All museums and all collecting hobbies started out by removing things from their context. I can’t think of an exception. This was very evident in early “cabinets of curiosities” which were no more than magpie hoards of this, that and the other. Likewise, the Vatican drawers, created for the purpose, were full of the detached relics of saints but contained no actual saints.
When stamps were introduced in 1840, it was the job of post office clerks to remove them from the sheets - which provided their initial context - so that they could be stuck onto envelopes. Early collectors promptly removed them from this context of use, the envelopes onto which they were stuck. Only later did collectors begin to show an interest in sheets (to which were later added booklets and coils) and an interest in covers, out of which has developed the hobby of postal history collecting.
What is now called “Social philately” is simply an expansion of the context into which collectors place their stamps or covers and it has been greatly enabled by the ability we all now have to google something, to find out who wrote a card, who was the addressee, what a town was like one hundred years ago, and so on. Likewise, serious stamp collectors have long been interested in stamp printers, the machinery they used, the inks they sourced, the ways in which they marketed their services, the scams in which they were involved.
In these ways, stamps and covers are placed in an ever enlarged context of social and economic relations. But “Social philately” is really a matter of degree rather than of type. Anyone who ever googles to find out who wrote or received a letter is engaged in social philately, even if it is not the main focus of their interest. On this Blog, see this post as an example of what might be involved:
The potential of social philately is well-illustrated by the collection held by Boston University where Professor Thomas Glick amassed several thousand stationery cards from the archives of a pre - 1914 Romanian grain dealer. The cards allowed the way in which business was done to be reconstructed from the written texts on the cards and the places from which they were despatched. They also show a business being conducted in two languages, Romanian and Yiddish.
Many other correspondences exist which were originally in commercial, family or state archives and which allow similar reconstruction projects to be undertaken, though often the archives are quickly dispersed before anyone has the chance to buy them up intact. Similarly, printers’ archives have been broken up and individual items often command prices which make any thought of reconstructing the whole archive unrealistic. But it is entirely possible to reconstruct from a limited set of examples how, for example, a nineteenth century stamp printer worked.
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