Coiled Postage Stamps

Today, when it seems that coin-operated vending machines have but recently become standard equipment for offices, factories, and places of public amusement, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that a variety of such machines were being marketed in the early 1880's. The turn of the 20th century saw a tremendous increase in the uses to which this type equipment was being put. Dispensing machine manufacturers were quick to consider the sale of stamps as a new use for their products.

They were soon followed by several office equipment firms which introduced lines of stamp-affixing machines. At the time, printing of postage stamps was confined to individual sheet form. In order to obtain stocks for stamp dispensers, it was necessary for either the machine manufacturer or the private user to attach a given number of sheets of stamps one to another, cut the rows of stamps into strips, and then wind the strips into coils. This was a tedious task. Then too, the sheets had been perforated for separating the stamps by hand and work so perforated often proved too fragile for dispensers. The solution lay in making un-perforated sheets available to be produced into coils privately. Imperforate sheets for this purpose were distributed on an experimental basis in 1906, and by 1908 were available at post offices as a regularly stocked item.

Meanwhile the Bureau had been experimenting in processing stamps into coil form. The first of this experimental work was issued on February 18, 1908. These coils were produced from regular sheets of 404 stamps perforated horizontally and cut into strips of 24. The strips were then pasted together to form coils of 500 or 1,000 stamps each. Soon thereafter the Bureau developed a machine for preparing the coils which materially reduced processing costs. The report of the Third Assistant Postmaster General for the fiscal year 1909 gives the. following description of this piece of equipment and detailed comments concerning its advantages: [It] is of simple and effective construction and performs the work of about ten operatives. Under the old method of coiling the cost is from 6c to 12c per coil. During the past year the demand for coiled stamps grew to such an extant as to make this expense something of a burden and it became necessary to charge it to the users. With the new machine, however, the coiling is done at a cost of a fraction of a cent and the extra charge can probably be discontinued. If a sufficient number of the machines can be installed during the coming year it should be possible to supply coiled stamps for general purposes.

An improved model was developed in 1910 which cut the pasted stream of horizontally perforated sheets of 200 stamps into strips, trimmed the margins, and wound the strips into coils in one operation. Through use of this machine the Bureau was able to produce the stamp coils at a much lower cost. The reduced production rates, in turn, were reflected in the service charges made by the Post Office Department for coiled stamps. The charge for coils of 500 perforated stamps was reduced from 8 to 3 cents; for the same quantity, un-perforated, from 6 to 3 cents; items of 1,000 stamps, perforated, from 12 to 6 cents; and 1,000 stamps, in un-perforated form, from 9 to 6 cents.

Even with this improved equipment the necessity of pasting the individual sheets together was still a drawback in the preparation of coils. It seemed that the most feasible means for elimination of the problem was the development of a press for printing the stamps in a continuous roll form. Steps were taken to devise such a machine and success in this regard was achieved by 1912. The impact of this press toward facilitating the production of coiled stamps is described in the report of the Third Assistant Postmaster General for that fiscal year: The machine also gums the stamps as they are printed and an exceedingly rapid perforating device has been designed for use in connection with it. . . Another advantage is that the omission of the preliminary "wetting down" of the paper practically does away with the variation due to shrinkage, making it possible to perforate the stamps much more accurately so that the "centering" is substantially perfect, which is not true of stamps produced by the old method. The greater accuracy of perforation not only improves the appearance of the stamps but will facilitate the operation of automatic, vending and affixing devices which feed the stamps by means of pins or fingers engaging the perforations. With the development of this press, parallel improvements were made in the processing of coils of stamps through the years.

In 1929, the Director of the Bureau gave the following description of coil manufacture: Coils of stamps are made from rolls printed on intaglio web presses, . . . the printing and gumming of the rolls being accomplished at the same time. They are placed in special perforating machines, which perforate the rolls crosswise only, and wind them again into a roll. These perforated rolls are delivered to operatives at specially devised measuring tables, who unwind the rolls, measure them into lengths of 500, 1000, or 5000 stamps, according to the number of stamps to be in the finished coil, cut each length and insert labels denoting the class and denomination of the coil by pasting one edge to the margin of the cut off length and the opposite edge to the margin of the portion yet to be measured, thus joining the measured lengths with these labels. These lengths are rewound into rolls and the stamps are ready for the next operation-that of coiling. The spindle on which the stamps were wound during the preceding operation fits into the coiling machine. Eleven knives on the coiling machine slit apart the ten rows of stamps and trim the margin of the outside rows as the roll is then wound, and simultaneously each row is wound into coil form until the labels previously pasted on are reached. The operator at this points stops the machine, separates each coil from the roll by cutting the label, pastes the label as a binder for each coil, and places her initials or name on the binder. The coils are then carried to tables, counted and boxed ready for delivery to the vault from which they are shipped when ordered.

There was little, if any, change made in this manner of manufacturing coils until 1958. However, since it was realized that the manufacturing methods left much to be desired, improvement in this regard was placed high on the agenda of the overall technological improvement program planned and developed by the Bureau after World War II. In 1955, a contract was made with a private engineering and manufacturing concern for a prototype model of a coil-processing machine. This model was desired for use in conducting experiments geared to the improvement and automation of the coil manufacturing operations.

The, contract was let on the basis of functional specifications calling for the mechanization of the measuring, examining, slitting, coiling, and wrapping functions. In addition, it was specified that the machine should incorporate facilities for perforating the printed work. The equipment developed by the machine manufacturer consisted of three separate components: an examiner, a perforator-coiler, and a wrapper. These were received in the Bureau early in 1957. After a great deal of joint concentrated effort and study on the part of the Bureau and the machine manufacturer, the components were perfected to the point that they were placed in regular production on January 27, 1958. Within the year, purchase contracts were made for the additional equipment needed to completely automate coil production operations. It was indeed fortunate that steps had been taken to develop this type equipment. Without it, the Bureau would have been sorely taxed to meet the unprecedented orders for postage stamps in coil form that were received beginning in mid-1958. A factor in this regard was the Post Office Department's decision to inaugurate an intensive drive to popularize coiled stamps; with particular emphasis placed on a new 100-stamp size. With the aid of the new equipment the Bureau was able to handle this increase concurrently with the demands for stamps necessitated by the increased postal rates which became effective at that same time.

The coiling equipment processes the printed web down to finished products of precisely 100, 500, or 3,000 stamps, as desired. First, the roll of work is placed in the examining component and an operative examines it for imperfections as it unwinds. This machine has built-in provisions for the removal of imperfect work and the automatic joining of the severed ends. There is also a means by which the operative can flag individual stamps or strips of imperfect work for a later automatic removal. The examined roll is next placed in the second component which perforates the stamps, slits the work by rows, and forms the individual coils. Those coils containing defective work flagged during the examining operations art: automatically diverted at this point into a separate bin. The perfect coils are conveyed by a series of belts and chutes to the third component which wraps each coil in transparent plastic film and applies a label indicating the contents and sales price of the item.

Today, the Bureau has 6 of the examining units in regular use, together with 4 perforator-coilers, and 14 coil wrapping machines. About 39 million coil stamps are printed and processed each day.