One of the more popular types of stamp collecting, by both the first time collector and the experienced philatelist, is known as topical or thematic collecting. Topical or thematic collections comprise the selective accumulation of stamps depicting a particular subject or concept such as people, animals, events, objects, even ideas. Collections can focus on a wide range of stamps depicting certain images such as presidents, birds, holidays, ships, religion, even stamps on stamps. Here in the United States back in November 1949, teenage topical collector Jerome “Jerry” Husak founded the American Topical Association in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with the idea of bringing together collectors who collected stamps by subject matter, across the usual national boundaries of simply collecting issues within a particular country. This month’s Resource of the Month are the resourceful American Topical Association (ATA) handbooks which provide published checklists for topical collectors.
The handbooks, first published in 1951 and often the work of an ATA member, are published checklists on a particular theme or topic. The first handbook, compiled by Ellen E. Jensen, tackles the weighty subject of “Americana on Stamps of Foreign Countries”. The handbook begins with a brief two page introduction of the topic by Jensen and then proceeds to list, under specific subheadings such as “Air Flight”, “Great Men and Women”, and “New York World’s Fair” among others, all the known stamps that embody these themes , alphabetically by country first and then by Scott number. The list includes well over 500 entries of both regular and back-of-the-book issues. The earliest handbooks simply included a list of entries by Scott number and country, but later handbooks also included some black and white illustrations of the stamps, while some current handbooks include color representations of the issues. Along the way some handbooks also included brief descriptions of the various subsections as needed, specifically when it came to defining subheadings for plant and animal species in those topical handbooks.
As suggested in the ATA’s first handbook, these published compilations are by no means the “final word” on a given thematic stamp collection, but rather as comprehensive as possible a starting point for collecting on a given topic. Handbooks are often updated with new entries in the issues of the ATA’s journal Topical Time. To date there are over 160 handbooks that have been published on an ever widening array of topics, with the latest handbook, due out later this year by Victor Eichler, on “Frogs and Amphibians in the Cultures of the World.” Some of the more popular ATA handbooks include those pertaining to bats, birds, fairy tales, flags, insects, maps, music, plants, railways, ships, space, sports, and yes as mentioned earlier, even stamps on stamps. These handbooks are available for further research through the APRL and can be borrowed, or smaller sections can be photocopied or scanned. See the Library Services page for a complete schedule of fees and services provided in order to access these unique thematic compilations.