Vintage Stamps: Basics – How to Find and Use Them

Image from excellent resource on DIY invitations, cards, and envelopes

Long before Martha did it, I was using vintage stamps. I’m not a philatelist (which are those who study stamps, anyway), nor am I a stamp collector in the sense that I don’t organize and hoard them in little binders. But I do collect them to use because they look so much better than standard-issue stamps (although the USPS continues to come out with great-looking specimens). For a wedding, they really do enhance the look of an envelope–and, although they tend to be a little more expensive than face-value (which, is an understandable concern if you are spending .65 on 300 envelopes), consider them if you are already spending time and/or money on nice calligraphy/fancy labels/cool fonts. They make such a difference: flourished copperplate calligraphy cheapens when you offset it with an ugly stamp. But if you are not familiar with the world of stamps, it can be time-consuming and confusing. Where do you get them, how do you know which ones to use, how do you know which ones go together?

1. First things first: get your invitation together–meaning, make sure it is absolutely complete: invite, response card, reception card, tissue paper, envelope lining, return stamp…whatever the guests are going to open up, exactly. Take that to the post office and have them weigh it to give you an accurate postage amount. The post office does sell an official wedding stamp each year that approximates the average cost of an invite (right now I think it’s somewhere around 63 cents), but you never know if your invite is average. For example–if your invite is square, which cannot go through the machine, then you’ll pay extra. If you change something about your invitation–like, you add a special invite to the morning-after brunch to a select group of guests, you’ll have to get that weighed separately too. Do not skip this step because if you don’t have enough postage, then your invites might be returned (and while I have tremendous love and respect for our hardworking postal workers, there are horror stories of invites that were returned to the couple after the wedding!)

2. Figure out which stamps you want. There are two basic ways to do this: 1) by theme or 2) by color (although truthfully, if you go by theme, you might try and observe some harmony of color and style). I periodically post stamp collections via theme, but you can also cycle through postage through the years and pick out stamps that you like. To do stamps by theme, you can always just google “US Stamp” and then whatever theme you are looking for in broad terms (ie “US Stamp” “conservation” or “butterflies”). Other good sites include which will show you samples of stamps up until 1970; American Plate Number Single Society, which has samples that go pretty current; or the United States Post Office Postal Store site, which is your best bet for the most current stamps (and the site will allow you to purchase directly), and also has an archive of stamps from 1997 through today.

3. Designing a stamp vignette. As I said, it’s best to go by theme or color, but note that you will probably have to be somewhat flexible with theme because if your idea is too narrow–say “French bulldog” you probably won’t find more than 1 (if that) stamp in the USPS’ history–but you probably will find plenty of USPS stamps that have dogs on them. It is also possible that if you stumble upon a great stamp and wish to design a theme around it, you might find that the USPS just hasn’t done anything else with your idea and you have to revise. Also, it helps to be flexible with the postage amounts–you may not find a flower stamp for the exact 6 cents your envelope requires to hit the postage target, but you might find one for 8 cents.

If you are going with color, then go with whatever color is dominant in the stamp–ie, the stamp itself doesn’t have to be COMPLETELY red, so long as your eye is registering red first. In fact, oftentimes it’s nice if you have a mixture of stamps with different saturations of your chosen color:

3. Buy your stamps. The first thing you’ll need is something called a Scott number, which is a specific identification number for each stamp the USPS has produced–similar to an ISBN number for books. You’ll need this number when searching on Ebay and other sources because that’s one way to guarantee you’ll be searching for the right stamp (since, for example, there are several stamps for Mary Cassatt in the USPS’ history). The best source is generally Ebay, although you can also find stamps for sale at several online purveyors, such as Kenmore Stamps. I also recommend when you’re on Ebay that you check and see if any of the sellers have Ebay stores–most do and many are brick-and-mortar operations as well. If you email the sellers they might be able to deal with you directly in getting you the stamps you want, should you be having trouble finding them.


About Kim

I live in LA (LBC, baby), write, study, cook, and make things. I'm a crafter who likes antique stores. I'm a new mom, new homeowner, newlywed...And I am indeed on a shoestring budget.
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