The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting
By David Lidman and John D. Apfelbaum

Chapter Five
Forward  /  IntroductionColor Plate Section
Chapters: 1   /   2   /   3   /   4   /   5   /   6   /   7   /   8   /   9


5. United States Philately

The lessons learned by Great Britain were not lost on America. This was a huge country, sprawling out by 1847 as far as California. The population density in the West was exceedingly low, although because of rich natural resources there were a good umber of small and medium-sized urban centers. The post office was required to serve all these small and medium towns, and, to complicate matters, the western states lobbied actively for cheap postage. In 1847, the United States government issued its first postage stamp, and at the same time reduced postage rates substantially.

The First United States Stamps

Collectors of United States stamps usually collect according to the numbering system of the Scott catalogue. The Scott catalogue numbers each stamp chronologically, beginning with the 1847 five-cent Franklin as number 1. Each stamp that is considered a major collecting type is given a number, or a number and a capital letter. Subtypes of each stamp are given a small alphabetical letter after the major number. Thus the brown shade of America’s first stamp is #1; the shade varieties that are variations of brown are called #1a, #1b, and #1c.

The first United States stamps were issued imperforate and were printed by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson, from stock dies held by the firm. The cost of line-engraving individual dies was great, and it was only natural that such double duty by the dies was used. The five-cent and ten-cent 1847 stamps were valid for postage on July 1, 1847, and were supposed to be in post offices that day. No first-day covers are known, and any covers cancelled during the entire month of July are very rare.

The five-cent 1847 stamp bears the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General of the United States. In terms of the quality of printing, though certainly not of design, this is probably the worst American stamp. The design was well chosen and properly engraved, but the impressing of the stamp onto the paper was usually poorly done. The high quality of the printing of the ten-cent 1847 attests to the expertise of the printers, so there must be other causes for the poor quality of the five cent. It has been theorized that the ink from which he five cent was printed severely corroded the plate. This theory would explain the general mottled impression that this stamp has. Strong, clear impressions command a substantial premium.

The five-cent stamp paid the regular first-class postage rate under 300 miles and the ten-cent paid the postage rate over 300 miles. Covers are known with both five-cent and ten-cent stamps on tem, generally paying for an overweight letter, but these are great rarities. Furthermore, five-cent and ten-cent 1847 stamps could be laced on letters posted from Canada. In this early period, senders could not mail prepaid letters across national boundaries, as each country wanted to collect the postage that was due for its part of the journey. However, some business firms in Canada with important American customers would pay the Canadian postage and put an American stamp on the letter to prevent the letter from going postage due. Such items are rare.

One area of concern for collectors who seek to acquire America’s first two stamps in mint, that is uncancelled, condition lies in danger of “cleaned” stamps. In this early period, most large post offices had canceling devices, but it was unclear to their postmasters whether they were to use the canceller to cancel the stamp or to use the machine to mark the date o the letter and then cancel the stamp by pen strokes. Small towns often had no canceling devices at all and pen and ink was readily used. A large percentage of the #1s and the #2s were cancelled by pen, and over the years some collectors, dealers, and just plain hucksters have “cleaned” the cancellation off the stamp. The details of cleaning are complex, involving the use of both heat and acids. The stamp appears to be unused, though of course it is not. And with unused five-cent and ten-cent 1847 tamps selling at fifteen times the used price, a buyer must exercise care. Most serious collectors and all competent professionals can tell a cleaned stamp from an original, unused one. Under high magnification the pen mark can never be completely eradicated. Still, it would be wise to insist on a certificate of authenticity (see page 73) before buying a unused 1847 stamp.

But this is largely academic because most collectors collect these first two stamps used. The deep rich color of the stamps lends itself well to canceling, red cancellations being the most common. Most collectors of United States stamps collect used stamps to 1890 and unused after that, though this is often an economic imperative rather than an aesthetic choice. Unused stamps before the 1890 are prohibitively expensive.

Prices of the United States’ first too stamps have been rising steeply, quadrupling in the decade of the 1970s.

The 1851s

In 1851, another general postage rate reduction was deemed in order. The price of sending a drop letter (a letter dropped off at a post office for someone else to pick up) was reduced from 2 cents to 1 cent. Furthermore, the first-class rate was lowered from 5 cents to 3 cents, and a five-cent stamp was issued for use on letters that traveled b ship. A ten-cent stamp was issued for mail sent from the East to the West coast. A twelve-cent stamp for foreign letters rounded out the set. All values are imperforate.


The One Cent 1851 (#5, 6, 7, 8, 8A, 9)

This is one of American philately’s most difficult and most interesting stamps. All the one-cent 1851 stamps look alike to the casual collector. However, there are several types that philatelists recognize as different stamps. The differences were caused when the stamp die was transferred to the transfer roll. Individual cuttings by the engraver of each position on the plate would be an endless task. And a die cannot be directly transferred to the plate because both the die and the plate need to be in reverse. A transfer roll is the intermediate step. So this form of exact reproduction was developed, and it has remained the most effective security printing method to this day. On the one cent 1851, the types of the stamp are due to varieties caused during the transfer of the die to the plate, and by plate wear.

Not all collectors care to differentiate among the various types, as these minutely different stamps are called. Still with the rarest type, Type I, selling at about 10,000, and the most common type selling at $40, it makes sense to learn. The types of the one cent 1851 are the hardest part of United States philately; once you master them, everything else is relatively easy. Remember, of course, that most of philately deals with minutiae, and each collector can decide for himself how specialized he wants to become. This degree of specialization is one of the watersheds that separates advanced from casual collectors.

The Types of the One Cent 1851

--Type I (#5) The complete design as it was engraved on the die. This is found in only one position on the plate. The ornaments are complete at the bottom, top, and sides. Though 30,000 were estimated printed, only a tiny fraction are known to philatelists—there are probably quite a few left to be discovered. This stamp is worth anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on condition.

--Type Ia (#6) Similar to Type I except that the top frameline is partially cut away.

-- Type II (#7) This is one of the more common types. It has parts of the design missing at its top and bottom, but the lines below “ONE CENT” and above “U.S. POSTAGE” are always intact.

-- Type III (#8) There are major pats of the design missing at the top and bottom always including the lines below “ONE CENT” and above “U.S. POSTAGE.”

-- Type IIIa (#8a) The line below “ONE CENT” or the line above “U.S. POSTAGE” is broken, but not both.

-- Type IV (#9) As plate one started to wear, the lines at the top and bottom began to disappear, so they were recut: this means that an engraver went to the plate and individually strengthened the lines. The effect shows up as dark lines above “U.S. POSTAGE” and/or below “ONE CENT” on the Type IV.

The one-cent 1851 stamp is one of America’s most popular specialty stamps. There are many different types, a fascinating array of cancels, and this stamp is easier to plate (see page 27) than any other American stamp. It is difficult to find good four-margin examples of this stamp and they command premiums.


The Three Cent 1851 (#10 and #11)

This stamp paid the common letter rate that was reduced from 5 cents to 3 cents on July 1, 1851. There are two main varieties of this stamp. The #10, known from 1851 printings of the stamp, is a shade variety. The color is described in the Scott catalogue as copper brown or orange brown (and here Scott does a far better job of color description than is often the case). The #10 has the color of a well-worn penny and came from early printings of the stamp. The #11, which comes in numerous shades itself, is every other red brown shade except copper or orange brown. This is another popular specialist stamp. Good copies of the #11 still sell for under $10, and even when unused with original gum, they don’t often top $100. So a collector could specialize in just this stamp and still send their children to college. Millions of these stamps were issued, though considerably less than that survive. The number of stamps issued of any particular design is generally known by philatelists, as over the years philatelic students have dug out the information by scanning postal records. But predicting a survival rate is considerably more difficult. In this early period, reliable estimates indicate that only a small fraction of the issued number of common rate stamps have survived and now exist in collectors’ hands. Of higher rate stamps, more were usually saved, probably because the receivers kept them as novelties.

The Five Cent 1851 (#12)

Many collectors believe this is the most beautifully engraved United States stamp. It was issued to pay the internal United Sates postage rate on letters destined for overseas. The rate included the 3 cents internal rate and a 2-cent ship letter fee. With a few exceptions, letters of this period required that postage be paid to all nations involved in its carriage, not just the originating nation, as is the case today. Accordingly, most people paid the postage to the port, and let the addressee pick up the balance. Th stamps were printed closely together—so close that copies showing all four margins are very rare. The number printed has been estimated at 150,000, so that probably fewer than 10,000 exist today in philatelists’ hands. Mint examples are rarities.

The Ten Cent 1851

This stamp, picturing George Washington, was issued to pay the first-class postage rate between the East and West coasts. The ten cent is a stamp much like the one cent; it has four types in its imperforate printing.

-- Type I (#13) has a full plume at right and bottom, and a partial plume at left. The line below “TEN CENTS” is practically broken, and the lie above “U.S. POSTAGE” is always significantly broken.

-- Type II (#14) has a complete line above “U.S. POSTAGE.” A significant part of the design is missing at the bottom, including most of both plumes and the line below “TEN CENTS.”

-- Type III (#15) has significant parts of both the top and bottom missing, including both the lines above “U.S. POSTAGE” and below “TEN CENTS.”

-- Type IV (#16) has the lines above “U.S. POSTAGE” and below “TEN CENTS” recut similarly to the one-cent 1851 stamp discussed earlier. This is the rarest ten-cent type, although the recut stamp is the most common one-cent type.

Like the one cent, the different types (and different Scott numbers) of the ten cent exit on the same sheet so that pairs (two stamps still attached together), strips (three or more attached stamps), and blocks (four or more stamps in two or more rows) showing more than one type can be found. When they are found, they are much desired by collectors and sell for far more than the total for both individual stamps. The ten-cent 1851 stamp is the easiest stamp in the 1851 set to find in good condition. The stamps were printed widely apart on the sheet, so that they are found with large margins. Additionally, because 10 cents represented a great deal of money in the 1850s, the stamps were usually well treated (even locked up!) before being placed on envelopes. Ironic as it may sound, many damaged stamps were probably damaged before they ever were placed on a letter. Some ten-cent stamps show severe damage, as they were the stamps used to pa postage to California and back. Often they were stuffed into some gold miner’s pocket, or that of a covered-wagon traveler, for a lonely night around the campfire writing a letter home.

The Twelve Cent 1851 (#17)

The twelve-cent stamp pictures George Washington. This stamp was primarily used in pairs to pa the 240cent overseas rate. For this reason, covers with pairs on them are not as valuable as covers bearing single stamps, a case of more being less. Twelve-cent stamps were printed very closely together; stamps with any margins, let alone clear margins, on all four sides are rare.

The 1857 Issue

Great Britain began perforating its general issue postage stamps some two years before the United States. In 1857, the Post Office Department contacted Toppan, Carpenter & Company (the printers of the stamps, and the surviving firm from Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Company, printers of the 1851 issue), and instructed them to begin planning to perforate the stamps. Ease of separation was cited as the reason, but it was also believed that perforated edges would make the stamps adhere better to the letters. Toppan, Carpenter & Company, with but four months left on the six-year contract they held to produce these stamps, was quite reluctant to go to all this additional expense with so little time remaining. A compromise was worked out whereby the government paid for the cost of the new perforating equipment, which would then become government property if the contract was not renewed. The perforation of the 1857s measures perf 15.

The One Cent 1857

The types of the perforated stamps are the same as those of the imperforate stamp. However, because new plates were prepared and used in addition to the original plate, Type I and IA, which are so very rare imperforate, are relatively more common on the perforated plate. This has led to some trickery, as certain collectors will trim the perforations off a #18 in an attempt to make it look like a #5. fortunately, a dot n the circle around the portrait of Franklin at 8:00 was added to the later plate, making it impossible to fool knowledgeable philatelists.

And the original #5 ha a characteristic double transfer (a doubling of the design due to fault entry of the die onto the plate) not found on any of the perforated Type Is. Part way into the press run of the perforated stamps, a change was instituted. The stamps were aligned so closely together on the original plate that when perforations were placed between the stamps, they often cut far into the stamp design, and the post office complained.

We should realize that the printers of these stamps were not in fact aware that there were subtle differences in the stamps they were printing, and probably would not have cared very much if they had known. After all, they were under contract, with set delivery dates, to produce the postage stamps for a nation. The decisions that they made as to sheet size, spacing, and printing were purely utilitarian ones, dictated by concerns of cost and efficiency.

It is obvious, then, that when the one cent Type V was created, it was not done with the intent of confusing later philatelists. But as the perforations cut too far into the design, the post office objected, and when you are in business as Toppan, Carpenter was, and your client complains, you take steps to remedy the complaint. Accordingly, part of the design of the stamp was burnished (removed by scraping the steel on the plate) away on all sides, so that the stamp resembled Type III at the top, but it also missing quite a bit of design at the sides, which never happened in Type III. This is the Type V, known only on the perforated stamps.

Quality on the one cent 1857 perforated stamps is nearly always a problem. The entire 1857 issue is not graded as strictly as are the other United States stamps. There was simply no room to place the perforations except on part of the stamps, so collectors must expect that even Very Fine or better specimens show portions of their designs with some perforation holes. The Type V (#24) is the exception to this rule—it was created solely to make more room, and spectacular examples are occasionally found. In ascending order of scarcity, this issue is listed #24, 20, 22, 23, 18, 21, 19, with the #19 approximately seventy-five times more scarce than the #24.

The three-cent 1857 stamp is the same as the three cent 1851 with the addition of perforations. While there are two types of three-cent 1851 stamps (#10 ad #11), these two types are distinguishable by shade alone. The two types of the three-cent 1857 stamps are distinguished in that after perforating some of the #11s, the frameline of the horizontal rows between the stamps were removed to make more room between the stamps for the perforation holes. Thus the Type I #25 has a frameline above and below the stamp, while the Type II # 26 does not.

The #25 is about ten times more scarce than the #26. The #26 was the stamp that carried the bulk of the mail posted in this country during the years 1857 to 1861, and is the most common stamp in the 1857 series. In 1980, the stamp customarily traded at about the $1.50 level for an ordinary used example; unused versions began at about $30. Because of its relative accessibility, many collectors have specialized collections containing thousands of copies of this stamp. Often the stamp was found with what philatelists call a circular date stamp cancellation—a cancel containing the town name and the month and the day. Some collectors try to make what is called a “calendar collection”—a collection of 366 stamps cancelled for each day of the year. Theoretically, nod ate should be scarcer than any other except for February 29, of which there should be one-fourth as many. But completing a “calendar collection” usually requires searching through tens of thousands of stamps.

The years of this issue, 1857 to 1861, were an exciting era for America, and this is reflected philatelically. It was a period of western expansion, and collectors often seek cancellations from small western towns. Te railroad was an active mail carrier, so collectors look for distinctive railway post office cancellations. So too, with steamboats on the Mississippi, gold and silver mines, and cavalry troops fighting the Indians—all of these bits of history produced letters, and all of them have distinctive cancellations known to and collected by philatelists.

And there was the Pony Express. Born in the hopes of rapid communication between the East and West Coast, the Pony Express riders set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, across Nebraska, over the Sierra Madres to California. Every 15 miles or so along the route a change station was built so that riders would always have fresh mounts. Here, horses were kept with the station master, and were saddled and made ready as the rider approached. The exchange of horses was a marvel of efficiency, with the rider hopping off one and onto another in a flash. Each rider traveled about 75 miles in a given ride, or about five or six exchanges, resting at the farthest exchange station before beginning a ride back.

The Pony Express could deliver a letter across the continent in ten days. But it was only in existence eighteen months, by which time the coincidence of the Civil War and the laying of the transcontinental telegraph forced this fascinating private post out of business.

The Five- and Ten-Cent Stamps of 1857

The five cent 1857 is a very tricky stamp because its proper determination rests on both color and type factors. The types are relatively easy to distinguish, and they, too, were caused by the exigencies of the perforating machinery. In 1860, an engraver went back over the plate and cut off the tiny projectiles at the top and bottom of the stamp, creating the second type; Type I still had the projectiles. The colors or shades of this stamp make it exceedingly difficult to distinguish the proper catalogue umber, even for rather adept philatelists. The shades of Type I are brick red (#27), red brown (#28), Indian red (#28A), and brown (#29). The colors of the Type II are orange brown (#30) and brown (#30A). for the four colors of Type I, many philatelists have questioned the Scott catalogue listing of such minor distinctions—and they are indeed small differences. However, the Type II stamp creates no difficulties in identification as the orange brown and brown shades are very distinctive.

The ten cent 1857 is much like its earlier perforated counterpart, with the addition of a Type V, which is a cutaway plate leaving more room for the perforating machine. The ten cent 1857 comes in a multitude of shades, but unlike the five cent these are treated by collectors as the same stamps; only specialists attempt to find an example of each shade variety for their collection.

The twelve-cent (#36) stamp is just a perforated version of the earlier 1851 twelve cent. In late 1859, a new plate was prepared, which can be distinguished from the original plate by its light frameline instead of the usual heavy frameline around the stamp. A minor variety, Scott designates this #36b, and it sells for marginally more than the plate #1, #36.

The Twenty-Four-Cent, Thirty-Cent, and Ninety-Cent 1857 Stamps

All of the high denomination stamps of the 1857 issue are very rare. Only 750,000 of the 24-cent values were printed, although it is known that some were returned to the Post Office Department as unsold and then were destroyed. Experts estimate that perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 examples exist in collectors’ hands. This estimate is one that meets with informal verification by those who peruse auction catalogues and dealers’ stocks. Of the 30-cent value 337,000 were printed; again, some were returned unsold to the department. A fair evaluation of this stamp would be that between 8,000 and 10,000 survive. Of the 90-cent value 29,000 were issued, and some of these were returned to be destroyed. Because of the short period during which the 90-cent value was available before its demonetization, a somewhat higher percentage was saved, and eDepartment as unsold and then were destroyed. Experts estimate that perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 examples exist in collectors’ hands. This estimate is one that meets with informal verification by those who peruse auction catalogues and dealers’ stocks. Of the 30-cent value 337,000 were printed; again, some were returned unsold to the department. A fair evaluation of this stamp would be that between 8,000 and 10,000 survive. Of the 90-cent value 29,000 were issued, and some of these were returned to be destroyed. Because of the short period during which the 90-cent value was available before its demonetization, a somewhat higher percentage was saved, and experience indicates that there are perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 examples still in philatelic hands. After the Civil War, a number of the high values of the 1857 sets were retrieved from southern post offices and sold to stamp dealers.

It is worth remembering that over 24,000 copies of the five-dollar 1893 Columbus stamp were printed, out of which, because of its commemorative nature, its earl popularity, and high face value, certainly 12,000 or more still survive. And yet a five-dollar Columbian in reasonably nice condition, four times as common as the #39, sells for much much more. Popularity, you say. No doubt true, but popularity is influenced by availability. If a collector cannot find a stamp offered, as is often the case with the ninety cent 1857, he is apt to replace it with something else on his want list.

Demonetization And The 1861s

Stamps monitor history; they are not issued in a vacuum. In its broadest sense, postal history is history. Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century great tensions between the North and the South, over economic matters and over slavery, culminated in the secession from the United States of the state of South Carolina on December 20, 1860, and at Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas not long after.. by February 4, 1861, the Confederate States of America had been organized and Jefferson Davis was elected President on February 9, 1861. As the North and South prepared for war, the North began to shut down the post offices of the South. The southern Postmaster General, John Reagan, encouraged the North in doing this, and instructed his postmasters to make their final accounts to the United States Post Office by April 30, 1861. Reagan specifically mentioned that all unsold stamps were to be returned and all monies owed to the North were to be paid. The South had hoped to be able to sever itself from the Union without conflict, and Reagan’s order was issued as if the United States Post Office was a long-time contractor with whom the South would no longer be doing business. Many of the southern postmasters complied; but as his order was drafted in early April, before Sumter, the extent of the bitterness that was to arise between North and South was not foreseen. Because of this animosity, most postmasters from the South never made their final accounting with the United States Post Office, and some quantities of United States stamps were found in southern post offices after the war.

But the North never expected a proper accounting from the Confederate States. By June, the United States had ordered new stamps, and in August of 1861, a letter went out to the majority of northern post offices with new stamps, explaining that postmasters were to exchange the new stamps for any of the older ones that postal customers might bring in. all old stamps were to be returned so that they could be destroyed; thereafter they were demonetized, or shorn of their value. The North was afraid that the great mass of old stamps in the South would make their way back north, where they could be sold surreptitiously for hard currency to help the South finance the war. After late 1861, n stamps issued before 1861 had any postal validity at all. Eve today, these stamps (#1-39) are still the only stamps issue by our government that are not recognized as postage. If you so desired, you could use any of the stamps of the valuable 1861 issue forward to post your letters.

The 1861s

If this book were being written seventy years ago, we would speak of two 1861 issues, the Premier or August issue (for the month they supposedly came out, one month before the regular issue), and the Regular issue, which was issued in September of 1861. the Augusts, as they most usually were called, have very slight design differences from the issued stamps. It is now known beyond ay reasonable doubt that they are not stamps at all, but rather essay submitted by the National Bank Note Company to the United States Post Office. As part of bids, companies were required to submit essays of what they proposed the new stamps should look like. Such a stipulation had been a requirement of contract bidding in the past, and the Post Office Department usually mandated rather significant changes in the designs of the stamps. But stamps were needed quickly now that the Civil War had started, and changes took time. With the most minor changes, the post office ordered the essays virtually as submitted.

The National Bank Note’s essays (hereafter called the August issue as they are listed in the catalogue) have 1 cent, 3 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 12 cents, 24 cents, 30 cents, and 90 cent values. All were printed on a very thin, hard, brittle paper. The paper damages easily, and for this reason many of the Augusts were damaged even though they were placed in philatelic hands from the earliest time. These stamps are listed n Scott as #55-62, with #58 being issued later to the public. When the #58 has been used, it is listed as #62B. With this sole exception, none of the other Augusts were generally issued to the public. With the exception of unused 3-cent and used 10-cent values, all of the Augusts are rare with less than a dozen sets existing. Though they were not originally postage stamps, they are listed that way in the catalogue and are great rarities.

The real 1861 issue (#63-78) is the earliest United States set generally accessible to the philatelist. The stamps were issued between 1861 and 1866. Most of them sell used for under $20 to $25 each. The one-cent (#63) stamps is a beauty and was first issued, along with most of the rest of the set, about the middle of September. The two-cent (#73) stamp was not issued until July 1, 1863, and contains a large engraving of the face of Andre Jackson. The stamp is black; philatelists refer to it as the “Black-jack.” Two hundred and fifty million copies of this stamp were printed over its life, though well-centered examples are extremely rare—this may well be the most difficult United States stamp to find in well-centered condition. A perfectly centered two-cent Blackjack with large even margins sold years ago for 100 times the catalogue price, probably a record premium for quality alone.

  The most spectacular double transfer known on an American stamp is found on the Blackjack. Called the Atherton Shift, it represents a complete doubling o the entire upper left corner. The stamp is worth several thousand dollars, against a catalogue value for the regular stamp of only a little more than $10. The Atherton Shift was o doubt discovered by the issuing authorities early and the plate was either repaired or destroyed; otherwise it would not be so very rare. As it is, only three or four copies are known. The shift has not received much publicity outside the Blackjack specialist circles and indeed, until very recently, was not even listed in the general catalogues. An example could be sitting, undiscovered, in the most ordinary collection.

The three cent 1861 is known in a myriad of shades. The earliest printings are printed in a truly striking red shade called Pink by the c catalogues, but having a distinct tinge of blue in it. The Pinks (#64) are worth several hundred times the price of most of the other shades, which are much darker. If a panel of experts was asked to choose the one most common misidentification mistake made by novice, intermediate, and even advanced collectors, the overwhelming choice would be the confusion among the Pink (#64) the rose pink (#64b) and the reds (#65). All of the Pinks were printed with light-sensitive ink that darkens when exposed to light, destroying the variety. Besides hope springing eternal in the collector’s breast, and the widespread philatelist’s weakness for imagining his possessions to be more valuable than they really are, there is an additional factor at play here. For some reason that has never been addressed scientifically, the Pink’s color is a hard one to memorize. When the shade is pointed out to them, novice collectors will make the distinctions with aplomb, sorting out large quantities of the stamp with unerring accuracy. But in a week’s time, more often than not that same collector, if he has not worked on the stamp in the interim, will be back to making the same mistakes, confusing the shades and calling stamps Pink that do not even approach it. Several prominent collectors keep the several major shades of this stamp, including the Pink (#64) sorted and identified, and before they begin to work on quantities of the stamp, they review the shades again. Perhaps the human memory has a weakness over certain colors.

The common three-cent red of 1861 (#65) is a collector’s dream. 1.75 billion copies of the stamp were issued. In quantity, the collector can buy them at under a quarter a piece. This is the most popularly collected specialized stamp in American philately, and one of the most fascinating ways to specialize in it is to collect “fancy cancellations.” In the 1860s, the dictate came down from the postal authorities that each stamp on a letter had to be canceled with a separate canceling device that did not contain the town name and date. The town name and date, or circle date stamp (CDS), as philatelists call it, still had to be struck on the letter, but another cancellation had to be used as well to cancel the stamp. The reason given for this new postal regulation was that the CDS was usually indistinct when impressed upon a stamp, thus making an imperfect cancellation. A canceller that is used just to cancel the stamp is called a “killer,” and it was up to the postmasters to provide these for themselves. The postmasters could cancel the stamps in any way they wanted. More imaginative postmasters carved their cancellers out of wood or cork; hearts, flowers, heads, or just about anything can be seen on these stamps. Fancy cancels began to die out about 1890 as the efficiencies of machine canceling came in.

  Another fascinating area that is generally associated with the three cent 1861, though is found with other stamps too, is that of ‘Patriotics.' The year 861 brought the out break of the Civil War. Just as patriotic Americans of this century have hung flags in their windows during wartime, envelopes bearing pro-Union designs were exceedingly popular in the North. There are hundreds of designs. Shades abound on the three cent 1861, an paper varieties are collected too. Many old-time philatelists report that the three cent 1861 is the last stamp “left.” These old-timers were collecting when other early United States stamps were cheap enough to buy in quantity, before the great inflation that has driven up stamp prices since World War II. With the three cent 1861, a collector can still collect the way that collectors used to, where you can see and appreciate minute differences in shade and cancellation between hundreds of stamps that, until examined closely, look very much the same.

The five-cent stamp comes in three shades, buff or olive brown (#67), red brown (#75), and brown (#76). The rarest of the three is the buff: it was printed on a very thin, brittle paper, which tends to crack almost spontaneously, making sound examples of this stamp quite rare. The postal authorities did not care for the color, which was deemed too light in shade and some thought it could be confused with the three cent. Late in 1861, only a short time after issue, it was replaced with the red brown. Of the buff 175,000 were issued, although probably just a few thousand still exist. The red brown (#75) and the brown (#76) are not scarce stamps: between the two, about 7.5 million were issued, 1 million of the #75 and 6.5 million of the #76. The red brown (#75) is a particularly delicious shade, and should not be confused with the ordinary shoe-polish brown of #76.

The ten-cent stamp issued in 1861 comes in two types. Type I has no line above “U.S. POSTAGE” while Type II does, although most experts use this telltale characteristic only as a second check. The Type I (#62B) is in a deep oak-leaf green shade that, with experience, proclaims its rare status. One half million #62B stamps were issued, though the stamp seems far scarcer than that. The regular type II #68 is usually in a far lighter shade of green. Quantities issued of #68 are estimated at over 27 million, so this is not at all a rare stamp.

Japan was opened to Western commerce in the mid-1850s, but the Japanese Postal System proved quite unable to handle trans-oceanic mail, as the island nation was just emerging from feudalism and had no merchant shipping to speak of. So the United States opened a post office in Japan. The #68, the ten cent Type II green, is the first stamp known to have been used from Japan, usually cancelled “Hiogo.” Japanese Post Office cancellations are somewhat more common on the American 1867 and 1869 issues, reflecting increased trade between the two countries.


The twelve cent (#69) is a beautiful stamp, finely engraved like all of the 1861s. there are no varieties of any importance of this stamp. However, keep in mind that although most of the 1861s are not rare, they are exceedingly difficult to find in Very Fine or better condition. As a rule, they were perforated poorly, with the perforations customarily cutting into the design. Stamps centered so poorly that only two-thirds of the design shows are not rare. Too, the choice of paper was poor, being very brittle. Add to this the early “stamp saver’s” penchant for peeling stamps off envelopes with a knife (it did not matter 100 years ago if a stamp was thinned), and it’s easy to see why fewer than one copy in 100 of the 1861s remain in choice condition.

The balance of the set, the twenty-four cent (#70 and #78 depending on shade), the thirty cent (#71), and the ninety cent (#72), are all scarce but not rare stamps that are exceedingly difficult to find in appealing condition. The ninety cent (#72) has been a real star in terms of investment performances in the last few years—representing, of course, the discovery of its rarity, not the increase of its rarity itself. Off-cover used examples can be found; mint copies are rarities; and examples genuinely used on cover, of which only a few exist, have shot up in value from about $10,000 each to well over $50,000 in just a few years.


The Grills (1867 Issue)

The postal authorities of the United States had a paranoic streak about postal users soaking stamps off envelopes, cleaning off the cancellations, and reusing the stamps. Philatelists who have examined millions of stamps and covers of the period know that this was pure fantasy on the part of the Post Office Department. The hard evidence does not support the theory that cleaning and reusing stamps was a problem of any magnitude whatsoever. Be that as it may, when a customer the size of the Post Office Department tells its printer to look for a way to make such cleaning impossible, the printer usually will find one.

Several schemes were advanced to solve this “problem.” One idea, called patent cancels, was to use a canceller that cut the stamp, as well as canceling it with ink, rendering its reuse unlikely. One small factor, however, was not taken into account: when you cut a stamp on a letter, you cut the letter a well. Postal patrons, who have always complained about the speed of delivery and the condition in which their letters arrived, reacted un enthusiastically when this plan was tried.

Another innovation was to print stamps on a paper that was made by gluing two layers of paper together—a thick bottom layer and a very thin top layer. This was called double paper. In theory, when such a paper was soaked off an envelope, the paper would separate and the top layer on which the stamp was printed would be so thin that the stamp printing would disintegrate. That was the theory! In practice, as often as not, the paper did not separate when soaked because it was glued too well. And sometimes, especially on hot, humid days, the stamp would separate spontaneously. Though philatelists know double paper was tried, especially on the later Bank Note issues, we don’t know how widespread its use was.

Other countries were concerned with philatelic reuse too. The solution effected by Great Britain was to print its stamp on what is called chalky paper, a heavily coated paper that dos not allow the ink to seep deeply into the paper fibers. When soaked off an envelope, the design would often mottle, or spread, and when chemical ink eradicators were used, the stamp would lose their design entirely. Other countries, notably the Dutch Indies, would print some of their stamps in what are called fugitive inks—ink that only lay on the surface of the paper. It is always a treat to see a novice collector’s face when he drops several of these stamps in water to soak and they come out bare and white.

But the United States wanted to keep all of its stamps engraved, and the Great Britain and Dutch Indies answers were not compatible with line engraving. After turning down a brainstorm that would have put a small amount of gunpowder in the stamp paper during the printing process to be detonated by hitting the stamp with the postmark (never, to the Post Office Department’s credit, seriously considered), a man named Charles Steel came up with a plan for a machine that grills.

A grilling machine has tiny pyramids that make minute cuts through the paper after printing and gumming—the theory being that with the paper cut, the canceling ink will seep deeper in, rendering it impossible to clean all evidence of the cancel away. And the little cuts are truly small: most grills cover less than half the stamp and have over 200 tiny cuts. The grills were applied to all of the stamps of the 1861 issue, creating the 1867 issue, and they would not be particularly interesting were it not for the act that being a new process, there was a good deal of trial and error to see what worked. Grill types are referred to by letter (A to L and Z), though only A to F and Z are important to distinguish. A little trick that will aid you in seeing the grill better is to place the stamp face down in a watermark tray and add a bit of watermark fluid. The grill shows up darkly t=in the tray for the simple reason that where the grill breaks the paper, the paper is thinner. Some philatelists use tracing paper and artist’s graphite to measure the grill. They place the stamp face down on a hard surface, place the paper over the stamp, and rub on the graphite. The grill usually shows up well, though this is a cumbersome business. With practice, most grills are easy to see unaided and to identify properly with the use of the tray 

Grills With Points Up (A, B, and C)

The “A” grill is the easiest grill of all to identify as it is the only one that extends over the entire stamp. It was the first grill issued, and it didn’t work out very well. The large amount of grilling weakened the paper and made the stamp difficult to separate neatly along the perforations. When users tried to separate the stamps, they were frequently torn. The three cent (#79) is the most common of the three stamps known with an A grill; the quantity estimated issued is 50,000. Experience indicates that only 2,000 still remain in collectors’ hands. Undamaged, well-centered copies are practically unknown. The five cent A grill (#80) is a great rarity; less than 2,000 were issued, and only four or five can currently be accounted for. No unused copies are known. If you wish to acquire the stamp, you would be wise to buy the first example that you see; only one example generally is sold during any generation. The same is true for the thirty cent (#81), with again only six examples known, all defective and selling for over $100,000.

The B grill, like the A and the C, has the grill point facing up. This means that the cutting pyramids of the grill machine were placed to do their work at the back of the stamp the grill measures 18 by 15 millimeters, rather large by grill standards; or, when expressed in grill points or rows, which most collectors prefer, twenty-two rows by eighteen rows. Only one cover bearing four stamps was known with the B grill, and it is the 3-cent value (#82). The stamps have been taken off the cover. The C grill measures 13 by 16 millimeters, or sixteen to seventeen rows by eighteen to twenty-one rows. It is known only on the three cent (#83), and although rare, this is a stamp every collector can hope to attain. Three hundred thousand were estimated issued, so that though scarce, they are more than abundant than their other “Points Up” brethren. The “points U” grill was for the most part unsuccessful. Placing the grill so that it pushed and cut up visibly disfigured the stamp. It was not long before placing the grill points down was tried. This process still produced the same amount of protection against cleaning while not greatly affecting the appearance of the stamp.

Grills With Points Down (D, E, F, and Z)

The D grill measures 12 by 14 millimeters, or fifteen rows or points by seventeen to eighteen rows (the reason that the number of rows sometimes varies within a grill is that they were set only approximately o the grilling machine, so there are slight differences). It is known on two stamps, the two-cent Blackjack (#84) and the three cent (#85). The numbers issued are 200,000 and 500,000 respectively, so that a fair evaluation of the number surviving in collectable condition would be perhaps between 2,000 and 5,000 of each.

The E grill is the second most common grill, measuring eleven by thirteen millimeters (or fourteen by fifteen to seventeen points), and is found on the one cent (#86), two cent (#87), three cent (#88), ten cent (#89), twelve cent (#90), and fifteen cent (#91). Though all E grills are scarcer than the stamps without grill (the 1861 issue), they are not rare. The F grill is the most common of all. It is found on the one cent (#92), two cent (#93), three cent (#94), five cent (#95), ten cent (#96), twelve cent (#97), fifteen cent (#98), twenty-four cent (#99), thirty cent (#100), and ninety cent (#101). This is a very narrow grill, measuring nine millimeters by fourteen millimeters (or eleven to twelve b fifteen to seventeen points), which was the grill the printers finally settled on. Scarcer too than the 1861 issue without grill, none of these stamps rates as rare either.

The rare grill with points down is the Z grill—which is also the most difficult grill to identify. The size of the grill is virtually identical to the E grill. However, the tiny cuts that each pyramid grill cutter makes on the Z grill are horizontal cuts (cuts going across the stamp0 whereas on all other grills these cuts are vertical. While this is a small difference, it is a significant one. The Z grill is generally very rare. There are only three copies known of the one cent with Z grill (#85A). However, due to most collectors’ unfamiliarity with grills, more (though certainly not many more) may be discovered. The two cent with the Z grill (#85B) is the one stamp in the Z grill family that most collectors can aspire to. The number issued is estimated at 100,000; probably a few thousand still exist in collectable condition so it is something of a bargain at its current price of only a few hundred dollars. The three cent Z grill (#85C) is a rare stamp. The ten cent (#85D) is a rarity of the magnitude of the one cent, with only a handful known. The twelve cent (#85E) is not rare, though the fifteen cent (#85F) is another rarity.

The Z grills amply illustrate the problem that philately has with grills. They are difficult to identify and for this reason are overlooked by mot philatelists. Because of their relative unpopularity, rare grills attain nowhere near the high prices that they would achieve if they were “face different” varieties. Man collectors ignore the grills entirely. The two cent Z grill (#85B), which would sell for thousands of dollars if it were a commemorative, only sells for hundreds. Buyers must beware of forged grills, as well. It is not very difficult to attempt to forge a grill on the back of a stamp and to turn a five-dollar variety into an apparent $5,000 one. But such work is rarely convincing to anyone even slightly familiar with grills, though collectors should insist on appropriate authentication or certification on expensive items and would be wise to consult the experts. This is especially true if the time is offered at a “bargain basement” price; it was usually made there.

As an aside, Lester Brookman, one of the greatest experts on United States stamps, believed that there were two main types of collectors: those who suspect that nothing is counterfeit and those who suspect that everything is counterfeit. What he meant is that unknowledgeable collectors (and, increasingly, investors) have no idea how easy it is to create a variety that can look convincing to someone who has never seen it before. At the same time, a little knowledge can make some collectors so skeptical that they never purchase any stamps for their collection. American philatelists are fortunate. Because of firm anticounterfeiting laws, nearly all of the forgeries and alterations of United States stamps are tawdry affairs made quickly before the Feds closed in. knowledgeable experts can tell the grills and any other variety with absolute certainty.

The 1869 Issue

The 1869 issue of the United States was the world’s first pictorial stamp. Until that time all United States postage stamps, and all world postage stamps for that matter, depicted either heads of states or numerical figures. The 1869 issue was unpopular from the start. But it is important to note that deriding the quality and subject matter of United States stamps has long been an American pastime.

The one-cent buff (#112), with Benjamin Franklin’s picture, evoked praise for its execution but great criticism for its color, which is a dull buff. The color did not show the detail very well ad in its lightest shades is very difficult even to see. The two cent, in brown (#113), is a beautiful stamp that shows a man riding a horse. Equestrians from the beginning said that the designer of the stamp could never have ridden horses, and that no self-respecting horse would be caught with its legs in that position. The New York Herald said the scene looked like “[John Wilkes] Booth’s death ride into Maryland.” The beautiful three cent (#114) shows a locomotive, and is printed in an ultramarine shade that makes lovely copies rare. The six cent (#115) shows General Washington, and the ten cent (#116) in orange is exceedingly difficult to find in excellent condition. The twelve cent (#117) shows the ship Adriatic.

The high values of the 1869s begin with the fifteen cent. This was the first American stamp to be printed in two colors. Two-color printing using the line-engraved printing method is not easy. The stamps must be printed in two runs through the press, aligning the two colors, in this case making sure the vignette (or center) is balanced within the frame. Such centering of the printing is almost never perfect; the vignette always is off center in one direction or another. Surprisingly enough, stamp collectors who will drag a stamp’s price down for virtually any reason, real or imagined, do not pay attention to the centering of the vignette in a two-colored line-engraved stamp.


This fifteen-cent stamp shows a pictorial representation of the landing of Columbus. There are two types of the stamp, one (#119) with the center vignette framed by a line and a small diamond at the top (below the T of “POSTAGE”), and another unframed (#118). The stamp was originally printed without the diamond, and it is about twice as scarce that way. After a short while, the stamp department of the post office thought it would look better if the diamond took up what was considered to be an excess of white space around the vignette and this small change was made. The stamp with the diamond is known inverted—caused, of course, when one of the passes through the press was done improperly and the paper was turned around after one color had been printed and before the next. Then, as now, there were inspectors, but inspectors do not always catch everything they were supposed to. In philately, their mistakes make the hobby more interesting. It is odd, of course, that collectors value inverts so highly. Businessmen routinely throw away inverted letterheads, as do people who get an imperfect pad of checks from their bank. In stamps, such things are rarities. Though inverts are always called inverted centers, in some cases (like this one), they are really inverted frames. It depends on which was printed first, the vignette or the frame, and in the case of this stamp, the vignette was printed first. Only a few fifteen-cent inverts exist and they sell for thousands.

The twenty-four cent 1869 (#120) has been acclaimed by many enthusiasts, the authors included, as the finest stamp ever produced by any nation. The colors are green frame, violet vignette. The vignette measures 3/8 inch wide by 3/16 inch high, and the engraver has portrayed a faithful reproduction of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence. With a magnifying glass, an observer can identify the six principal figures in this stamp by the features alone, which is rather astonishing when you figure that each head is smaller than the head of a pin. This stamp is the pinnacle of the engraver’s art, even though he was not helped by the color choice as the violet center sometimes begins to fade. The stamp is known with an ‘inverted center”—again, really an inverted vignette. Probably less than twenty of the twenty-four-cent inverts exist, including a block of four.

The thirty cent (#121) is not very uncommon used, but it is a very rare stamp on the cover. High denominations, such as the thirty cent, were generally used on packages or on heavy large-sized envelopes—not the type of items that are often saved. An invert of this stamp is known too, though this one was not “discovered” until years after the stamp was issued. This is because the bland colors of the stamp, combined with generally heavy cancellations and the inverts intrinsic rarity, kept its existence hidden for almost thirty years. It always pays to look carefully at your stamps. In all, about twenty copies of the invert have been found; more probably exist.

The ninety cent (#122) is a beautiful stamp, so lovely that it is hard to believe that postal users found this stamp, like the other 1869s, ugly. The stamp is very rare, and it is the only regular two-color variety of the 1869s that never accidentally came out inverted. It did so intentionally! That’s right. The government issued proofs of the fifteen cent, twenty-four cent, thirty cent, and ninety cent with inverted centers. But the inverted proofs, of which only 100 were issued, were printed on thick card stock similar to shirt cardboard, though of finer quality, and were issued imperforated.

Part of the reason for the unpopularity of this set was its new size, which most postal users felt was far too small. The stamps are about two-thirds the size of those that they replaced. The colors chosen were considered too dull and bland, but this extreme criticism strikes modern philatelists as odd. To our eyes, the 1869s are among the most beautiful stamps the United States has ever produced. The small size that the 1869 postal users disparaged we find appealing in its simplicity and innovativeness. The colors that were ridiculed have held up quite well over the years, so that, on balance, the 1869s look far fresher and brighter than many stamps that seemed so much better printed then. To people in the nineteenth century the choice of designs seemed radical, and to have illustrated scenes rather than heads of state appeared insolent. Now, however, we are accustomed to so many cluttered commemoratives that the 1869s make a refreshing change. But the critics won the day, and the set was withdrawn in 1870 after less than a year of duty.

The Bank Notes

Beginning with 1870 and the issues that philatelist term the Bank Notes, United States stamps entered a new philatelic period. These stamps are called the Bank Notes because they were printed over they twenty-year span by three successive bank note-printing companies, the National, the Continental, and the American Bank Note companies.

The different printings of these stamps by the three companies are treated by philatelists as different stamps. For years, some collectors have had difficulty identifying among the printings, but in recent years the trouble has been alleviated. Our knowledge of these stamps has increased, but the reason that the stamps are easier to distinguish is primarily because the differences between the stamps are now better explained. For years philatelic writers wrote only for a specialized audience; only in the last twenty years have easier explanations in plain English been available. The lower values of the stamps can be distinguished with little experience; the higher values are more difficult.

There are four different sets of Bank Notes. The first set is #134-144, printed by the National Bank Note Company on grilled paper. Next are #145-155, printed by the National Bank Note Company on ungrilled paper.

It should be remembered that the grills on the grilled Bank Notes were placed in a perfunctory manner. The government maintained its order that all supplied stamps were to be grilled, but beyond that they rarely inspected the stamps very carefully. They were beginning to tire of the idea of grilling stamps, and within a few months the National Bank Note Company was permitted to supply stamps with no grill at all. Further, the grills on the stamps that they did supply grilled were rarely fully impressed, and often had the appearance of several sheets having been placed in the grilling machine at once.

After the ungrilled National Bank Note Company’s printing of the issue called the Bank Notes come #156-166, printed by the Continental Bank Note Company, who out bid the National for the new contract that was awarded in 1873. the Continental added small distinguishing marks to the stamp plates so that they could tell their own printed stamps from those printed y National. These distinguishing marks are called by philatelists “secret marks” and the general stamp catalogues illustrate them quite well. The secret marks do not exist on the high values of the set, which must be told by shade alone.

Finally, there is the American Bank Note printing of #182-191, printed in 1879 on the same plates but on soft porous paper. Soft porous paper is extremely distinctive. When held to the light, the paper shows a marked weave; when bent, it bends very easily, with none of the spring of the earlier papers. But the most distinctive test is to place a stamp face down in a watermark tray filled with watermark fluid. There, the distinctive weave will invariably proclaim its status. The American Bank Not Company printed stamps from these plates for years, and late in the 1880s retouched some of the designs. These are given special catalogue numbers and the subtle differences are well illustrated in the catalogue.

Since the Bank Notes were the postage stamps for a nation for so long a period, hundreds of printings were necessary. Of the three-cent stamp, 6.5 billion stamps were printed and sold over a twenty-year period. Collectors avidly specialize in these stamps. Indeed, with the exception of the grilled Bank Notes and the higher values above the twenty-four cent, used Bank Notes are quite common and well within the price range of most collectors.  

Bank Notes can be collected in basically two ways. First, a collector can attempt to own one of each of the stamps printed by each of the printing companies. This is how most collectors attempt it, and this is how the stamps are arranged in most catalogues and albums. The second method is gaining more and more favor. It begins with finding one of the low-value stamps that you especially like and creating a specialized collection. For about $100, a collector can purchase well over 2,000 of the three-cent Bank Notes. Each stamp is a piece of history in its own shade and with its own distinct cancellation specializing like this is usually an adjunct to a general United States collection and can offer satisfactions all its own.

The higher-value Bank Notes have great interest because of their rarity and the problems in finding them in excellent condition. The twenty-four cent is an exceedingly difficult stamp. The color has faded badly to such a dull shade of light lilac (listed as purple in the catalogue but not what people would usually call purple) that often the details are difficult to see. The twenty-four cent National grill is one of America’s rarest stamps; only 2,000 were printed and probably but a handful remain. If it were a face different variety, rather than a variety with a grill (always less popular with collectors), it would no doubt sell for five or ten times its current $10,000 price tag. Te twenty-four cent is known in only two ways—grilled and ungrilled, both printed by the National Bank Note Company. It is a matter of record that the Continental Bank Note Company printed and issued twenty-four cent stamps in 1873, but these stamps are indistinguishable from the National printings.

For years these twenty-four-cent Continentals were listed as Scott #165, at about the same price as #153; but because the two varieties are identical, wisdom overcame tradition, finally, and the listing was taken out. There is an old story about a stamp dealer, back in the days when these two identical ungrilled twenty-four-cent stamps were given separate catalogue listings, who kept all his twenty-four-cent Bank Notes in his stock book, with no number on them, of course. When asked for one or the other, he would pull two examples out of the book, and begin discoursing on their differences and why one was the variety for which the collector was looking. There was far less substance than salesmanship in all of this, though, because both stamps sold for the same price, advantage was taken only of the truth.

Reissues And Special Printings

Many of the most precious varieties of United States stamps were not regularly issued to the public. In 1875, the United States Postal Department wished to have on sale at the Centennial Post Office, which was to be at the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, examples of all United States stamps that had been issued to that time. This was a public relations ploy on the part of a department proud of its stamps that also wanted specimens to sell to the public. Anyone who so desired was permitted to buy them, but because stamp collecting was in its infancy, few people availed themselves of this spectacular offer. The stamps were printed on different paper from the originals and in slightly different colors, so that an entire new category of stamps was created. All the reissues are rare and all are expensive.

For years, the controversy has raged over just how valid the reissues are. After all, they were sold more for souvenir than for postal purposes, even though they could be used on letters. But for the last fifty years or so the dispute has died down, and the reissues now grace many fine collections.

The reissues of the first two stamps that were made for the 1875 Centennial are not reissues at all. The Post Office Department believed that the original dies for the first two stamps (#1 and #2) had been destroyed in 1851. New dies were prepared, so these stamps are much more accurately designated as reproductions than reissues. They were printed in sheets of fifty, imperforate and ungummed. Forty-seven hundred of the five-cent reproduction (#3) and 3,800 of the ten-cent reproduction (#4) were printed.

The reissues of the 1857s are great rarities. They one cent#40 is the most common of the set, with 3,846 issued. This stamp is the perfect Type I, with all portions of the design complete. The shades of all of the reissues are quite different from the original stamps though, so there is no danger of collectors being fooled and purchasing a rare reissue as an even rarer mint Type I of 1857. of the balance of the et, #41-47, the largest number of any value printed and sold is under 500, and they all sell for $2,000 each. It is situations like this that attract speculators to stamps. They see a very popular collectable that is extremely rare selling for a comparatively low price—once could control all of he available supply of the reissues for a relatively small amount of money.

For a long time, stamp economists have been attempting to explain the relatively low price of stamps like the 1857 reissue. Several reasons have been put forward. First, they were not new designs, so there is a certain amount of collector resistance to paying large sums of money for a stamp that looks pretty much like one that they already have. Second, most collectors collect in inverse chronological fashion, starting with the present and working their way backward. There are, unfortunately, too few collectors with the means and inclination to work back into the nineteenth century. And if they do, they are most concerned with getting face different specimens. These explanations are fine, but they miss a more poignant aspect of philately and philatelic prices. These stamps, and other reissues like them, are so scarce that no more than a dozen or so of each are traded in any given year. Philatelists base their wants on what they see, and reissues are not offered often enough to whet the palate of most collectors. In fact, some are almost never publicly offered, with prominent dealers having these rarities on innumerable want lists so that they sell as soon as they come to the market. Thus the reissues go to the serious collect with patience and a penchant for completion; but the casual monied collector or investor passes over them, primarily because he never sees them. Accordingly, the upward price pressure is lessened.

Of the 1861 reissue, again the entire set was reissued on a white paper in slightly different colors. Just over 300 complete sets were sold. The 1869 reissues are more common; perhaps the short time they were on sale as regular issues encouraged patrons at the Centennial Exposition to buy examples of an issue that they hardly remembered. Still, only 1,350 sets were sold. The balance of the stamps on sale at the Centennial Exposition are called special printings, as the stamps of which they are examples were currently on sale at the post offices. The special printings are in slightly different shapes from the originals, and slightly fresher in appearance; but, unlike the reissues, they are exceedingly difficult to tell from the original issued stamps.

Modern United States Philately


After 1890, United States stamps changed. For the first forty-three years of stamps, printing methods were not nearly as mechanized, resulting in numerous printing varieties. Furthermore, the wide variety of cancellations on the stamps and the panorama of different usages in the earlier period encourage collectors to specialize in a particular issue or even a particular stamp. From the 1890 philatelic period onward, this highly specialized collecting of a single issue or even a single stamp has been done far less commonly. There are comparatively few varieties in post-1890 stamps. Color was matched with precision, resulting in few of the color variations between printings so common in the earlier period. The economics of automatic canceling equipment forced a sameness into American cancellations of the modern period that has tended to discourage cancellation collectors. And the rising popularity of philately after 1890 has meant that quantities of philatelic material were saved, resulting in fewer real rarities. In addition, the goal of discovering the usage and varieties of each stamp, which is one of the joys of philately, was no longer necessary. Contemporary philatelists in the post-1890 period were there to chronicle each variety first hand. When you add to all of this the United States Post Office Department’s catering to collectors in an attempt to improve its own balance sheet, the picture of the modern philatelic era is complete.

But don’t for a minute think that post-1890 philately is boring; it I not, it is just more predictable. And because earl philatelists saved quantities of post-1890 issues, don’t think that the prices will be low. The period from 1890 to 1930 is the most popular philatelic period among intermediate and expert collectors, so while more material is available, more collectors are competing for it as well.


1890 Issues

The 1890 issues (#219-229) are attractively printed. Although not uncommon in used condition, Very Fine mint copies are very scarce. Each of the values is known imperforate. The imperforates were deliberately ordered by the Post Office Department when it turned over its entire collection to the National Postal Museum (which still operates today under the name Postal History Division of the History and Technology Museum of the Smithsonian). When the collection was turned over, a number of gaps were discovered in the collection, especially in stamps such as inverts that were inadvertently produced and were never ordered by the department. The museum used the imperforate 1890 issue to trade with dealers and collectors for stamps that the collection needed. Congress did not appropriate money to expand the collection, no doubt feeling that philatelists were no great lobby to contend with. But because of the museum's trades, such items as the fifteen-cent, twenty-four-cent, and thirty-cent 1869 inverts can be seen today by people who otherwise would never have the opportunity. Considering the rarity, the imperforate pairs do not sell for a great deal, probably attesting to some distaste over the face that these imperforates were manufactured deliberately by the government to trade at a premium over their face.

The Columbians 

Perhaps the most popular United States series is the 1893 Columbian Exposition issue. In its day, the set was hotly debated boondoggle, causing protests from philatelists around the world. It helped create the organization of the Society for the Suppression of Spurious Stamps (or SSSS, as they called themselves). And it caused the post office no end of joy at the profits it reaped. Such post office profiteering was quite conscious. In their memos to one another, it was apparent that the postal officials designed the set so that sales of the stamps to collectors would increase Post Office Department revenues.

The occasion of the issue was the 400-year anniversary celebration of Columbus's discovery of the New World-- a celebration held, somewhat belatedly, in Chicago in 1893. The Columbians, as philatelists refer to the set, were the world's first commemorative stamps. Commemoratives are special event stamps issued to draw attention to an event. Such commemoratives are quite popular today, with some thirty or more issued annually.    

Being a new series, actively promoted by the government, and having so very many high-valued stamps, the Columbians were speculated in heavily right from the start. To a very real extent, this set can be said to be the first to attract investors. And they got walloped! Following what seems to be the unwritten lemming rule of most stamp speculators, hundreds of collectors put away thousands of these Columbian stamps, far more than the tiny stamp market of the 1890s could accommodate. For over twenty-five years after their issue, dollar-value Columbians usually traded at discounts from face value. However, this situation turned about quite radically once the original hoards were dispersed; dollar-value Columbians began to rise in the late 1920s and have apparently not stopped even today. A set of Columbians that cost $16.24 in 1893 would cost about$10,000 today, depending on condition. Not bad for a set that nobody wanted.

The Columbians were sent to the post offices late in 1892, and were scheduled to be valid for postage on January 1, 1893. January 1 was a Sunday, and very few of the stamps were used on that day. Because January 2 was the first day on which open post offices cancelled  mail, it has been designated the first day of this stamp. In this very early period, first-day covers generally are accidentals, that is, a postal patron happened to buy a stamp and use it on the first day, and the cover is later discovered by philatelists. First-day covers are known back to the one cent 1851, but before 1910 they usually are rarities selling for thousands of dollars. The two cent Pan American (#295) has been seen by the authors on a May 1, 1901, first-day cover used by Gimbels Department Store to one of its customers with an enclosure of a bill for several hats. Apparently Gimbels sent out hundreds of bills that month in covers that today are worth several thousands dollars each.

The Columbian lower values are much more common used than they are mint. The higher values, above the $1, are about as common mint as they are used, but the mint sell for about three times as much as the used stamps. This is because over the last thirty years, collector fashion has swung to where issues after 1890 are far more popular unused than used. In the 1950s there was not nearly such a difference in price between mint and used.

About 25,000 of the $4 and $5 values were sold, but the overwhelming majority of these stamps are now defective. For some reason, the paper that these stamps were printed on thinned, creased, or got scuffed with the greatest of ease. Ninety-five percent of Columbian stamps have some fault or another. A beautiful-looking set with tiny thins would sell for about one-sixth of what a perfect set would. It is for each collector to decide for himself what quality is worth.

The Bureau Issues

In 1894, the Post Office Department began having its stamps printed for it by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the same government agency that printed money. The BEP had competed for the 1894 contract, and not only was its price lower, but there was the added convenience of having the work done in Washington near the Post Office Department, allowing greater responsiveness to department needs. The 1894 set contained the same portraits of prominent Americans as the 1890 set, with some values changed and with new values added up to $5. Triangles were added to the upper left corner. Fewer than 6,000 complete sets were sold; of the $5 value, many were used for postage and destroyed. This set is a genuinely undervalued one. As these were the first stamps produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing-- a good printer but new to stamps-- the quality of production, and especially the alignment of the perforations, was poor. Expect to pay great premiums for perfect examples.

In 1895, the Post Office Department ordered the 1894 set to be printed on watermarked paper, which means that philatelists treat the 1895 set as a completely different issue. The paper was water-marked in the sheet with a large repeating double-lined watermark, "U.S.P.S" (United States Postal Service), 16 millimeters high, in a continuing pattern across the sheet. Stamps frequently have parts of one or more letters watermarking them. These stamps were watermarked because some counterfeits of the 1894 issue had shown up and the postal authorities thought they could better discourage counterfeiting if they printed on watermarked paper. This watermark continued on all stamps until 1910, when a different watermark pattern-- using the same letters, but in single line-- was used until 1917. Since 1917, no United States stamps have been ordered on watermarked paper.

Part of the reason for the scarcity of the 1894 issues is the quick advent of the 1895 watermarked stamps. The previous issue was in use only a short time and was removed from sale without much warning. Then, as now, collectors usually bought their high-value stamps from the post office at the end of a run rather than the beginning. Why would a collector tie up $5 or more (when $5 bought the average family food for a week, not just a skimpy lunch) for a stamp that would be on sale for years when he could buy it as easily just before it went off sale? many rarities are created in this way; that is, when the post office quickly and without the usual warning takes an item off sale and collectors who have been waiting to buy it are caught empty-handed. It would seem prudent, then, to buy your high values early in the run. But by the same token, many dollar-value stamps are kept in the post office for five or ten years. T tie up money in quantities of high-value stamps that will show no increase in value until they are taken off sale is not prudent either.

The 1895 watermarked issue (#264-278) is far less scarce than the 1894 unwatermarked, with over 25,000 of the $5 value (#278) distributed.

The 1898 Transmississippi issue (#285-293) is today one of the most popular issues with collectors. The $1 "Cattle in the Storm" (#292) has been voted by serious American philatelist as the most beautiful stamps this nation has ever produced. But to contemporary collectors, still stinging from the unnecessarily high values of the 1893 Columbus set, the issuance of this set seemed positively Machiavellian. The Transmississippi issue contains values up to $2, and though it is listed as having 56,000 complete sets printed, and unknown quantity, but probably 30,000, were unsold and destroyed. For some odd reason, certain values of this set (especially the 4 cent, 10 cent, and $1) were produced well centered and can be purchased in excellent condition without mortgaging the house. But other values (specifically the 8 cent and $2) nearly always are off center. They were produced at the same time and place, so this is one example of many in philately of experience making a mockery of logic.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century is the era of stamps primarily printed for collectors. Whereas in the nineteenth century the views of philatelists seldom mattered at all, beginning about 1890, with increasing frequency, the United States Post Office Department gauged its calculations of stamp issues by how many stamps it believed philatelists would buy.

The quality of stamp production improved radically after 1900 as a result of the technological advances in printing and perforating machines, not to mention constant admonishments by collectors. Most twentieth-century stamps can be expected to be reasonably well centered.

The first issue of the new century was the 1901 Pan American Exposition issue. Originally, the Post Office Department planned the Pan American set to contain the same nine values as the Transmississippi set issued just three years before. However, the protests of collectors motivated the department to moderate its plans and issue just six low values with a total face value of 30 cents. The Post Office was being realistic. A new high-value issue, it was feared, would severely reduce the number of collectors.

The Pan Americans (#294-299) were issued to commemorate the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. The set was the first bicolor postage stamps issued since 1869, some thirty-two years before, and like the 1869s there were inverts that were produced accidentally. The one-cent, two-cent, and four-cent stamps are known inverted. The set shows transportation scenes with a steamboat on the none cent, a steam train on the two cent, an electric car on the four cent (remember this was 1901), the five cent with a bridge at Niagra Falls, the eight cent showing canals, and the ten cent a steamship. These issues have always been extremely popular with stamp collectors, and were produced by the Post Office Department in surprisingly excellent quality. Thousands of visitors to the Pan American Exposition bought the set as a souvenir and stamp dealers occasionally still get offered the complete set in the little manila envelope they came in when purchased in 1901. If the current owner was lucky, and he stored the stamps in a cool dry place, they are probably still perfect. But a manila envelope is a poor place for a stamp; with humidity and heat, the stamps can easily stain enough to be worthless. Nearly 5 million sets were issued, and many still exist mint. Because of popularity, not intrinsic rarity, a nice mint set could easily set a buyerback $750 or so, and a used set about $100. As with most early twentieth-century stamps, it is harder to find a good example of this set used than it is mint.

In the opinion of many serious philatelists, the 1902 regular issue (#300-313) is one of the most underpriced sets of stamps the United States has ever issued. The set is beautifully engraved, and was the main regular issue set of the post office for seven years, from 1902 to 1909. But the public did not like the stamps (they seldom do). The designs were considered far too crammed with unnecessary detail and the two-cent stamp in particular was criticized severely.

In 1907, a proposal was made for the overprinting of this large stamp issue with the name of the post office at which it would be sold. The proposal was an attempt to reduce the threat of post office theft, which had reached its peak in a robbery of $100,000 worth of postage stamps from a Chicago post office several years before. None of the culprits was ever apprehended, because, it was surmised, the stamps were easily disposed of throughout the country. Overprinting would solve this problem, as the stolen stamps could not readily be sold outside the city from which they were pilfered. Collectors were outraged. A full set of the 1907 issue with the same 6,000 overprints that were proposed would have cost a collector over $55,000- a sum that in 1907 not only would have bought a person a house but would have carpeted it, furnished it, fed and clothed its inhabitants, and, further, allowed, with the left-over change, for a stamp collection to be made that included every United States issue to that time! The idea was eventually scrapped, because complex bookkeeping and stamp-ordering procedures precluded its working effectively. A good thing, too. It might have killed stamp collecting.

The 1902-03 issue is quite difficult to find well centered. The values above the 8 cent, with the exception of the 13 cent, all sell for a quantity of money, despite the fact that 260 million of the most common high value, the 10 cent, were sold. Of the thirteen-cent stamp (#308) only 31 million were sold, and of the fifteen-cent, 41 million. Yet the ten cent catalogues mint in the 1981 Scott catalogue as $70, the fifteen cent as $165, and the thirteen cent (of which far fewer were issued) at only $37.50. This underscores quite accurately the danger faced by collectors or investors when they indiscriminately rely on quantities issued to determine rarity. Because the thirteen-cent stamp was not a stamp that was commonly used, philatelic speculators, (they existed then too) bought up large quantities in the belief that after this issue was moribund, the stamp would prove scarce. And it would have if they hadn't bought them! They tucked away thousands of mint copies; even today this one stamp can be found in quantities. Numbers issued are important, but most significant are the numbers surviving in philatelic hands.

The high values of this set were in use until 1917 and were primarily employed on large, heavy parcels to Russia (that country being in the midst of a civil war, Russian immigrants were sending home blankets and food). Ironically, fewer of the two-dollar stamp (#312) was issued than the five-dollar (#313), but the five-dollar sells for about three times as much because fewer survive. These two values were later issued perforated 10, rather than 12, as in this issue, and as such they sell for far less (#479-480).

Three values of the 1902 set (#314, #314A, and #315) were regularly issued to the public in imperforate form. These were intended for use in private coil machines. These stamp machines-- which still exist today in drugstores and bowling alleys-- could not use the regular stamps because the perforation gauge, measuring 12, is too fine and the stamps tend to split and jam in the machines. Imperforates and imperforate coils were issued to these vending machine coil companies, and these companies in turn perforated them so that they were compatible with their machines. But the imperforate material was made available to the public, too. The 1-cent and 5-cent values are known imperforate, whereas the 4-cent was issued imperforate, but all known copies were privately perforated by the Schermack Vending Machine Company. When buying imperforate stamps, where there are perforated varieties as well, it is always best to buy pairs to prove the imperforate status.

The Pan American series of 1901 has been so popular with collectors and noncollectors alike that in 1904, in a somewhat belated continued tribute to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, the Post Office Department decided to issue a series of five commemorative stamps (#323-327). The post office neglected to look at the reasons why the Pan Americans were popular, and as they did not duplicate any of the successful details in the 1904 series, the Louisiana Set was a failure. Specifically, the Pan Americans were so successful because they were printed in two colors and because their designs illustrated fascinating vehicles that an increasingly mobile America enjoyed. The Louisiana Purchase issue was only printed in one color and commemorated a historical event that was of little importance to most Americans. The Pan Americans were saved by thousands of noncollectors; the Louisiana Purchase issue so laid in post offices that a postal directive finally had to order postal clerks to fill stamp orders with the Louisiana stamps unless the patron specifically objected.

The stamps themselves, to modern tastes, are quite appealing. Over 4 million sets were printed and sold, and again the numbers game can be quite misleading if applied dogmatically. Of the three cent and ten cent, virtually the same numbers were sold, yet the ten cent sells for three times as much. Actually, the three-cent is a genuinely undervalued stamp. The ten cent sells for so much more than the three cent not so much because of its scarcity but because many collectors and investors tend to gravitate toward the highest face value stamp in a set.

The year 1907 brought the Jamestown issue (#328-330), which commemorated the 300th anniversary of the settlement in 1607 by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Plantation in Virginia. The issue has three values, the high value picturing Smith's Indian love, Pocahontas, the third woman ever to be commemorated on a United States postage stamp. (Queen Isabella of Spain was the first woman, on the $4 value of the 1893 Columbian set; Martha Washington appeared on the eight cent of the 1902 issues.) Originally, Pocahontas was not to be issued, but protests arose from historical groups that the Jamestown set would not be complete without her story.

The entire set is very difficult to find in well-centered Very Fine condition, whether mint or used. Seven million of the high value were printed, though you would not know it from the numbers surviving in collectors' hands. Perfect mint sets can sell for as much as $1,000, while off-centered, slightly damaged sets sell for as little as $50. Quality always produces meaningful variations in price, but on no set more so than this one.

After 1907, most United States stamps pictured Washington and Franklin which, in a multitude of variations, remained the chief stamp design until 1922. Collectors often specialize in just this issue. Literature is generally very good for this period, starting with the standard Scott catalogue and Max Johl's excellent book (see Bibliography).

After 1922, the stamps of the United States are almost uniformly not rare, though they are interesting and the Scott catalogue treats them quite well.

United States Airmails

Some of the most popular United States stamps are the Airmail issues. These stamps were issued to pay the increased fee on letters sent by airmail. The first airmail flight (by airplane rather than balloon) took place in September 1911, and was a private flight carrying little mail and covering but a few miles. In 1918, a new set of stamps were issued for airmail service. The six-cent stamp is in an orange shade that often reacts, in spots or in whole, with sulfur in the air to have a deep red brown toning. Unlike coins, toned stamps are considered quite unappealing. Fortunately, soaking the sulfurized examples in hydrogen peroxide can quickly restore the original color by unfixing the sulfur in the stamp. This solution does not work so well for mint stamps, though. Gum is soluble in hydrogen peroxide. Often, it is possible to paint the sulfurized portions of the stamps with the peroxide from a small brush. This is a time-consuming process, but it usually works wonders.

The six-cent orange, like all of the first two Airmail issues, is a difficult stamp to find in well-centered condition, and substantial premiums are paid for perfectly centered, never hinged copies. The stamp is not rare; over 3 million copies were sold.

The sixteen-cent stamp was printed in green. Like the six-cent stamp, 3 million copies were printed. As a general rule, more attention is paid to condition on scarce stamps than it is on rare ones. All of the Airmails sell for large discounts from catalogue value if in damaged or slightly damaged condition. Generally, however, the rarer a stamp is, the smaller the difference between perfect and imperfect price. This is because a truly rare stamp is snatched up by collectors whenever it is offered. A much larger supply of the early issue Airmails exists than there is demand. So collectors have a greater degree of choice in the copies they wish to buy, and many gravitate through choice (or because they are advised to do so) toward higher-quality stamps. Perfect, mint, large margin, never hinged Airmails have sold for as much as $1,000, whereas off-center mint stamps with a thin can sell for as little as $75.

The twenty-four-cent stamp is printed in two colors, the blue center bearing a picture of the airplane Curtiss Jenney, surrounded by a bright carmine frame. The stamp is of particularly pleasing appearance, and is probably one of the most famous American stamps for the simple reason that through an unfortunate error, one sheet came out with the center inverted. A plane flying upside down is a spectacular error, and an example of this stamp with the center inverted can sell for as much as $130,000. (The history of the discovery of this error is related in Chapter 8.)

All of the 1918 Airmail stamps were issued in sheets of 100 with 19 straight edges on two sides (one stamp being a double straight edge). But from the number of stamps currently offered with straight edges, rather than this condition being quite common, you would think straight edges were a rarity. This is because so many of the straight-edged copies have been reperforated over the years. Many are identified as such when sold, but a lot of other times they are not. Simply insisting on large margins is not enough. Many of the straight-edged sides were large enough to permit reperfing, with plenty of room left over. (The basic skills in determining a reperforated stamp are described on page 68.) Other than saying that a collector or investor would be wise to buy from an expert, wisdom would suggest that he or she should insist on guarantees and void bargains. For years a man who was known to be a reperfer and regummer (since he only bought straight edged and no gum stamps from dealers, and only advertised to sell perfect ones) advertised his perfect wars at 30 percent below the prices for which nearly every well-established reputable merchant was selling the same stamps. A bargain can be a bad one! If a dealer's prices are cheap, he may well be on the level; but prudence would suggest checking him out. By the same token, don't be convinced that high prices mean high business ethics.

The 1923 Airmail issue is just as scarce as the first issue. It has three stamps, an eight cent, sixteen cent, and twenty-four cent, and was in use for approximately three years. With all the attention that has been paid to mint stamps the last several years, collectors have been ignoring the real scarcity of attractive used Airmail stamps. Recently, used Airmails have begun moving in price, but they are still far underpriced. First of all, used early Airmails are about as scarce as unused, for the use of airmail service was limited, and many stamps were bought to be kept mint as souvenirs. Secondly, due to the rough handling of the envelopes aboard the early planes, many of the envelopes have bent corners, which creased the stamp. Set prices for perfect examples can run quite high.

The Map set of 1926 was issued to pay the new rate structure put into effect when Congress decided to contract out the airmail service. Before this, government-operated planes flew the mail; but Congress decided to promote the fledgling domestic airline business by contracting with commercial carriers to take the mail, thus giving them assured business on which they could borrow money for expansion. Rates were lowered and this new set was issued. Over 15 million sets were sold. Keep in mind that Airmails are extremely popular. The main reason for this is that less than 100 different Airmail stamps were issued, as opposed to about 2,000 regularly issued ones, and with a few exceptions even a collector of moderate means can get most of them. This set, like most of the Airmails, has shot up in price in the last few years.

Those who did not live through it have no way of comprehending the excitement and exhilaration generated when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. The Post Office Department responded by issuing a stamp that was its first to honor a living person. It has always been government policy never to picture a living person on a stamp; no doubt this grew as a reaction to early European stamp makers, who put their monarch's portrait on every postage stamp. Americans were quite antimonarchist. Within a few decades of the first American stamp, it because the policy of the United States government not to commemorate living persons, though some living people have been placed on commemoratives accidently as part of a picture of something else. The man driving the car on the four-cent Pan American is an example of this; he has little importance to the design, but he was alive when the stamp was issued.

Lindbergh was being commemorated on this stamp, but the Post Office Department could not bring itself to picture the pilot, so his plane The Spirit of St. Louis was shown. Although over 20 million stamps were issued, because of the stamp's popularity with the general population, the number in philatelic hands is far smaller than that.

The most fascinating United States Airmail stamps were not issued for airplane use at all. Since 1928, a number of zeppelin companies had operated transoceanic crossings between the United States and the rest of the world. The three stamps issued on April 19, 1930, are among the most popular stamps ever issued. They are far from rare. Over 61,000 sets were issued, but because of the high face value of the set ($4.55) and the timing of the issue coinciding with the beginning of the Great Depression, a large number of sets were unsold. The amount estimated to be in collectors' hands is about 20,000 sets-- still quite a few when you consider that their selling price is in the $4,000 to $7,500 range. But from its first issue, this set was popular; the price began rising quickly after it was taken off sale, and it has moved upward steadily over the last fifty years. For the budget-minded, a fifty-cent version of the stamp was issued in 1933 for another zeppelin flight, and trades for about $400.

There are more Airmails and there are Special Delivery stamps and Revenues, and local issues, and a whole world of United States stamps that space does not allow us to discuss here. In fact, the Regular Commemorative and Airmail issues just described take up only 25 percent of Scott's United States Stamp Catalogue Specialized, so there is much, much more. And every stamp has its story, and its collectors. This discussion has attempted to portray some of the more interesting United States stamps. But remember, every stamp is as worthy of being collected as any other; to say otherwise is not philately.