Thematic philately is the collecting of stamps and various types of philatelic material according to the subjects they display or the stories they tell, rather than in chronological order by country of origin. It has the potential to be among the most enjoyable and rewarding forms that the stamp hobby has to offer.

For many years, thematic philately was scorned by traditionalists and probably still is in some quarters. However, there are quite a few members of societies who are thematic collectors, many of whom have exhibited at national and international Exhibitions. Indeed one member of this Society achieved L.G. 97 points at a recent F.I.P. international philatelic exhibition.

According to my research, the first thematic article was written by H.H. Higgins and appeared in a British stamp magazine in June 1863 and the first thematic collection was exhibited overseas in 1908. In 1920 Stanley Gibbons offered thematic stamp packets for sale with stamps on various topics including famous persons, zoology, maps, heraldry and history.

The first thematic exhibits were shown in this country at the exhibition held in conjunction with the 2nd Australasian Philatelic Congress held in Melbourne in 1921. (The catalogue cover is shown in Figure 1). According to the catalogue list under ‘General Collections’, Division 9 were eight collections of stamp only, that consisted of five Zoological, two Historical, plus one entry each of Portrait, Statues & Monuments and Transport. Seven of the exhibits were from Victoria, while one was from New South Wales.

Figure 1.

figure 1 melb-expo-1921-cover

In the 1920s and 1930s there were two leading thematic collectors. One was the well-known philatelist Mr. A.A. Rosenblum of Victoria who had a ‘Shakespearian Collection’. The collection illustrated Shakespeare’s quotations with stamps and was entered into the 1921 exhibition. The other was Mr.Whitsed Dovey of N.S.W. who had entered eight volumes of ‘Zoological’ material that included local and fiscal stamps In the year 1949, the American Topical Association was incorporated. Since that time, the Association has grown, so that it now has 6000 members in 90 countries and has 51 Study Units of various themes. In the 1960s and 1970s monthly advertisements promoting the Association appeared in Stamp News. It was in this way that I first learnt about thematic collecting; as I am sure did many other Australian thematic collectors.)

Thematic philately grew slowly in Australia and thematic collections were exhibited under the “Educational’ Division or Class up until the Second World War. The first exhibition to use the word ‘Thematic’ was Anpex 55 held that year in Adelaide. The Thematic Society of Australia was founded in Sydney in 1979 and the Thematic Society of Victoria, led by Mr. David Plummer was founded about the same time.

I entered a thematic collection into Australian and New Zealand exhibitions held at intervals during the 1970s. However, my first experience as a thematic judge was at Sydpex 80, where there were 54 thematic exhibits entered from both Australia and New Zealand. Looking back, I think judging back then was a pleasant duty compared to the present time. Full albums of the whole collection were entered by the exhibitor to the exhibition, but, only one frame of the material was actually exhibited. The judges were grouped into their various classes, sat at tables and perused the exhibitors’ albums. In Sydney, for the first and only time, Thematic philately was nominated as Class 1 – Topical philately – (Subject, Theme and Purpose of Issue Collections) divided into two sections as follows:

Section (a) A general and/or specialised collection of stamps only and

Section (b) Collections of stamps, postal history, an postal stationery (representing Subject and/or theme and Purpose of Issue.

I was assigned to judge Section (a). Some of the entries would not be regarded as thematic by today’s standards. For example three vermeil medals (the highest awards) were awarded respectively to “Medicine Revenues” (a revenue collection), “Disaster Philately”, (Mainly postal history) and “Century of Change” (a collection of covers). Looking back on judging then it seems that we had more time to inspect collections and discussions were leisurely and interesting. Much better from a judge’s point of view, than walking and standing in front of the frames at all hours of the day and night, especially in the thematic section where time always seemed to be at a premium. However, frame exhibitions are much better from an exhibitor’s view and visitors to the exhibition can view the whole exhibit.

During the Sydpex 80 exhibition, the Thematic Society of Australia, (founded in 1979), organised a meeting for all exhibitors who were present at the exhibition. Those collectors who attended at the meeting approved a sub-committee for the writing of a booklet “Guidelines for exhibiting Topical Collections”, which was subsequently published in 1982. This book and the Sydpex 80 catalogue are the only times the word ‘topical’ has been used officially in connection with Australian thematic philately.

After Anpex 82 was held in Brisbane, a Thematic Study Group was formed in Melbourne of all the thematic exhibitors in that state under the leadership of Miss Mary Lambe, who was one of the well-known thematic exhibitors and lecturers of that era Mr John Sinfield, later took over the group, to be succeeded by Mrs. Marion Smith. However, the group ceased operation in 2002.

I was an executive member of the Australian Stamp Promotion Council Inc., (forerunner of the A.P.F.) in 1981-83; at the time Australia became a member of the Federation of International Philately. Because of my involvement with Thematics I was asked to become our country’s delegate to the F.I.P Thematic Commission.

In my research into the Commission and competitive thematic philately overseas, I found that thematics had changed radically since I had first begun collecting my thematic material some thirty-five years previously. Let me take you back to 1959 when the American Topical Association (inc. 1949) defined Topical collecting as the collecting of stamps and cancellations for the subject of design, rather than the country of issuance or the type of postal services rendered. In 1966 this definition was refined.

Now topical collecting was the formation of a collection of stamps and postal markings selected and arranged for subject of design or theme suggested.

Theme was defined as a narration or development of an idea, carried out throughout the collection.
Later the Federation of International Philately (F.I.P.), based in Europe, after much discussion among the international member countries, eventually agreed on the term ‘thematic’ in French and English and ‘motive’ in German and established three classes for exhibition purposes.

1. Thematic – which develops a theme, tells a story or illustrates and idea through stamps and other philatelic material.

2. Purpose of Issue – to commemorate events, anniversaries, omnibus issues of countries leg Coronations, U.P.U., Europa, Olympics etc. fall into this category.

3. Subject – a collection based on the subject that appears on stamps: arranged countrywise or in chronological order of issue. F.I.P. subsequently ruled that thematic philately should be composed of two classes,

1) Thematic collections and

2) Subject collections. The subject collection was defined as to include all stamps and philatelic documents related to a subject or purpose of issue; its presentation was to be in a systematic order and/or in chronological order.

This led to controversy ‘topical (subject)’ vs. ‘thematic’ that lasted for some years.
One of the best definitions given regarding ‘topical (subject)’ vs. ‘thematic’ was given by Mrs. Joan Bleakly a well known American topical collector in the American philatelist (Apr., 1986. p.307):

a) A topical exhibit on “Domestic Cats” should contain stamps, covers, die proofs, essays, postmarks, cancellations, errors etc. depicting only domestic cats.

b) A thematic exhibit i.e. “The History of Domestic Cats” should include cats in ancient Egyptian mythology, fairy tales, folklore, the various breeds and how they were named, their habits and peculiarities.

Figure 2.

figure 2 katalogue-83-coverAustralian Commissioners were appointed to two F.I.P. international philatelic exhibitions in 1983 – Braziliana 83, held in Rio de Janeiro, a full F.I.P. exhibition and Tembal 83, a specialised F.I.P. thematic exhibition held in Switzerland. The cover of the ‘Tembal 83’ catalogue is shown in Figure 2 for the first time Australian thematic exhibits were exhibited internationally at both shows. Ausipex 84 was the first F.I.P. philatelic exhibition to be held in Australia, (the cover of the catalogue us shown in Figure 3.) It was also the first F.I.P. exhibition to have 8 medal levels, Large Gold, Gold, Large Vermeil, Vermeil, Large Silver, Silver, Silver Bronze and Bronze. The exhibition was held in Melbourne from 21-30 September 1984 and contained over 3,500 frames of philatelic material on display. Class C 12, was titled “Thematic and Subject Collections” and the judging team of five, of which I was a member, judged all collections.

Fifty-seven thematic exhibits were entered from all over the world (including thirteen Australian), The major awards and special prizes were all awarded to overseas exhibits, however all the Australian entries received medals and one received a Vermeil medal, the highest award given to an Australian exhibit to that time.

According to an approximate break down of competitive displays there were:

317 frames of thematic philately. It was an eye-opener for Australian thematic collectors to see the depth of material on show. The President of the F.I.P. Thematic Commission at the time, Dr. Giancarlo Morolli, gave a lecture and slide display for the Australian thematic collectors present at the show. More than fifty collectors attended and this slide display (this was later published as a set of videos produced by the then Australian Stamp Promotion Council). Dr Morolli also walked interested exhibitors and collectors through the exhibits in the frames.

In 1985 F.I.P. Special Regulations for the Evaluation of Thematic Exhibits were passed in which both Subject and Thematic merged under the broad heading “Thematic”. The new regulations were applied for the first time in June 1988 at Finlandia 88. Incidentally thematic philately was the first class to introduce a title and plan page as an integral part of every exhibit, a criterion which every F.I.P. class has now adopted. All Australian and F.I.P. exhibitions since then have listed the class under the heading “Thematic Philately”.

Figure 3.

figure 3 ausiplex-cat

Stampex 86, was the first Asian Regional International Philatelic Exhibition to be staged in Adelaide from 4-10 August, under auspices of F.I.A.P. and with the patronage of the F.I.P. It was also the first Australian exhibition to be judged under the new FIP thematic regulations passed in 1985. Class 8 – Thematic Philately – consisted of 69 entries including 51 Australian, 9 from New Zealand, 2 from China, 5 from India and 1 from Indonesia. The first large vermeil medal awarded to an Australian thematic collection was given at this exhibition.

Since 1986 Australian National Exhibitions have been held at regular intervals. The standard of thematic exhibits has improved gradually over the years. As an example one Large Gold, one gold and four vermeils were awarded at the last national exhibition held in Perth last year. At the present time there are two thematic societies operating within Australia:

a) The Thematic Society of Australia, P.O. Box 17 Oatlands, N.S.W. 2117. The society publishes a quarterly magazine Themes.

b) Thematics, Queensland, 18 Coolcrest St. Wynnum Qld. 4178. This society publishes a magazine and exhibit copies bi-monthly.

When the thematic class first came into being internationally, gold medals were hard to obtain. However, as thematic philately has now grown in strength of material and is flourishing in all countries, gold and large gold medals are now frequently awarded at international exhibitions, plus there is generally a thematic entry in the F.I.P. Championship Class. Our own Australian exhibitors have regularly gained high medals at recent international exhibitions. For the first time a thematic collection ‘Australasian Birdlife’ was awarded the Grand Prix International at the F.I.P. International Philatelic Exhibition, Philakorea 2002.

I hope this article has given members a brief insight into the growth of thematic philately in our country.