By Bret Evans
In my mind, the biggest challenge facing stamp collecting today is the shortage of postally used stamps.
That probably doesn’t come as news to most stamp collectors and the reasons are obvious. First off, mail volumes are continually dropping. I’m a prime example. I don’t mail more than one or two letters a month, but I do write dozens of emails and keep in regular touch with friends and family through social media.
Even when it comes to mailing letters today, fewer individuals and businesses use stamps. It is rare for many businesses to use stamps since postal meters are cost effective and more time efficient. Even in our personal mail, we are more likely to use special services such as priority post and parcel delivery, and in both cases postal clerks are not inclined to use stamps.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t received five pieces of mail with stamps on them in the past six months, and I know I have only used one myself.
At the same time, we have a double challenge. Privacy regulations introduced a few years ago have resulted in many businesses choosing to shred their incoming envelopes to protect customer privacy, rather than letting a stamp collector or dealer take them home. The result is, ironic as it may seem, acquiring a two or three-year-old stamp in Mint is much easier than finding one used, and even harder to find one on cover.
This is a challenge for the collector who likes a nicely cancelled stamp, and even tougher for collectors who want to compile a bit of postal history. I’d hazard a guess that most collectors started out putting used stamps in an album, and many still like to collect that way.
The almost total absence of easily obtainable and inexpensive used stamps is a real problem for that most cash-strapped stamp collector of all, the young student.
I’m not so naive as to think that the only reason we don’t see a lot of young collectors is because they can’t find cheap stamps, but it certainly doesn’t help when a novice finds out they have to dig into their limited resources to build a collection. In my day, used world stamps were cheap, and scoring old mail from family and friends was usually free.
That affordability made stamp collecting a very viable option.
The bad news is, there is no easy answer to this problem.
We can encourage people to write letters, but that really won’t reverse the trend away from stamps. Sure we can send mail to new collectors to help them build their collection, but we’re not going to write that many letters.
The best solution I can see is to get new collectors excited about older mail.
Getting cheap used stamps that are 10 or 20 years old isn’t all that difficult. Many are still on paper and have an intact cancel, which shows a bit about their history. The diversity means that topical collecting is possible, and that can be fun.
I have yet to meet a child who is excited about collecting by Scott numbers, but almost every young collector today enjoys focusing on a theme. Getting them excited about stamps featuring their favourite subjects, which cost just a few cents, is still a viable option.
Sure getting used new stamps is tough, but there are literally millions of older stamps out there still looking for homes. The future of stamp collecting may be more about looking back than looking ahead.