Caring for stamps and postal history

From Ours for Keeps? A Resource for Raising Awareness of Conservation and Collection Care by the Museums and Galleries Commission, 1998, by Krystyna Kościa ACR.

To most people a stamp means an adhesive postage stamp, a small printed, gummed label to prepay postage. Other stamps can indicate that a tax or fee has been paid.

A postal history item refers to a piece of mail with or without postage stamps, with postal markings or connected with postal services.

A stamp is built up of several layers. Its base paper is coated with adhesive (gum arabic, PVA, pressure sensitive adhesive or others) on one side and a medium (ink, pigments, dyes) on the other. On modern stamps there are also phosphorescent or fluorescent coatings.

Postal history items such as covers and envelopes are also normally made of paper, possibly with gummed areas or pressure sensitive adhesive strips (envelopes) with markings (franking, stamps etc) in ink, dye, pencil, crayon and/or with gummed paper labels or seals.

Avoiding damage

It’s in your own interests to ensure your collection is safeguarded against easily avoidable damage. Damage can be caused most readily by the following:

  • The way items are handled
  • The storage and display materials used
  • Methods of display
  • The effect of the conditions to which they are subjected, e.g. relative humidity and temperature, light and dust levels.

Keep in mind that items other than mint stamps have already been subjected to adverse handling and conditions through the postal system. They need all the help they can get from you.

There are several measures you can take to protect and preserve your collection.

Careful handling

  • Before handling any paper items wash your hands
  • Handle items as little and as carefully as possible, preferably using flat-headed tweezers
  • Do not smoke near philatelic or postal history items
  • Keep all drinks well away

Storage and display materials

All materials that come into direct contact with your stamps and covers etc. should be made of archival quality materials. For album pages and mounts this means alkaline buffered paper, free of lignin and ground wood; and protectors (pockets, sleeves or envelopes for album pages etc.) of chemically inert polyester, e.g. Melinex®, Mylar™ without surface coatings or plasticizers.

Plasticizers, used to make certain plastics more flexible, can cause off-setting of colours; in particular, PVC should never be used. Albums should be stored upright, not too tight nor over-packed. Slip-cases for albums (preferably with dye-fast covers) or boxes, further protect against dust and other atmospheric pollutants. Avoid self-adhesive tapes.


  • Guard against sunlight or bright direct light (storage in albums is a boon)
  • Avoid overlapping items as they will become unevenly discoloured either through light damage and/or by coming into contact with non-archival materials
  • Black or coloured card, often used as a background when displaying stamps, is also a risk as it is acidic and the colours can run when damp, discolouring your stamps

Environmental conditions

Atmospheric factors which affect your collection primarily involve relative humidity and temperature. Try to avoid any drastic fluctuations in either. A change in relative humidity and temperature can cause damage through the uneven expansion or contraction of an item’s different layers. So aim for stability in environmental conditions. Excessive humidity can cause mould growth and gum to become sticky. Dryness can make gum become brittle. Monitor the conditions in which your collection is kept, ensuring they are stable with a good air-flow.


Choose the location for your collection carefully. Avoid uninsulated attics, damp basements, over-drying central heating systems, outside walls and draughty windows.

A final word

If treatment is needed do not attempt to repair a damaged or deteriorating item yourself. If it is important enough, consult a professional paper conservator.

Further reading/useful contacts

The Care and Preservation of Philatelic Materials, Collings T.J. and Schoolley-West R.F., The British Library

The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, Sandwith, Hermione & Stainton, Sheila. Penguin in association with The National Trust, revised 1993. ISBN 0 14 0123344

The Institute of Conservation [ICON]
Unit 1.5
Lafone House
The Leathermarket
11/13 Weston Street

Conservation Register
c/o ICON, The Institute of Conservation
Unit 1 . 5, Lafone House
The Leathermarket
11/13 Weston Street
London SE1 3ER
Tel: +44 (0)20 3142 6786
E-mail: [email protected]

The Museums, Libraries & Archives Council (MLA)
Head Office is based in Birmingham, with an office in London

The Museums, Libraries & Archives Council (MLA)
Grosvenor House
14 Bennetts Hill
B2 5RS
Tel: +44 (0)121 345 7300
Fax: +44 (0)121 345 7303
Email: As a first point of contact, try the online MLA staff list. If you cannot find the function you are looking for then please contact [email protected].

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
Wellcome Wolfson Building
165 Queen’s Gate
South Kensington
Tel: +44 (0)20 273 1444
Fax: +44 (0)20 7273 1404

Conservation products suppliers

Conservation by Design
Timecare Works
5 Singer Way
Woburn Road Industrial Estate
Tel: +44 (0)1234 853 555
Fax: +44 (0)1234 852 334
[email protected]

Conservation Resources UK Ltd
Unit 2, Ashville Way
Off Wallington Road,
Tel: +44 (0)1865 747 755
Fax: +44 (0)1865 747 035
Email: [email protected]

Preservation Equipment Ltd
Vinces Road
Norfolk IP22 4HQ
Tel: +44 (0)1379 647 400
Fax: +44 (0)1379 650 582
[email protected]

Secol Ltd
Howlett Way
IP24 1HZ
Tel: +44 (0)1842 752 341
Fax: +44 (0)1842 762 159

NB: This article gives only very general advice on this topic; for your own special requirements, you may wish to seek further professional advice. The inclusion of a supplier on this page does not imply the approval or endorsement by the Museums and Galleries Commission or The Postal Museum of the product or service. You are therefore urged, in your own interests, to ensure that any product or service is appropriate to your needs.