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(fĭlăt`əlē), collection and study of postage stamps and of materials relating to their history and use. Collecting stamps began soon after the first postage stamp was issued in 1840; the first printed catalog was issued in 1861, the first album in 1862. Scholarly study of the history of stamp issues and of details including watermarks, perforations, gum, and cancellations dates from the 1860s. Like coins, stamps provide evidence relating to portraiture, the impact of political events, and changing attitudes toward the past. Collectors usually concentrate on issues of definite areas (e.g., the Scandinavian countries) or on such specialties as airmail or commemorative stamps, stamps depicting subjects such as bridges, trades, or animals, or covers with special markings. The value of stamps depends on demand, rarity, and condition. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain owns the most valuable private collection in Europe, and some of the most important public collections are at the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.


See annual catalogs issued by the Scott Publishing Company. See Scott's New Handbook for Philatelists (1967); R. J. Sutton, ed., The Stamp Collector's Encyclopedia (6th ed. 1966).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(also stamp collecting), the hobby of collecting items proving payment of postage, including postage stamps, various labels, seals, and impressions, and postmarks and cancellations, as well as covers (envelopes and postcards bearing adhesive stamps) and entires (stationery with printed stamps). The term “philately” was introduced in 1864 by the French collector G. Herpin.

Collectors study the purely philatelic, or technical, aspects of stamps, as well as their historical significance and the subjects of their designs. Philatelic characteristics include the paper on which the stamp is printed, watermarks on the paper, the size, type, and form of perforations, inks, gum, methods of printing and cancelling, and printing defects and errors; they constitute everything that confirms the authenticity of a stamp, its date of issue, and duration of circulation. Variations of stamps are also studied, including deviations from the standard, as well as stamp designs, for example, essays, proofs, color trials, and first impressions.

Historical aspects include the political and economic conditions surrounding the appearance of a stamp, the period in which it was used, the reasons for its withdrawal, regulations concerning usage, special cancellations and overprints, postal routes, postage rates, writing on the envelope, and the manner of delivery. The thematic (topical) approach consists in the theory and practice of collecting according to specific themes.

Collections may be arranged chronologically, thematically, or according to a specialized area of philately. Chronological collections are arranged according to the date of issue of the stamps and are further categorized as general and specialized collections and collections for historical research. General collections consist of postage stamps and/or entires (printing variations usually excluded) issued by any number of countries in the world, by a group of countries, or by a single country. Specialized collections include stamps and entires, as well as their variations, including stamps on letters and in sheets, essays, and specimens (sample copies of stamps overprinted with the word “specimen” that are sent by government postal authorities to the Universal Postal Union). Collections for historical research deal with the history of postal markings and other aspects of postal practice.

Thematic collections may be limited to a specific interest of the collector, for example, the subject of the design; documental collections consist of stamps and postal and other documents that elucidate a certain aspect of philately. Collections in specialized areas of philately may be limited to items sent by air (by airplane, helicopter, rocket, balloon, glider, catapult, or pigeon), ship, railroad, or pneumatic dispatch, as well as special postmarks and hand-stamped ratings used before the introduction of stamps. They may include meter postmarks (postmarks of franking machines or postage meters indicating the amount paid and the date of dispatch), perfins (stamps perforated with the initials or designs of a company), letters dating earlier than the introduction of stamps, official mail, and letters to and from the field of battle.

Philately began in the late 1840’s. The 1860’s saw the publication of the first philatelic catalogs by A. Potiquet (Paris, 1861), J. B. Moens (Brussels, 1862), and Scott (New York, 1867), as well as journals, notably The Monthly Advertiser (Liverpool, 1862–64), Le Timbre-poste (Brussels, 1863), and Magazin für Briefmarken-Sammler (Leipzig, 1863). Organizations of philatelists were founded in the USA in 1868, in Great Britain and Germany in 1869, and in France in 1874. Such organizations were later created in other countries, including Russia; in 1883 philatelic societies were organized in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Since the 1870’s, several countries have founded national postal museums to amass state stamp collections. The first such museums were founded in Germany, France, and Bulgaria. In Russia, the post office branch of the Postal and Telegraph Museum (now the A. S. Popov Central Museum of Communications) was founded in St. Petersburg in 1884; the museum houses more than 4 million stamps, stamped envelopes, and postcards. Large private collections were also formed, and philatelic exhibitions were organized, for example, in Berlin (1870), Vienna (1873), and Paris (1878). The first international exhibitions were held in Antwerp (1887) and New York (1889).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries national philatelic societies were established in many countries. The St. Petersburg Russian Society of Philatelists and the Moscow Society of Postage Stamp collectors were founded in 1907. A number of catalogs, which later became world famous along with Scott’s Catalogue, were published; they included Stanley Gibbons (Great Britain, 1879–95), Yvert et Tellier (France, 1897–1913), Zumstein (Switzerland, 1909), and Michel (Germany, 1910).

The International Philatelic Federation was founded in 1926. In 1976 it consisted of national societies from 57 countries; since 1929 it has sponsored regular international philatelic exhibitions (more than 100 by 1976).

In the USSR, the first philatelic society was founded in 1918 in Moscow, and the All-Russian Society of Philatelists was established in 1923. The first all-Russian philatelic exhibition was held in 1924–25. In the 1950’s philatelic associations were created in many cities around the country. These associations became members of the All-Union Society of Philatelists, which was founded in 1966. The annual Sovetskii kollektsioner (Soviet Collector) has been published since 1963, and the monthly bulletin Filateliia SSSR (Philately in the USSR) first appeared in 1966. The Catalog of the Postage Stamps of the USSR, 1918–1974, for which annual supplements are issued, was published in 1976.

Since the mid-20th century, philately has become the most popular of collecting hobbies, especially because of the significant increase in international postal exchange. It has been popularized by the postal departments of most countries, which issue commemorative stamps and multicolored stamp series devoted to history, important events, art, fauna, flora, and sports, as well as items intended especially for the philatelist, for example, special single stamps, souvenir sheets (small sheets of stamps with one or several imprinted designs and an inscription in the margins), and entires. The general sale, including second-hand sale, of stamps, albums, and stock books and the publication of stamp catalogs have also popularized philately. National and international exhibitions are arranged by philatelic societies, and intragovernmental and international exchanges are organized. Philately is also promoted by specialized magazines and other periodicals.

Philatelic journals are published in many countries of the world. Journals published in socialist countries include Filatelen Pregled (Bulgaria), Filatéliai Szemle (Hungary), Sammler Express (German Democratic Republic), Filatelia Cubana (Cuba), Filatelista (Poland), Filatelie (Rumania), and Filatelie (Czechoslovakia). Major publications of the capitalist countries include The London Philatelist and Philatelic Magazine (Great Britain), The American Philatelist and Linn’s Weekly Stamp News (USA), Der Sammler-Dienst and Deutsche Zeitung für Briefmarkenkunde (Federal Republic of Germany), Austria-Philatelist (Austria), Schweizer Briefmarken-Zeitung (Switzerland), L’Echo de la Timbrologie and La Philatélie française (France), // Collezionista (Italy), and Dansk Filatelistisk Tidsskrift (Denmark).

In the socialist countries, philately is most highly developed in the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In the capitalist countries it is best developed in the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Great Britain, the USA, and Austria. Unique state stamp collections are maintained by the British Museum in London and the postal museums in Stockholm, Paris, and Bern. Well-known private collections have included those of the British royal family, P. Ferrari (Austria), M. Burrus (Switzerland), A. Lichtenstein, A. Hind, and J. Boker (USA), and Kanai (Japan).

In the mid-1970’s national organizations and other philatelic associations existed in most countries, and there were 150–200 million stamp collectors. There are 500,000 collectors in the USSR, more than 200,000 of whom are members of the All-Union Society of Philatelists.


Stal’baum.B. K. Chto nado znat’ filatelistu. Moscow, 1968.
Babintsev, S. Filatelisticheskaia bibliografiia. Moscow, 1970.
Sokolov, M. P., and L. M. Niselevich. Sputnik filatelista, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1974.
Vladinets, N.I. Filateliia. Moscow, 1975.
Sashenkov, E. P. Poliarnaia pochta. Moscow, 1975.
Basin, O. Ia. Filatelisticheskii slovar’, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1976.
Grallert, W. Einführung in die Briefmarkenkunde. Leipzig, 1957.
Williams, L. N., and M. Williams. Techniques of Philately. London, 1969.
Hille, H. Moderne Philatelie. Berlin [1968].
Hamann, H. Kleine Briefmarkenkunde. Berlin [1973].
Groer, M. Praktyczna filatelystika. Warsaw, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the collection and study of postage stamps and all related material concerned with postal history
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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