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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Phila-Trivia: 1947 Article on Topical Collecting

   This article was published in the “Pacific Stamp Review”, a New Zealand monthly stamp magazine, in February, 1947. The article is by a generalist collector, who was concerned about the future of the state of philately in the post War period.

   It is interesting because of the author's anti-topicalist stance. The author believes that topical, or thematic collecting,  represents a devolution which threatens the more scholarly approach to the hobby.

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Philately in the Doldrums? (1947)

by M.T. Johnson

Lennie Lower, present-day doyen of Australian humourists, once said that a couple of handfuls of salt make all the difference to a stew. “Just what has this to do with philately?” I can hear someone say. If you will only bear with me a little while longer I will endeavour to show you.

The hobby of stamp collecting (or, if you prefer it, philately) is fast approaching a phase, which is so detrimental to its well-being, that it is about time someone threw into it a few handfuls of philatelic salt By this I mean that something should be done, and that immediately, to stem the craze of what has been termed “type collecting.” Too many philatelic societies are, in these days, featuring his type of display instead of the good old “meaty” displays of specific countries, or groups of countries. Philately is at the crossroads, and unless the matter is taken in hand, philatelists will be as distinct as the dodo in twenty-five or thirty years.

One sees nowadays collections of ships, birds, beasts, fishes etc. True, the majority of persons who form these type collections are also real philatelists, who have specialised in a certain country or in a particular issue. They have only taken up this form of collecting as a sideline, and I see nothing wrong with that. But what of the young collector who remarked after seeing a well-known collection of ships on stamps, “Gee! I think I’ll quit my Australian collection and collect ships on stamps!”

That is, sad to relate, the opinion of not a few of today’s young collectors: collectors who should be the philatelists of tomorrow. What will happen to philately when the older stalwarts pass on? Will the younger generation be qualified to carry on in a creditable manner? Not if they begin by forming a “type” collection. Someone will argue, “But surely one can collect just what one fancies?” Certainly. That’s where the “snag” comes in. But if the present trend continues I still ask, “Where will the future philatelists come from?

There must be a reason for this slap-happy method of collecting, so let us try and find this reason. When people first started to collect stamps they had in mind the acquiring of as many different specimens as possible. As the issues became more and more numerous it was found impossible to try and cope with them all, so they resorted to various well-known methods of restricting their collecting interests. It was round about this period that philately was born, because with their narrowed fields collectors began to study their stamps more fully specialised listings have been greatly enlarged upon, until today some of them are so formidable that they deter all but the stout-hearted. This, then, may be one reason. Is the aforementioned “stage of evolution” being seen in reverse? It seems so.

Another reason may be this: the modern trend of pictorial stamp designing, with its almost technicolour methods of printing. I consider this to be the most significant factor of all. The modern bi- and multi-coloured stamps lend themselves admirably to the treatment of subjects most suitable for inclusion in one of the collections under discussion, and not unnaturally appeal to the beginner. But why not specialise in any chosen “favourite country” and reserve these “subjects” collections purely as a sideline? It can be done and it out to be done. One of the finest collections of the specialised type is owned by a prominent Auckland philatelist. I refer to Mr. Reg Walker and his collection of New Zealand Pigeon Post issues. This collection is the finest of these issues in existence. But Mr. Walker also formed a sideline collection, which he calls an “Educational Collection,” and anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing this amazing collection of facts will agree that almost everything in philately is included. The point I wish to make is this: here we have an eminent philatelist forming a sideline collection, but only after he had formed a specialised collection, which is second to none of its kind.

Here’s another point. As much as we would like to ignore the monetary side of the hobby, it would be foolish to pretend that collections are not formed without some idea of resale value. Surely these collections of, say, animals, have not the resale value of George V British Colonials. Most of the stamps, which go to make up these collections, are of the commoner varieties, and the remainder generally unwanted except in complete sets.

Then there is the question of annotating these collections adequately and correctly. In the case of animals, birds, etc., it is impossible to do justice to the stamps and at the same time to suitably annotate them with the available information pertaining to each subject. Take the kiwi for instance. The bird would look lonesome on the page all by itself, plus the voluminous notes, which would be required to “write it up” fully.

If the present vicious trend continues it is difficult to imagine just what a stamp catalogue will look like in about forty years time. Imagine having on your bookshelf “Pim’s Catalogue, Section I Mammalia” or Section II Ichthyology” or even Section III Ships: From the Ark to the Lakatoi.” What sort of establishment would Pim & Company (N.Z.) Ltd., have then? Fancy going up to a young lady and requesting a stamp from Tannou Touva depicting a yak. She would most probably say. “A yak? That’s an animal. Go through and see our Mr. Hare; that’s his department.”

But to be serious again. A great deal of research (or searching) is obviously required when forming these subject collections; research, which is not philatelic and which cannot be readily conveyed to anyone. Philately has often been described as a minor science, and at least at one famous American university has gone so far as to institute a Chair of Philately, but when these so-called collections are formed the person concerned is missing all the finer points of philately. The leading philatelic societies are partly to blame for this sad state of affairs, as they have been featuring these displays.

I can almost hear voices saying, “But they are the most popular displays at our societies’ meetings.” (Actually I’ve heard that started many times.) All right, supposing they are popular, doesn’t that strengthen my argument that this type of collecting has taken a firm hold on collectors? Even confirmed specialists sit through these displays at society meetings and are content to tolerate them, but inwardly prefer to keep their own way of collecting and, in consequence, are hiding the light under a bushel.

Philately is certainly nearing the doldrums, and it is up to the advanced collector to see that the tyre is steered on to the correct course. Now I’ve started something, and it is up to the older collectors to add the philatelic salt I spoke of earlier. Let us “stop the rot” before philately stews. After all, it is such a grand hobby; so let us clean it all up. A strenuous effort by all is necessary; in fact, it is vital to Philately, as we know it, is to survive.


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