"How do you start a topical collection?" was a question put to me the other day. In an offhand, rather flippant manner, I replied, "With one stamp." The questioner looked amazed, so I said it actually goes beyond getting that one stamp.
First things first: Why topicals?
Topical collecting means pursuing one theme or topic relentlessly until you are satisfied you have had enough. That, however, never happens. The ardent topicalist never, never gets enough of the same thing.
When I started my Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) collection, for instance, I wanted to get all the Canadian stamps that had a connection to that famed police force. I did! It was not difficult to gather 14-15 stamps all issued since 1935 and none of them priced over $10 in mint, never-hinged condition. In fact, few of them are over $1. I then realized there was postal stationery, covers with RCMP insignia in return addresses, postmarks, and other items that appropriately belong in that grouping. A little research in the archives relating to the settlement of Canada's north showed the Mounties were postmasters and carriers of mail as well as upholders of the peace. The postal history,then,is as immense as the wilderness of the Arctic.
Anyway, I get ahead of myself, a common occurrence when you get me going on topicals. Why topicals? Topicals are one of the most fun features of stamp collecting. You set the rules. It is not like collecting every adhesive of a stamp-issuing administration. You collect what you want.
What do you want? In other words, what are your interests that are featured on postage stamps? I know several people who are model train buffs. One of them belongs to our local stamp club, so it is natural that he collects trains on stamps. He does not, however, collect every train that whistles at him. He is very deliberate in what he shunts to his siding. When he learns there is a train stamp in the vicinity, he wants to see it. Watching his face as he examines it relates the true narrative of the topicalist. A dark look shows he will dispatch it; a delightful "Ah, ha!" means he takes it aboard. Collecting trains on stamps is one of the most popular topicals, and there are hundreds of them.
The decision on what topical collection you want to form is clearly yours to make. Birds, cats, fish, boats, airplanes, personalities like Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, mathematics, literature, chemistry, lighthouses, scouts, bicycles, chess, Christmas! There are stamps for almost every possible topic. I recently heard a radio interview with an agricultural biologist who collected potatoes on stamps. He assured the interviewer he was not a stamp collector. "Stamp collectors would have a heart attack, if they saw my presentation," he said. But potatoes were his thing, so he took great pride in demonstrating the history and other features of that tuber through postage stamps to audiences wherever he went.
As I suggested above, topicals should be fun. If you set the rules, how can you miss? One of the most interesting philatelic exhibits I ever saw features a Disney theme. From its very design, the presentation is fun, and the exhibitor made it that way. He had fun, and it is now much in demand at exhibitions in the United States. If you get a chance to see Ken Lawrence's, The Sun Never Sets on Mickey Mouse: Walt Disney's Worldwide Empire... make sure you check it out.
For the most part, people collect topicals for special interests in a subject, but there are countless cases, like that of Mr. Lawrence, where the topic becomes an award-winning exhibit. It wins, not because it follows all the rules, but because it captivates with its presentation.
Another plus in favor of topicals is your album. You make your own. You do not have to search for an album to house your cats, your dogs, or your elephants. You create the habitat you want your animal stamps to live in. Most people use a good quality binder and combine mountings with their own home-fashioned pages and quality stock sheets. When I started my RCMP collection, for example, I chose a one-inch binder. Alas, it is now too small. Don't think you will satisfy you desires for butterflies in a one-inch album. Like trains, there are hundreds of them, enough to fill several three-inch albums.
What I like about topicals is their appeal. Once you get nicely settled into a collection, another topical rears its alluring head and off you go in yet another direction. I am now looking at hands on stamps. They fascinate me.
My first attempt at a topical collection was Beethoven on stamps because I always loved Beethoven music. Until I read an article on Beethoven on stamps in Topical Time by a Dr. Hardman of Virginia, Beethoven was my music, not my stamps. I got hooked. I went to an old stock book that contained some worldwide things I had discarded. There had to be a Beethoven there. I found one. My collection started with one stamp. Today, I have over 150 Beethoven stamps and numerous other Beethoven philatelic items.
This is also an example of how a topical collection may be specialized within a topic. I could have chosen music on stamps as my topic, but it was far too vast. I wanted one aspect of music. There are several other great composers whose tributes on stamps make good topics, as do instruments, or musicians.
Topicals are usually not expensive. My Beethoven collection has not cost a lot of money. Most of the individual stamps range from 25 cents to $4. A few are illusive. A very few are pricey. At one stamp show, I had an hour of great fun going through a dealer's stock books searching for Beethoven. I found three. Three stamps that cost me ten cents each. Where can you spend an hour for so little money and add to your specialist collection as well?
Getting started on a topical collection sounds pretty simple, then, doesn't it? But make it fun. If some nation suddenly produces a great number of stamps with your topic, it is not panic time. Collect them it you want them. Be like my train collector friend.
Beyond that once-discarded stock book, where will you get topicals? Your dealer is a good place to start. So is your local stamp club. Remember the old adage: One person's junk is another's treasure. Swap sessions at club meetings are also inexpensive and fun.
Then there is the stamp show. Today, most large stamp shows feature dealers who specialize in topicals - everything from Apples to Zulus. A word of warning - shopping stamp shows is like shopping for anything else. There are dealers who overprice. Know the catalogue value of the items you collect. I looked up all the prices on my personal Beethoven want list. I know what I am prepared to pay, and I know the prospects of getting some items at 50 cents while others may cost a few dollars. I shunned buying one of the most sought after Beethoven items - the September 8,1959 opening of the Einwiehung der Beethoven-Halle zu Bonn souvenir sheet. It catalogues in the $40 range, but I was confident I could do better. A mail order auction a few months ago listed one. My bid got it for $25, so don't overlook auctions. They are part of the fun. Waiting for the best opportunity is sometimes good advice. You don't need to complete your topical collection today.
On the other hand, a key decision sometimes needs to be made or the opportunity to get a special item will be missed. One of my prized Beethoven items, an advertising cover promoting Beethoven pianos, beckoned me at a stamp show. It was not a good buy, but I spent the money. I am glad I did because it enhances my collection.
When you get into topicals, you will want to consider membership in the American Topical Association which will provide you with the bi-monthly publication Topical Time. It is one of the hobby's best publications with opportunities to learn more and become very knowledgeable.
I also have a specialist dealer who, from time to time, sends me approvals for my Beethoven collection. That is a good method whereby to build a collection, especially if you want special items or you are far from the center of the stamp universe.
What are you topical challenges? What is your wonderful tale of success about adding a special topical item. Do your sources differ from above? Let me know. I am prepared to share readers' secrets to the stamp universe. Write me today in care of this website.
Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.