The story of philately is one that goes back to about the year 1841 when the first stamp collectors in the world began to emerge.
However, the subjects embraced by philatelists today commenced many centuries earlier.
The Spanish Royal Academy defines philately (which comes from the Greek words Philos, meaning friend, and Ateleia, meaning deliverance) as the "Art dealing with the knowledge of stamps. and principally with postage stamps".
But this definition is too restricting. Philately embraces not only the love and knowledge of stamps, but also the study, love and knowledge of all issues and material related to the postal services from the earliest known times in mankinds history.
The Post in Ancient Times.
To tell the story of the postal service is to try to write the history of the world, for every civilization in every country has contributed something to its development. The transmission of the orders of the sovereign, the reports received from the four corners of his empire, the despatches of his ambassadors: these are the royal posts. Orders, invoices for merchandise and market intelligence reports: these are the posts of commerce. The health of a loved one, messages of friendship, a pledge of love, promises, hopes or perhaps just news of people at home: these are the posts of mankind.
The Postal Service in Pre-History.
The earliest examples of posts consist of messages which date from before the birth of writing. There is a reference to 'post-boats' in the Book of Job that scholars are still arguing about, but there are other, incontrovertible references in the Bible.
In the Book of Nehemiah (II, 7), for example:
"Moreover I said unto the king, if it please the king, let letters be given to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah. And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest ... Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters".
In the Book of Esther (II1, 13):
"And the letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews ... The posts went out, being hastened by the king's commandment, and the decree was given in Shushan the palace".
Further on. in the same book (VIII. 10-14) we read how couriers carried decrees reversing this decision:
"And he wrote in the King Asahuerus' name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, and riders on mules, camels and young dromedaries".
These references are not the earliest known in history. Proof that letters were sent even earlier appears on the clay tablet's discovered towards the end of the 19th century at Tel el Amarna in Egypt and also in Cappadocia in Asia Minor.
Between 3000 and 1500 B.C. Cappadocia (now part of modern Turkey) was settled by merchants from Assyria and then became part of the dominions of Ur. Later the area formed part of the Hittite empire. In 1925 the famous Czech archaeologist, Bedrich Hrozny discovered an important cache of these tablets at Kultepe 'the hillock of ashes', about 19 kilometres from Kaisarieh, near Kanesh. They consisted of small plaques of square or rectangular format made of baked clay inserted in clay envelopes.
Some envelopes were used for filing documents, and these bore the title of the document inside; others were used for letters and had an address on the outside and the seal of the sender. Letters like this were sent and received from one part of the empire to another, both by the king and by private individuals.
They all end with a polite manner, expressing the hope that the gods would bless the receiver. The messages were written in cuneiform characters and their translation is a highly specialized job, but the letters furnish conclusive proof of the existence of a frequent courier service and the watchfulness of the state over communications.
Traditional philately is the study of the technical aspects of stamp production and stamp identification, including:
* The initial stamp design process;
* The paper used (wove, laid, etc., and including watermarks);
* The method of printing (engraving, typography, etc.);
* The gum;
* The method of separation (perforation, rouletting);
* Any overprints on the stamp;
* Any security markings, underprints or perforated initials ("perfins"); and,
* The study of philatelic fakes and forgeries.
Thematic philately, also known as topical philately, is the study of what is depicted on the stamps. There are hundreds of popular subjects, such as birds on stamps, and ships, poets, presidents, monarchs, maps, aircraft, space craft, sports and insects on stamps. Interesting aspects of topical philately include design mistakes and alterations, for instance, the recent editing out of cigarettes from the pictures used for United States stamps, and the stories of how particular images came to be used.
Fig. 4. 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, postal rates and regulations 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.
Aerophilately is the branch of Postal history that specializes in the study of airmail. Philatelists have observed the development of mail transport by air from its beginning, and all aspects of airmail services have been extensively studied and documented by specialists.
Postal stationery includes stamped envelopes, postal cards, letter sheets, aérogrammes (air letter sheets) and wrappers, most of which have an embossed or imprinted stamp or indicia indicating the prepayment of postage.
Cinderella philately is the study of objects that look like stamps, but aren't postal stamps. Examples include Easter Seals, Christmas Seals, propaganda labels, and so forth.
Philatelic literature documents the results of philatelic study and includes thousands of books and periodicals.
Revenue philately is the study of stamps used to collect taxes or fees on such things as, legal documents, court fees, receipts, tobacco, alcoholic drinks, drugs and medicines, playing cards, hunting licenses and newspapers.
Maximaphily is the study of Maximum Cards. Maximum Cards can be defined as a picture post card with postage stamp on the same theme and a cancellation, with a maximum concordance between all three.
Philately uses a number of tools, including stamp tongs (a specialised form of tweezers) to safely handle the stamps, a strong magnifying glass and a perforation gauge (odontometre) to measure the perforation gauge of the stamp.
The identification of watermarks is important and may be done with the naked eye by turning the stamp over or holding it up to the light. If this fails then watermark fluid may be used, which "wets" the stamp to reveal the mark.
Other common tools include stamp catalogues, stamp stockbooks and stamp hinges.
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