History of Stamp Collecting Part 1 – The First Collectors

In the late 1970s a fascinating series of articles written by Mr. K. Kouwenberg about the history of Stamp Collecting, appeared in the Dutch magazine Philatelie. This series has been the source of inspiration for Rob Smit to rewrite the history of stamp collecting in instalments. This is Part 1: The First Collectors.
To collect anything, generally there must be a variety of things to choose from. For collecting to become a craze there must be more people looking to collect the same items. This helps to create a  swap market. For it to become widespread, you must be able to collect items from different geographical locations.

Postage stamps were an ideal thing to collect.  Being so light in weight they were easy to carry and they could spark the imagination of the owner with visions of the distant lands they might originate from. This was also the case for coin collectors, who were busy with their particular hobby long before the first stamp appeared.

The first, or rather first two, stamps appeared in Great Britain in 1840. Within ten years, many other countries had issued stamps. So, by the 1850s, it would already have been possible to build a collection of dozens of different stamps. And, with the increasing use of the postage stamp by countries around the globe, for the collector the search for these stamps could, of course, become exciting. So the craze for stamp collecting was in its infancy in the 1850s – beginning mainly with schoolboys, but gradually becoming more popular as a hobby for adults.

The first recorded reference to a collector is found in the London Times of August 13th, 1841. A woman had placed a strange advertisement in the newspaper asking people to send stamps to her. Not so strange in itself, but the reason she wanted the stamps was to use them as wallpaper in her bedroom!

To collect stamps was certainly challenging in the beginning. Nobody knew for sure what stamps existed. The only way to gain some insight was to compare collections. In 1860, in the British journal ‘Notes and Queries’, an article by schoolteacher SF Creswell appeared, concerning the stamp collection of one of his students.

For the first time it is clearly indicated here that a collection of more than 300 stamps existed. I was thrilled to read that the boy in question had apparently had contact with none other than Sir Rowland Hill himself, who indicated that there were probably only around 500 stamp varieties at that time. From that remark one might conclude that Sir Rowland Hill was also a collector or had some insight into the total number of stamps issued.

Furthermore the letter to the editor indicates that there are already quite a few enthusiasts, that collecting is instructive and a stamp collection is actually a portable museum. The article also requests that someone should compile a catalogue, write about stamps in the media and additionally calls for a shop where stamps are sold. I think Mr Cresswell’s article is unique in predicting what would become common in today’s philatelic world before it existed!

His wishes would soon come true. In 1857 the Brussels bookseller J.B. Moens was already busy buying and selling stamps – and the first catalogue was not long in coming.