What are Definitive Stamps?

In its common English usage the word ‘definitive’ implies something as ultimately final…the ‘be-all and end-all’, if you will.  In Stamp Collecting terminology, Definitive might be defined as ‘new standards’ for postage stamp rates.  The philatelic glossary at Arago concisely defines Definitive Stamps as those that are “issued in an indefinite quantity and for an indefinite period, usually several years or more”.  Wikipedia defines definitives as stamps “designed to serve the everyday postal needs of the country”.

Ok.  So, they’re authoritatively final, standardized, everyday, stamps issued potentially forever in unknown quantities?  This all still begs the question, What are Definitive Stamps?

some descriptions make definitive stamps sound rigid and boring

Trying to be concise, many definitions of what Definitive Stamps are actually better describe what they are not.  Unfortunately, these descriptions might make definitives sound rigid and boring.  While the 1991 U.S. F rate Stamp shown at above left is perhaps the most boring stamp of all time, the majority are just the opposite like the $2.90 Eagle stamp issued the same year.  In fact, definitive stamp issues are sought after by many a serious stamp collector.  Why?  And again, what are they already?

Expert Philatelist Roger S. Brody of Arago describes definitive stamps as the “the workhorses of United States postage stamps” “whose designs might be used for many years“.  And here lies the key to some of the interest collectors find in definitive stamps.  Imagine yourself being tasked with the duty of creating a new definitive stamp issue.  Its range has to be flexible for denominational combinations.  And its designs have to convey meaning for many years to come.  No one hit wonders allowed here.

“You can’t expect to take a definitive image in half an hour. It takes days, often years.” – Photographer Fay Godwin

The expectations of a definitive stamp are so high that it is bound to fail in the modern day.  New postage printing procedures, new postal rates, and even minor design flaws eventually require re-issues or outright replacement.  Therefore, the result for collectors is a smorgasbord of stamp variety.  Wikipedia notes that over 1,000 variations of the U.K.’s Machin Stamps have been identified.  Likewise, the popular U.S. Prominent Americans series of Definitive Stamps saw many of its own changes but also contains wide variations in design and type.

I daresay that definitive stamps are fascinating due in part to their glorious failure at attempting to be definitive.  And isn’t that what makes stamp collecting so intriguing to many of us?  We attempt to categorically categorize something so richly diverse as postage stamps.   Yet, we discover a wonderfully engaging and mentally challenging hobby to be enjoyed for a lifetime!