How to Use a Catalog
to Identify and Sort Your Stamps
Sooner or later you will want to organize an unidentified group of stamps, either for your own collection or for sale or
Organizing or sorting stamps means identifying them according to the standard classification systems used in the philatelic
hobby; namely, according to the country of their origin, and then by their assigned number in whatever stamp catalogue you
prefer to use. This article refers mainly to the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, but most of the statements are true
for the other major worldwide catalogues, also.
If you have stamps from more than one country, first sort them according to countryGreat Britain does not put its name
on its stamps. Some countries put their name in both the native language country name and in English. Each volume of Scott
has a useful "Illustrated Identifier" in the back, with words and pictures to help you translate the country names and other
words on your stamps. If your stamps do not have a country name, and do not have a crowned head identifying them as British,
they could be any number of things - a stamplike label, not a postage stamp at all, or a revenue, that is, a stamplike item
that showed payment of a tax or other fiscal transaction, or some other thing. Set the problem items aside and worry about
Next, sort your country group according to the design on the stamps, and weed out the duplicates. You can decide later
which example(s) to keep, but you only need one of each different design to look at while finding the catalogue listing. Pick
out the stamps that are not "regular" postage: that is, postage due stamps, air mail stamps, semi-postal stamps, etc. All
of these "special" stamps are listed at the end of each country in Scott.
Air mail stamps will say air mail (or avion, aero, or luft) on them, according to the language. The newest U.S. air mail
stamps only have a picture of a stylized aircraft. Semi-postals usually have what looks like a little math problem on them:
one number + another number. The first number is the postage and the second is the extra fee being collected for a charity
or other special cause. (Exception: The U.S. Breast Cancer semi-postal fee was invisible - the stamp did not indicate the
combined sum of postage and contribution, and is listed in the catalogue in chronological order with the regular stamps.)
A few countries print on the stamps the year-date of when the stamp was issued. If there is no date on the stamp to make
it easy to find it in the chronological lists in the catalogue, you have to look for other clues.
If the stamp is showing Santa Claus, a decorated tree, or a religious symbol of a holiday scene, most people will recognize
it as a Christmas holiday stamp. As in the U.S., most countries' Christmas stamps are issued sometime in October, so check
the October issue-date listings for that country to find that particular stamp. Stamps for the Asian new year usually appear
in December or January - it will be easy to see what issuing pattern the country you are working with follows. Stamps honoring
anniversaries of historical events can be dated with a little bit of math: the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery works
out to 1992, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor would be 1991, and so on.
It's more difficult when you have a pile of stamps depicting unknown people, flowers, animals, etc. Also, unlike commemorative
stamps, which usually have a picture, definitive stamps ("basic" stamps intended to cover a certain postal rate) can be difficult
because they may have very simple designs, sometimes just a numeral or a coat of arms.
The denomination on the stamp may help you to find it in the catalogue. A very general rule is that most stamps are postally
used within the country that issued them, and the most common use of stamps is for letters. So, there will be more stamps
issued to meet the current domestic letter postal rate than for any other rate. Of course, there will be stamps to fit all
the current rates at any given time in any country, but when you begin checking a specific country, look through all the listings
for that country and notice the clusters of stamps of a certain denomination, and how those clusters change over time. The
clusters will show the domestic letter rate for that period. For example, if you have a heap of 20-cent U.S. stamps, while
it is true that 20 cents is now and has been the postcard rate, and there are current 20-cent stamps for that purpose, most
20-cent U.S. commemoratives were issued between late 1981 and the end of 198, during which time the first-class letter rate
was 20 cents.
This method doesn't work for countries that issue many sets of stamps, perhaps four or six or ten or more stamps, each
with a different value. One of the stamps in the set probably does meet the current domestic letter rate, but it's more or
less by chance.
Sets and Series
A set is a group of stamps with a common theme, issued as a unit at one time, complete in itself - a set of bird stamps,
a set of stamps showing aircraft of World War II, the panes of 1995 U.S. Comic Strip Classics. A series of stamps is an open-ended,
ongoing issuing program based on a common theme; for example, the Black Heritage Series, the American Music Series.
Australia issued a 19-stamp set of sea creatures at different times between 198 and 1986, valued from 2 cents up to 1 dollar.
Even if you can read a postmark of 1985, for example, on one of the stamps, you will not find it in the 1985 Australia listings.
This is because Scott groups all of the stamps in a set together, according to when the first one was issued, not according
to the date when each stamp in the set actually was issued. You have to find the listing for the first stamp in the set to
find all of the rest of the stamps in that set.
Don't ignore the way the stamp looks -- its graphic design, its printing method. When you first look through a country's
listings, notice how the stamps look different over time. Maybe a nation became wealthier over time and could use higher quality
paper and printing. Sometimes a certain artistic style will be popular for a while, and all the country's stamps of that era
will resemble one another.
Be sure to use the commemorative stamp subject indexes that are available: Scott provides one for U.S. regular stamps and
one for U.S. air post issues, and also one for France. The Postal Service's Guide to U.S. Stamps (sold in post offices or
through the USPS mail-order service in Kansas City) has a detailed index in addition to picturing all the stamps in color.
"What is it?" night is always a popular event at local stamp club meetings, so that's another good reason to join a club!
Make some stamp friends and help each other with your mystery items.