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Topical Stamp Collecting; A Universal Hobby for Seniors
Ray E. Cartier, Executive Director, American Topical Association

(Part 1)

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Topical stamp collectors are very much like the butterfly. They usually start their collecting of stamps early in their life. In time, they give up their collecting, building a cocoon as they marry and settle down, raise families, and compete for jobs. In time, something rekindles their interest and they emerge from their cocoons, often taking a radical change in their collecting habits. Where they were once stamp collectors, they are now philatelists. By the age of 50, most philatelists have a good idea of what really interests them and are looking for creative outlets to educate themselves in their interests and enjoy doing something that has an inherent, personal appeal. This, then, becomes a lifelong hobby for most. A hobby is defined as an activity which is done in order to find a venue for relaxation. Topical collecting fills that requirement for thousands of seniors. It is often one area in their lives over which they have total control.

How do we define “Topical” collecting? This is a facet of stamp collecting that allows a person to pick a subject, or topic, of special interest to them, and collect stamps which are pertinent to that subject. Most non-collectors have an impression that a stamp collector is a person who sits at a desk, like an accountant, covering rectangles in a stamp album with stamps that fit into each niche. That is not the way it is done in topical collecting. Topicalists create their own albums, usually on a computer. A topical collector first selects a subject of interest to him or herself. This could be a sport, an animal, something related to their careers, religion, or any of hundreds of topics of their own choosing. Collecting is not limited to just stamps. Many collectors collect stamped envelopes, known in the hobby as “covers”. Some collect postmarks while others may collect pictorial meters. Others collect “event covers” that are postmarked for space events, aircraft flights, ship launches, exhibitions and a wide variety of other events.

Topical VS. Thematic

You will no doubt run across the word “thematic” when you collect “topicals”. Thematic is to Topical as Philatelic is to Stamp Collector. To illustrate, a stamp collector gathers up stamps and puts them in envelopes, a drawer, or a shoebox. A philatelist organizes and studies his or her stamps. All philatelists are stamp collectors. Not all stamp collectors are philatelists. When you first start gathering topical stamps you will be a Topicalist. When you organize and mount the stamps, studying the subject matter, and putting them in a sequence that tells a story, you will be a thematic collector. However, you will also still be a stamp collector, a philatelist and a topicalist. Confusing? Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy your collecting!

Who collects these miniature works of art? Recent surveys by several stamp-collecting newspapers show that the average collector is a male, aged 62 to 63 with a college degree or higher education. Research, enjoyment and relaxation are often given as reasons why these adults collect. That is the difference between a stamp collector and a philatelist. A stamp collector accumulates stamps. A philatelist studies either the stamps and their usage or, in the case of topicalists, the subject matter on the stamp.

According to Mr. Fred Greene, stamp columnist for the Dallas Morning News, “One of the beautiful aspects of this branch of the hobby is that the topicalist can collect and classify philatelic material in any way that provides maximum pleasure.” That well sums up why people collect stamps.

Cover Collecting

Many cover collectors fail to realize that they should use a “rag” content envelope in order to keep their covers from getting brittle and yellow in time. Also, the envelopes frequently come with cardboard stuffers which may have a high sulphuric content that will eventually attack the cover itself. The glue on the back of the envelope may also bleed through to the front over time. Collectors are well advised to find acid free paper and cut pieces that can be inserted in the envelopes and folded over the back so that the flap (kept outside of the envelope) closes against the paper. I’ve tested normal typing paper with an acid detector pen and found the varieties I use to be acid free.

The photo corners that are used to hold the covers to the page likewise should not be paper. There are archival safe plastic photo corners available at many craft stores, photo stores and some stamp dealers. Covers and stamps are mounted on sheets of paper that also should be acid free. Those sheets are often kept in plastic page protectors that are found in office supply stores and major discount merchandisers such as Sam’s Clubs. These should also say “Archival Safe” on the box.

What Will it Cost Me?

Because the collector gets to decide what to collect, he or she won’t have any glaring blank spaces in his or her collection. The collector can then decide how much he or she is willing to spend on the collection. Topicalists can spend hours at a stamp show bourse, going through thousands of stamps at five cents apiece, at a dealer’s box with thousands of covers for $1.00 each or they can spend up to thousands of dollars on particularly elusive items. According to famed Postage Stamp Auctioneer, Jacques C. Schiff, Jr., “There is no end to the possibilities of topical choice: Animals, birds, fauna and sports can be narrowed down to specific types or expanded to include even just an appearance of the topic in the background of a stamp”.

The money factor is not all that important when collecting a topic. Each person pursues the hobby according to his or her own means. If a topic, like World War II for instance, is too broad, the topicalist can narrow that down to ships, or aircraft or personalities involved in the war. If the stamp desired is out of the collector’s price range, the collector can look for a different stamp or even a used example of the pricey “mint” copy.

Many topical collectors take their interest to new heights. The President of the American Topical Association collects “Lighthouses on Stamps” and travels to coastal areas to explore the lighthouses there. She follows up by conducting research on the history of these landmarks. Another collector of “Castles on Stamps” has gone to Europe in search of some of the castles she has found depicted on stamps of the world. A collector of fairytales and folktales on postage stamps has traveled to foreign countries around the world, seeking the stories which were popular enough in their country of origin to merit a postage stamp, but whose stories were virtually unknown in the United States. Even though she never previously thought about writing, she has now written the first in a series of books on these little known stories. Bird watchers can build up a collection of the birds they have seen. A lady who retired to a mountain top in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia found that black bears were regular visitors, so she started collecting bears on stamps. Soon, she was exhibiting and, before too much time went by, she too became an author. (See ATA handbook #146 if you are interested in seeing the results of her efforts.) These are examples of some of the side benefits of this form of collecting.

- on to part 2 -

Reprinted through the kind permission of the American Topical Association.


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