When I first began collecting stamps in 2017, I shared the common belief that philately was a hobby largely dominated by older men. The demographic numbers of many philatelic organizations support this stereotype (in 2018 and 2019 the APS reports a 9 percent female membership), and even the common stamp collecting slogan, The hobby of kings, and the king of hobbies, made me feel as if women were a rarity instead of the norm when it comes to the hobby. However, social media platforms — like Instagram — present an entirely different reality. As a new, young, female stamp collector, I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with other woman on social media who have interests in stamps, postmarks, stamp chain cards, postcards, and other mail-related ephemera. The APS demographics shocked me in part because from my position, 9 percent does not seem like an accurate representation of the number of women interested in philatelic subjects.
In the spring of 2018, I was beginning to develop my master’s thesis on stamp collecting, and the same question kept surfacing: Why are female membership numbers so low in philatelic organizations? I couldn’t ignore this question anymore, so I decided to focus my project around why, and how to recruit more women into philately.
A “brotherhood” mentality has historically surrounded philately. For example, some clubs took on names like “The Sons of Philatelia” and the “Philatelic Sons of America” that, while not directly excluding women, stressed the brotherhood presence and mentality. This explains in part why the stereotype of stamp collecting as a man’s hobby exists, but there has always been a female presence in the hobby, so again the question emerged, Why the divide?
To attempt to uncover some of the reasons for the gender divide, I created a survey, “Women in Stamp Collecting,” that was distributed on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Facebook groups like American Postage Stamps and Postcrossing/PostcardSwapping, and prominent Twitter accounts, such as the APS (@APS_stamps) and Exploring Stamps with Graham Beck (@ExploringStamps), distributed my survey, generating a wide range of responses. The results proved to be quite interesting, demonstrating that there is a shared perception from women that they should not (or would not) consider themselves philatelists, despite having similar interests as their male counterparts.
The survey responses were comprised of 50% women. 82% of the women who participated in the survey collect stamps, 88% are interested in the history of stamps, 87% are interested in postal history, and 85% are interested in how stamps are created, but only 58% consider themselves philatelists. Alternately, 96% of male respondents collect stamps, 94% are interested in the history of stamps, 86% are interested in postal history, 83% are interested in how stamps are developed, and, unlike women, 87% consider themselves philatelists.
When over 80% of the women who responded have interests that go beyond merely collecting stamps, why is it that 42% do not consider themselves philatelists, when 87% of men do?
Meeting some women in stamp collecting would help. Currently I know of one woman in our area.
One of the survey questions asked “If you are not a current member of an organization/club, what would entice you to join?” Some of the most common answers from women were:
- I didn’t find any clubs or organization to join.
- Younger members, and yes, more female members. It really is an old man’s club right now.
- I collect some stamps for fun. My collection is quite chaotic. I don’t think I would join any group of real experienced collectors.
- I don’t know how to approach it.
- I sometimes would be the only lady member participating comfortably.
Some of these responses seem easier to address. For instance, make sure that everyone (including women) is aware of organizations and what they have to offer, and ensure that people of all levels of philatelic interest know they are welcome to join — this should be enough to encourage women to become members and participate. But how do you get the word out to women if they aren’t coming to your website, or attending meetings and stamp shows? I believe that a blend of old and new forms of communication and marketing is the answer, but women have to be targeted specifically for it to make an impact. Additionally, new ways of collecting should be accepted and incorporated into philately.
In with the New
I would be too nervous to join because I feel that I do not know much about stamps and their history and would be afraid to feel like an amateur.
Many philatelists seem unaware of a relatively new stamp-related hobby that uses social media and online forums to facilitate a unique way of collecting stamps from around the world: chain cards. These are not the chain letters of the past, with silly threats if you don’t pass a letter on. Chain cards are postcards that travel across various countries or all over the world, between a group of about 4 to 6 members. The cards collect stamps and/or postmarks as they travel, usually with a specific topic. The end results are pictured above (Figure 1).
Figure 1. When participating in chain cards, while there is a necessary process to follow, each person typically has their own set of preferences. Some people only like to participate in groups that use mint stamps that are canceled and sent from the country of origin. Other people might be less strict and are happy with a card filled with similar themed stamps. These members often don’t care if a stamp comes from its country of origin, if it is previously used, and in some cases don’t mind if it is not canceled at all. For more information about the process, you can visit aps.buzz/ChainCards
I have been participating in chain cards for over a year now, and many of the members with whom I’ve become well acquainted do not consider themselves philatelists. Some don’t even consider themselves stamp collectors, since they do not collect stamps in any other format. However, these participants — largely comprised of women — should feel
welcome in the stamp collecting community — after all, their collections are not so different from those who collect covers, postmarks, and even used stamps soaked from their paper.
If new areas of stamp and mail-related interests, like chain cards, are accepted by philatelic organizations, and women have evidence that philately is more than just a group of men sorting stamps, I believe they would be enticed to join as well and share their collections and experiences. This would not only encourage people who participate in chain cards, but would demonstrate to the wider world that the philatelic community is open to new ideas and new ways of collecting.
It’s time to break the stereotype that philately is only “a hobby of kings.” After all, following the reigns of King George V, who started the Royal Philatelic Collection, and King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II has continued to build on its legacy. Cosmopolitan magazine recently reported of Queen Elizabeth that “[the collection] is one of her pride and joys.” Let’s start encouraging every woman who demonstrates interest in stamps and mail-related topics to join this hobby that is fit for a queen.
To share your story or ideas about women in philately, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Women in Philately.” I’d love to hear your comments and ideas as I continue working on my thesis.
Further Reading and Resources
Brennan, Sheila. Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the Post. (University of Michigan Press; 2015).
Ganz, Cheryl R. “The History of American Women in Philately,” The American Philatelist 123, no. 12 (December 2009).
Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. (NY: Columbia University Press, 1999).
Editor's Note: The “The Hobby of Kings... and Queens” article was published in the March 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - stay tuned for more columns and articles from 2020, and read the full March issue here. Happy Women's History Month!