What is Thematic Philately? – A Beginner’s Guide

There are lots of different branches of philately that suit different collectors. People have their own aesthetic preferences, along with other interests or hobbies that might align in some way with stamp collecting. This is where thematic philately comes in.

Thematic philately is a branch of stamp collecting that favors theme over other common markers of stamp value. A thematic stamp collection will usually be smaller than a generic stamp collection. Getting started on a thematic stamp collection requires a knowledge of stamp history and collecting.

As a hobby, thematic philately has a lot of different faces. A person can create a thematic stamp collection with virtually any stamp they want to celebrate. Read on to see how easy it is to create a thematic based stamp collection.

Basic Philately

Philately is defined as the “study of postage stamps and postal history.” To do much of this study, someone somewhere must collect and present stamps. Each stamp in the collection must have at a minimum a clear enough image to allow for scrutiny.

It’s More Than Just Collecting

Since philately is defined as the study of stamps and postage and the history of both, philately includes stamp collecting, but it does not have to. Additionally, it’s not required that the person doing a stamp related activity have a stamp collection.

For example, someone acting as, studying or researching the following is doing a philately-related activity, regardless of whether a stamp collection is involved or whether they have a stamp collection:

  • History of the postal service
  • Story of mail carriers, including The Pony Express
  • History of parcels
  • Anything stamp related, including stamp collections
  • Economic activities associated with stamps or the postal service
  • A stamp broker or dealer
  • Academic studies associated with stamps, stamp collecting or rarities
  • Collecting postal service artifacts
  • Museum work that is stamp related

For a function many people only associate with stamp collecting, philately has a wide definition.

Traditional Stamp Collecting

To understand thematic philately, it is necessary to understand the foundation of generic stamp collecting. The first stamps were an attempt to standardize postage and the delivery of mail in England in May of 1840.

Postage For The Common Man

Up until that time, mail costs were paid by the receiver and were a combination of the number of sheets sent and the distance a package traveled. Often, the cost of one mail package could eat up an entire day’s wages for a common worker. To make mail affordable for everyone, the first “postal reform” was initiated.

Under the new rules, mail was paid by the deliverer. It was based on overall weight. A way to show that a package had been paid for was by using a stamp. Used stamps were marked by a postmaster or postal employees with what would eventually become the standard postmark we all know.

Penny Black And Red

The first stamp was the Penny Black, called such because the background was black, and the stamp cost a penny. It was quickly replaced by a Penny Red because the black background obscured most postmarks and the postmarks were easy to cover up, allowing postal customers to reuse stamps.

Stamps As Governmental Statements

As the English approach to postage caught on, governments started to issue stamps that would commemorate just about anything that needed commemoration.

This includes:

  • Famous political leaders
  • Important military leaders
  • Major sporting events like the Olympics
  • Popular hobbies and pastimes
  • Important social and cultural icons
  • Famous architecture
  • Animals
  • Historical events
  • Famous entertainers
  • National landmarks
  • National symbols
  • States and territories

Stamps have been used to make many political statements.

Almost every dictator in history has had at least one stamp put out by the government they controlled commemorating their persona, leadership and “chosen” status. Just about every major historical, social and cultural event has been memorialized by stamps. In the USA, suffrage, Civil Rights, and World War II are all examples.

Stamp Collection Criteria

Collecting stamps was perhaps an inevitability given the interest many people had in the topics that stamps covered. Stamp collecting began very shortly after the first stamps were issued. Criteria for the valuation of a stamp was established over time to include:

  • The condition of the stamp
  • Whether it was on a cover (envelope, postcard, or commemorative presentation page)
  • The layout of stamps (borders, perforation markings, and ink coverage)
  • The rarity of the stamp

There are other value-influencers, but these four are the basic assessment criteria for any stamp.

What Is Thematic Philately?

If philately is the study of postage and postal history, thematic philately is study of themes within stamps. Shortly after the first Penny Black, governments started to issue stamps that had specific themes. This was done for one reason, which was to spur interest in stamps and increase postal revenue.

If It’s Famous, It’s Been On A Stamp

As part of an overall governmental strategy, many stamps have themes and are part of a larger collection of stamps. The various themes used by the United States government over time include:

  • Major sports and sporting events
  • Famous sports figures
  • Famous politicians
  • Famous national leaders (Franklin, Edison, etc.)
  • Significant historical events
  • Famous social leaders
  • Famous architecture
  • State symbols
  • Zoos and animals
  • Trees
  • Farm equipment and farming
  • Hunting and fishing
  • Insects
  • Planes, trains and automobiles
  • Scientific achievements

Over the 150+ years the United States government has issued standardized postage, thematic postage has been popular and a money maker for the United States Postal Service.

Stamps are not all that makes up thematic philately, though. The term also refers to the collection of postal stationary, first day covers, cancellations and any other postal materials that are related to a specific subject.

Personal Stamp Collector Themes

Not all thematic philately is related to government issued postal materials. In many cases, the interests of a collector determine the overall theme. For example, a collector might only be interested in stamps that have state or national flags. Another collector might only collect stamps that showcase famous Americans. A third collector might only collect stamps from certain date ranges.

Other non-government themes include:

  • Foreign stamps
  • Foreign flags
  • Foreign political leaders
  • Machinery and equipment
  • Famous men
  • Famous women
  • First Day Covers

The list of possible non-governmental themes is only limited to the many different types of postage that have been issued and the imagination of a collector. This also means that the personal nature of some collections of themes of stamps renders the collection highly subjective.

That is important to keep in mind because it means that the overall value of a thematic collection might be significant, or it may not. For instance, if a collector has one stamp of every major USA leader that has been commemorated on a stamp, the official nature of that collection plus the rarity of the stamps could mean the collection is high value.

At the same time, If a collector only collects stamps that have flags in them, the value of that collection is generally going to be the face value of the specific stamps, which, in this case, would not be much.

How To Get Started With Thematic Philately

The easiest way to start a thematic collection of stamps or postal memorabilia is to figure out what type of postal articles interest you. This might be a particular subject on a stamp or a specific type of postmark.

From there, you should investigate the prevalence of the type of grouping you have identified. If you are interest in stamps that have featured forms of supposed aliens, for instance, your stamp collection will likely be very small. If, though, you are interested in stamps that have featured animated cartoons figures, the collection will have many entries.

The broader your topic of interest the greater the number of stamps that will be available to collect. If you collect famous American icons, for example, you will have literally thousands of different types of stamps to consider adding to your collection.

Balance Is Recommended

That raises the issue of balance between specific interests and broad interests. You may only be interested in stamps with aliens, but if you do not broaden your interest, the collection you have will be very small.

So, perhaps you broaden the topic to cover famous people, equipment, and planets that are related to space. By doing that, you open the door to expand your collection beyond just a few stamps.

If having a unique collection is part of the goal, though, you should make sure you don’t make your theme too broad. Anything that has to do with space, for instance, will open the door to many different stamps, but very few will have anything to do with your core interest in aliens.

Balance between the extremely broad and extremely narrow theme will allow you to have a sizeable collection pool, but not have a collection so broad it is mundane.

Final Thoughts

Thematic philately involves collecting stamps within one broad or narrow theme. In this case, the theme of the stamp is more important than other more traditional stamp collection criteria like rarity and condition. It can therefore be a very enjoyable and inexpensive form of stamp collecting.

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