Have you ever really taken a good look at a postage stamp and considered what it represents? That little piece of paper is actually an ambassador representing its country through the people, places, and history depicted on it.
This brief presentation will highlight the history of the mail and postage stamps themselves, explain how they are created, and make you aware of the infinite possibilities of collecting them.
Consider joining the ranks of famous stamp collectors like President Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon and many others!
Almost any subject you can think of can be found on a postage stamp issued somewhere in the world since 1840. Flora, fauna, and other “natural wonders” can all be found on stamps.
Several hundred thousand different stamps (if not over a million!) have already been issued by countries past and present from around the world. So, too, have local governments and courier services.
I – History of the Mail Before Postage Stamps
Mail and stamps have been defined by noted postal historian Ken Lawrence as:
“Written communication carried from one predetermined place to another on scheduled rounds at uniform rates by a disinterested third party (the postal system), and stamps were defined as printed tokens that denoted the franking privilege or prepayment of postage.”
Any presentation about postage stamps must start by what came before them, for this story really begins with man’s need to document the spoken word and disseminate that information. Pre-paid letter and parcel delivery through the use of postage stamps and home delivery itself are modern conveniences in the grand scheme of things.
So let’s take a look first at mail through the millennia. Before the mid-1800’s stamps and envelopes simply did not exist. Paper sheets were written upon, folded, addressed and then sealed in some way. Mailing costs were based on a combination of the weight and distance traveled, and often paid by the receiver, not the sender! Most routes originated as Royal roads, built by the Crown through the centuries to transport goods.
One of the earliest forms of writing was cuneiform. A note would be incised on clay tablets and then baked, creating a permanent message. The first mail service was formed either by Persian King Cyrus the Great, or his successor, King Darius of the Assyrian Empire around 671 B.C. Persian horsemen rode in relays covering a 1600-mile route in nine days delivering this official mail. Herodotus the Greek described their system this way: “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”
Two thousand years later Marco Polo wrote extensively about the Mongols’ mail relay system in China in the 13th century.
It used about 300,000 horses to deliver the mail to over 10,000 stations in the region.
Starting around 1290, the Venetian Tassis family organized a private courier service throughout the Italian city states. Marrying into German royalty, they later became known as the Thurn and Taxis family, managing an independent horse-based express service throughout the European continent handling diplomatic and commercial dispatches.
The business became so successful that Franz von Thurn und Taxis was appointed as the first Imperial Postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire at the turn of the 16th century to manage communications throughout the jurisdiction. Within a few decades typical deliveries between Brussels and Paris took 36 hours, and Brussels to Naples took 14 days.
One of the earliest known T&T covers, mailed on June 18, 1649 from Belgium to Paris, bearing a “post horn” postmark. Mail deliverers had horns to announce their arrival in towns they rode through.
They employed over 20,000 people by the end of the 18th century and formed the basis of the modern 19th century postal system throughout Europe.
The English postal service was officially established under King James II in 1657 from royal courier routes operating in Elizabethan times as a way of collecting revenue from the domestic mails. Rates at that time were based on the distance the letter was to travel multiplied by the number of sheets of paper composing the letter.
For example, the basic rate for single sheet letters was 2 pence for up to 80 miles, 4 pence for 80-140 miles, and 6 pence for distances over 160 miles. For example, a two-sheet letter sent 100 miles would have cost 8 pence (2×4 pence) in total.
Delivery was made by private contractors who collected their fees in cash from the receiver and paid the government back accordingly based on annual contracts. This was the norm for about 200 years afterwards.
Henry Bishop, English Postmaster General (1660-1663), introduced the first postmark in London in 1661 as a way of documenting the month and day a letter was received at the General Post Office to minimize local delivery complaints. Known as “Bishop’s marks,” several types were used over an 80-year period.
As for the American colonies, informal independently run postal routes began in Boston as early as 1639, with Boston to New York City service starting in 1672.
Officially sanctioned mail service began in 1692 when King William III of Great Britain granted a delivery “patent” to an English nobleman. With it came exclusive rights to set up and offer service to the colonial governments. Routes were set up between New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Portsmouth (NH) by the following year. Individual riders made the treks rather than by relays. A single sheet letter cost 9 pence between New York and Boston.
By 1707 the Crown bought the patent back and began its own operation by an act of Parliament in 1711. Ben Franklin was named the postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, and later was appointed by King George III in 1753 as Co-Deputy Postmaster General for America along with William Hunter.
Postage rates were high and looked upon as another form of taxation by the colonists. The British Stamp Act for America of 1765 placed a formal tax on official documents of all kinds, sparking the American Revolution. The tax was repealed a year later. Very few were ever actually used in the thirteen colonies, but saw service in Canada and the British Caribbean islands.
The Swedish General Post dates to 1636 bearing a variety of manuscript markings. Royal mail was originally marked with 3 crowns, which evolved into a series of squiggles between the early 1700’s and 1873.
Their mail system had a unique way of signifying the importance of letters- feathers. Feathers attached by wax seals gave post riders an idea of the urgency of the message. The more feathers, the greater importance.
The government of Sardinia, located off the western coast of Italy, issued stamped postal paper on November 7, 1818 at post offices and tobacco merchant shops (that earned a commission for their sale) across the island. The release was meant to tax private mail couriers. Anyone found transporting mail not on these letter sheets was subject to fines and imprisonment.
Known as “cavallini”, these pre-cursors to postage stamps were available in 15, 25 and 50 centesimi denominations to account for the distance a letter was to travel.
II – The Creation and Acceptance of Postage Stamps
British postage rates were expensive and borne by the receiver. Businesses saw this as a hindrance to growth. Commoners could not afford to send letters at all. Secret codes developed between sender and receiver on the outer sheet in an attempt to avoid the payment but none-the-less relay a message. When shown the letter, the receiver would see the code and just refuse it. Other times letters would just be refused.
Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster and postal reform advocate from England, suggested in a series of pamphlets in 1837 the idea of using a piece of postal stationery (akin to revenue stamped paper) or “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” as evidence payment had been made. More radical was his proposal for a single uniform postal rate of one penny for a standard-weight letter across the British Isles.
The idea caught on and by 1839 postal reform became law. Universal penny postage was scheduled to be adopted on January 10, 1840.
The British Treasury held a competition to design a device that we now know as a stamp. The requirements were convenience for the public, safety from forgery, ease of identification for postal clerks, and low cost of production. Hill’s concepts of using Queen Victoria’s image were eventually used.
The result became known as the “Penny Black,” the world’s first postage stamp, issued on May 6, 1840, valued at 1 penny for letters up to 1/2 ounce; and the “Two Penny Blue” issued days later for letters up to one ounce. Hill was knighted by Queen Victoria for his efforts.
The idea of prepayment for a letter by using a stamp caught the attention of governments around the world. Over the next several years many countries and territories, especially the Swiss cantons, issued stamps. Here are a few of them.
Mail volume was increasing internationally with the advent of stamps, and the old system of countries signing private treaties with one another to establish postal rates was too fragmented cumbersome and confusing to continue.
Appointed to the position of Postmaster General by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Montgomery Blair spent four years managing the wartime posts on the home front while becoming an international advocate for standardized rates among all nations. He convened an international postal conference in Paris in 1863 where delegates from 15 American and European countries laid the groundwork for future agreements on uniformity.
Heinrich von Stephan, a postal official from the North German Confederation, continued Blair’s work. He arranged for another major postal convention, this time in Bern, Switzerland on September 15, 1874 that concluded with a treaty on October 9 signed by 22 nations. Among other things, it established an organization named the “General Postal Union” as an international body to manage postal affairs. Later renamed the “Universal Postal Union” in 1878, the body continues into our own time as a specialized agency of the United Nations carrying on with its mandate.
From Design to Stamp
Have you ever wondered how stamps are made? While technological advancements have shortened the timeframe in producing them, the basic steps remain the same. As legal tender, stamps have a value associated with them and are printed under tight security and control.
All stamps start with the artist coming up with preliminary sketches. In some cases, a specific artist is commissioned to design a stamp or series of stamps by a postal administration or stamp printing company contracted by that government. Other times competitions are held inviting artists to submit designs based on an idea or concept.
There are several ways of producing stamps. The next series of slides show how engraved stamps are made. It is used sparingly today, as the process is time-consuming and printing costs are higher than other methods.
The Republic of Panama issued a set of stamps on March 1, 1915 to honor the Panama National Exhibition. The 8 value set was designed and printed by the American Bank Note Company the previous year in 1914. A small number were also overprinted for use in the Canal Zone at the same time.
The selected card was mounted on a hardboard sheet that was marked for sizing and scaling needs of the ABNC designers. Also marked are notes on the desired wording, foreign order number (F4245) and die cast number.
A black and white photo was taken of the postcard’s image, reduced in size, and placed in the center of a hand-drawn and colored frame. It was attached to a large card for review and acceptance.
The approved design was then brought to a master engraver. These skilled craftsmen begin with a softened steel slug onto which the design is incised in reverse using very tiny tools. It can take weeks to finish each engraving, called a “die.”
This was a bi-colored issue per the accepted mockup, so two dies needed to be prepared, one for the brown-tone frame and one for the black vignette.
The line engraving technique cuts ridges of various lengths and depths in the reverse-image steel die. When inked and printed, the ink deposits left behind also leave raised ridges that can be felt to the touch, similar to the feel of banknotes.
A series of test colors were printed on a spider press from the dies to determine the best shades to enhance the design. Eventually the printers would decide on the exact color combination to use.
Specialist Ross Towle provided details about the two items pictured here. On the left is a 1914 approval die proof in an unaccepted color with the approval initials of ASM (A. S. Major, head of engraving department) and FWG (Frank W. Gullett, resident foreign sales manager). The index copy card on the right was produced years later (no earlier than 1924) by the American Bank Note Company as they organized their archives.
The master die for each color would have been hardened for final replication onto a transfer roll which is used to create multiple copies on the master printing plate in as many images needed to create a full sheet of stamps.
The master printing plate was then hardened and used to print the stamps. Two passes were needed, one for the brown border and one for the central black vignette.
The sheets were then fed through a perforator, a device that punched holes around each design to make them easy to separate. The resulting stamps were packaged, stored the and shipped to post offices close to their date of issuance.
At least one sheet of the 20 centesimos stamps was entered into the printing press incorrectly after its first pass, creating in an inverted (upside-down) error. It is unknown whether the frame or central vignette was printed first, i.e. resulting in a center invert or frame invert, respectively.
III- What is Philately All About?
Stamp collecting has a language all its own, as do other hobbies.
The term “philately” was coined by the French in the early days of postage stamp collecting. It is a combination of two Greek words, philo (lover, or fond of) and ateleia (free of payment or tax). Philatelists are people who like not having to pay taxes! Remember that for a very long time it was the receiver, not the sender of the letter who got stuck paying for its transportation.
Let’s take a look at seven main features of a stamp. Not all are present on all stamps.
1. Vignette- central main image.
2. Frame- outside image of a stamp.
3. Denomination- value of a stamp.
4. Country of Origin.
5. Margin- unprinted area around a stamp.
6. Border Line- margin and frame separator.
7. Perforations- holes on the edge of a stamp.
It is interesting to note that Great Britain is the only country allowed to issue stamps without a country name in deference to Rowland Hill’s great idea.
Stamps can easiest be separated into four major categories:
Commemoratives – stamps printed in limited quantities and available for a short period of time in honor of important people, places, events or subjects. They are often larger and more colorful than other types of stamps.
Definitives – stamps often reprinted to meet continual use by the public paying a standard rate or value to make up a specific need. Many times these are smaller in size than commemoratives and have a common look, design and/or theme among many denominations.
Special purpose or service stamps – like definitives, but issued for a particular need and oftentimes an exclusive use. These include: airmail stamps, postage due stamps (non-payment of fees), semi-postal stamps (surtaxed stamps for a charitable cause), special delivery stamps, and alike.
Revenue stamps – non-postage receipts representing a tax paid for a variety of needs. Shown above are the following: Canadian law stamp, Irish dog license stamp, revenues from Japan, Mexico and South Africa.
There are many ways to differentiate stamps that have the same design. Knowing these basics allow collectors to tell whether they have a stamp worth a few cents or several thousand dollars. Take a look here and view examples of the one cent “Washington-Franklin” U.S. definitive issued between 1908-1922.
First, check for straight edges. Stamps were released in three formats: sheets, coils (strips for use in vending machines and by mass-mailers), and booklets.
Second, check its perforation. The first “Penny Black” stamps from Great Britain and a number of issues afterwards needed to be cut from the sheet. This proved inconvenient for postal employees and patrons, so a machine was devised to punch pin holes between stamp designs to make them easy to separate.
Pin sizes and the gaps between pins used to punch the holes varied among the various stamp printers. Early collectors invented the perforation gage, a special ruler, to measure the number of holes (or alternately, the teeth next to them) in a standard 20 millimeter length.
The stamps here all have different perf measurements. The higher the number, the more holes. A stamp is simply placed over the printed patterns until it exactly matches, resulting in its perf size. The horizontal measurement is denoted first, followed by the vertical. They are not always the same in both directions.
Third, check its watermark. A watermark is a security impression stamped at regular intervals when the stamp paper is made. The result is a thinning in the paper at the spot where the impression is struck. Designs or lettering are typically used, which may be found partially or fully on every stamp. The Penny Black used a crown.
Two separate watermarks were used on this issue- single and double lettering of “USPS.” A highly evaporative liquid is dropped or poured into a black tray ove ra stamp placed face-down. This allows easy viewing of the watermark to identify the stamp.
Fourth, determine its printing. This stamp issue was printed by three different methods.
Placing one type of stamp over another is an easy way to determine which printing type you may have.
The Scotts Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue is considered the Bible of philately to collectors in the US and Canada.
Available yearly in 6 volumes for worldwide stamps and several specialized catalogues, it lists all postage stamps from stamp-issuing countries and their retail prices in both mint and used condition. Scotts uses a unique numbering system to identify each stamp.
By checking all of the parameters above–commemorative/definitive/special purpose, sheet/coil/booklet, perforation, watermark and printing type–any collector should be able to look up any stamp and properly identify it.
Other Factors in Determining Stamp Value
Properly identifying a particular stamp and then finding its catalogue price is only a starting point in figuring out what its true worth is. Several other factors need to be considered.
The age of a stamp is not a factor when you consider value. Some stamps from the Civil War era can be bought for under 25 cents each. Millions of these stamps were produced over many years, as it paid the standard letter rate of the time. Rarity is more a factor of how many of a stamp exists and how interested collectors are in buying it.
Mint versus Used
Mint (unused) stamps are generally more valuable than unused stamps, but again, quantity printed and saved is the key. Tens of thousands of people bought full sheets of U.S. 3 cent stamps in the 1940’s believing their value would increase. Hundreds of millions were printed. They flooded the market and sell for less than face value now.
Mint stamps with original undisturbed gum, i.e. as they came out when purchased from the Post Office, are preferred by collectors. These are
termed MNH, or mint never-hinged stamps.
In the early days of collecting, small glassine strips of paper gummed on one side were used to attach mint and used stamps to album pages. These became known as hinges, reflecting their fold. half would be licked and attached to the stamp, the other half licked and attached to the page. They could easily be removed by peeling them, but a small hinge remnant would remain and the gum would be disturbed. Such stamps are called MH, or mint-hinged stamps.
Hinges are still used today, but mostly for used stamps. Mint stamps are best mounted using clear and durable archival-safe Dupont Mylar and similar material made specifically for collectors.
It is difficult to find mint-never hinged stamps issued in the 1800’s through the early 20th century. These are highly sought after and command a premium when offered for sale or at auction.
Stamps can be graded against a theoretical “perfect” stamp that would command the highest price. A scale of 6 grades has been developed to describe stamp condition.
G (Good) – design is completely off-center with perforations well into the design of the stamp, face of stamp may contain a blemish or short perfs.
VG (Very Good)- design is off-center, perforations touch the design in one or more places, may have a few short perfs.
F (Fine)- design is still off-center, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects.
VF (Very Fine)- well-centered stamp with one or two sides narrower than the others, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects
XF (Extremely Fine)- near-perfect centering with wide margins, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects.
S (Superb)- perfect centering with wide margins, perforations do not touch the design, free of any defect, printing crisp and clear.
New on the scene is computerized grading of stamps. Several companies now offer “slabbing” services that grade stamps on a perfection scale from 1 to 100. These are mostly for investors and stamps of great value, but more and more are being used for lesser expensive stamps of superb quality to bring a premium price.
IV – Security Measures
Stamps are legal obligations of the issuing country, just like currency. Printers and businesses through the years have devised hundreds of ways to prevent counterfeiting, pilfering and re-use of stamps. Here are some of them.
From the early days, stamps were used for payment of small items that lead to stealing. The Oxford Union Society of Great Britain was the first organization allowed to overprint their stamps in 1859 as a security measure to dissuade pilfering.
Over 50 reported companies unofficially printed their name on the gummed side of the stamp as a way of marking their holdings. Only a trace of the print would remain when used. By 1867 this practice was approved by the British Post Office and stamp producers did this by special request at the time the stamps were printed in the same color ink.
Another idea to identify stamps purchased by companies also originated in Great Britain. Inventor Joseph Sloper patented the idea of punching holes in stamps forming letters or designs in 1858. Known as perfins (PERForated INitialS), the Post Office gave its blessing to the scheme 10 years later on March 14, 1868.
Perfins became popular right through the end of the 20th century, as companies in over 300 countries around the world picked up on their use. In the U.S. alone more than 6,500 patterns have been identified in postage stamps, revenue and special service stamps. Specialists in Great Britain have catalogued over 23,000 varieties. Less than 1/3 of these have been matched to their company of origin. New discoveries are made regularly.
Stamp re-use has always been a problem, as people tried to wash cancellation ink to make them appear unused. Some U.S. stamps from 1867-1871 were impressed with a small square waffle iron type pattern of parallel rows. This broke the fibers of the stamp enough to allow the ink to penetrate thoroughly through the paper, creating a blotched, more blackened cancel.
This is the most expensive U.S. stamp, known as the 1867 “Z” Grill. One of two known, it was most recently auctioned off by Robert Siegel Auctions (lot #226 of Sale #804) in November of 2005 and sold for a record-breaking $935,000. The other known copy is held by the New York Public Library as part of the Miller Collection of 19th century stamps and can never be sold.
Stamp producers began experimenting with near-invisible band of phosphor and fluorescent ink coatings on stamps in the late 1950’s. These stamps “glowed” when exposed to UV light. Mail bearing these stamps could be sorted from the rest by running it through machines which look for these UV tags and orient letters properly for high-speed cancellation. Different tagging types developed through the years and eventually evolved into a security feature to detect counterfeits.
Printing technology has enabled stamp printers to insert “secret” words in various places in a design to prevent illegal reproduction. Designs have also incorporated these finely printed letters in other ways.
Austria was the first country to use a hologram as part of a postage stamp in 1988 for both security and aesthetics. Other countries have since done the same for all types of philatelic products.
Optically variable inks contain tiny flakes of special film that change color as the viewing angle is varied. This technology was first used on banknotes.
Heat-sensitive thermochromic inks have been used on stamps that turn color when heated by slight rubbing with a finger.
Scrambled Indicia® is a “patented pre-press process that scrambles, distorts, intertwines, overlaps or otherwise manipulates images making encoded information on them unreadable by the naked eye, and non-copyable by current color copiers and digital scanners” per the Graphic Security Systems Corporation’s website. The technology has been in use since 1977, and was adopted as an anti-counterfeiting measure on US postage stamps in 1997. When printed, the images are seen through a simple plastic decoder lens allowing the viewer to see the encoded images.
Here are two demonstrations of the decoding technology from the company. A variety of images appear on the 1998 “Bright Eyes” animal commemoratives and $1 fox definitive USPS issues.
Printers have also experimented with different perforation shapes to deter counterfeiting.
In 1993 Great Britain postal authorities uncovered a massive plot selling fake 24 pence Machin definitive stamps (on the right) around the country. Their perforations were uneven and crude, but probably not noticeable to the general public. The Post Office turned to Dutch printer J. Enschede that created an elliptical perf to thwart future forgeries. The 29 pence stamp was issued this way later that year. Two different distinct types of these perfs have been used on British definitives, best seen while two stamps are attached together.
V – These Are Stamps?
So you think stamps are just rectangular pieces of paper with some glue on the reverse? Are you in for a surprise! Countries around the world have found that stamps raise significant revenue, especially from philatelists looking for something different. While valid for postage, most of these were rarely if ever used in the post and simply collected. Take a good look at these and you’ll never look at stamps the same way again.
In 1964 the African country of Sierra Leone became the first to issue a free-form die-cut self-adhesive stamp in the shape of their country. Some collectors were outraged over the gimmick. Self-stick stamps are popular the world-over now.
Who needs paper? An ungummed souvenir sheet made of synthetic polyester fibers with two stamps was released by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) on March 12, 1963. It commemorated “Chemistry for Peace and Socialism.”
The USA turned to a plastic-based stamp in 1991 when it needed a material stronger than paper for stamps to be dispensed by bank automatic teller machines (ATMs). Sheetlets of 12 were sold to bank patrons at face value and had to be the same size as paper bills.
The island of Grenada issued the world’s first stamp printed on silk on June 1, 1971 honoring Jennifer Hosten, Miss World 1970-71. Mongolia’s first silk stamp commemorated the 1982 soccer World Cup.
Gold and silver foil have been used for years on stamps from some countries. Do not confuse these actual postage stamps with embossed foil reproductions created by some companies and sold for high, unrealistic prices.
The US Postal Service trialed “PC Postage” stamps nationwide on August 9, 1999 after a year-long test in Washington, DC and the Pacific states. Called “Information Based Indicia” (IBI), these could only be purchased through a number of private companies via the Internet and printed at home or work.
They were viewed as convenient replacements to postage meters. Each stamp’s encrypted barcode detailed information about its user, verifying its validity and making them supposedly tamper-proof. As meters, they are not intended to be canceled like stamps.
On August 10, 2004 the USPS authorized testing of personalized “PhotoStamps” by Stamps.com for 7 1/2 weeks, allowing images to be printed along side the indicia. Over 2.7 million were purchased. Despite strict controls, creative patrons submitted pictures of questionable personalities, like Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic. This made many reassess the future viability of the program without additional safeguards in place.
Phase II of the photo stamp concept was authorized by the USPS in April 2005, allowing multiple companies to get in the market for a one year period. Four companies participated, Stamps.com (PhotoStamps), Endicia.com (PictureItStamps), Pitney Bowes (Zazzle stamps), and Avery Dennison (Fun Stamps). Fun Stamps lasted only a few months before dropping out of the program.
Are stamps as we’ve known them for over 160 years going the way of the dinosaur?
The USPS and other postal administrations in the developed world are suffering from reduced revenues. People are just not writing as many letters as they used to. The Internet, emails, instant messaging, the growth of cell phones and other “immediate” modes of communications seem to take priority today.
Somehow I suspect people will always have a need for physically sending cards and letters, whether it be while traveling, for Christmas or other holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special events. Of course, like the middle stamp here, we’ll always have bills to pay!