What is THEMATIC PHILATELY?
Thematic philately is collecting stamps and other philatelic items that illustrate a theme: birds, soccer, history, art, way of life, trees, etc. The term "theme" has a dynamic meaning implying the personal elaboration by the collector, who develops a full story around it.
Once stamp collections consisted of stamps from one country or a group of countries. The stamps were usually displayed in issue-date order. Not any more! A thematic collection consists of the widest possible range of philatelic material, from the widest possible range of postal authorities, without any time constraint. Every item selected should be relevant to the theme and arranged in the most suitable order to tell a story.
The outline of the story is presented as a Plan, showing the steps of the development of the theme. The Plan is similar to the Contents page in a book and it is normally organised in chapters and sub-chapters, which make the logical flow of the story along a clear and consistent thread visible.
A thematic collection is fascinating because it allows for continuous improvement. The more you get familiar with the subject, the more you discover new details for supporting your story and acquire the relevant philatelic items. The more you know about the material from using philatelic literature, by browsing through auction catalogues and visiting the dealers, and by studying other collections on display at the philatelic shows, the more you can improve your development when including new items.
What is not THEMATIC PHILATELY?
Collections that do not develop a theme but simply accumulate philatelic items with a common subject are far from the essence of thematic philately since they present no "story", little personal study of the theme. The arrangement of items depicting the chosen subject by country of issue or by year, as well as the choice of items issued by countries of a selected geographic area or in a certain time frame, are just preliminary approaches to thematic philately. Anyway, they do not bring the true pleasure of thematic collecting.
What can I collect?
A thematic collection is built around an important concept, freely chosen by the collector. Normally this choice relates to a personal or professional interest: medicine or astronomy, gardening or fishing, chess or car races, computers or music... there is no limit to the choice of your theme! By selecting a familiar theme, you will have a lot of information at your fingertips and it will be very easy to draft the Plan of your collection.
A quick perusal of a catalogue from a recent world exhibition will give a very effective overview of the thematic myriad of options available to collectors for choosing a thematic collection. Some titles, chosen at random: World of Butterflies, Sailing ships, "From Abacus to Laptop, Tennis, Apiculture, Weather Story, Railways, Optics, French Painting in the 19th century, League of Nations, Motor Vehicles, Photography, Universal Postal Union, Republic of Weimar, Fire, Christian Vocations, Carnival, Bridges, History of printing, Wine, Roses, Radiomania, History of Tobacco, Ailments of Venus, Danube, Theatre, Dogs, Water, Music through the Ages, Mozart, European Integration, Struggles against Infection, Olympic Games, Christmas, "Nationalities 1914/18".
The wealth of philatelic material often allows collectors to interpret the same subject in different ways, thus generating very different collections. One can present a synthetic view of the whole subject or analyse a specific area of the same. For example, at the aforementioned exhibition, the following were also on display: Birds, Australian Bird Life, Homo‑avis Co‑existence, and How to Identify Birds; in yet another show we saw Eagle, Owls, Penguins, Swan, sand Bird as a Symbol.
What does "Appropriate Philatelic Material" mean?
In addition to stamps, a thematic collection can use other items related to the transmission of mail other postal communications, which contribute to the development of the theme through their illustrations and/or captions. These items are considered appropriate as long they have been issued, intended for issue, or produced in the preparation for issue, used, or treated as valid for postage by governmental, local or private postal agencies, or by other duly commissioned or empowered authorities. The most relevant are:
Postal History - covers with relevant postmarks, route markings, relevant additional markings.
Postmarked "Fossil Creek" Ship's letter with "Per Moa" marking
Postal Stationery ‑ postal cards, prepaid envelopes and aerogrammes, that have the imprint of a stamp and, often, an illustration,
Prepaid envelope with advertising
Postmarks and Cancellations ‑ markings are applied when an item goes through the post, sometimes with advertising or commemorative content,
Franking Meters ‑ the franking 'slug' from meters used by many companies and organisations to frank their mall, often with advertisements,
Astoria Beef Suet Meter Franking
Stamp Booklets ‑ may have illustrations on the cover(s) or advertising panels inside,
Booklet with Life Insurance Ad
Maximum Cards ‑ are picture postcards with a stamp on the picture side and a cancellation linking the subject on the card with the stamp.
Many other items, including revenue stamps of postal nature, may contribute to the development of the theme, whereas artists’ drawings, essays and proofs do increase the philatelic interest of the collection if appropriately selected.
Where do I find more information?
Several sources enable you to better understand the options and the possibilities of thematic collecting and provide ideas and detailed information for building a collection. Some national Federations have a commission in charge of this class, aimed at giving guidance to thematic collectors. In several countries thematic collectors have founded a national association, that publish a specialised magazine; members are also organised in thematic groups, active on the most popular themes, which often provide bulletins and checklists of the material relevant to their theme.
Stamp exhibitions and fairs are important events for making contacts, looking at exhibits, visiting the dealers. Those organised with the support of thematic organisations are a good occasion for meeting other thematic collectors and exchanging both ideas and material.
The internet is a powerful source of information for identifying and making contacts with philatelic associations and dealers; the FIP site is a very useful starting point that includes links to other important philatelic sites. Furthermore, search engines are available that allow you to find thematic and philatelic information on the fly.