- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

ANAHEIM, Calif.

For people of a certain age, mostly men but also more than a few women, the hobby of stamp collecting holds cherished memories. To many, stamps were perhaps an analog of today's Internet: a way to look at other cultures and learn something about them.

In an era of faxes, e-mail and the Internet, it's tempting to think that stamp collecting has little value as a hobby, and even less relevance in the digital age. Yet, as I strolled around the recent "World Stamp Expo" here, a stamp collecting exhibit sponsored by the United States Postal Service, I couldn't help but marvel at how much this nearly "ancient" hobby has been affected by computers.

Perhaps the first area where you see this is in the design of postage stamps themselves. Where once everything on a stamp was either line engraved (by hand) or illustrated (again, by hand), plunk down a computer with a copy of Adobe Corp.'s Photoshop software and it's not too difficult to produce a stamp design. Of course, what separates "average" designs from the memorable and spectacular is the skill of the given artist. But where the stamp designer of 1970 was hunched over a drawing board, today's postage creator could be squinting at a display screen.

A greater integration of stamp and computer is the boom in "personalized" postage from countries such as Canada and Australia. For $24.95 Canadian (about $16.88 U.S.), users get 25 "stamp frames," each worth 46-cents in Canadian postage. They also get 25 copies of whatever picture is submitted to stick on letters before the frames are pressed on top. Together, it's a custom-designed stamp though valid only to carry items mailed in Canada. A worker at the Canada Post booth here told me that the stamps are very popular for wedding and birth announcements.

They're probably popular with the management of the Canadian postal service: the price is about double the face value of the postage, so even if the labels are used for mailing, Canada Post makes a profit.

Australia's post office offered a similar service, called "P Stamps" (the "p" presumably standing for personalized) on 45-cent and $1 Australian issues. These, too, are only usable to pay postage in the home country. The U.S. Postal Service, which unleashed a flood of new space-related stamps here, doesn't yet offer a similar service.

For Canada and Australia, personalized stamps are possible because of computer imaging, which takes a photo, scans it in and makes it easy to print copies. It's the same way many of us print address labels at home, perhaps putting photos on using an ink-jet printer; only more sophisticated technology is used.

Beyond the personalizing of postage, stamp collectors are using computers and the Internet for auctions, trading items from their collections and to swap news and information. To this observer, the greatest advance in stamp collecting will let me throw away my stamp catalogs and keep an inventory on line, complete with illustrations.

This is thanks to a SoftPro 2010 Inc.'s wonderfulcomputer program called EzStamp. The firm, is in Scarborough, Ontario, and has a Web site at (members.home.net/mariost/). This $79.99 program contains a database of stamps from 30 different territories, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, Vatican City and Jamaica.

With the CD-ROM inserted in your computer's CD drive, the program will not only show you the catalog number of each stamp, but a color image as well. You can enter quantity and pricing information, as well as then print out an inventory of what you have, a "want list" for needed items and other reports.

Due to issues of copyright and licensing, the EzStamp program relies on the Minkus stamp catalog numbering system (devised by the late Washington Star editor and collector Belmont Faries), instead of the far-more-standard Scott numbering system. The software allows you to enter Scott numbers manually, which is a chore once, but thereafter a convenience.

EzStamp can export its information to another program from SoftPro 2010, AlbumGen, price $49, which lets even a ham-handed person like me create a customized stamp album or exhibit layout. The results can be printed in monochrome or in color, and are rather dazzling.

For decades, stamp collectors and exhibitors often labored over creating their own displays. This program takes almost all the hassle out of this process, and, thanks to the Windows operating system's plethora of type fonts and its TrueType technology, produces pages that are flat-out incredible.

If, as many believe, stamp issues tell the story of a nation and its culture, presenting that story in an album or display of your own making can be very satisfying. These two software items could well be as essential to future generations of philatelists of which I hope there are many as a calligraphy pen, straightedge and ruling pen were to those who came before.

For those intrigued by the stamp collecting hobby, the American Philatelic Society offers a wonderful Web site, (www.stamps.org), that can get you started on a lifetime of fun some of it away from a computer screen, no less. If you sign up, tell 'em member 69864 sent you.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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