Thematic Postage Stamp Collecting


Elephant on Postage StampBy D. J. McAdam

Decades ago, when I began collecting stamps, thematic stamp collecting was looked on as a rather “unserious” way of approaching the hobby, and received little respect.  To some extent, that attitude has since changed, and thematic stamp collections can at the very least provide enjoyable side excursions for the devoted philatelist.

What is Meant By “Thematic” Stamp Collecting?

When the hobby of philately was new, collectors simply collected stamps.  There was no need to specialize, or focus one’s collecting interests on a particular area because, quite simply, there were not that many postage stamps to be collected.  Obviously, this situation did not last long.  Once it no longer seemed practical to attempt to collect everything, stamp collectors began to limit their areas of interest, usually to a specific country, geographical region, or political grouping (e.g., British Empire).  Those who have attempted to remain worldwide collectors have usually at least restricted themselves to a particular time period, such as pre-1940.  Other divisions have followed.

Who it was who first had the idea of collecting stamps by design theme – say, postage stamp designs depicting trains, or stamps depicting birds – is unknown to me, but he or she was certainly a clever person. 

Benefits of Thematic Stamp Collecting

The primary attraction of thematic stamp collecting is that one gets to combine two interests into one.  If, for example, one is an avid chess player, and also an avid stamp collector, then why not collect postage stamps depicting chess pieces?  There is virtually no end to the various themes people have chosen to collect, ranging from various modes of transportation (airplanes, trains, ships, automobiles) to professions (legal, medical, military), to various subdivisions of flora and fauna (flowers, birds, mammals) to such areas as religion and outer space. 

Thematic stamp collecting can also be a great deal of fun.  One rarely wrangles with watermark and perforation issues, and the stamps themselves are, by their very nature, usually quite attractive.  In many cases, thematic collecting can be done on a very reasonable budget, since one need not chase rarities or, for that matter, have any goal whatsoever related to “completeness.”

The Drawbacks

Drawbacks associated with thematic stamp collecting often depend on an individual’s perspective.  Many thematic stamps would qualify as “wallpaper,” the term for postage stamps issued primarily to be sold to stamp collectors, as opposed to filling a legitimate postal need.  Many thematic stamps are issued by countries that have little or nothing to do with the events commemorated on the stamps.  Did Hungary and Dominica, for example, really feel a need to commemorate the Apollo 11 Space Mission, or did they just want to sell stamps? 

Not surprisingly, thematic stamp collections are more difficult to sell for a reasonable sum than, say, a collection of classic postage stamps from a major country.  Basically, one builds a thematic stamp collection purely for personal enjoyment, which is hardly a terrible thing.

A Note on Terminology

The term “thematic” is in favor in most English-speaking countries except for the United States, where such activity is more often referred to as “topical” stamp collecting.  I personally much prefer “thematic” over “topical,” feeling as I do that ointments may be topical but stamp collections never should be, but do not seek to change anyone’s opinion on this matter.



The primary resource for American thematic collectors is the American Topical Association, which has existed since 1949, hosts shows, and issues a bi-monthly journal. 

The American Philatelic Association has gone, over the decades, from ignoring thematic collectors to embracing them, and of course is the primary philatelic organization in the United States.

See also:

Abraham Lincoln on Postage Stamps

Cars on Stamps

Gems on Postage Stamps

Religious Philately at


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