Roulette and Back

Stamp separation isn’t something that most people, even philatelists, think much about anymore. But in its day it was a hot topic, combining technological concerns with ease of use and cost of production. The first stamps had no easy way to separate them. They were printed and not perforated, and scissors were needed to cut them apart. Rowland Hill, the inventor of the postage stamp, had no interest in stamp separation in his first design. The reason is that no one, Hill included, had any idea what a revolution in communication and postal use stamps would cause. This revolution was the result of the reduction of postal rates that prepaid postage allowed. Before stamps, postmen had to stop at each address to collect the money for letters delivered there. This was time consuming, inefficient, and rife with irregularities. Certainly, Hill and the early postal reformers hoped that postage stamps would be successful, but they had no idea that within a few years, tens of millions of stamps would be used annually.

Business firms became huge users of early stamps and very quickly devised their own private way of separating them. Within ten years of the introduction of the Penny Black, most countries were experimenting with stamp separation techniques. The technological issues were daunting. Separations had to be cheap and efficient. But most important, postal patrons wanted stamps that were easy to separate but that didn’t separate on their own. This is why there are so many different perforation types on early stamps. Every country wanted to find the Goldilocks spot—perforations that were too many per row separated too easily leaving users with many separated stamps in the drawer. Perforations too far apart meant difficult separation and many torn stamps. It was many years before most postal agencies got it just right—that is, about 11 perforations per two centimeters.

In the early period, a separation technology—rouletting—vied with perforating for dominance. When a stamp is rouletted, a knife cuts dashes in the margin of the stamps to facilitate separation rather than holes being punched, as is the case with perforations. In the early period, the dulling of the rouletting knife and the difficulty in then separating the stamps soon made this technology a loser in the separation wars (roulettes in the classic period are best seen on the early stamps of Finland). But interestingly, modern stamp needs and technology have made roulettes the preferred separation method today. This is because self adhesives, the great postage stamp innovation of the last twenty years, make perforating difficult as the sticky perforation holes gum up the perforating machines. Rouletting makes only a cut, and new metal technology has solved the problem of the dulling of the knives. But we don’t call such stamps roulettes anymore. We call them Die Cut. So this is an interesting example of a technology supplanted by another and which goes back to the original as new events happen. In layman’s terms, “What goes around comes around.”

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