“Topical collecting is so entertaining, artistically satisfying and versatile … it can be the panacea for most stamp ills such as sheer boredom, disgust, disinterest and disillusionment. It can be taken very seriously as a major collecting interest with extensive research and planning, or it may be used as an entertaining and decorative sideline or supplement to a major specialty.” James H. McMeen.
Although it has become universally popular only in recent years, topical collecting is by no means a modern fad: nineteenth century stamp magazines sometimes’ referred to such collections.
Early topical collections were restricted by the limited number of stamps produced with pictorial designs and of necessity were formed on somewhat different lines to modern thematic collections. As a rule they embraced far more subjects than modern collections, which tend to be confined to a single theme. It was not unusual in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century for a theme collection to be formed, with one page only being devoted to a single subject or even a group of subjects. For instance, one page of an album might be headed simply ‘Transport’, and on it would be featured one stamp ot each different form of transport such as a train, a ship, a camel, bullock wagon and so on. The next page in the album might be headed ‘Head-dress and would include stamps showing turbans and other unusual millinery from out-of-the-way parts of the world. A very popular subject with early topicalists was ‘Beards’, since so many nineteenth century stamps depicted the current fashions in facial adornment.
Many countries issue stamps with designs aimed at telling the history of their nation. This set of five stamps issued by Great Britain in 1982 concentrated on the maritime history of the nation by showing five famous figures of British history and the ships with which they were associated. The stamps would be a useful addition to a topical collection on, say, British maritime history.
Some very unusual collections were formed in this manner and early topicalists had to exercise great ingenuity to fit stamps to various themes. I remember a visit I made with a friend to Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1947, to inspect the remarkable topical collection formed by the late S.W. (Billy) Winders, at one time Mayor of Coolangatta and at that time still a very active and colourful personality in Gold Coast politics. The collection comprised about 180 volumes, with each page being devoted to a theme or a segment of a theme. Mr Winders had the whole collection, one of the largest of its kind ever to be formed, completely cross-indexed so that he could locate any required subject at a moment’s notice. During the afternoon my friend and I tried to nominate a subject not covered in the collection, but each time Mr Winders was able to produce a page on the theme we had mentioned. We thought we had him cornered at one stage when we nominated ‘Cricket’, since we both knew that up to that time no country had issued a stamp depicting this particular sport. We did not count on a collector’s ingenuity, though, and Mr Winders promptly produced for our inspection a complete collection devoted to the story of a philatelic Test Match. The collection comprised several hundred stamps, not one with a cricket theme but all cleverly worked into the story to illustrate some point of the narrative. Stamps showing conference scenes were used to illustrate the preliminary talks between the MCC and the Australian Board of Control; stamps featuring various forms of transport were used to show the arrival of the fans from all parts of the world; stamps of street crowds and of stadiums provided the illustrations for the opening day; and a range of stamps with sport themes was used to illustrate the narrative of the game. A set of Netherlands numeral-type postage-due stamps was arranged on one page to provide the score board; stamps showing telegraph wires and newsboys tied in with the news flashes from the cricket ground; and the inevitable autograph hunter was illustrated with a 1925 stamp from Portugal depicting a young woman holding a manuscript!
I was so impressed with the manner in which the Test Match theme was developed that I later persuaded Mr Winders to write a summary of the collection. This was published in the February 1955 issue of Stamp News as a guide to topical collectors wishing to develop collections along these lines. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare and other classics lend themselves admirably to the development of such collections.
The majority of topical collections, however, are formed along more orthodox lines, with the stamps being related to the subject in a direct manner, usually associated with the personal interests of the collector. A structural engineer may confine his topical collection to stamps showing bridges, a railwayman may collect stamps depicting locomotives, while a sailor may concentrate on stamps showing ships or places he has visited. The late Theodore Steinway, head of the noted piano manufacturing firm of Steinway & Sons, was a keen topical collector for most of his adult life and amassed the world’s finest collection of stamps depicting music. A close runner up to this was the ‘Music on stamps’ collection formed by another famous topicalist, the violinist Jascha Heifetz.
New Zealand stamps are very popular with collectors because they reflect the colourful history of the Dominion and also show a great deal of the flora, fauna and beautiful scenery of the country.
Philatelists who set out to form a topical collection around their pet subjects would be wise to determine in advance the scope of their collection. An ornithologist who set out to assemble a topical collection of stamps depicting birds, for example, would have to face up to the fact that he would need (at the last count) about ten thousand stamps to complete it - birds have long been a favourite subject with stamp designers. An architect would be a very brave (and wealthy) man indeed if he rashly decided to collect all stamps with architectural themes: they number many, many thousands, showing all types of structures from the primitive to the grandiose over an enormous span of time. Likewise, a doctor who set out to collect stamps with medical themes would soon have to pause and take stock of the situation, perhaps finding it wiser to settle for a restricted collection such as famous doctors or scientists, or hospitals, nurses or surgical equipment on stamps, or even stamps depicting plants used in the preparation of drugs and medicines.
Doctors might prefer not to collect stamps with death themes, but no such reservation was felt by the National Funeral Directors’ Association in the United States in 1958, when it awarded a research grant of $1000 to Dr Edwin A. Christ of the State University of South Dakota ‘to undertake research into, and to form for the Association’s archives a topical museum collection of postage stamps and related materials dealing with death and the mortuary complex’. A selection of some of the very colourful postage stamps issued by the various island of the Pacific reflecting life in the South Seas and the history of the region.
No doubt pride of place in such a collection would be given to stamps which had been used on packets used to transmit human ashes through the post. The existence of such items came to the notice of the philatelic world in 1961 when the Church of England Convocation of Canterbury had before it the following motion:
That this House, mindful of the reverence due to the human body, deplores the growing practice by which the ashes of those whose bodies have been cremated are sent through the post and calls upon the members of the clergy and of the laity to do all in their power to discourage this irreverent practice.
The Convocation took no action.
Just as one man’s drink is another man’s poison, so it is with stamp collecting: some very odd themes have from time to time been selected as subjects on which to base topical collections. I once heard of an American dentist who had formed a collection of stamps depicting teeth. The collection comprised the relatively few stamps showing skeletons or skulls (these would also qualify for inclusion in the death and mortuary collection) plus a range of stamps depicting individuals smiling - with teeth showing. I do not know whether the dentist was able to sub-classify the stamps into genuine and false teeth divisions! Another rather oddball collection reported from Ahericaa few years ago was one formed by an ex-sailor: it comprised stamps depicting ships sailing westward. The report made it clear that ships sailing north, south or east were strictly barred from this enthusiast’s albums. The idea may not be as crazy as it sounds because many stamps commemorate specific voyages and a knowledgeable sailor would, from other clues in the design such as location of sun, ship sails, smoke from funnels and so on, be able to determine fairly accurately the direction in which a ship was sailing.
Some years ago, a London stamp magazine reported on an unusual topical collection being formed by an English woman, on the theme of groceries. The lady in question had, with considerable energy, been able to locate a very comprehensive range of stamps depicting her chosen theme, including tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, butter, rice, pepper, salt, bread, barley, oats, coconut, dates, raisins, bacon, eggs, oranges, milk, fish, tomatoes, cheese, wines, soup, paprika, potatoes, poultry, and more.
Other single subjects which are very popular with topical collectors include religion, medicine, the Red Cross, zoology, architecture, boy scouts, girl guides, dancing, music, theatre, art; literature, poetry. transport, exploration, vintage cars, waterfalls. rainbows, astronomy; space exploration, costumes, dothing. headwear, science, history; archeology and industry.
These are only suggestions though: main fine topical collections have been formed on themes other than those mentioned. One noted American socialite, Mrs Fay Jordan, departed from the idea of a theme by forming her topical collection, ‘a bunch of violets’, around a colour - every stamp in the forty-volume collcction was coloured violet or a shade of violet. The collection was beautifully mounted and annotated, the latter being done by hand, with violet ink, of course!
By Bill Hornadge