Stamp collecting is generally accepted as one of the areas that make up the wider subject of philately, which is the study of stamps. A philatelist may, but does not have to, collect stamps. It is not uncommon for the term philatelist to be used to mean a stamp collector. Many casual stamp collectors accumulate stamps for sheer enjoyment and relaxation without worrying about the tiny details. The creation of a large or comprehensive collection, however, generally requires some philatelic knowledge and will usually contain areas of philatelic studies.
Postage stamps are often collected for their historical value and geographical aspects and also for the many subjects depicted on them, ranging from ships, horses, and birds to kings, queens, and presidents.
Stamp collectors are an important source of income for some countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries may exceed their postal needs, but may also feature attractive topical designs that many collectors desire.
It has been suggested that John Bourke, Receiver General of Stamp Dues in Ireland was the first collector. In 1774 he assembled a book of the existing embossed revenue stamps, ranging in value from 6 pounds to half a penny, as well as the hand-stamped charge marks that were used with them. His collection is preserved in Dublin.
Postage stamp collecting began at the same time that stamps were first issued, and by 1860 thousands of collectors and stamp dealers were appearing around the world as this new study and hobby spread across Europe, European colonies, the United States, and other parts of the world.
The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued by Britain in May 1840 and pictured a young Queen Victoria. It was produced without perforations (imperforate) and consequently had to be cut from the sheet with scissors in order to be used. While unused examples of the Penny Black are quite scarce, used examples are quite common, and may be purchased for $20 to $200, depending upon condition.
People started to collect stamps almost immediately. One of the earliest and most notable was John Edward Gray. In 1862, Gray stated that he "began to collect postage stamps shortly after the system was established and before it had become a rage".
Women stamp collectors date from the earliest days of postage stamp collecting. One of the earliest was Adelaide Lucy Fenton who wrote articles in the 1860s for the journal The Philatelist under the name Herbert Camoens.
As the hobby and study of stamps began to grow, stamp albums and stamp-related literature began to surface, and by the early 1880s publishers like Stanley Gibbons made a business out of this advent.
Children and teenagers were early collectors of stamps in the 1860s and 1870s. Many adults dismissed it as a childish pursuit but later many of those same collectors, as adults, began to systematically study the available postage stamps and publish books about them. Some stamps, such as the triangular issues of the Cape of Good Hope, have become legendary.
Stamp collecting is a less popular hobby in the early 21st century than it was a hundred years ago. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal estimated the global number of stamp collectors was around 60 million. Tens of thousands of stamp dealers supply them with stamps along with stamp albums, catalogues, and other publications. There are also thousands of stamp (philatelic) clubs and organizations that provide them with the history and other aspects of stamps. Today, though the number of collectors is somewhat less, stamp collecting is still one of the world's most popular indoor hobbies.
Many collectors ask their family and friends to save stamps for them from their mail. Although the stamps received by major businesses and those kept by elderly relatives may be of international and historical interest, the stamps received from family members are often of the definitive sort. Definitives seem mundane but, considering their variety of colours, watermarks, paper differences, perforations, and printing errors, they can fill many pages in a collection. Introducing either variety or specific focus to a collection can require the purchasing of stamps, either from a dealer or online. Large numbers of relatively recent stamps, often still attached to fragments or envelopes, may be obtained cheaply and easily. Rare and old stamps can also be obtained, but these can be very expensive.
Duplicate stamps are those a collector already has and are not required, therefore, to fill a gap in a collection. Duplicate stamps can be sold or traded, so they are an important medium of exchange among collectors.
Many dealers sell stamps through the Internet while others have neighborhood shops which are among the best resources for beginning and intermediate collectors. Some dealers also jointly set up weekend stamp markets called "bourses" that move around a region from week to week. They also meet collectors at regional exhibitions and stamp shows.
Rare stamps are often old, have interesting stories attached to them, and are valuable. These are some of the most valuable in the world:
• The United States "Inverted Jenny" (which is actually a printing error).
• The United States "1-cent Z grill" stamp.
• The Treskilling Yellow.
• The Mauritius "Post Office" stamps.
• The British Guiana 1c magenta.
• The British Penny Red plate 77.
Stamp catalogues are the primary tool used by serious collectors to organize their collections, and for the identification and valuation of stamps. Most stamp shops have stamp catalogues available for purchase. A few catalogues are offered on-line, either free or for a fee. There are hundreds of different catalogues, most specializing in particular countries or periods.