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What is Philately?

The hobby of stamp collecting.

Philately is the study of revenue or postage stamps. This includes the design, production and uses of stamps after they are issued by postal authorities. Although many equate it with stamp collecting, it is a distinct activity. ...

(phil-at-ely). (Greek Philo - lover, or fond of; ateleia - free of payment-or tax). The intelligent study of postage stamps and their production. A philatelist is is a student of philately.

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.

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 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.

Egyptian tablets have confirmed the existence of regular correspondence between the Pharaohs and the princes of Syria (their vassals) and between the kings of Assyria and Babylon. One example that has been found is from the king of the Mitanni (in upper Syria) to Amenophis IV, King of Egypt and contains his condolences on the death of the latter's father.

The Egyptians had a system of express messengers known as symmaci who operated in relays. These couriers travelled in the intricate network of canals throughout the Valley of the Nile, stretched out on narrow punts which they propelled with their feet!

The Roman Postal Service:

Details of the Roman postal system, which developed over a long period, are well known to historians. The Roman road network extended all over the Mediterranean area. It was maintained with great care and constituted a solid basis for postal transport. All along the various routes there were two categories of establishment: mansiones and mutationes. The mansiones were important halting-places where one could get board and lodging and vehicle repairs; the mutationes were simply relaystations placed at intervals between the mansiones. The remains of many of these stations have been discovered. One, the so-called Villa of Theseus, lies on the road from Tours to Bourges in France. The main room of this building measures 34.7 by 12.5 metres and its huge stables accommodated up to 60 post-horses. Most Roman roads had halting-places like this spaced at regular intervals.

The National Library of Vienna preserves the only known Roman road map. Although it is often inaccurate, the map is of immense interest for the light it sheds on the Roman postal system.

Copies of the regulations for personnel of the Roman posts have been preserved and these give us an idea of the number of people involved and of their different duties. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who came directly under the Emperor. was in charge of the administraiton of the postal service or cursus publicus. His inspectors, the curiosi, checked on the running of the posts and the strict application of the rules and regulations. In every province or district a prefect of transport (Praefectus vehiculorum) controlled the day-to-day organization of the service.

At the head of each station was a director (stationarius). He managed the slaves who carried out the work of stable boys, postillions, blacksmiths, ostlers and so on. The stationarius controlled the passports of the messengers and kept records of arrivals and departures.

The tabellarii carried the despatches along the routes; individuals could vary their actual routes and their working hours were irregular. The postal vehicles were light. two-wheeled coaches drawn by two horses, carrying a load of about 200 kilos. Their dimensions and specifications were exactly laid down by law and were subject to careful checks. While the state had to meet the expense of the vehicles and personnel, local communities were responsible for the relay stages in their districts.

The cursus publicus continued to function for many centuries, until the fall of the Roman Empire. Features of the Roman Postal service lingered on until the 10th Century.

Payment for Postage :

With the introduction of various postal services, different methods of payment for postage were established. Most involved a process of collecting payment form the addressee. All methods created accounting nightmares.

While some systems did allow prepayment by the sender of an item - it appears these were in the minority.

A study of history shows that the problems experienced by the various postal services over the payment of postage were studied by many with various solutions offered. Laurenc Koschier, a Viennese accountant proposed the introduced of prepayment for postage by postage stamp to the Austrian Government in 1836. His idea was not accepted.

An example exists of a letter sent in 1839 from an Austrian village called Spittal by a woman to her daughter at Klagenfurt. The letter has on it the usual postmarks plus an adhesive label with the number '1' printed on it. The father of the letter's addressee (Konstanzia Egarter) was the Postmaster at Spittal. It appears he used postage stamps to show that people had paid him for letters posted at his Post Office.

Various other means of prepayment for postage were established. Most involved the use of special prepaid wrapping paper.

Sir Rowland Hill:

If the writer Coleridge is to be believed, in 1836 Rowland Hill, then aged 40, was walking through a Scottish village when he saw the postman offer a letter to a young countrywoman: she refused it on the grounds that the postage was too much to pay. Rowland Hill offered to pay it for her but the young woman declined with thanks. The postman went away, carrying the letter which, since it had not been delivered, would be returned to the sender. Rowland Hill had watched what had gone on attentively, suspecting that the girl's refusal concealed a secret. Intrigued, he questioned her and taking him into her confidence she explained that her fiance lived in London and that they had arranged to correspond by means of signs on the back of the folded sheet of paper which took the place of a letter. Through these signs they were able to pass messages to each other without paying the postage, the correspondence being naturally limited to essentials.

A year later Rowland Hill published a pamphlet entitled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. As soon as it appeared, this pamphlet became the talk of the town. Hill proposed that inland letters should be subject to a prepaid postage.

The results of this reform were that on 6 May 1840 small pieces of paper with gum on one side and an effigy of the Queen Victoria on the other, were sold at post office counters for the very first time. The sale received very favourable public reaction. These were the stamps, penny blacks and twopenny blues, for prepayment of postage.

Postage stamps were introduced in other countries in the years indicated below:

The Growth of Philately:

There are two stories in cuirculation as to who became the World's first collector of postage stamps.

The first is as follows:

Stamp collecting has had a following ever since 1841, when the first person known to be interested in amassing stamps advertised in the columns of the The Times newspaper: 'a young lady being desirous of covering her dressing-room with cancelled postage stamps invites the assistance of strangers in her project'.

Others suggest:

Philately, as we know it today, was born shortly after the creation of the postage stamp by Rowland Hill in 1840. The first known collector was Doctor Gray, an official at the British Museum, who placed an accouncement in The Times in 1841, stating that he was looking for stamps. Following this, school children started to collect these stamps as a hobby.

As the number of collectors grew, and it became more difficult to obtain certain issues, such as first issues from each country, interest grew in the hobby. By 1860 there were stamp collectors in society's most notable circles.

The ceaseless issue of new stamps led to their classification, and the first catalogue, by Potiquet, was published in France in 1861, soon followed by others.

Later there appeared some interesting studies and publications on new issues including commentaries on philatelic events. The first of this type of publication appeared in December 1862, in Liverpool England, under the title of The Stamp Collector's Review and Monthly Advertiser. Today there are more than 1,500 philatelic publications not including booklets or circulars which are published from time to time.

Interest in increasing their knowledge and in acquiring stamps encouraged collectors to join together in specialised associations. The oldest known association is the 'Societe Philateliquell', which was founded in Paris in 1865, but which did not last very long. It was, however followed by other such as the 'Philatelic Society' of London (1869), the 'Societe Francaise de Timbrologiell' of Paris (1874) and the 'Internationaler Philatelistenvereinll' of Dresden (1877). These associations were the forerunners of many of today's societies (nearly a 1,000) most of which are members of the IPF (International Philatelic Federation) through national federations.


The first international exhibition took place in Vienna in 1890, but already in 1881 the associations then in existence in Germany were holding annual meetings called 'philatelic days' (Deutsche Philatelistentage) which were true postal exhibitions.


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