It seems to me that the future of stamp collecting depends to a large extent on the constant stimulus of the new issue market. Of course there are many collectors who have no interest at all in new releases from postal administrations and philatelic agencies and are able to pursue their hobby with sublime indifference to the latest press release from Royal Mail or Canada Post or Australia Post or Stamperija or ...... ad infinitum but news about new issues is the one aspect of philatelic events (apart from the sale of an extremely rare, highly priced classic stamp) which the news media is likely to still feel the need to bring to the non-philatelic public's attention.
Occasionally the general public might even be interested as Royal Mail discovered with the news of the 2012 Olympic Games gold medal winners stamps and the 2013 Dr. Who stamps and the 2013 Andy Murray Wimbledon victory miniature sheet. But generally the mail-sending public could not give a hoot about what piece of adhesive paper is applied to the envelopes they push, with decreasing frequency, through the slot of their local postboxes. Letter sending is ridiculously complicated compared with dashing off a quick e-mail and it is not surprising that people resort less and less often to the use of pen, paper and postage stamp in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. But is this preceding statement really true? Just how often are postage stamps actually used on genuine mail? And if postage stamps are not used anymore to indicate the pre-payment of postage then what is the point of them apart from being an additional but relatively minor source of income for postal administrations?
How often are postage stamps used?
To answer this question I examined all mail received through the Royal Mail postal system and delivered to my home during a 6 month period from June to December 2014. This included mail sent from sources in The United Kingdom and mail dispatched from abroad. The mail included personal mail from family, friends and acquaintances, greetings cards, commercial mail including small packages carried through the ordinary postal system and particularly mail from philatelic sources including promotional material and philatelic purchases from postal administrations and small traditional and Internet dealers.
During the study period, a total of 491 items of mail were received.
Of these 406 (82.7%) items had been sent to me from within The United Kingdom.
Of these 406 items 299 (73.6%) items were considered to be non-philatelic and 107 (26.4%) to be philatelic in nature.
Of the 301 non-philatelic items which originated both in Britain and abroad only 13 (4.3%) had postage stamps applied to them - 11 of these originated in Britain and 2 were from overseas. Thus only 2.7% of the mail which I received from non-philatelic sources in Britain made use of postage stamps.
Philatelic sources were much more likely to apply stamps to their mail though less often than one might have expected. Thus of the 190 items received from philatelic sources, 126 (66.3%) had postage stamps attached to them. Hence One Third of mail received from various philatelic sources had no stamps applied to it. Of philatelic mail originating in Britain, 70 out of 107 items (65.4%) were sent with postage stamps attached to them and of mail of foreign origin 56 out of 83 items (67.5%) had stamps attached. The practice of both British and foreign dealers and postal administrations therefore seems to be similar when it comes to actually using postage stamps on their outgoing mail.
Of mail originating in Britain with stamps attached to it, 19 out of 70 items (27.1%) had old commemoratives attached to them, 22 (31.4%) had new or recent commemoratives attached, 23 (32.9%) had current definitives applied to them and 6 (8.6%) had "Post And Go" stamps applied to them.
Of mail originating abroad, 42 items out of a total of 56 with stamps applied to them (75%) had old commemoratives attached to them, 11 (19.6%) had new or recent commemoratives attached and only 3 (5.4%) had definitives attached to them. This suggests that foreign philatelic sources are more likely to use colourful, interesting commemoratives on their post than British sources.
Of the non-philatelic mail originating in Britain with stamps attached to it, 8 out of 11 items (72.7%) had current definitives attached to them and 3 (27.3%) had current commemorative stamps applied to them although all three were actually 2nd Class Christmas stamps used on Christmas mail. Thus in a period of 6 months I received NO mail from non-philatelic sources in Britain which had any contemporary commemoratives applied to it apart from 2nd Class Christmas stamps.
This small study shows that if mail from philatelic sources is excluded then the use of postage stamps on ordinary commercial and domestic post is minimal in Britain. Only 4.3% of such mail originating in The United Kingdom had postage stamps attached to it and apart from the use of Christmas stamps on seasonal mail the use of commemorative stamps is virtually non-existent. These findings seriously question the justification of the continuing issue of numerous commemorative stamps by advanced postal administrations (such an argument does not necessarily apply in small or less developed countries) in general and by Royal Mail in particular.
The study suggests that while commemorative stamps continue to have a role in celebrating notable national events, anniversaries and personalities as well as serving as an additional source of income for postal administrations, they play no practical role in fulfilling their original purpose as receipts for the pre-payment of postage. Quite simply, postage stamps in general, and commemorative stamps in particular, are largely irrelevant to the day to day function of a modern postal service and are unlikely to be used on mail except by philatelists and some philatelic dealers. Infact stamp collectors and postal authorities appear to be two halves of a circle - philatelists buy new issues because postal administrations issue them and postal authorities continue to release stamps because stamp collectors buy them.
Collectors of postage stamps may feel that the collecting of new issues of the postal administrations of economically advanced countries has now reached a natural end point since the stamps do not appear to fulfill their role as postage stamps any more. Those items now being produced by such postal administrations may still be of interest as colourful collectables but not as postage stamps.
In every media - printed or Internet-based - collectors, and sometimes dealers, are constantly complaining about excessive new issues. Postal administrations and philatelic agents, with a few notable exceptions, continue to release new stamps far in excess of their postal needs and in consequence more and more collectors cut back on or actually give up collecting new issues. This study suggests that stamps are no longer required by the mail-sending public for use on their postal items.
Recently Tony Bray, a stamp dealer from the north of England wrote in his newsletter that "...the trade is not doing as well, as I expected, but I am hopeful 2015 will improve a great deal, but it is dependent on our politicians, having more concern for the people of a Great Britain, rather than pandering to fiscal institutes, that they were entrusted with..." He effectively takes a further seven lines of text to blame politicians for the fall off in interest in new stamp issues which makes a personal political statement on his part but fails to recognise that the fault lies much closer to home and has caused collectors' disillusionment with excessive stamp issues and particularly the flood of items from some of the more notorious philatelic agencies which, as a dealer, he continues to sell without any obvious hesitation.
Are we close to the end, or even at the end, of the never-ending flood of new stamp issues? My small study concludes that there is no postal need for, and indeed no usage of, most new issues here in Britain. The general public does not appear to be using stamps, especially commemoratives, in any great amount now on its mail. Any postal usage of most stamps is philatelic in nature now and this suggests to me that new issue philately has now became somewhat absurd and must have a limited lifespan in its current bloated form.
The hobby that started with the Penny Black, which is 175 years old this year, may end with the Machin Head 1st Class Orange due to collectors' exhaustion and disillusionment caused by excessive new issues. There will always be people to collect the old classics and postal history just as some people collect old porcelain and furniture but if new stamps are not used for postage what is the point of them? Is not the irrelevance of new issues underlined by the fact that many postal administrations and philatelic dealers do not even use stamps on their communications? The constant renewal of the hobby by the appearance of new issues will cease to take place if even stamp collectors finally lose interest in them.