Is Stamp Collecting Dead?

In an op-ed article for the New York Times, writer Eugene Mayer explains his decision to give up his stamp collection. It’s an emotional moment for him when he discovers that his lifetime assortment of stamps gathered from post offices near and far has little to no monetary value; in fact, the hobby itself is in fast decline. He notes that “the average collector… is 65 to 70 years old” and “the American Philatelic Society… has 28,953 member today, compared with 56,532 two decades ago – a 50 percent drop in 20 years.”

For those of us still writing letters, however, stamps are important. They show where our letters come from, and they hint at a history of the world’s postal services that can’t quite be expressed in words alone.  Some stamps are tiny pieces of visual art; others commemorate important events and people. Surely, they still retain some modicum of value beyond their cost and ability to move a letter from point A to Point B?

People start and maintain collections for a variety of reasons.  Some, like my nephew, want to show their loyalty to a particular sports team.  Others enjoy the visual art expressed in each piece in their collection.  Still others use their objects as an expression of a hobby that doesn’t have a specific physical object.  I used to collect foreign coins as a way to travel vicariously; when I became financially able to see the far-flung corners of the world, my coin collection became less important.  Currently, I collect copies of a specific book – Antoine de St-Exupery’s The Little Prince – in a variety of languages, as an expression of both my adoration of literature, foreign tongues, and again travel. Finding a Ladino (the Spanish equivalent of Yiddish) was a particular shining moment, as it connected me to Sephardic Jewry in an unexpectedly delightful way.

But stamps?  I’ve never collected them. I like to pick out pretty ones at the Post Office to decorate my envelopes, but I don’t take them off the envelopes.  Should I? The American Philatelic Society states that “stamps are a better investment than many other hobbies,” although they provide no proof of this claim.  The decline in numbers of stamp collectors suggests that the financial rewards aren’t enough to sustain those involved in the hobby.

There are other reasons to start a stamp collection. The APS notes that some people collect by topic (dogs, musicians), while others collect by country, types, or shapes.  Perhaps one could gather cancellations – the stamp that’s used to prevent a stamp from being re-used – or other elements that demonstrate the travel of a stamp.  How about collecting postal ephemera in general and using it for mail art or for collaging? That personally attracts me more than gathering stamps into a notebook. You of course may have a different idea for preserving this hobby.

In the end, stamp collecting may well become a thing of the past – or, like other analog hobbies that have enjoyed a renaissance, it may find itself one day as the next craze of a society seeking respite from a digital world.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Warren Buffet, Nicholas Sarkozy – some truly amazing people have found pleasure in amassing a grouping of stamps. Might you be one of them without yet knowing it?

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