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What does a Philatelist do?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A philatelist is a person who studies or collects stamps. The term is most often used to refer to postage stamp collectors, but it can refer to any person concerned with the field of stamps, including stamps used for taxation and purposes other than postage. Philately dates back to the first postage stamps, which were issued in England in 1840; the term "philatelist" was coined in the 1860s. Many philatelists specialize in stamps of a specific design, type or history.

Postage stamps were introduced by the British government in 1840. Prior to this, most postal systems required the person receiving the letter to pay for its delivery, a process that was inefficient for all concerned. If the recipient could not or would not pay for a letter, it was returned, causing a loss for the postal service that had already invested time and transportation costs in its delivery. Stamps placed the responsibility of delivery costs on the sender and guaranteed that postal services would be paid for their efforts.

The first philatelist may have been British Museum official John Edward Gray, who saved the first British stamps for their historical significance. Most stamps featured specialized artwork and often included historic details about the issuing nation, so they soon attracted hobbyists with interests in art, history or government. The field of philately grew to include virtually any kind of postal memorabilia. In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service estimated there were more than a half-million dedicated stamp collectors in the United States alone.

A philatelist may not always fit potentially preconceived notions about stamp collectors. For example, a historian or archivist who studies stamps for a museum or postal service is also a philatelist. Some philatelists specialize in postcards, postmarks, stationery or non-postal seals that resemble stamps, called “Cinderella stamps” by philatelists. Still others collect or study the stamps used by non-postal authorities, such as those on tobacco products or governmental licenses.

Thousands of stamps are issued every year by governments around the world. Rather than try to collect them all, a philatelist may focus on a topic of special interest. For example, polar philatelists collect stamps issued or postmarked in the world’s polar regions. Other philatelists focus on stamps from particular countries or time periods, or that portray certain subjects, such as animals or famous writers. Pitcairn Island, a tiny British territory on a remote South Pacific island, makes a substantial part of its yearly budget from philatelists who desire its rare stamps.

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Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On Nov 15, 2011

@jcraig - I am pretty sure there is actually a stamp collector's convention held in my city pretty regularly, so they definitely exist. It doesn't seem like people are as into stamps as they used to be. I always used to see the new collector stamps advertised at the post office, but I don't notice them as much anymore. Unfortunately, I have a feeling a lot of people are having to sell stamp collections due to the economy.

I think if I were a philatelist, I would have a lot of fun either collecting post cards or stamps from somewhere else in the world. Obviously, it would be a lot harder to find stamps that you could buy on a regular basis, but it would increase the challenge. Someone collecting stamps from another part of the world would also have a good excuse to learn more about the culture and make trips to that country.

By jcraig — On Nov 14, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I would say for the most part uncirculated stamps will fetch a higher value, but when I have been watching different shows, sometimes the stamps that have been used can be very expensive based on their story. I think that is part of the great thing about collections is the story behind the items.

For example, I don't remember the exact scenario, but there was a stamp that was sent during World War II from someone in England to a famous person in America. The letter itself would have been unremarkable, but the stamp was rare and they weren't supposed to be sent internationally or something. The fact that it went to a famous person only helped the stamp's value.

I don't know anything about stamp collecting, but are there shows like most other things where people get together to buy stamps and other philatelist items?

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 14, 2011

@stl156 - I agree. People are usually on the lookout for baseball cards and coins, since most people at least have a vague idea of what players were stars and what types of coins were more rare. I think most people in general would say they are unaware of what makes a stamp more collectible than another.

Honestly, I'm not sure what the answer is, but I would say like most things, it has to do with the design and how rare it is.

From a monetary standpoint, are stamp values also like coins in that ones that have been uncirculated are worth more money than ones that have been used? What other factors go into stamp prices?

By stl156 — On Nov 13, 2011

Philatelist is always a good word to remember. It seems like it is constantly appearing as parts of trivia question on game shows and board games. Relatedly, numismatist is the term for a coin collector.

Collecting baseball cards was always my thing growing up, but I think collecting stamps would be a very rewarding hobby once you started to do it. Just like cards and coins, there are plenty of rare postage stamps that are worth a fortune if you can find them. Besides that, stamps would be something that you could find absolutely everywhere.

If you went to an auction or something, there would always be the change that the person was also a stamp collector or else had received postcards or letter from friends and family that lived or traveled overseas. You would never know what to expect.

By Ivan83 — On Nov 13, 2011

I have been a stamp collector, or a philatelist as we say when we want to impress people, since I was a teenager. I do not have a globally significant collection, but I have many, many stamps and some which are quite rare.

To many people the act of collecting stamps seems useless. It feels like collecting labels off of cans or bus tickets. But once you start to look at stamps and see how much work and care goes into their design you cannot help but admire them. They really are little works of art and all of them have some cultural or historical relevance.

By tigers88 — On Nov 12, 2011

My mom is a stamp collector but this is the first time I have ever heard the word philatelist. I guess she is only a casual collector so maybe she doesn't like to use the fanciest terms possible.

Even for a casual collector she has a ton of stamps. There is a bookcase in our basement that is filled with binders that are themselves filled with stamps. Any time the post office comes out with a new design she buys a book. It's kind of mind boggling to think of how much money she has spent on unmailed stamps, but I guess most collections are expensive.

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