When I walk into the bourse at the stamp show, I note several things all at once. The room is small, and approximately 10 dealers have crammed binders and boxes in every available space along the walls and under the tables. A handful of people are milling around the room, and a few of them are sitting at some of the dealer tables going through boxes. And the crowd is older. With the exception of a father and his two sons who come in behind me, I am probably the youngest person in the room by a decade and a half or more, with the median age hovering in the low 60s. Glancing around the room I see a few familiar faces from the local stamp club, and one of them sees me back. Smiling, he nods in my direction and in a thickly accented German tongue offers a hello. His name is Heinrich, and he is the local member of the stamp dealers guild. The room is generally quiet, and relaxing, and makes me think of a different time. I am reminded again of why stamp collecting has always appealed to me as I begin browsing each table. Boxes of postmarks and old letters each carry their own story of the past, and the stamps represent moments of cultural or historic significance that would largely be unknown to the average American today. And the people are friendly, more friendly than any other hobby I have pursued (and I have pursued many), and as a group they eagerly share their interest with those of us who have been drawn to the stamp show but are not regular members of the stamp collecting community. At the table next to me, one of the dealers (an older gentleman with graying hair and a grandfatherly look) almost trips over himself as he gives a used stamp album to the two young boys. It would be easy to assume that this helpfulness is merely the fawning of a business person to a potential customer, but there is more at stake here than a future sale. Stamp collecting is a dying hobby by some accounts, and a greatly diminished one by almost any measure. A grim comment I have heard repeated from stamp collectors in recent years is that stamp collecting journals are the only hobby magazines were the obituary section is always far larger than the new members announcements.
As hobbies go, stamp collecting is an old one, predating sports cards, models, and miniatures, not to mention what most of us would consider modern hobbies such as video games, board games, or similar activities. Even kings have been avid stamp collectors (though themselves a diminishing number). The hobby reached its zenith in the middle of the 20th century (when more than a few of the people at the stamp show with me were young children), but soon after the world began to speed up, and in doing so left stamp collectors behind. This happened for several reasons. In the latter half of the 1900s, people wrote fewer personal letters. First the ubiquitousness of household telephones, and later the advent of personal computers, e-mail, and text messaging with handheld cell phones all changed the shape of both interpersonal and business communications. Among the collecting community, as has happened with comic books, sports cards, and numismatics at different times, speculators began to have a significant impact on some facets of collecting. Postal services across the world also contributed to the decline of stamp collecting. When stamp collecting loomed large, the market became a target of additional revenue for governments looking to cash in on public interest. Yearly issues of different stamp designs and denominations jumped from a handful for most countries to double digits or more. A few smaller countries have issued upwards of many dozens of different stamps per year. The numbers issued increased to many millions per design. As a result, very few stamps after the 1940s are worth more than face value, and even though still legal tender (at least in the United States), many of those stamps are difficult to market unless reduced below face value. All of these things, combined with the explosion of products marketed specifically at younger audiences after the 1980s, led to a greatly reduced stamp collecting population.
Of those who have taken up stamp collecting in recent years, a common theme seems to be individuals rediscovering the hobby by inheriting stamp collections from grandparents or parents. My grandparents all came from extremely modest circumstances, but two grandmothers in particular were responsible for initiating an interest in the hobby. On my mother's side, one of my grandmothers never learned how to drive a car. Each day in the summer, she would walk into town with the three of us grandchildren in tow to get her mail at the post office. While we waited, I would always thumb through that years postal catalog. The stamps appeared so varied and interesting, and the book acted as its own miniature art gallery for me. On my father's side, my grandmother would always save stamps she received in the mail by pinning them to a bulletin board. When we would visit I could run to her room and always have something waiting on the board. For me, returning to stamp collecting later in life allowed me to also revisit memories of my youth. For those who have inherited collections, stamp collecting forums often have threads in which the new owners are interested in determining value in hopes of cashing in on the collection. But sometimes these new owners access memories from their own youth, much like I did, and continue to post on the forums as they refamiliarize themselves with the hobby.
While the number of collectors has decreased, the variation in topics and types to collect is more broad than ever. A common conception about stamp collecting is that postage stamps are what people accumulate, but stamp collecting extends beyond postage stamps and includes a wide variety of revenue stamps (such as tobacco or other tax related stamps), state and federal hunting stamps (such as the very popular Federal Duck Stamp Program), all manner of postmarks on mailed items, postcards, postal paraphernalia (including special stationery), and postal related literature. Even among postage stamps, the extent to which collectors' taste varies is extensive: people collect across themes (stamps that display birds, or baseball, or Disney characters, or only King George), or across years (interwar period of Germany, or US classics before the 1940s), or even across types of postage (low denomination coils such as the popular Transportation Coils Series or airmail only). Some collectors focus on only one country, while others attempt a comprehensive worldwide collection within a range of dates.
In some ways, the very things that initially diminished the hobby are also working to keep it alive. The Internet has brought access to stamp collecting in a way that was previously not available to many people. Auction sites like eBay allow collectors (especially those with highly specific wants) to much more easily acquire items for their collection. Stamp collecting reference material is widely available where before it could only be accessed by most people through public libraries or larger stamp clubs. And stamp clubs themselves have new ways to interact with members, including the advent of the Virtual Stamp Club, which is an online-only registered club with the American Philatelic Society.
So tonight, while millions of Americans will watch the most current reality show or crime drama on television, I plan on visiting the local recreation center for a meeting of the stamp club. Based on their website, it is an auction night, and I have attended these in the past. A heated bidding session might actually see seven or eight bids on an item, with a final value cracking two or three dollars. But generally more lots go unsold than sold, and much of the time is spent joking and talking about stamps and the past they represent. I will certainly learn something, and almost as certainly, I'll leave happy and relaxed. Which is what stamp collecting represents for me in the first place.