Major Versus Minor Catalog Numbers

There has been enough stamp writing books and journals to fill a large library. The American Philatelic Research Library in Bellefonte, Pa has thousands of published volumes, and tens of thousands of journals and monographs. But, though one can find books on the Aerograms of Australia or on the forgeries of Saxony, one of the most perplexing points of interest in our hobby has rarely been written about. What determines how the stamp catalogs – which all collectors use to organize their collections – assign major catalog numbers and minor catalog numbers (minor numbers have small letter suffixes-such as #1b- and are not collected by most collectors who are happy enough to obtain the major number).


First, some definitions (and we’ll use the Scott catalog as our example in this article because it is the most common catalog used in the United States, and because the criteria that Scott uses is largely duplicated by the other catalog publishers). A major Scott catalog number is a unique variety of postage stamp. This uniqueness is defined as a stamp having different color, denomination, paper, perforation and watermark from any other stamp that was printed. This is where the catalog listings get a bit difficult and inconsistent, which is why most stamp writers ignore the subject entirely and hope that it will go away. Watermark changes have typically meant different catalog numbers. But Scott changed the criteria for this about 1950 (without telling anyone). Now, for most countries, especially British Commonwealth, watermark changes are listed as varieties of the more common watermark. It was not clear as to why it was done, but my guess is that Scott was kind of backed into it – the watermark varieties were not discovered until after the catalogs were set up and printed and after the album pages were designed. Giving these stamps the traditional major numbers that they had always received would have been expensive and difficult to accomplish, and needlessly complicated modern philately, which has long been more about pretty picture collecting than concerns about the more arcane aspects of philatelic interest.


Perhaps at this point an example of how the catalog numbering system played out for one of the major US issues of the nineteenth century might make a good illustration. Let’s use the Scott USA #65, which defines the 3c Red Washington issue of 1861. It is a distinct issue (the 1c Franklin issued at the same time is #63, the 5c is #66 and so on)). There are many shades of red in which this 3c was issued. One particular shade of red – called Pink – so impressed the early catalog publishers that they gave the stamp its own major number (Scott #64). But in general shades of a stamp are only given minor numbers. Such inconsistency of numbering is one of the problems with the Scott catalog (and most of the other catalogs), For instance, there is a laid paper variety of #65 (#65b). For most countries, laid paper varieties are listed as major numbers. Why this is not the case with United States stamps is unclear. My own sense, from over fifty years of being in this hobby and knowing many of the previous generations of catalog publishers, is that the Scott publishers had a prejudice against varieties that were not known from the date of issue, which were discovered later, and had to be worked into the catalog (this is a sort of philatelic NIH-not invented here – which plagues all institutional cultures). But the difference between major and minor catalog number status can be staggering – because all collectors of a country need the major number, and only specialists need the minor. The 2c laid paper Large Queen of Canada sells for $50,000 and is not much scarcer than the US 3c laid paper #65b, which sells for about $500.


Our 3c 1861 issue was then issued in five different grill types, all of which received major numbers. Additionally there are several re-issues and special printings of this stamp. Add to this the Proofs and Essays and you have hundreds of varieties of a single stamp issue. Some of these issues have major numbers, some minor numbers and many are so specialized that they are relegated to the back pages of the 1200 page Scott US Specialized catalog. The reasoning behind the assignment of these major and minor listings is often incomprehensible.


The lack of consistency in catalog listings has always been a stumbling block to philatelists moving from the intermediate to the advanced levels of the hobby. Such collectors often didn’t understand why there were such inconsistencies and discrepancies in the catalog. And when intelligent people – as all philatelists who have made it to the intermediate level and are moving to the advanced must be – confront such inconsistencies, they think this is a fault of their understanding. But, worry no longer. Simply put – If you don’t understand the why and how of a catalog listing, it is probably because the catalog listing is obscure and confusing and it is not a fault of your understanding and quality as a philatelist. Now, move on to the next stamp.

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