Philatelic genealogy

All stamps from the author’s collection.

While watching the recent broadcast of “Atlantic Crossing,” it took me a minute or two to remember the parentage of protagonist Crown Princess Martha of Norway as well her siblings. Making those connections began with stamps. My childhood world blossomed when a family friend gave me a postage stamp album for my eighth birthday. The package came with an assortment of world stamps, and stamp hinges with which to fix the stamps to the illustrations in the album. A new hobby soon became an absorbing passion.

My parents had collected stamps during their youth when my grandfathers served in World War II. One Belgian stamp from Mom’s album made an indelible impression on me. Who was this beautiful woman, and why were the stamp’s edges piped in black? For those of us who grew up without the internet and google, decoding images, unraveling inscriptions, and establishing context required trips to the reference section of a library. Best source: Scott’s Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, in continuous revision. Therein I identified this mourning stamp of Queen Astrid, consort of Leopold III, King of the Belgians. Astrid died in a tragic auto accident in August 1935.

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021) and HM Queen Elizabeth II.

And so, I continued through my high school years to collect stamps and upgrade to specialty albums. Engraved images of world rulers and leaders became instantly recognizable. In particular, I avidly acquired British Empire commemoratives like this silver wedding issue of 1972.

Other historical scenes invited further investigation. For example, in this stamp from the Pitcairn Islands, I knew this John Adams, depicted with his house, could not have been the second American President.

All of this has been a wonderful way to learn geography, history, notable anniversaries, and other figures worthy of remembrance. I would not, as another example, have investigated Wolfe Tone without first encountering this Irish stamp:

Other stamps, like this one of King Peter, first of Serbia, and later of Yugoslavia, required code-cracking skills to determine its country of origin.

You may ask what does philatelic enthusiasm have to do with the practice of genealogy? For me, ground zero. Long before I had the means and opportunity to expand my own family tree, one of ordinary folks not found in reference books, I learned about dynasties, consanguineous marriages, and their impact on world events. How to read pedigrees became an underpinning of my own research. Not until my early twenties did I discover my most reliable gateway ancestor to medieval royalty, Elizabeth (Deighton) Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts.

The other skill I honed from hours of poring over stamps is not only to recognize important people but to also see how they aged or remained frozen in time—engravers, of course, are not always concerned with photographic realism. Think of how long the profile of the young Queen Victoria, in the Penny Black stamp of 1840, emblazoned stamps pf the British Empire. Among my collections of family pictures, I become adept at identifying people based on earlier images.

My stamp albums have been carefully stored over the last four decades, with some stamps becoming the subject of teaching lessons in the classroom. I imagined that in “retirement” I would get back to collecting stamps once again—that hasn’t happened. Nonetheless, perusing pages from my stamp albums recalls the many joys philately has brought me over a lifetime.

In case you missed my earlier allusion, Queen Astrid of the Belgians was the sister of Crown Princess Martha of Norway.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

28 thoughts on “Philatelic genealogy

  1. Michael, I was also a stamp collector in my youth so thanks for the trip down memory lane! I agree with the connections between genealogy and philately, and note that there is even a website devoted to philatelic genealogy at

    1. What a great link! Have used postal items as narrative points in sketches (i.e. postcard to CT from 50th Reunion of Gettysburg by former Union drummer boy), but a site like those of Maureen Taylor for photographs never crossed my mind. Will bookmark and explore.

      Concord Hartwells, I presume?

        1. Thanks. I think having a Hartwell name is a slightly better bet to be Concord then Wheeler, but it’s close. Bulkeley tops them all. Have even met direct descendants of one of the servants that Peter B. brought over, and a Goble, too, but never a Hartwell. Midnight Ride in 3 days.

        2. Ah, my mother-in-law descends from William. Her father was Norcross Needham Hartwell, and our son now has Hartwell as his middle name.

  2. The Ohio Genealogical Society magazine features a philately page. I enjoyed the geography and maps of stamp collecting as a youngster and how national boundaries–and names, too–changed after WWII. Nice refresher, Michael.

  3. This has nothing to do with genealogy but my late husband collected stamps in his youth. He kept on ripping stamps of envelopes but never did anything with them. I went through some of them and separated them from the paper. Then I put them where they belonged about 2 years after we were married. Some of the stamps had Magyar on them and I learned that they were Hungarian stamps. Twenty years later I was playing Trivia at a New Year Eve’s party with the “boys” against the “girls”. One of the questions was what is the name of Hungary and it was a multiple choice one so I was the only one in the group of about 15 people who knew the answer. The people thought that I was brilliant.

  4. I am also a stamp collector and philately was my hobby several years before genealogy. Research, organization, history, and the fact that neither hobby is ever finished make them related in my perspective.

    1. My father was an avid stamp collector and engaged my sister and me when we were kids. I still do some collecting. The greatest discovery was recently finding a photo online of a canceled envelope with my ggreatgrandfather’s store address and a graphic of a bull. I have tried to figure out who has it so I can buy it. George Mitten was a provisions dealer in Boston and the envelope is addressed to another provisions dealer in Boston.

      1. That’s a find that still eludes me, with one exception: when my grandmother graduated from high school in 1926, she sent a graduation announcement to her grandfather. My grandmother’s cousin kept the envelope and contents and returned to me many years ago.

  5. My grandfather was a postmaster and I began as a child to collect stamps and first day covers. I also have WW II letters to him from soldiers. Fascinating to look back at this hobby. And now to wonder what to do with the collections…

    1. I also have a First Day Cover album. Your question about legacy is the same as mine. I’ve been waiting for someone to come along who is interested in the hobby.

  6. Michael, Not a stamp collector but we both share gateway ancestor Frances (Deighton) Williams of Taunton, MA. Appears you descend via daughter Elizabeth while I descend from son Thomas.

    1. Over the course of having some gateway ancestors’ royal lines not holding up to scrutiny, it is reassuring to know Frances still retains her lineage. Yes, my line goes through her daughter Elizabeth.

  7. I loved reading your post about collecting stamps. I, too, began when in grade school, starting first with World stamps but migrated to collecting mint US stamps. I haven’t done much with it in the past 20 years, but still clip them off envelopes we receive and all our mail going out has the current commemoratives. collecting those world stamps always helped with my geography in school.

    1. Thanks for replying. For several years, I would buy the US mint sets at the end of the year. Also, I was very fortunate that my father. a medical doctor, would always say to his patients about to go on vacation, “Send a postcard to my son who collects stamps.” Some of the kind people went above and beyond the call of duty and buying commemorative sets for me.

  8. Great article. Former collectors will find new meaning in their collections. I admire your writing

  9. I still have the stamp albums from my youth. Nobody in my family wants them. Do you know of any organization that would take them? I don’t believe that they are worth much. I’ve checked on the internet and the value is minimal. I’d rather give them to a youth group or charity.

    1. I am in the same boat as to where the collection goes next. Without knowing much about your community, I applaud that you want to give them to a youth organization. Back when I was in middle school, 50 years ago, we had a stamp club that met every week. Let’s hope the hobby might make a comeback.

  10. Thank you so much for this post! I too started collecting stamps at about age eight, and continued collecting into my 60s, but stopped at that time because my genealogical passion began to surpass my philatelic passion. Nevertheless, what I learned about history and geography during my stamp collecting days helped immensely when I began my genealogical research in 1998. I can’t thank you enough for this post!

    1. My pleasure! I am pleased to know that there are so many others out there for whom stamps meant so much. Though I don’t know where these collections will be in the next generation, I am just going to take time, every now and again, to sit down and look through the pages.

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