Cloudy
61°
Cloudy
Hi 74° | Lo 52°

Stamp Collecting: A Dying Hobby?

When Harry Jorgensen was growing up on his parents’ Connecticut farm, his two aunts came to dinner every Sunday. They both worked at the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, and when they came to visit, they brought Harry big bags of the stamps the rail company received.

Jorgensen was 7 when he started collecting stamps and the troves from the railroad were quite a haul. Years later, after he got out of the service, he sold his stamps to pay for his first car. He wanted to squire young women around, and once he’d married one, he said, he started collecting anew.

Now in his 80s, and living in Woodstock, Jorgensen is as engrossed in his hobby as ever and has spent the past 30 years both collecting and dealing in stamps. He knows a lot of collectors, but doesn’t see any young collectors coming up to take the hobby into the future.

“It’s a dying hobby, really,” he said. “And usually, most everybody you run into who’s collecting stamps is 60 years old and older.”

The postage stamp has been around since the 1840s, and stamp collecting is nearly as old. It remains a cherished and widely practiced pastime. But Jorgensen’s experience is universal: There are few young stamp collectors, and even fewer who are likely to become stamp dealers.

Avid collectors are concerned that stamp collecting, and the particular way of apprehending the world that it fosters, is liable to disappear. A nation’s stamps are like tiny mirrors held up to the events and changing values that constitute history.

“Every bit of popular culture is reflected in stamps today,” said John Lutz, a Randolph resident and lifelong stamp collector. “It tends to be a national postcard of what people consider to be important.”

The U.S. Postal Service, most recently in the news for dropping Saturday mail delivery, still receives around 30,000 suggestions a year for what to put on a postage stamp, said Henry Lukas, education director of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History, a Weston, Mass. nonprofit museum attached to Regis College. For example, on Monday, the Postal Service honored civil rights legend Rosa Parks with a stamp on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Collecting stamps, Lutz said, was known as “the king of hobbies and the hobby of kings.”

The first stamps were invented in 1840 at the urging of Queen Victoria, who wanted to expand the use of the post to the common man. Before stamps, all letters were sent with the expectation that the recipient would pay for its delivery. Few ordinary people could afford the cost, Lukas said.

The prepaid stamp brought down the cost of postage, opening the mail to the masses. Other countries quickly followed suit. First Brazil, Lutz said, then the U.S., in 1847, and by the 1880s, nearly all countries used stamps. The first catalog for collectors came out in the 1860s, and the current definitive catalog runs to seven volumes.

Early American stamps featured the head of George Washington, and as other stamps came along, they too featured prominent figures, making them a record of the nation. Collectors have long had this in mind. The Spellman Museum is named for Francis Cardinal Spellman, longtime Archibishop of New York and an avid collector. The museum’s website cites his view on the importance of stamp collecting:

Stamps are miniature documents of human history. They are the means by which a country gives sensible expression to its hopes and needs; its beliefs and ideals. They mirror the past and presage the future. They delineate cultural attainments, industrial works, domestic, civil and social life. In a word, these vignettes give a vivid picture of the world, its occupants and their multifarious endeavors.

While that’s still true today, it’s fair to say that the “vivid picture of the world” that Spellman saw circa 1950 has been eclipsed by the vastness of the Internet. All print material is under the same pressure, but stamps, attached as they are to the mail, face a special threat: With the advent of email and online bill paying, fewer people use them, and children rarely see them in use.

There are other reasons stamp collecting has dropped off among the young. It has become expensive to go to the post office and buy a sheet of stamps, Lukas said.

“When I was a kid, you could go in the post office and for 25 cents get something for your collection,” said Lukas, 67. A sheet of 20 stamps now costs $9.20.

And while some collectible stamps are worth significant sums, relatively few stamps are worth more than face value. When the museum gets stamps from the 1950s, it generally uses them as postage, Lukas said.

In addition, the sheer number of stamps, and the pickiness with which collectors assess them, can be offputting. Unused stamps tend to have the most value, and longtime collectors are often sticklers for the stamp’s condition.

But that’s relaxing, a bit.

Lutz is a member, as is Jorgensen, of the Upper Valley Stamp Club, which meets the second Monday of every month at Quechee Public Library. The club currently has 88 members, 20 to 30 of whom attend the monthly meetings, Lutz said, making it the most robust club under the umbrella of the Vermont Philatelic Society. The Upper Valley club was created by the merger of several smaller clubs, Jorgensen said.

Among the members are people who collect only stamps that depict quilts, or stamps about black history, Lutz said. People can, and should, he said, feel free to tailor their collections to their own interests, without regard for the value or the condition of the stamps.

Lukas said the Spellman Museum’s mission includes bringing in people who don’t collect stamps. Kids are allowed to root around in a 2-cent bin and can take an envelope of stamps home with them.

Appealing to young collectors has also been a project of the American Philatelic Society. The slogan of the society’s Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship — founded in 2009 — is “Only together can our hobby grow.”

As their slogan suggests, finding the next generation of stamp collectors has become a critical issue. The average age of stamp collectors is 53, Lutz said, citing research by the society. If there’s growth, it’s because more retirees who collected stamps as children are returning to the old hobby. A majority of these new, older collectors, 65 percent, are women, Lutz said.

The Upper Valley Stamp Club holds two stamp and postcard shows a year, on the first Saturdays of April and October at Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee. The events are intended to appeal both to collectors, and to people who might be enticed into collecting. The roster of 25 or so dealers present is an aging one, Lutz noted.

While philatelists acknowledge the shaky future of their hobby, they also believe it will endure. “I think it’s fair to say it’s not a growing hobby,” Lukas said. But he grew more optimistic during a phone interview. “I think there will always be stamp collectors,” he said, adding that there will always be a postal service.

Stamps are changing with the times. People can print them out at home, or put on them the images they choose, Lukas said. An engaged couple can put a picture of themselves on stamps for their wedding invitations, for example.

As with other physical communcation devices, as opposed to the ubiquitous digital ones, the stamp might be fighting a long losing battle. The idea of a small picture, purchased in one place and affixed to a personal letter, a picture that says something essential about its place of origin, might have had its day. Collectors are so immersed in their interest that it’s hard for them to describe what the decline, or worse yet, the end of stamp collecting, might mean.

“Every stamp had a history,” Jorgensen said. “That’s what’s lost.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com and 603-727-3219.