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Close examination of the Penny Red, left, reveals a "148" in the margin, indicating that it was printed with plate #148. Stamps printed from plate #77 are extremely rare.

Philately is the study of revenue and postage stamps. This includes the design, production and uses of stamps after they are authorized for issue, usually by government authorities, the most common one being postal authorities. Although many equate it with stamp collecting, it is a distinct activity. For instance, philatelists will study extremely rare stamps without expecting to own copies of them, whether because of cost, or because the sole survivors are in museums. Conversely, stamp collecting is the acquisition of stamps, at times without regard for origin or usage.

The Penny Red was used in the UK for many years, and comes in hundreds of variations.


The coining of the word "philately" in its French form has been circumstantially attributed to Georges Herpin in the publication Le Collectionneur de timbres-postes, Vol. 1, November 15, 1864. It is formed from the Greek words philos (meaning "friend"), and ateleia (meaning "exempt from duties and taxes") as postage stamp(s) indicate that no service charge is to be collected from the recipient as they constitute franking and thus confirm the pre-payment of postal fees by the sender or another. The alternative terms "timbrophily" and "timbrology" are far less commonly used.

The origin of philately is in the observation that in a pile of stamps all appearing to be the same type, closer examination may reveal different kinds of paper, different watermarks embedded in the paper, variations in colour shades, different perforations, and other kinds of differences. Comparison with records of postal authorities may or may not show that the variations were intentional, which leads to further inquiry as to how the changes could have happened, and why. To make things more interesting, thousands of forgeries have been produced over the years, some of them very good, and only a thorough knowledge of philately gives any hope of detecting the fakes.

The Inverted Jenny is a famous error; philatelic study explains exactly how it happened.

One explanation for all the variation is that stamp printing was among the early attempts at large-scale mass production activity by postal authorities. Even in the 19th century, stamps were being issued by the billions, more than any other kind of manufactured object at the time.

Areas of philately

Basic or technical philately, then, is the study of the technical aspects of stamp production and stamp identification. It includes the study of

  • The initial stamp design process
  • Paper (wove, laid, etc, and including watermarks)
  • Printing methods (engraving, typography, etc)
  • Gum
  • Separation (perforation, rouletting)
  • Overprints on existing stamps
  • Philatelic fakes and forgeries, especially the identification of forgeries
A topical philatelist might be interested in which subspecies of giraffe is represented on this 1925 stamp of Tanganyika.

Topical, also known as Thematic, philately is the study of what is depicted on the stamps. There are hundreds of popular subjects, such as birds, insects, sports, maps, and so forth. Interesting aspects of topical philately include design mistakes (such as use of the wrong picture on a US stamp honoring Bill Pickett), design alterations (for instance, the recent editing out of cigarettes from the pictures used for US stamps), and the stories of how particular images came to be used (one US stamp from the 1920s shows a Viking ship apparently flying an American flag, but this was not a mistake; the stamp depicted a modern replica).

One of many covers flown on the Hindenburg zeppelin, featuring a variety of postal markings.

Postal history concentrates on the use of stamps on mail. It includes the study of postmarks, post offices, postal authorities and the process by which letters are moved from sender to recipient, including routes and choice of conveyance. A classic example is the Pony Express, which was the fastest way to send letters across the United States during the few months that it operated. Covers that can be proved to have been sent by the Pony Express are highly prized by collectors.

Cinderella philately is the study of objects that look like stamps but aren't stamps. Examples include Easter & Christmas Seals, propaganda labels, and so forth.

The results of philatelic study have been extensively documented by the philatelic literature, which includes many books and nearly 15,000 different periodical titles.

Philately is basically an activity of reading and study, but the human senses typically need augmentation. The stamps themselves are handled with stamp tongs or tweezers so as to preserve them from large, clumsy, and possibly greasy fingers. A strong magnifier reveals details of paper and printing, while the odontometer or perforation gauge helps distinguish a " perf 12" from a "perf 13".

Early stamps of India were watermarked with an elephant's head.

While many watermarks can be detected merely by turning the stamp over, or holding it up to the light, others require the services of watermark fluid, such as benzine (not to be confused with benzene, which is toxic), carbon tetrachloride or trichloro-trifluoro-ethane that "wets" the stamp without dissolving gum or ink. Other techniques, such as using coloured light filters have been attempted in an effort to avoid the use of toxic substances.

An oddball philatelic cover that mixes the stamps of several places together.

Experts evaluating the authenticity of the rarest stamps use additional equipment such as fluoroscopes. Some stamps are printed with ink which fluoresces when exposed to ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light sources are also used to examine stamps and postal history for signs of repairs or various types of faults.

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