The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting – Chapter Two

2. The Stamp Is Invented

In 1835, Great Britain was the world leader in commerce. Its empire was truly impressive, with colonies spanning the globe, including Canada, India, and Australia. At its zenith, Great Britain controlled nearly 25 percent of the earth’s land surface. Communication by mail was imperative to the administration of its empire.

The British Post Office was run as a government agency, as were the post offices of other nations, with the purpose of producing revenue for the government. At the turn of the nineteenth century, partly because of the high cost of the Napoleonic wars, postage rates were raised rapidly. (A government subsidizing its post office is a distinctly modern phenomenon; any nineteenth-century postmaster general who could not produce a profit for his government soon found himself unemployed.)

A Different System

Indeed, postage rates were very high in the early nineteenth century. For example, it cost more than a day’s pay for an average worker to send a letter from London to Scotland, some 300 miles. Postage on a letter sent from London to America or London to Australia could cost a family a week’s wages. Letters from home to travelers or emigrants were rare, and were often written in tiny handwriting, barely legible, so as to cram in as much information as possible for the lowest cost. The cost of postage was determined by various factors, including the distance the letter was to travel, the number of sheets in the letter, and the route by which the letter was being sent. One route was often far cheaper than another, leaving the sender to weigh the benefits of speed versus increased cost. In any case, by modern standards, service was slow, risky, and exorbitant in price.

Letter senders were not required to prepay postage because many letters never reached their destination. Rather, the addressee could decide whether he wished to accept a letter when he received it. If, after examination of the outside, he chose to accept it, he paid the postman. Fraud was common. For example, there was a clever scheme that was used to announce births. The proud parents would address a letter to a relative, using the last name of that relative together with the first name of their newborn. As a result, the relatives would not only know that the child had been born and was healthy (a major concern in the early nineteenth century), but they would also learn the child’s name and sex. As the most salient information was already transmitted via the address, the letter could be refused. Address codes of this type were common; although no exact documentation of postal fraud of this type is available, it was well known by and a serious concern to the postal officials at the time.

The practice of defrauding the post office in the pre-stamp period was extensive. To combat this, proposals were made by postal officials to demand prepayment of postage. But because charges were so high and service was so poor, the public felt that the postman would only make an earnest effort to deliver a letter if the post office had not yet been paid for it. Mark Twain reported that stagecoach riders carrying the mail across the American continent had difficulty adhering to their demanding schedules with stages loaded up with heavy bags of mail. The solution was simple— some of the bags simply “fell out” while traveling across the country, resulting not only in lightening the load but also giving the Indians some reading material.

Abuse of the receiver payment privilege was not the only way the post office was being defrauded. Newspapers were (and still are) permitted to go through the mails at much lower rates than letters. Though tedious, it was profitable work for a person to make a mark with a pin above or below certain words in a newspaper. If the newspaper was a large enough one, a very long message could be communicated by such pinpricks. The receiver of the newspaper only had to read the pricked words to receive the sender’s message; then, if he were an inquisitive sort, he could read the newspaper as well.

Another area of postal fraud was unintentionally provided for by parliamentary law. In Great Britain, each member of Parliament was allowed under law to send all his mail free. All the legislator was required to do was to sign the letter, and the post office would carry it. This is what is known as the “Free Frank.” In the United States, members of Congress, cabinet officers, and presidents have this right as well— it is a privilege designed to encourage communication between the government and the people. In Great Britain at this time, a position in Parliament apparently did not pay well enough for some of its members. They took additional employment with leading commercial firms and spent much of their nonlegislative time franking letters, which could then go through the mail free of charge. The post office was bilked out of a great deal of money through this loophole in the law, and the turpitude of some legislators. Free franked letters of this period are extremely common, attesting to the abuse.

The Emergence of Rowland Hill

Postal abuse in Great Britain continued to get worse. As might be expected, the post office became an unprofitable and inefficient enterprise. Complaints mounted on all sides— from merchants, clergy and government. Finally, in 1837, a forty-two-year-old ex-schoolteacher and government bureaucrat named Rowland Hill published a pamphlet entitled Post Office Reform, Its Importance and Practibility. Hill’s pamphlet was scathing in its criticism, but broad in its ideas for change. He pointed out the postal abuses already discussed. He evaluated actual postal costs, and concluded that the real transportation cost for carrying a letter anywhere in the British Isles was less than a farthing (one quarter of 1 penny.) Even though the post office at this time was charging over 1 shilling (or 12 pence) for many internal letters, it was losing money. This, Hill said, resulted from the army of postmen employed to administer a system in which each letter needed to be separately rated, carried, and paid for, with a myriad of variables at each of these steps. It took great intelligence and much experience for even the lowest of postal employees to perform their jobs properly, so complicated was the work. Hill had a radical solution: slash postage rates to 1 penny per half ounce (still four times the actual carrying cost) for any letter posted in the British Isles to another address in the British Isles.

Transportation by this time had become comparatively inexpensive as compared to labor costs. Hill’s scheme was to allow the efficiencies of transportation to determine the cost of postage. Everyone, Hill said, must pay in advance for the privilege of using the mail; no more franking. Hill further advanced the radical thesis that the decline of fees would not mean less revenue for the postal service, because the lower rates would be compensated for by the increased use of the mails. Furthermore, the simplification of the postal service would make fewer postal employees necessary, thereby decreasing costs. Shorn of its gleamy high-speed sorts, zip codes, and registry labels, this was essentially the postal service we have today.

Naturally, this proposal earned Hill the enmity of the members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Duke of Wellington was an outspoken opponent of Hill’s scheme, and was supported by most of the members of his various supper club. Postmen, as well may be imagined, did not rally behind Hill either. Postmaster General Lord Lichfield stated: “With respect to the plan set forth by Mr. Hill, of all the wild and visionary schemes which I have ever heard or read, it is the most extravagant.” The opinions of the individual postmen, some of whom stood to lose their jobs, are not recorded; no doubt they would have phrased their discontent with Hill’s “wild and visionary scheme” somewhat more strongly. However those individuals who stood to benefit from Hill’s proposal (businessmen, lawyers, tradespeople and, in fact, anyone not working for the post office or privileged with the Free Frank) cheered for inexpensive postage. Most newspapers warmly supported it, and after serious discussion the change was enacted and subsequently instituted in 1840.

The Approval Of A Stamp

“A bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered at the back with a glutinous wash which the user might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter.” That was it— the first mention of a potage stamp as it was described in Hill’s original proposal. Later he added to this proposal an envelope that would show prepayment, which became known as the Mulready envelope, named after its designer, William Mulready.

Today, stamps are such an everyday experience for us that we do not appreciate the magnitude of the invention. With the advent of the stamp, postal money was created, and because the use of the post office had become so widespread, great care had to be taken to assure that no one could counterfeit stamps (after all, they were negotiable money). Also, provisions had to be made to alter or cancel the stamp after it had performed its service, so that it could not be reused.

After the passage of the British Postal Reform Act in 1839, a Treasury Competition (so called because it was administered by the Treasury Department) commenced, whereby artists were asked to submit designs for the first stamp. Prizes were offered to the winners, with the best proposal to receive 200 pounds— a marvelous sum for an era in which Rowland Hill was offered 500 pounds per annum as Assistant Postmaster of England. Twenty-six hundred designs and proposals were submitted, a tribute, as one philatelic writer as said, to the imagination of the Victorians, although one could equally well describe it as a testimony to the creative stimulus of 200 pounds. The suggestions ranged from the very crude to the very ornate. Finally, a design using a medal created by William Wyon was chosen. The world’s first stamp, produced by Great Britain, first date of valid use May 6, 1840, has been designated the “Penny Black” by collectors all over the world. This is because the face value of the stamp was 1 penny and the color was black. Today, it is the world’s most popular stamp.

A Stamp In Production.

Since the Penny Black was first produced, countless technological innovations have come and gone, but the overall process by which a stamp is made has remained constant.

As for the Penny Black, a design for each stamp had to be chosen. Probably the most common design is the “framed head” type, where there is a framed center portrait. The Penny Black set the stage, and it was a number of years before there was a significant deviation from this design by any major stamp-producing nation. When looking at stamps, especially earlier issues, one is struck by how much the stamps appear to be representations of coins placed upon a background. In the pre-1870 period, stamps were not valued as an art form in themselves; rather, they were seen only as receipts for services due, in effect, money. So why not make them look like money? Furthermore, the early stamp designers were frequently Treasury artists who had worked as designers of coins and bills. They carried their coin-oriented experience with them into stamps.

Early experiments in radical stamp design are prized by collectors. The Cape of Good Hope triangulars, first issued in 1853 by a nation that is now part of the Union of South Africa, are known by collectors everywhere because of their unique design. They were the first nonrectangular stamps issued, and despite some modern deviation into the grotesque, most stamps are still rectangular.

Once a design has been chosen, the postal authorities decide how the stamps are to be printed. The more common methods of printing stamps include lithography and typography. Though neither offers great detail, each offers speed and ease in production at a comparatively low cost. But the most effective, and, many would say, beautiful, method of philatelic printing is line engraving.

Line engraving is also the most expensive general method of printing. This was true in 1840, and it is still true today. Engraving a stamp is a time consuming process. This factor, together with the cost of engraving, has discouraged counterfeiters from attempting to copy engraved stamps. Line engraving allows stamps to be very detailed, as the lines are raised, the threat of effective counterfeiting, even using modern photocopy equipment, is negligible.

Take a dollar bill out of your pocket. It is engraved. Every one of the thousands of lines in Washington’s head has been individually cut by an engraver working in soft steel. When the engraver has finished cutting the steel, it is hardened (usually by heating) and the result is a finished die. This die must be stamped onto a much larger piece of steel in a process called transferring, which reproduces the die numerous times onto a transfer roll. This roll is then transferred again onto stamp printing plates so the stamp will not be printed in mirror image. Plates can have as few as two stamps on them, or as many as the largest piece of steel the printing machinery will hold. Most United States stamps are printed from plates of 200. After printing, the printed sheets are cut into panes of 100, or 50, depending on the size of the stamp. The Penny Black of Great Britain was printed in sheets of 240. (In pre-decimal British currency there were 240 pence to the pound, so such an arrangement made accounting easier.)


The transferring of the die to the plate is accomplished essentially through a process of pounding the design that is on the hard steel transfer roll onto a soft steel plate. In our modern era this is done mechanically, and usually flawlessly. In the classic period of philately (usually defined as lasting from 1840, when the first stamp was printed, until about 1880), transferring was done generally by hand. The extreme pressure that was required to adequately “rock in” the hardened die onto the soft steel produced a number of subtle differences between the stamps. This is because no two stamp impressions on the plate were “rocked in” with the same firmness of all minute portions of the design. Thus, each stamp on the place is subtly different, and because of these minor differences it is usually possible for a stamp specialist to “plate” a particular stamp. “Plating” means identifying the positions of each stamp on the sheet through these minute differences, and the process can be compared to the marking of a jigsaw puzzle.

Plating is highly detailed work, and is held in esteem by serious philatelists. One must have a great deal of time and patience (and no children scurrying around the house upsetting things). Two of the most famous American philatelists, Stanley Ashbrook and Carroll Chase, gained a large measure of their philatelic fame through their plating work. Although it is beyond the scope of this book, most competent stamp dealers are willing to show those interested the basics of plating. From a dealer’s point of view, a plater needs hundreds of the same stamp, so you can be sure he will help you to learn the skill. (This accounts for the relatively high price of certain stamps, such as the United States one cent 1851 which, though issued in abundant quantities, sells for a significantly higher price than certain other stamps from the same period that have not survived in such large numbers. The one cent 1851 is a relatively easy stamp to plate and, as may be expected, the thousands who plate it require a huge supply.)


The most carefully engraved design in the world still needs its canvas, and the canvas of a stamp is paper. There are many types of paper for printing; however, they all have one factor in common— a fibrous weave. Paper takes an ink design in printing (and writing) by allowing a measure of the ink to seep into it. The two major types of paper on which stamps are printed are wove paper and laid paper. Wove paper is like the paper of this book (technically a chalky wove paper— “chalky” defining how the paper is “sized” or how the spaces of the weave of the paper or filled). Laid paper is made on a mesh of closely parallel lines, so that when it is held up to the light it appears that the paper was put down in rows, as opposed to wove paper that quite literally looks as if it has been woven. Some form of wove paper is the choice for most stamps because it is cheaper, lasts longer, and usually takes printing ink better. Normally, the printer makes the decision as to what paper should be used. It pays to learn to be able to discern the difference. The three-Kruetzer 1850 Lombardy-Venetia stamp was printed on both wove paper and laid paper. On wove it is worth about $2, while on laid paper it is valued at $10,000. Another stamp printed on both papers, the Canada two-cent green of 1868, is worth $15 on wove paper and $40,000 on laid. Many specimens have never been examined for type of paper so that this is an area where great rarities are yet to be found.


The most philatelically significant aspect of paper is watermarks. Watermarks are the pattern placed on the mat or roll on which the paper is produced. Both laid and wove paper can be watermarked. Watermarks were developed as a form of advertising for the papermaker. When held up to the light, the pattern that was placed on the papermaking mat becomes apparent because the paper is thinner where the pattern is. Stamp producers, in their zeal to foil counterfeiters, placed watermarks on the paper on which stamps were produced in hopes that this additional step would make counterfeiting even more difficult. Great Britain has almost always watermarked its stamps, beginning with a simple crown pattern. The United States did not initially feel the need to order stamps on watermarked paper, and only began watermarking its stamps in 1895 when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over from private contractors.

Two United States watermark varieties were used; identical-looking stamps with different watermarks are treated by philatelists, both advanced and novice, as completely different items. The differences can mean thousands of dollars to the discriminating collector. An understanding of the techniques of watermarking, which will be thoroughly discussed in the next chapter, can be mastered by anyone with a modicum of patience.

It is doubtful whether watermarking ever acted as an effective anticounterfeiting tool for postage stamps, its original intention. The United States ended watermarking on postage stamps in 1918. Canada never regularly watermarked its postage stamps.

Two interesting types of nonofficial watermarks occur on postage stamps, adding spice to the hobby and value to those particular stamps on which they are found. Stitch watermarks look like a series of tightly made stitch marks on the fiber of the paper. They are caused when the fiber mat (on which the wove paper is made) tears and is repaired by stitching with thread. Papermaker watermarks are one of a papermaker’s ways of advertising. They generally occur on stamps on which the government did not order a specific watermark, or did not use rigid specifications as to what paper it accepted.

Papermaker watermarks are typically broad watermarks extending fully across the sheet, whereby only a fragment of one of the letters of the name shows on any particular stamp. Indeed, because the records of the paper suppliers are often unavailable and because specimens with papermaker watermarks are scarce, students of papermaker watermarks frequently can only assert that a particular stamp is known with a papermaker watermark, but are unable to identify the particular watermark. Unfortunately, the study of these two types of watermarks has fallen out of vogue in recent years. The best collection was sold in London in the 1940s. The major United States stamp catalogue, Scott, dropped many of them from its listing in the 1950s. Still, they do have value, and if you can pick up a stitch or papermaker watermark from your stamp dealer for the same price as a regular stamp, you can consider your purchase profitable.


When Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp, he made no provision for the separation of stamps on sheets. All stamps were issued imperforate, without perforations between stamps, with cutting the only means of separation. Hill did not expect that his stamps would prove all that popular; rather, he believed that his letter sheets and preprinted postage-paid envelopes, the Mulreadys, would be the choice of the postal-using public. He was wrong, probably for two reasons. First, the use of stamps, rather than prepaid envelopes— called by philatelists postal stationery— allows the user considerably more freedom in the size and shape of his envelope. Stamps also allow businesses, certainly the largest users of the post in Hill’s day as well as in our own, to have return addressed envelopes (called corner cards by philatelists). Second and more important, the design of the Mulready stationery was perceived as ludicrous by the English public. Its detractors, led by Punch, the English humor magazine, called the allegorized figures ridiculous; even its supporters could only muster faint praise for its busy beauty. Within weeks of its issue on May 6, 1840, parodies or caricatures appeared. These caricatures were sold in stationery shops, primarily as a jest, but some Londoners put stamps on them and mailed them to friends and relatives who might not have seen them. (Today such jests, if postally used, sell for upward of $5,000.)

Within weeks, it was clear even to Hill, the Mulready’s greatest supporter, that his postage stamp was to prove far more popular than his stationery. But the stamps, because they needed to be cut apart, posed problems for large users. Business firms often would place several sheets on a table and use a razor to cut the sheet into strips, then into singles. This separated the stamps effectively, if slowly. From a stamp collector’s point of view, such haphazard cutting of stamps frequently left the stamps with no margins; or, even worse, cut well into the stamp’s design.

It was obvious to all but Rowland Hill that a means of separating stamps from their sheets had to be found. One employee of the British Post Office Department said that Hill could not be counted on to support any proposal for postal change unless he had thought of it first. Nonetheless, Hill did come around in 1852, during hearings on the matter, to mildly endorse the convenience of easy separation, saying: “I do not speak strongly upon the matter; my opinion is that it could be useful and acceptable to the public to a certain extent.”

But how should this separation be done? There were basically two possibilities: perforation, the technique by which tiny holes are cut out of the paper between the stamps; and rouletting, the method by which tiny cuts are made in the paper so that when folded the paper will easily separate. Rouletting is an easier process, and it is found on many of the early stamps. Roulettes can be applied with a homemade device as simple as a modified pizza knife. many business firms around the world applied simple roulettes to the stamps that they bought, facilitating easy separation. At least one postmaster from the town of Tokay (now in Hungary, formerly Austria) applied a roulette, on demand, to the imperforate stamps that he sold in the 1850s. This private roulette is highly sought after today and can sell, when cancelled on an envelope, for as much as $20,000.

About the same time, in the lat 1840s and early 1850s, several men were experimenting with perforating machines that would cut tiny holes in the paper. The first patent for a perforating machine was filed in England in 1848, and some experimental perforated stamps were issued in 1850 or 1851. The United States began perforating in 1857. The essential problem in developing perforating machines was in perfecting the feed so that the cut holes were made to frame the stamps. Collectors who cherish early stamps know well that though these early machines perforated the stamps, frequently the perforation cut into the design of the stamp severely. Collectors grade a perforated stamp based on its centering, with the ideal stamp being perfectly framed within its perforations. Centering is critical to determining quality, a subject we will discuss at length later.

A Sticky Situation

A stamp must be affixed to a letter in order to serve its intended purpose. To accomplish this, the vast majority of stamps are gummed. Some stamps, like the ones the Dutch sent to their Asian and West Indian colonies, were sold and sent without gum. In the nineteenth century, a long boat trip to a hot climate in a humid hull meant that gummed stamps would arrive stuck together and had to be soaked in water to separate them, thereby losing their gum anyway. Sometimes the stamps were gummed upon arrival in the colony; though in India, the first issue was never gummed. The Danish West Indies (the American Virgin Islands after they were sold to the United States) issued the same stamp two ways over the years; either gummed in Denmark or gummed locally.

The gum on most early stamps posed a problem for early stamp producers. In the United States, newspaper editorials routinely complained that the stamps would not stick when moistened and that the taste of the gum was objectionable. The government was in a bind. To make the gum stickier would have meant having to apply it more thickly, which besides raising production costs would have caused the sheets of stamps to curl even more than they were already prone to do. Gum was applied wet to the printed sheets of stamps and, as it dried, it contracted, forcing the sheets into tight little rolls. Modern gumming avoids this by “breaking” the gum as it is placed on the stamp. Breaking occurs immediately after gumming, with the paper being pulled in the opposite direction from the curl, setting up small ridges or lines that, ideally, keep the stamps from curling. This method dates from early in the twentieth century. The stamps that the newspaper publishers complained about were kept from curling by hanging them to dry in sheets with weights attached at the bottom— a method that prevented curling only as long as the weights were on.

Gum is a major problem for stamp collectors, too. Many old stamps— such as the first issues of Denmark— have gum that just doesn’t want to come off. It has cracked and solidified over the years until it has a consistency similar to plaster. Some gums contain sulfur, like the gum used on Germany’s 1936 Ostropa souvenir sheet (a specially prepared issue for philatelists that had postal validity as well), which reacts with water vapor in the air to produce minute amounts of sulfuric acid. The acid is too weak to harm a collector’s hands, but sheets that have not had the gum removed have now mostly disintegrated. Until about 1890, gum was of such poor quality that collectors routinely washed it off. In the last eighty years, however, collectors have reversed their previous aversion to gum with such vigor that it seems almost as if they are atoning for earlier sins. Pendulums swing; although we will be talking a lot more about gum, it would be wise to remember that gum is just one attribute of a stamp in mint condition.

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