By Ian Robertson
“Topical collecting is so entertaining, artistically satisfying and versatile … it can be the panacea for most stamp ills such as sheer boredom, disgust, disinterest and disillusionment.
“It can be taken very seriously as a major collecting interest with extensive research and planning, or it may be used as an entertaining and decorative sideline or supplement to a major specialty.”
This colourful definition, from a Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 1960s club bulletin, quotes thematic collector James McMeen.
This hobby has many forms, and as many similar and different hobbyists as you can imagine.
Some seek one of every definitive and commemorative issued by a country. Others want stamps from everywhere. Many specialists research and pursue specific definitives for printing, paper, perforation and postmark varieties, either on stamps or covers, or both.
Focusing on a topic offers infinite possibilities not limited to one particular country or an era.
The popularity of stamps based on pictorial designs has grown since the mid-1900s. They really took off, literally, after presses were cranked up starting in the 1940s to celebrate scenes and themes in their countries, and to raise revenue from stamps that might never become postage.
Definitives featuring monarchs, government leaders, national symbols or a denomination in large digits were common in the 19th century.
Some stamps, however, depicted themes.
Released in 1851, Canada’s first definitives were the three-pence beaver, the six-pence Prince Albert and the famous “12-Penny Black,” which depicts his wife, Queen Victoria.
Engravings featuring them, explorer Jacques Cartier and the same beaver continued on subsequent definitives introduced before Confederation in 1867. Starting the following year and with one exception, the queen’s image dominated Canadian stamps until her death in 1901.
Although the buck-toothed rodent and Cartier are also considered thematics, Canada’s first true non-definitives were the 16 commemoratives issued in 1897 for the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign. Like her definitives, the “Jubilees” are also a “royalty” topic.
The 1898 Imperial Penny Postage map stamp was the first Canadian design that didn’t repeat earlier definitive or royal subjects. Based on the word “XMAS” at the bottom, it also had the philatelic world’s first Christmas reference, which became a widely popular subject. It’s also a map stamp.
After the release of eight 1908 stamps marking Quebec’s 300th anniversary, postal officials ordered more Canadian themes, starting with a Fathers of Confederation painting on a 1917 commemorative, then one in 1927.
That stamp and others in a 60th-anniversary set were followed in 1928 by domestic topics on medium- and high-value definitives, which replaced a 60-year tradition of reigning monarchs on all definitives.
Subsequently, Canada and other countries expanded with myriad concepts. Many small nations issued stamps with no local ties, including cartoons, especially Disney characters, and stars of rock ‘n’ roll and films.
Some people choose “favourite” stamps based on a design they like, their large or small size, perhaps their birthday on a postmark. A friend collects blue stamps because, well, he likes that colour.
While some collectors focus on intricate studies of a specific issue, there really is no limit, other than a person’s interest, plus having sufficient time to enjoy our hobby.
Mind you, having an adequate budget – and sufficient space to house philatelic holdings – helps.
As McMeen wrote, switching to a topical subject can relieve the stress of traditional collecting.
Trying for completeness can be a daunting and frustrating task. That’s especially true after suffering the disappointment of not landing an elusive rarity that commanded an unheard-of price at an auction.
This hobby should be about your fun with collecting. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.