scope to particular types of stamps, with one of the more popular collecting areas being the commemorative stamp.

A commemorative stamp is issued to honour or commemorate a place, event or person. Most postal services in the world issue several such stamps each year, often holding first day of issue ceremonies at locations connected with the subjects.

In 1866 the Post Office Department, now the US Postal Service, issued what is considered to be the USA’s first commemorative stamp – the 15-cent Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was the first person pictured on a US postage stamp since they were first issued in 1847. The National Bank Note Company printed more than 2.1 million of these stamps.

The American Philatelic Society (APS) was founded in 1886 to support collectors of stamps like this. Now in its second century and with 40,000 members in 110 countries, the APS is the largest non-profit society in the world for stamp collectors. It offers a number of services and educational opportunities to enable its members to increase and enhance their special collecting interests.

Fred Baumann has been a member of the APS for 25 years and is currently the society’s public relations manager. His role is to promote the APS and its activities, and the stamp hobby in general. But philately isn’t just a nine to five job for Baumann – it is his passion.

“I enjoy collecting stamps and historical mail, as well as writing about them. I was an editor with Linn’s Stamp News from 1987 to 1998 and at Stamp Collector from 1998 to 2004. I collect German stamps and a three-generation collection that was begun by my grandfather has been passed down to me. I also collect Bohemia and Moravia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Danzig, and I have worked for 20 years on a specialised collection of the postal history of the German city of Leipzig, which dates back to the late 15th century.”

Baumann believes that the popularity of stamp collecting is due to its accessibility: “If you have a mailbox you have a source of free, used stamps on incoming mail. Collectors of all ages have begun by soaking off the stamps that the postal carrier brings. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s virtually no limit to how much you can spend on collecting. Two years ago, during our big summer show in Portland, Oregon, we had the privilege of hosting the collection of rare early US stamps, which had been painstakingly assembled over many years by William Gross – a major US bond trader. His relatively small collection had a value of approximately US$25 million.”

A large number of collectors begin their philately hobby with commemorative stamps mainly because they are recent and affordable. However price is only part of the appeal. Commemorative stamps from the UK, the USA, Canada and many other countries are colourful, interesting, and well designed and printed. They are small but vivid items that depict the ambassadors of a nation and its people.

Looking at the more popular commemorative stamps Baumann continues: “In the USA the Postal Service claims that the Elvis Presley stamp issued in 1993 was the most popular commemorative ever with nearly 125 million saved. But in terms of the number actually seen and used by the public, some less well-known stamps simply dwarf these numbers. For example, a little two-cent red stamp issued to mark George Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932 sold 4.2 billion copies. It was so popular that the design was revived and printed in purple when the domestic letter rate increased to three cents later that year, and many billions more were sold for a number of years thereafter.

“The greatest commemorative stamp set ever issued in my opinion was the set of nine stamps released in 1898 for an exposition to celebrate the opening of the American West. Most of the stamps show triumphant tableaux, including a Plains Indian hunting buffalo from horseback and a soldier holding a flag and waving his hat atop the Rocky Mountains. But one – a 10-cent stamp titled ‘Hardships of Emigration’ – shows a desperate, truly frightful scene. A covered wagon has come to a stop on the American plains. One of the wagon’s team of two horses lies motionless on the ground. As his wife and four children look on, the father of the family is bent over, revolver in hand, about to end the animal’s misery. But you quickly realise that the death of the horse may mean the death of the family as well – stragglers lost in a vast sea of grass, in Indian territory and unable to move on. It brings home the very real life-and-death challenges faced by the pioneers.”

In most nations there are often heated debates over who or what should be honoured on a postage stamp. Subject criteria differ from country to country. In India, for example, stamps mostly commemorate individuals, typically political, military or spiritual. In the UK and Canada they commonly honour places or things, including important works, institutions and organisations. Baumann concludes: “Times and tastes change. The UK produced the world’s first adhesive postage stamp in 1840, but didn’t get around to honouring Shakespeare until 1964. But in 2005 it had stamps saluting Inspector Morse, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Paddington Bear!”

So how is it decided what or who deserves to be honoured on a postage stamp? The USPS’s Stamp Services department is tasked with doing exactly that. The department’s other responsibilities include fulfilling mail order requests from the USA Philatelic catalogue, printing and distributing stamps, and developing and producing philatelic products. The department also manages the USPS’s involvement with the APS and the American Stamp Dealers Association.

Terry McCaffrey, manager of Stamp Development, has been with the USPS for almost 39 years – the last 19 of which have been in the Stamp Services department. He was the first graphic designer hired by the USPS and in his role as manager his main task is to oversee the design of all postage stamps and stationery items. McCaffrey also oversees the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), which is an independent body of outside professionals who are appointed by the Postmaster General to review and select stamp subjects and designs on his behalf.

McCaffrey explains more: “Each year our office receives in excess of 50,000 letters from the American public regarding stamps and stamp subjects. In that mix of letters are thousands of requests for new stamp ideas. My workforce is tasked with reading all this mail and identifying subjects that meet the criteria that has been established by the CSAC for stamp subjects. If the subject does meet these criteria it is reviewed at the next quarterly CSAC meeting. Normal stamp development takes approximately two to three years.”

For the USPS there are 12 different criteria guiding subject selection. These criteria include:

• It is a general policy that US postage stamps and stationery will primarily feature American or American-related subjects.

• No living person shall be honoured by portrayal on US postage.

• Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.

• Commemorative stamps or postal stationery items honouring individuals will usually be issued on, or in conjunction with, significant anniversaries of their birth.

• Only events, persons, and themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration.

• No stamp shall be considered for issuance if one treating the same subject has been issued in the past 50 years.

One subject that met and exceeded all these criteria was Elvis Presley. McCaffrey comments: “This stamp was issued in 1993 and no one has surpassed him to this point – Elvis is still the king. We produced 500 million of these stamps and all of them were sold. Even though there is no exact way of proving actual retention of stamps by collectors, we have estimated that 125 million Elvis stamps were retained by collectors and fans, resulting in stamp retention revenue of US$26 million.

“I consider all the stamps I have been involved with as my children and I love each and every one in their own way. However if I were pressed to choose one it would be the Breast Cancer Research semipostal stamp [one issued to raise money for a specific purpose, such as a charitable cause, and sold above the cost of postage] we issued in 1998. Apart from an exquisite design and illustration of a difficult subject to graphically portray, this image has resonated for the past 10 years and has generated over US$160 million for Breast Cancer Research. There are many other designs that I love for their design, illustration, or subject, but I think the Breast Cancer semipostal is a winner on all levels,” he adds.

Some people argue that the future of stamp collecting is bleak. The increased use of the internet for our postal needs is causing a decline in mail volumes and therefore fewer stamps being used. However the telephone was a revolutionary alternative to physical mail when introduced in the 19th century yet it did not spell the end of mail. In fact the internet has opened up new opportunities for the hobby, including increasing awareness to people who have never been exposed to it before.

McCaffrey concludes: “While we understand the new role of the internet and email and how it has, and will continue, to impact on the mail system, we feel there will always be a role for stamps and stamp collecting. We are adapting to the times and are focusing on identifying and producing subjects and designs that the public are interested in, all the while, ensuring that we maintain the integrity of the programme.”

Herman Herst

One of the world’s most revered stamp dealers, auctioneers and collectors was Herman (Pat) Herst Jr. His interests in philately began at just seven-years-old when a tricolour Barbados stamp showing a ship caught his eye in a Manhattan store window.

Herst set up his first shop in 1935 on Nassau Street where he began holding auctions. This office became such a popular gathering spot for stamp enthusiasts that he closed it in 1945 and moved to Shrub Oak in New York State to try to get more work done.

Back then there were no mail deliveries from Friday to Monday. Therefore in 1953, having discovered an obscure 1862 law that allowed supplemental services, Herst opened a private mail service using his children and his German Shepard, Alfie, to deliver the mail for two cents a letter.

During his lifetime Herst belonged to 81 stamp clubs, wrote 18 books and thousands of columns about stamp news, gave hundreds of speeches, rarely missed a major exhibition and made scores of stamp scouting trips abroad. His contributions to philately were so widely recognised that he won every honour of consequence in the USA, including the American Philatelic Society’s Luff award.

His first book Nassau Street was inspired by a chance delivery in his younger years to a millionaire stamp dealer on Nassau Street – then the centre of American philately. Herst died in 1999 at the age of 89.

June 4, 2010


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