Stamped with value

`JUST use those stamps for postage.'' My face fell when the stamp appraiser cleared his throat and tried to look cheerful as he gave me this news. Sensing my disappointment, he added, ``Collecting these stamps gave your husband hours of pleasure. Be glad for that. But his collection isn't specialized enough to have any great market value.'' No great market value for all those shoe boxes full of tiny bits of paper, or those intriguing-looking, hefty stamp books? While I had not expected his modest collection to bring a big monetary return, I had thought it might have some value to other stamp hobbyists.

But I had to abide by the appraiser's verdict. After all, he knew the Big Picture in the stamp world. I knew only what color and size the little squares were and could recognize a few of the faces pictured on them.

During all those hours my husband had spent happily poring over his Scott catalogs and what I have since learned are referred to as ``items,'' ``adhesives,'' and ``definitives,'' I had been pursuing domesticity in a philatelic vacuum.

Occasionally I thought about the stamps and shook my head in resignation. Each time I came across the carton as I cleaned the closet, the appraiser's disheartening words taunted me. When, I asked myself, would I ever have the time (or courage) to plow through at least the United States stamps to ferret out what I'd need for postage?

Although correspondence is one of my chief joys (growing ever more costly as postal rates spiral), the task of sorting through these boxes for postage for each piece of mail was dismaying.

That is, until a night when one of those unrelenting northern Ohio blizzards blew in and the electric power blew out, taking with it my lights, radio, television, and furnace. What does one do to remain calm in a dark, cold, wind-rattled house? On that kind of night, one grasps at straws. My straw was that carton of stamps buried in the closet.

I lit some candles, dug out the carton, and picked my way into the shadowy basement. In the eerie light I dumped the contents of one of the larger shoe boxes onto the work counter. How would I begin sorting all those little glassine envelopes of stamps into any logical order? The inked numerals my husband had labeled them with were no help. Maybe by size? color? subject matter? face value? I decided on face value.

As the sleet made staccato background music on the windows, piles of envelopes of 2-cent, 3-cent, 4-cent, 5-cent, 6-cent, 8-cent, and 10-cent stamps began forming. Before long, there were substantial mounds of several denominations.

Now what?

The logical next step was separating each pile into categories - famous people, historical, patriotic, the arts, nature, Christmas, US flags, space, and the myriad other subjects deemed worthy of commemoration.

I was almost disappointed when the electric power was restored several hours later. I had become thoroughly engrossed in my project. But since the storm persisted for the next few days, I returned often to the basement work counter.

The sorting completed, I arranged the envelopes by denomination in a box, grouping related topics within their value classification.

The appraiser's words came to life. I could hardly wait for my first mailing!

My strategy was to match stamps with correspondents. A teacher? Support the PTA, Scouting, Support Our Youth, Tom Sawyer, favorite authors. Politicians? The Freedom series, human rights, Register to Vote, former presidents and statesmen. Women? Any of the many women leaders, woman suffrage, homemaking, just plain beautiful scenes. A farmer? soil conservation, rural free delivery, wool promotion, energy. A businessperson? Banking, international trade, the various commercial commemoratives. Culture-minded friends? Portraits of writers, musicians, artists, any of the fine arts series. Out-of-state friends? Stamps honoring their own states. For all the miscellaneous mail (mostly bill-paying), the flags, mail early, ZIP codes, and other unclassifiables.

There has been no end to the joy (or fun) of going through the glassine envelopes searching for the right stamps for each piece of mail, although it frequently takes me more time to choose the postage than write the letter!

Have you any idea how many stamps it takes to reach the current 22-cent rate, or how much room those king-size, low-value stamps occupy on the average small envelope? Sometimes they almost hide the address. It takes considerable skill in arranging the verticals and horizontals to keep the address visible. Happily, my supply of the block-of-four tiny 2-cent Cape Hatteras issue is good, so I can tuck one in to balance the design and achieve a 22-cent total.

At first, postal workers checked my envelopes to make sure the postage actually was 22 cents. Now they merely enjoy the display, often commenting on an especially unusual stamp. Some of the stamps are older than the workers!

Although there was no monetary return for my husband's stamp collection (except for what I have saved on postage), I have come to share belatedly his joy in philately. His hobby has not only enriched me (and taught me so much!), but also given pleasure to the recipients of my mail.

I'm glad the stamp appraiser gave me that practical advice ... and grateful for that blizzard.

Now, what to do about all those foreign stamps...?

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