Looking After Stamps


Where Do You Keep Your Stamps?

If you have assembled a valuable collection, it’s not an answer you would readily broadcast.  However, the security over your collection which protects it from theft or destruction by fire or the elements is not a subject which I intend to enter into now.  I want to address the somewhat less obvious threat to the health of your collection.  What is more, you are not insurance against it.

For some years now I have been advising collectors who asked the question – and it is a question that is one of the most often asked – to sit down and think out carefully the answer to the heading at the top of this article – “Where do you keep your stamps?”

Because the important point is that stamps – being made usually entirely or organic materials – are sensitive to certain types of damage.  If you have not been through the process of sitting down and thinking this thing through carefully, may I suggest that you take the opportunity to do just that?

After reading reasonably widely – although by all means not exhaustively – on this subject, and by observing the comments of experts and non-experts alike, I developed a form of advice which I felt answered most of the questions and I venture to suggest still does.


Before going any further, the recommendation is:

  • Avoid all extremes of environment, whatever they may be.  Choose an environment for your stamps in which you would feel comfortable yourself.  More specifically:


  • Avoid extremes of light and dark.  Extremes of light, which would include direct sunlight or possibly fluorescent light, will fade colours, degrade the chemical composition of the papers and cause them to discolour.  Complete absence of light suggests that the stamps are kept in a sealed environment life a safe or strong-room, closed box, or just buried under piles of books.


  • Again this suggests lack of natural air convection which in turn promotes airing and drying and the promotion of stable temperature.  Keep all albums and stock-books standing upright.


  • Avoid extremes of heat and cold.  Heat can promote chemical change in papers, inks, gums and other components.  In combination with dampness or humidity, it can also provide an ideal breeding ground for fungoid growths whose spores are everywhere all the time.  Excessive cold can promote condensation, and the accumulation of damp with similar results to the above.  A moderately cool atmosphere, however, tends to slow chemical change.
  • Avoid extremes of draught and stagnant air.  Draughty conditions usually help dust to accumulate which in turn accumulates damp and provides an ideal environment for mould.  Still air assumes – as above – a sealed environment without the normal benefits of air convection.


  • Avoid extremes of dampness and dryness.  The problem with damp has been described above.  The problem with dryness is that it tends to crack and curl and promote dimensional change in the paper.  This in turn causes the structure of the paper to break down.


  • Avoid extremes of insect and rodent repellent measures.  Excessive use of strong chemicals to repel moths, silverfish and other insects, can be detrimental to the colour of stamps, and if it carries with it fumes or dampness, may have obvious detractions.  Some element of insect or rodent repellent measures may be required, however, in circumstances where it is known that a risk exists.


  • Avoid extremes of handling.  Too much handling or exposure assumes that the stamps may be prey to environmental risks mentioned above.  Too little handling suggests that the stamps may need exposure to the benefits of warmth and air convection.  Just leafing through the album once every week or so can work wonders.

A most useful little book I picked up at The British Library a year-or-two ago in London describes “The Care and Preservation of Philatelic Materials”.  It is a scholarly work written by T J Collings and R F Schoolley-West.  Very useful it is, too.


I recommend that anyone who would like to pursue this subject further write to The British Library and order a copy.  The book is a mine of information and below I mention a selection of facts and warnings which I suspect may be new to some readers.


Fact: Papers made during the early part of the 19th century were largely produced from fibres sourced from rags – cotton, linen and some hemp.  Esparto grass was introduced in the 1850s and the move to wood content began in the 1960s and has continued since.


Fact: Identification of hand-made papers and machine-made papers.  In hand-made papers there is an uneven distribution of fibres seen when the paper is held up to the light.  In hand-made papers the watermark shows up as a thinning of the paper in the area of the mark.  In machine-made papers it appears as a compressed area.


Fact: One of the largest groups of inks produced in the 19th century was known as “iron gall”.  These were produced as a cottage industry.  A species of wasp produces oak galls (oak apples) on oak trees as a protection for its grubs.  The oak apples are collected and crushed and are boiled in water to extract the tannins.  Iron-sulphate is then added to the resulting dye fluid to produce after a few days exposure to the atmosphere, a black ink.  The characteristics of the inks are strong acidity and particularly where sulphuric acid was added to the mixture, the PH can reach 2.0 in a freshly prepared ink.  The risk from these inks is that acidity migrates form the ink once it has been used into the surrounding paper and in some early letters holes in the paper occur caused by the inks totally destroying the paper to which is was applied.


Here is a further list of specific threats which have been taken from “The Care and Preservation of Philatelic Materials”.


In the modern era the fact that papers have been produced from wood presents one of the significant threats to modern stamps in terms of their potential deterioration.  Before wood is used for paper production, it is treated chemically to remove the lignin content.  Lignin is the generic term for the brown resinous material which is deposited in plant cells.


It is decomposed by heat and light.  The residual lignin, after treatment which remains in may papers, is at risk of decomposition which produces complex strong organic acids and also absorbs atmospheric acidity, both of which combine to break down the structure of the paper and cause it to discolour.

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