JANESVILLE—Stamp collector Dan Martin showed off a set of more than a dozen Thomas Jefferson U.S. 5-cent postage stamps used between 1875-77.
Some had dark ink cancellation marks that showed the stamps were used as postage in mail sent from one long-dead, post-Civil War resident to another.
Some showed perforations that were nicked or worn down like old hills. Others looked crisp or almost new. Their hues varied from brownish tan to a brighter sienna color, and even the number of lines printed across Jefferson’s brow offered clues as to the exact year in which they were printed.
Martin didn’t chance a guess on the value of one of the Jefferson stamps, a particularly pristine-looking 1875 specimen printed in dark red pigment.
He and another stamp club colleague, Gary Wentworth, skipped instead to examples of other “definitives”—the stamp-collecting equivalent to “common” baseball cards. One such common is a 1965 Civil War Centennial “Appomattox” stamp, or as 73-year-old Wentworth called it, “a dime a dozen” stamp.
Wentworth, who has collected stamps on and off since age 6, said the “Appomattox” stamps are worth about what it would cost to mail one to another person, if that. To him, that highlights why most stamp collectors never get rich. For him and most of his Janesville Stamp Club buddies, the money’s not why they do it.
“The common thing with stamp collectors is that it’s just a lifelong interest, a fascination that not many people have,” said stamp club member Larry Hammes, 83. “They’re the patient and the intelligent. That’s who is left.”
On Saturday, the Janesville Stamp Club will host its 60th anniversary bourse and exhibition at the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville. A bourse is a stamp collection exhibition by a local stamp club that incorporates the presence of stamp dealers who appraise, buy, trade or sell stamps and stamp-collecting supplies.
This year, between eight and 10 dealers will be on hand along with members of the local club—some of whom will have exhibits of their own collections on display.
Members of the club said the event is a time to try and cultivate interest in a waning hobby, and maybe even gain a few new members.
Martin, 61, among the youngest of about 25 members in the Janesville club, came back to stamp collecting about three years ago. He had been a stamp collector in his teenage years but, like many others, he got diverted by the twists and turns of adulthood.
“I consider it an art form,” Martin said.
The Janesville Stamp Club stays afloat with a few new members every year, but membership never seems to grow. Its plight: Longtime members die, and the club loses roughly as many longtime members as it gains through new recruits. Along with those dying members, so goes a measure of expertise and institutional knowledge about stamp collecting and stamp history.
Janesville Stamp Club member Mike Seefeldt, 72, also collects rare books, vinyl record albums and various other curios. He said the average age of members in the stamp club is 70.
There are other external pressures that also work to extinguish stamp collecting. For years, electronic mail and digital instant messaging have diminished the amount of new postage created and churned into existence.
Wentworth said stamp clubs have been on the wane for decades.
“It reached its peak before television,” he said. “Television came along and gave people something else to do. Now it’s thumb stuff.”
By “thumb stuff,” Wentworth refers to any manner of noodling on a smartphone, a pastime that for some would take the place of any hobby they might pick up.
Hammes waxed poetic about the brand-new 2019 Arizona state stamp—a “Forever” stamp that can be used to mail letters regardless of changes in the price of postage. The stamp has an almost photographic quality, using dozens of hues from different stamp pigments that portray close-up images of a series of 10 different cacti in bloom. One of the Arizona stamps features a scarlet hedgehog cactus with a bright orange-red flower opening on its side.
For some, club members say, the advent of self-adhering, dateless “Forever” stamps has killed the joy of collecting. For one, it can be hard to remove the newer stamps to place them in a stamp book. And without a discernible date in which the stamp might have been used, some purists feel the stamps carry less overall historical significance.
“Stamp collecting, above all else, is really a study in history,” Seefeldt said.
On a national scale, the stamp-collecting game has changed dramatically. In the 1930s, on Nassau Street in New York City, there were 116 stamp dealers. Now there are only two or three large-scale companies that operate as stamp clearinghouses, Seefeldt said.
The few remaining major stamp clearinghouses that buy whole collections “might give you about one-tenth of the catalog value. There’s no monetary value. You’re never going to get your money back. It makes it a labor of love,” Seefeldt said.
There are newcomers to stamping, though, and if it’s not for the promise of striking it rich on a rare stamp or two, the collectors might be coming on board because their parents or grandparents helped stir a feeling of nostalgia for the rarified hobby, Martin said.
Current members say young people who visit the stamp club’s bourse on Saturday can view displays of stamps that include some with local historical connections. The collectors also will have sheets of historical (albeit common and low-value) stamps on hand to give away free to young collectors learning the hobby.
The idea is to cultivate an interest and make a connection.
“We all got into this for the collecting, but the big part of being in a stamp club is the connection, the camaraderie and the stories collectors have,” Martin said. “We just like to sit and listen to each other tell stories and talk.”