Fathers of philately: Georges Herpin

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10 June 2020
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In the first of a new series on the pioneering collectors who started, helped, and promoted the hobby, Devlan Kruck celebrates the invention of the word philately by Frenchman Georges Herpin.

Etymology is a great word! In fact, so is ‘derivation’. Etymology being the account of how a particular word came about, the derivation of a word. Quite literally the word’s birth. 

The reason for mentioning this is that I’ve been musing on the unusual ‘origins’ of the featured 1842 1d red entire which was sent from France to England. You’ll be aware that such covers with an English franking are rare and this one is coming up for sale in a David Feldman auction on 1 July 2020. 

It got me thinking about the origins of our hobby. Not the person, or persons who started it. Because that seems to be up for debate, with various differing stories of who, when, and exactly where, although most seem to agree it couldn’t have started before May 1840. 

Having studied a bit of Greek many years ago, it wasn’t a surprise to learn that ‘philately’ is in fact from the Greek ‘Phil’(o) meaning attraction or affinity, and ‘ateleia’ meaning exempt from tax. Put them together and you get ‘philatelie’. Hey-presto ‘philately’ is born. 

Although before you run off and thank the Greeks for the gift of philately, hold your Trojan horses because, like our featured cover, it is in fact France we need to pat on the back for the creation of such a distinguished word for our hobby. A French guy by the name of Georges Herpin to be exact, who became a dad to the fledgling activity way back in 1864. 

We owe Georges a great deal of gratitude, because we could all be labelled ‘Timbromanists’! Yes, he didn’t like it either. It apparently means ‘stamp quest’. Imagine how hard it would be to attract new collectors if this philatelic realm we know and love was called ‘Timbromanie’? 

And when you think about it, Georges was quite a clever chap. Because whilst we can appreciate why he was keen to re-brand things back in 1864, his logic also captured the essences of what the introduction of stamps had achieved.

The first part of philately’s derivation needs no explanation, however the reason he chose the second part was because the introduction of postage adhesives (stamps to us today) meant that the receipt of letters was suddenly free of charges (ingenious, as we well know), it being the case prior that postal charges were paid on recipient of a letter, ridiculous to us now but a bugbear to budding philatelists like Herpin back then. Thus he joined these two alluring characteristics together.

So our philatelic dad, for we can’t officially don him a ‘Father’, as he isn’t a signatory of The Roll of Distinguished Philatelists, didn’t just pluck a name out of the air which he thought would add a bit of ‘Je ne sais quoi’, he mused about it himself and assembled a small but perfectly formed word to describe our hobby. 

I’ll tell you something else we need to thank Papa Georges for. He was responsible for getting us English into the wonderful realms of philately too, well, certainly we can trace some significant philatelic origins from his involvement with one of the founder members of the Royal Philatelic Society London. In fact, Papa Georges sold his entire stamp collection to Frederick Philbrick – you’ll see his name and image on The Distinguished wall of philatelic fame. 

We’ll explore Mr Philbrick and ‘The Royal’ further in the coming weeks, but before you return to sorting and developing your own collections, just take a moment to muse the etymology of ‘philately’, and give our Papa Georges a heart felt ‘Merci beaucoup!’

Devlan Kruck is a regional representative of David Feldman International Auctioneers (www.davidfeldman.com)

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