Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Terminology - Commemorative Stamps

It's not difficult to give a definition of a commemorative stamp -- it is a stamp that honors a person, place, event, or an anniversary. What is difficult is to determine when the first commemorative stamp was issued. It's all in the definition.

The United States offered a 15-cent stamp honoring president Abraham Lincoln in 1866, the year following his tragic death by an assassin's bullet. The stamp did not have any special markings on it to indicate it was a commemorative stamp, although it certainly was intended to memorialize the fallen president.

Similarly, Great Britain issued the Jubilee set in 1887 to honor Queen Victoria's 50th year as the reigning monarch. But while the intentions were to commemorate the event, the stamps themselves are part of the regular issue of stamps.

The first stamp to clearly identify an actual anniversary are stamps issued by the Australian State of New South Wales to honor the 100th anniversary of its establishment. The stamps are inscribed with the phrase One Hundred Years, which is enough to solidify their position as the world's first commemorative stamps.

Because of their nature of honoring a specific event or anniversary, commemorative stamps are typically available only for a short period of time. They generally have small press runs, because of their limited time-frame of availability. In addition, usually they are only printed once -- once the supply is exhausted, they are seldom printed additional times.

The limited availability of commemorative stamps, plus the fact that they honor a person, place or event is enough to make commemorative stamps popular among collectors. Some countries even go so far as to print commemorative after commemorative as a way of generating revenue in their cash-poor nation. Collectors need to purchase these stamps in order to fill up their albums, plus, their commemorative nature reduce the likelihood that they will be used, so the postal authorities benefit from selling a stamp that will rarely be used.

This proliferation of commemorative stamps led to collector outrage in the early days of the hobby. In 1895, the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps was formed as a means of protesting the ever-increasing cost of obtaining stamp issues. (The society disbanded after having difficulty coming up with a platform and the impossibility of getting it enforced)

Today, most collectors prefer commemorative stamps. Usually the stamps are rarer, more attractive, and more desirable to the general public than the workhorse definitive stamps that the postal authorities use.

Previous Terminology Topic:

2 comments:

Joshua McGee said...

Today, most collectors prefer commemorative stamps. Usually the stamps are rarer, more attractive, and more desirable to the general public than the workhorse definitive stamps that the postal authorities use.

I might take exception to that. Certainly most novice collectors prefer commemorative stamps, but the workhorse stamps hide worlds of complexity, variation, and study. Just because it looks boring, doesn't mean it's not fascinating! Honestly, open a catalogue, point to a random definitive stamp, and you could spend your life researching just that one stamp. This is rarely possible with commemoratives, which are printed once (as mentioned) and therefore rarely change.

If you ever hear someone say they are a specialist on one stamp, dollars to donuts says they're a specialist on a definitive -- the "quiet excitement" workhorse of philately!

Tony Servies said...

Point well made regarding novice vs. advanced collectors or specialists.