Postage stamps can make good storytellers on rainy (or clear) days

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Did you ever think that some old postage stamps might be the answer to a rainy afternoon and a group of restless children? Stamps have many stories to tell, as you may find if you start children scrounging around for canceled stamps. Once they've collected a few, you can all sit in a circle and pass the finds around, looking at the interesting features. Do the stamps tell a story?

Perhaps someone got one of the recently issued balloon stamps. The balloon stamps were issued in a block of four, two horizontal design, flanked by two vertical design. Collectors like to have all four. The first stamp in the block depicts the ''Intrepid,'' a hydrogen balloon used for aerial surveillance by the Union Army during the Civil War. The center blocks show some of the hot air balloons used by sport enthusiasts today, 200 years after the first person who went up in a balloon.

The fourth stamp shows the Explorer II, a helium-filled balloon used in 1935 by the US Army and the National Geographic Society, who joined forces to study cosmic rays, atmospheric conditions, and the ability of living spores to survive at high altitudes. All that excitement from a few scraps of colored paper that may have ended up in the wastebasket!

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Perhaps some ''just plain old stamps'' have turned up. Who or what is pictured? A handy encyclopedia may provide a story. Compare the differences in shades of color in what appear to be the same stamps. Examine detail under a magnifying glass. Observe the perforations around the stamp. Who can spot differences in what at first looks like the same stamp?

Now what to do with the stamps? First soak them off in warm water and lay them on a flat surface to dry, glue side up. Then they can be placed in an album. Inexpensive loose-leaf photo albums with clear plastic pockets for snapshots make good stamp albums. The stamps can be slid in the pocket, along with a card on which is written information about the stamp. Or inexpensive stamp hinges can be purchased from a stamp dealer. The hinges are affixed to the stamp and then to the sheet in a book. A loose-leaf book allows for expansion of categories. Be sure you don't paste them in a book. That could ruin the value if the stamp later becomes a rarity.

The US Postal Service is happy to assist fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students to form a stamp club. Given a few children, an adult club adviser, and a place to meet, it will provide the fledgling stamp club with a lot of exciting material from membership cards to color movies, film strips, and stamp albums. Inquire at your local post office.

If the post office doesn't have the free booklet, Introduction to Stamp Collecting, you can find it in one of the inexpensive US Postal Service Stamp Collecting Kits. These kits contain the four basics: a color-illustrated album, a selection of stamps, a packet of mounting hinges, and a basic information book.

The kits come in a variety of subjects: sports, science, history, art, flowers, and so on. If a small branch post office doesn't have your choice, it can be ordered.

Stamp collecting is fun, whether saved for rainy-day activity or trading among club members. Canceled stamps are free, and they broaden the horizons, provide excitement, and enlarge the circle of friends, sometimes through correspondence with young collectors in other countries.

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