How to Use a Catalog
to Identify and Sort Your Stamps

by Kathleen Wunderly

Sooner or later you will want to organize an unidentified group of stamps, either for your own collection or for sale or trade.

Organizing or sorting stamps means identifying them according to the standard classification systems used in the philatelic hobby; namely, according to the country of their origin, and then by their assigned number in whatever stamp catalogue you prefer to use. This article refers mainly to the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, but most of the statements are true for the other major worldwide catalogues, also.

If you have stamps from more than one country, first sort them according to countryGreat Britain does not put its name on its stamps. Some countries put their name in both the native language country name and in English. Each volume of Scott has a useful "Illustrated Identifier" in the back, with words and pictures to help you translate the country names and other words on your stamps. If your stamps do not have a country name, and do not have a crowned head identifying them as British, they could be any number of things - a stamplike label, not a postage stamp at all, or a revenue, that is, a stamplike item that showed payment of a tax or other fiscal transaction, or some other thing. Set the problem items aside and worry about them later.

Next, sort your country group according to the design on the stamps, and weed out the duplicates. You can decide later which example(s) to keep, but you only need one of each different design to look at while finding the catalogue listing. Pick out the stamps that are not "regular" postage: that is, postage due stamps, air mail stamps, semi-postal stamps, etc. All of these "special" stamps are listed at the end of each country in Scott.

Air mail stamps will say air mail (or avion, aero, or luft) on them, according to the language. The newest U.S. air mail stamps only have a picture of a stylized aircraft. Semi-postals usually have what looks like a little math problem on them: one number + another number. The first number is the postage and the second is the extra fee being collected for a charity or other special cause. (Exception: The U.S. Breast Cancer semi-postal fee was invisible - the stamp did not indicate the combined sum of postage and contribution, and is listed in the catalogue in chronological order with the regular stamps.)

A few countries print on the stamps the year-date of when the stamp was issued. If there is no date on the stamp to make it easy to find it in the chronological lists in the catalogue, you have to look for other clues.

If the stamp is showing Santa Claus, a decorated tree, or a religious symbol of a holiday scene, most people will recognize it as a Christmas holiday stamp. As in the U.S., most countries' Christmas stamps are issued sometime in October, so check the October issue-date listings for that country to find that particular stamp. Stamps for the Asian new year usually appear in December or January - it will be easy to see what issuing pattern the country you are working with follows. Stamps honoring anniversaries of historical events can be dated with a little bit of math: the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery works out to 1992, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor would be 1991, and so on.

It's more difficult when you have a pile of stamps depicting unknown people, flowers, animals, etc. Also, unlike commemorative stamps, which usually have a picture, definitive stamps ("basic" stamps intended to cover a certain postal rate) can be difficult because they may have very simple designs, sometimes just a numeral or a coat of arms.

The denomination on the stamp may help you to find it in the catalogue. A very general rule is that most stamps are postally used within the country that issued them, and the most common use of stamps is for letters. So, there will be more stamps issued to meet the current domestic letter postal rate than for any other rate. Of course, there will be stamps to fit all the current rates at any given time in any country, but when you begin checking a specific country, look through all the listings for that country and notice the clusters of stamps of a certain denomination, and how those clusters change over time. The clusters will show the domestic letter rate for that period. For example, if you have a heap of 20-cent U.S. stamps, while it is true that 20 cents is now and has been the postcard rate, and there are current 20-cent stamps for that purpose, most 20-cent U.S. commemoratives were issued between late 1981 and the end of 198, during which time the first-class letter rate was 20 cents.

This method doesn't work for countries that issue many sets of stamps, perhaps four or six or ten or more stamps, each with a different value. One of the stamps in the set probably does meet the current domestic letter rate, but it's more or less by chance.

Sets and Series

A set is a group of stamps with a common theme, issued as a unit at one time, complete in itself - a set of bird stamps, a set of stamps showing aircraft of World War II, the panes of 1995 U.S. Comic Strip Classics. A series of stamps is an open-ended, ongoing issuing program based on a common theme; for example, the Black Heritage Series, the American Music Series.

Australia issued a 19-stamp set of sea creatures at different times between 198 and 1986, valued from 2 cents up to 1 dollar. Even if you can read a postmark of 1985, for example, on one of the stamps, you will not find it in the 1985 Australia listings. This is because Scott groups all of the stamps in a set together, according to when the first one was issued, not according to the date when each stamp in the set actually was issued. You have to find the listing for the first stamp in the set to find all of the rest of the stamps in that set.

Don't ignore the way the stamp looks -- its graphic design, its printing method. When you first look through a country's listings, notice how the stamps look different over time. Maybe a nation became wealthier over time and could use higher quality paper and printing. Sometimes a certain artistic style will be popular for a while, and all the country's stamps of that era will resemble one another.

Be sure to use the commemorative stamp subject indexes that are available: Scott provides one for U.S. regular stamps and one for U.S. air post issues, and also one for France. The Postal Service's Guide to U.S. Stamps (sold in post offices or through the USPS mail-order service in Kansas City) has a detailed index in addition to picturing all the stamps in color.

"What is it?" night is always a popular event at local stamp club meetings, so that's another good reason to join a club! Make some stamp friends and help each other with your mystery items.