FAQ: What are the basics of stamp collecting? Understanding what kind of a stamp you have.

Understanding the stamp ABC's**
Understanding the stamp ABC’s**

Welcome to the fascinating world of stamp collecting. Everyone has different reason for collecting, some enjoy collecting according to specific themes, others to learn about history, others still as an investment. Whatever your reasons, starting a new hobby can be a little intimidating at first and you may feel you need help getting to know your way around. That is why Arpin Philately has decided to post a series of articles helping you to understand the basics of stamp collecting-the stamp ABC’s!


This first article will teach you to understand the many markings on your stamp and what kind of a stamp you possess. Here is an explanation of some of the most common markings.



Stamp denomination
Stamp denomination

Denomination or face value: the large number on your stamp is its denomination. That is the amount of money that it cost to buy that stamp when it was issued. The denomination changes throughout the years with inflation. For instance, certain early Canada stamps have a denomination of ½ cent, whereas now, the denomination is 59¢. The denomination of the stamp pictured to the left is 30¢. The denomination is a handy tool for identifying when your stamp was issued. Using a stamp catalogue, flip through the pages and look for the year when other stamps of the same denomination were issued and your stamp will not be far away.


Name of country of origin: every stamp has the name of its country of origin written on it. Obviously, this is the main identifying factor of a stamp. The only country which is an exception to this rule is Great Britain. Since the first postage stamp was issued by Great Britain, this country has the distinction of being the only one which does not have to print its country’s name on the stamp. Stamps of Great Britain are identifiable by the image of the reigning monarch or a cameo silhouette of Queen Elizabeth in the upper right hand corner.

Great Britain stamp with cameo silhouette**
Great Britain stamp with cameo silhouette**

Country names are always inscribed in the official language of the nation, so obviously it can be difficult to identify or translate names that are in a foreign language. See Stamp Echo article:Identifying your stamps for help in understanding the country name on your stamp.


Subject matter (definitives vs commemoratives): the subject matter of your stamp will help you to understand why your stamp was issued and whether it is a definitive issue or a commemorative issue.

  • Definitives are stamps that are issued over an extended period of time (sometimes several months or even a year or more) in order to pay a specific domestic or international postal rate. These generally feature the monarch or person ruling the nation (such as Queen Elizabeth). Sometimes these stamps also feature governmental images like a flag, or houses of parliament. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, Canada issues definitives which feature wildlife or flowers, but these stamps are issued over a long period of time, until the postal rate changes.


  • Commemorative stamps feature images which honor, or ‘commemorate’ a person, place, thing, or event in history. These stamps are printed in limited amounts by Canada Post and are only available at the post office for a short period of time (a few weeks or months at the most), while the supply lasts. After the supply runs out, you can no longer buy them….ever; unless you go to a stamp dealer. Some example of Canada commemoratives: Canadian Recording Artists, Roadside Attractions, Black History Month.


Special issue stamps: certain special issues have markings or lettering which identify them as such. For instance, certain Canada stamps have…


AIR printed on them. These stamps were issued to pay the higher air mail rate.


Special Delivery printed on them. These were issued  for those who were willing to pay higher rates for expedited service. Today, these stamps are no longer issued, but now we have Xpresspost!


Registered printed on them. These stamps were for air mail service along with guaranteed delivery. Mail with these stamps was registered officially and included a confirmation of delivery.


Postage Due printed on them. These stamps, used to indicate insufficient postage and affixed to mail by the post office, indicated the amount of postage left to be paid by the receiver upon delivery.


War Tax printed on them. These stamps were issued for a certain time period and indicated that the public had to pay an extra tax of 1¢ on top of the cost of the stamp, the extra funds being allocated by the government for the war effort.


O.H.M.S. or G printed on them in black. O.H.M.S (On His Majesty’s Service) stamps were used specifically by various government offices for official purposes. Eventually, the overprint was changed to ‘G’ (for Governement). Note: early O.H.M.S. stamps had the initials perforated through the stamp instead of being printed.


Semi postal stamps
Semi postal stamps

Semi postal stamps: These stamps have the denomination plus a surcharge indicated on the stamp (like the stamp at left 45¢ + 5¢). This surcharge is allocated to a special cause by Canada Post. (Examples of different causes over the years: Olympics, literacy program, mental health foundation)

Here’s hoping this helped you out a bit! If you have any questions or additional tips, please feel free to post your comments. They will be much appreciated by everyone.


Our next article will explain the grading system used by collectors and catalogues (like the 2014 Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps) for establishing the condition of a mint or used stamp.

**Special thanks to Grain Edit and Stephaniecapatek’s Blog for use of their stamp photos

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