What makes a stamp classic?

Mar 25, 2023

Here at On the Ridge Stamps, we sell a lot of classic stamps and it’s a term very commonly used in the philatelic world. But what makes a stamp “classic”, as opposed to not?

Stamp collectors are an opinionated bunch, typically detail-oriented and keen on accurate definitions. But for a term used so frequently in the stamp collecting community, you might be surprised at the lack of clear consensus around what is classic and what is not.

When stamps started being collected in the mid-1800s, all stamps were current or relatively recent – nothing was classic when it came to stamps. As philately matured in the late-1800s, collectors started to distinguish between recent issues and those from previous periods. And now – more than 180 years after the first adhesive stamp - there’s lots of philatelic history to look back on!

To start with, most would agree that stamps issued before 1900 could be called classic. No one will dispute that the French Ceres issue of 1849 or the 1843 Brazil Bull’s Eye are classic. Conversely, no one would regard the Canada 2000 Millennium series as anything but modern issues.

In line with that definition, Michel produces a nice 2-volume catalogue of classic stamps – one for Europe Klassik Europa 1840-1900 and another for “overseas” Klassik Ubersee bis 1900. A solid resource, quick to reference and demonstrating Michel’s usual logical organization. Only available in German, but of course easy to use as is all of their catalogues.

In English, Scott has for the last 30 years published the annual 1-volume Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps & Covers 1840-1940. This catalogue – indispensable for any serious classic stamp collector in North America – does exactly what it says on the tin. With good coverage for that time period, it goes considerably beyond the 12-volume Scott worldwide catalogue in its coverage of earlier issues. (Side note and perhaps a topic for a future blog – I wouldn’t call it specialized – it is more semi-specialized in certain areas and generalist in others– which given its breadth of coverage is inevitable in a single volume catalogue).

Similarly, Yvert & Tellier publishes a 1-volume catalogue “Classiques du Monde 1840-1940”. It also varies in its depth of specialization, but for a collector focused on classic stamps, it covers the same year range as Scott – which certainly makes it convenient when consulting multiple catalogues.

Yvert also publishes Les Semi-Modernes (Les timbres du Monde de 1941-60), in 2 slim volumes, covering the above-mentioned time period. It’s a handy reference and I wish more publishers did this – so useful for the many collectors whose interests extend into the post-war period beyond 1940 but don’t continue into the modern era. Both the Yvert catalogues are only available in French.

1940 is an awkward stopping point historically – beginning of the Second World War – perhaps a better stopping point would be the end of the reign of King George VI in 1952 – so up to the start of the Elizabethan era. Of course, this would only work for the British Commonwealth. With that in mind, Scott Classic continues to 1952 issues for British Commonwealth. Other countries have different natural ends to their “classic” era based on their historical circumstances – e.g. end of the Civil War in Spain (1939), end of colonial rule in French Morocco (1955), and so forth. Specific country albums, catalogues and collectors, commonly use these natural terminations or dividing lines in philately.

On that note, let’s mention a few more catalogues to give you a sense of that – FACIT’s Scandinavia Special Classic covers up to 1951, Sassone’s Catalogo Specializzato dei Francobolli d’Italia e dei Paesi Italiani ends in 1947 for Italy itself (coverage continues into the 1950s for Trieste zones), and Edifil separates out their Catálogo Unificado Especializado Sellos de España into Tomo I (up to 1900) and Tomo II (1901-1939), and so on. A lot of variation, but you’ll see the periods covered in common.

One more angle on this that we haven’t as yet mentioned - classic can connote not just age, but quality as well. For example – 1929 saw Canada issue the engraved 50 cent Bluenose – lauded as one of the most beautiful stamps ever produced. Definitely a classic! However, that same period saw many poorly designed and produced stamps issued – should we consider those classics? Well, perhaps not, but bringing subjective measurements of quality & design into what makes a stamp classic makes things very difficult for publishers, so publishers have understandably kept their criteria strictly chronological.

To summarize – if you’ve stayed with me this long - most collectors (and catalogue publishers) would agree stamps issued in the 19th century are classics, the majority would likely agree that stamps up into the 1930s are, and most would also agree that stamps issued after 1960 could be called modern. (Which if we think about it, is an odd term to use for a period that started 63 years ago…). That period in between is where a healthy difference of outlook comes in. And catalogue publishers have definitely shaped that discussion – philatelists who use Scott primarily versus those who use Michel could have different outlooks on classic stamps.

My opinion? Pretty close to the above - I regard anything up into the 1920s/1930s as classic – but extend both my collecting and stamp selling scope into what Yvert calls the “semi-modern” period. It is a bit of a stretch, but a reasonable one I think, and this way we manage to include on the classic side of On the Ridge Stamps some of those beautiful issues issued both during the WWII period and soon after.

Most importantly of course – is to have fun assembling your collection and admiring it - whether classic, modern or a bit of both!


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