What is the difference between the two? Many collectors use the terms interchangeably. However, I think there is a difference.
To me, topical collecting selects a subject and builds a collection around that subject. It can be stamps and/or covers. For example, one topic might be trains. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stamps that have a train pictured somewhere in the stamp design. Building a collection of trains on stamps is not going to be easy and depending on how complete you want to be. A collection like this is going to take some money. Not millions of dollars. But hundreds of dollars, or maybe even a few thousand dollars. I’m sure there are some valuable stamps that have trains pictured on them. Based on your budget, you’ll have to decide if you want to include stamps like that or not. Maybe a philatelic goal for you is to add those more valuable stamps over time. Don’t forget about postal history too – many railroads carried mail and there are lots of postmarks and covers from mail that was carried on a train.
A thematic collection is similar, but goes one step further. A thematic collection still involves stamps and/or covers, however it also tells a story about the subject.
To illustrate the difference, a thematic collection might be the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad. In this case, we narrowed the subject from trains down to a specific railroad. Now we’re going to tell the story about the B&O railroad. Maybe the collection goes from the B&O’s founding up until it was acquired by Chessie Systems (now CSX). The collection might include a letter from the 1800s from a prominent B&O official. That letter probably doesn’t have a train related stamp on it. A topical collection would not include such a cover because it doesn’t show a train or have a postmark from a railway post office. But a thematic collection would include such a cover if it helps tie the story together.
Another example of a thematic collection would be the switch from steam engines to diesel locomotives. It could involve lots of stamps depicting trains. But it’s not just stamps, there is a story to tell about how the change was made. A thematic collection might include a stamp showing Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine. Whereas a topical collection of trains would not include such a stamp.
This is not meant to imply that one form of collecting is any better or worse than the other. They are similar. But the purpose behind a topical versus a thematic collection is very different.
For too long, I think some traditional collectors looked “down” on topical or thematic collections. Mainly because they were largely inexpensive stamps and there was no story behind them. That’s no longer the case. Yes, many topical or thematic collections are from more modern and inexpensive stamps. However, there is no reason why you couldn’t build a collection such as “George Washington on Stamps” that includes Scott #2 and other rare Washington stamps. Topical collecting doesn’t always have to be about inexpensive stamps.
The great thing about topical or thematic collecting is that it allows you to be creative. In many cases, there are no catalogs or printed albums to follow. You have to do a lot of searching on your own. You can build the collection any way you want to.
Tired of being a slave to blank spaces in your printed album? Trapped by the rigors of traditional collecting? If so, take a break and try a topical or thematic collection. It may give you the enjoyment you seek. And remember, stamp collecting is always about having fun!
If you want to find out more about topical stamp collecting, I suggest contacting the American Topical Association. They are a major philatelic society made up of topical stamp collectors.