By Jesse Robitaille
If you’re serious about stamps, then joining a club will allow you to get the most out of your hobby.
Since 1840, when the first public postage stamps were issued in Great Britain, people around the world have been collecting stamps. The Penny Black – recognized as the world’s first public postage stamp – was printed more than 68 million times and is still readily available on the market. Soon after the Penny Black’s initial issue and with thousands of new collectors scattered across Europe and North America, the first stamp dealers began the search for new material.
Eventually, stamp clubs (or philatelic societies) began forming around this new community of collectors. These first few clubs paved the way for the beginning of Organized Philately. Over the years, clubs have provided collectors with the knowledge, experience and friendship of their members, allowing philately to flourish.
Fifty years after the first public stamp was issued, philatelic societies began popping up around present-day Canada. The oldest club in Canada, the Ottawa Philatelic Society, was established in 1891. Less than a decade later, in 1900, the Winnipeg Philatelic Society (WPS) – the oldest club in Western Canada – was established.
Roger Fontaine, a member of the WPS since 1988, said the most important thing stamp clubs provide is a social avenue to other collectors.
“The main thing is camaraderie. We’re quite a unique bunch of people. Then there’s the availability and sharing of information. When you join a club, you’ll find people are more than willing to help you with the dos and don’ts of collecting,” said Fontaine.
“I’ve seen a lot of home collections – closet collectors, as I call them – using scotch tape or photo albums. I’ve seen a lot of collections ruined by not seeking help or guidance.”
He said it’s surprising how much information collectors are willing to share.
“It’s not like people are hoarding their trade secrets, like in the business world. They will gladly forward on their tips and hints, which is really nice.”
John Salmi, another member of the WPS and president of the Scandinavian Collectors Club, echoed the social importance clubs have to collectors.
“It’s all about camaraderie. We’re all in our 60s or 70s [in the Scandinavian Collectors Club] and share common knowledge of the countries we’re collecting. We also share different collecting interests,” said Salmi, who specializes in First World War censorship markings from Finland.
“I’m more of a postal history guy, so I’m looking at the envelope or the cover, seeing how it was processed, mailed – that kind of thing.”
George Pepall, president of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada (RPSC), explained there is a “holy trinity of success for stamp clubs” that includes providing collectors the chance to socialize about stamps, the chance to learn about stamps and the chance to acquire stamps.
Garfield Portch, a fellow of the RPSC and director with the West Toronto Stamp Club (WTSC), agreed a big part of the “holy trinity” is the social aspect of belonging to a club.
“Stamp collectors can talk to one another. You can meet somebody for the first time, and once the word stamp comes out it’s like you’re long- lost buddies. You can talk about stamps, collecting, postal history – whatever about the hobby floats your boat.”
He said philatelists are a generous group of people – “generous with their knowledge, generous with their material and generous with their time. It’s part of the social trend of the hobby.”
Portch, who has been involved with stamp clubs for nearly five decades, said it’s been an interesting 175 years in philately, with a recent resurgence of stable clubs in the local area.
“I’ve been a part of stamp clubs since the 1970s,” he said, recalling his time as president of the now-defunct Etobicoke Philatelic Society, which folded in 1996 due to lower membership numbers.
However, he said, the Etobicoke club merged with the WTSC after folding, “and funny enough, all those people are still with the club.
“Those that were going to fold did fold. We folded in ’96 because people were dying faster than we could bring in new members. We lost our critical mass.”
But now, Portch said, people are enthusiastic about the club, “and enthusiasm is contagious.
“We’ve got the critical mass, a good program and the people’s interest going for us. I don’t see clubs folding as often as they used to, and I think our club will only get stronger over the next decade. We have great momentum, and I think it’s going to continue.”
The WTSC has a significant impact on philately in Canada and abroad, he said, adding that its board of directors includes an RPSC-accredited judge and five national exhibitors – two of whom recently won gold medals.
“People have reason to come. It’s a good program, and people are catching on to the fact that maybe this is fun.”
He said clubs aren’t as popular as they were 50 years ago, but for the most part, they have stabilized over the past decade.
“I see the WTSC with 80 members, the North Toronto Stamp Club with 85 members, Bramalea with about 60 members – and Oshawa/Whitby sprung from nothing to something like 250 members.”
While there is strength in numbers, Portch said he doesn’t think there will be a philatelic resurgence “to the point where every kid has a stamp collection.”
And while concerns about clubs folding have died down over the past decade, new challenges have emerged, said Pepall.
“What we’re concerned about is people being lost in the change towards technology and using the Internet to buy and sell,” he said, adding that such technology hurts traditional dealers, who provide the stock for auctions and shows.
“We rely on those dealers to pay the fees that we need to rent the hall. If they can’t sell as much and decide to pack it in, it has a negative impact. They are the backbone of Organized Philately.”
The recent strength of local clubs is also seen with the Greater Toronto Area Philatelic Alliance (GTAPA), which counts 15 member clubs from as far away as Collingwood and Kawartha Lakes.
“We’re getting clubs from outside the GTA joining us. We’re going to see some new clubs coming in, and I truly believe some of them will come to the forefront,” said Portch, who was a founding member of the GTAPA. “Whitby is coming back, and Kawartha – a little holy terror with about 100 members – is a wonderful club with a good, strong program. It’s attracting others.”
Another GTAPA member is the WTSC’s Machin Study Group, which meets monthly to discuss the Machin series of definitive stamps used throughout the United Kingdom since 1967.
“We attract people from quite a few other stamp clubs because this kind of discussion isn’t offered in many other places,” said Portch.
About 20 people attended the group’s first meeting in 2011. Since then, interest in the group has remained strong.
“We all knew just about nothing. We didn’t know where to go, but we figured with six or seven people looking we’d find something. All I can tell you is at the end of the four years we know a hell of a lot more than when we started.”
However, Portch said, they’re always learning something new about the Machin series, which he claims are “easy to collect but tough to identify.
“We’re still in this age of discovery, as it were, but with that number of people, you’re bound to get some gems of information once in a while. Everyone offers something; no one gets a free ride. These are the things that come out of the hobby.”
Portch said the Machin group offers one of the prime benefits of joining a club – education.
“I think first is education. I feel sorry for anyone who tries to collect on their own at home. I know I did before I joined,” he said, adding that there’s more to collecting than buying and reading catalogues.
“The catalogues don’t tell you anything – they just list what’s there – so you need the education behind it. You have to understand the stamps or else you’re just accumulating – buying things you shouldn’t, paying too much. If you can learn through osmosis – asking questions, all that – you’ll pick up on things.”
Pepall likened the phenomenon of philatelic learning to teleportation – or “travelling a long distance through the imagination,” as he said.
“Stamps have the capacity to spark the imaginations of children and older people alike. So many of us agree that history, art, geography and language come to us through our stamp collections. It’s a form of learning that’s not textbookish or schoolish. You learn your own way, on your own time and at your own expense.”
And after learning about how the hobby works, clubs will also help their members find new material, Portch said.
“Once you’re in, you’ll find a big thing is the ability to get the material. The acquisition and disposition of material for your collection is a huge aspect.”
For this reason, Portch said, the WTSC regularly hosts auctions, which average more than 100 lots of diverse material each.
Another benefit of belonging to a club is the care provided to older members.
“People have to take care of people, and we certainly have to keep in touch with our senior members. We end up staying in touch with those who aren’t physically able to continue with the hobby.”
Portch spoke of one member who recently won a medal for his collection at a RCPS exhibition.
“Every now and then, we bring his material down and exhibit it. He’s still enjoying his hobby as a member of the club and stays in touch. One of the huge things about Organized Philately is that we – not just us, but any club – are able to take care of its senior members or even younger members in time of need.”
Pepall said the RCPS also accommodates its older members.
“We’re trying to offer more weekday and weekend events as we recognize many entry-level collectors aren’t younger. Many people come to the hobby as retirement nears,” he said.
“They have a little money and some free time, and this is an opportunity to explore a hobby they’ve heard about their entire lives. We need to take advantage and appeal to that demographic.”
Portch said the key to survival for any stamp club is to simply think outside the box.
“I hate that phrase, but everyone knows what I mean. You can’t just sit there and beat gums and have business meetings. People don’t want meetings – they want something meaningful. Clubs have to think hard about their mission. What will make people come? What will make you get up off your butt on a Tuesday night in minus-20-degree weather to come to my stamp club?
“We’ve gotta give people something to believe in.”