The Evolution of Mail and Postage Stamps

Have you ever really taken a good look at a postage stamp and considered what it represents? That little piece of paper is actually an ambassador representing its country through the people, places, and history depicted on it.

This brief presentation will highlight the history of the mail and postage stamps themselves, explain how they are created, and make you aware of the infinite possibilities of collecting them.

Consider joining the ranks of famous stamp collectors like President Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon and many others!

Presentation Plan
I- History of the Mail Before
    Postage Stamps

II- The Creation and Acceptance
     of Postage Stamps

III- What is Philately All About?
IV- Security Measures
V- These Are Stamps?

Lennon's childhood album



Almost any subject you can think of can be found on a postage stamp issued somewhere in the world since 1840. Flora, fauna, and other "natural wonders" can all be found on stamps.

Several hundred thousand different stamps (if not over a million!) have already been issued by countries past and present from around the world. So, too, have local governments and courier services.


I- History of the Mail Before Postage Stamps

  Mail and stamps have been defined by noted postal historian Ken Lawrence as:

"Written communication carried from one predetermined place to another on scheduled rounds at uniform rates by a disinterested third party (the postal system), and stamps were defined as printed tokens that denoted the franking privilege or prepayment of postage."

Any presentation about postage stamps must start by what came before them, for this story really begins with man's need to document the spoken word and disseminate that information. Pre-paid letter and parcel delivery through the use of postage stamps and home delivery itself are modern conveniences in the grand scheme of things.

So let's take a look first at mail through the millennia. Before the mid-1800's stamps and envelopes simply did not exist. Paper sheets were written upon, folded, addressed and then sealed in some way. Mailing costs were based on a combination of the weight and distance traveled, and often paid by the receiver, not the sender! Most routes originated as Royal roads, built by the Crown through the centuries to transport goods.



(the stamp's reverse inscription)


One of the earliest forms of writing was cuneiform. A note would be incised on clay tablets and then baked, creating a permanent message. The first mail service was formed either by Persian King Cyrus the Great, or his successor, King Darius of the Assyrian Empire around 671 B.C. Persian horsemen rode in relays covering a 1600-mile route in nine days delivering this official mail. Herodotus the Greek described their system this way: "It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed."


Two thousand years later Marco Polo wrote extensively about the Mongols' mail relay system in China in the 13th century.
It used about 300,000 horses to deliver the mail to over 10,000 stations in the region.


  Starting around 1290, the Venetian Tassis family organized a private courier service throughout the Italian city states. Marrying into German royalty, they later became known as the Thurn and Taxis family, managing an independent horse-based express service throughout the European continent handling diplomatic and commercial dispatches.

The business became so successful that Franz von Thurn und Taxis was appointed as the first Imperial Postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire at the turn of the 16th century to manage communications throughout the jurisdiction. Within a few decades typical deliveries between Brussels and Paris took 36 hours, and Brussels to Naples took 14 days.

One of the earliest known T&T covers, mailed on June 18, 1649 from Belgium to Paris, bearing a "post horn" postmark. Mail deliverers had horns to announce their arrival in towns they rode through.  

(click the
at right to
enlarge it)

  They employed over 20,000 people by the end of the 18th century and formed the basis of the modern 19th century postal system throughout Europe.

(Mail coach and Thurn and Taxis mail sign, circa 1750)


(click to enlarge map)

  The English postal service was officially established under King James II in 1657 from royal courier routes operating in Elizabethan times as a way of collecting revenue from the domestic mails. Rates at that time were based on the distance the letter was to travel multiplied by the number of sheets of paper composing the letter.

For example, the basic rate for single sheet letters was 2 pence for up to 80 miles, 4 pence for 80-140 miles, and 6 pence for distances over 160 miles. For example, a two-sheet letter sent 100 miles would have cost 8 pence (2x4 pence) in total.

Delivery was made by private contractors who collected their fees in cash from the receiver and paid the government back accordingly based on annual contracts. This was the norm for about 200 years afterwards.

Henry Bishop, English Postmaster General (1660-1663), introduced the first postmark in London in 1661 as a way of documenting the month and day a letter was received at the General Post Office to minimize local delivery complaints. Known as "Bishop's marks," several types were used over an 80-year period.  

(click the
at right to
enlarge it)

Dublin to London cover, posted November 23, 1661,
received at London's General Post Office December 7.


As for the American colonies, informal independently run postal routes began in Boston as early as 1639, with Boston to New York City service starting in 1672.

Officially sanctioned mail service began in 1692 when King William III of Great Britain granted a delivery "patent" to an English nobleman. With it came exclusive rights to set up and offer service to the colonial governments. Routes were set up between New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Portsmouth (NH) by the following year. Individual riders made the treks rather than by relays. A single sheet letter cost 9 pence between New York and Boston.

(click to enlarge)
  By 1707 the Crown bought the patent back and began its own operation by an act of Parliament in 1711. Ben Franklin was named the postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, and later was appointed by King George III in 1753 as Co-Deputy Postmaster General for America along with William Hunter.

Postage rates were high and looked upon as another form of taxation by the colonists. The British Stamp Act for America of 1765 placed a formal tax on official documents of all kinds, sparking the American Revolution. The tax was repealed a year later. Very few were ever actually used in the thirteen colonies, but saw service in Canada and the British Caribbean islands.  


1774 two-feather
(click to enlarge)
  The Swedish General Post dates to 1636 bearing a variety of manuscript markings. Royal mail was originally marked with 3 crowns, which evolved into a series of squiggles between the early 1700's and 1873.

Their mail system had a unique way of signifying the importance of letters- feathers. Feathers attached by wax seals gave post riders an idea of the urgency of the message. The more feathers, the greater importance.


1834 one-feather
soldier's letter
(click to enlarge)


The government of Sardinia, located off the western coast of Italy, issued stamped postal paper on November 7, 1818 at post offices and tobacco merchant shops (that earned a commission for their sale) across the island. The release was meant to tax private mail couriers. Anyone found transporting mail not on these letter sheets was subject to fines and imprisonment.

Known as "cavallini", these pre-cursors to postage stamps were available in 15, 25 and 50 centesimi denominations to account for the distance a letter was to travel.

Early stamped cavallini sheet
(click to enlarge)

Embossed cavallini sheet
(click to enlarge)
  All show a horse at full speed being ridden by a nude cherub blowing a post horn. The designs were stamped on early versions and embossed without ink on later ones. They remained in use until March, 1836, when the postal laws changed.


II- The Creation and Acceptance of Postage Stamps

Cropped image of the preliminary
accepted 1p and 2p stamp designs
(click to enlarge in its original form)
From the Royal Collection
of Queen Elizabeth II

  British postage rates were expensive and borne by the receiver. Businesses saw this as a hindrance to growth. Commoners could not afford to send letters at all. Secret codes developed between sender and receiver on the outer sheet in an attempt to avoid the payment but none-the-less relay a message. When shown the letter, the receiver would see the code and just refuse it. Other times letters would just be refused.

Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster and postal reform advocate from England, suggested in a series of pamphlets in 1837 the idea of using a piece of postal stationery (akin to revenue stamped paper) or "a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash" as evidence payment had been made. More radical was his proposal for a single uniform postal rate of one penny for a standard-weight letter across the British Isles.

The idea caught on and by 1839 postal reform became law. Universal penny postage was scheduled to be adopted on January 10, 1840.

The British Treasury held a competition to design a device that we now know as a stamp. The requirements were convenience for the public, safety from forgery, ease of identification for postal clerks, and low cost of production. Hill's concepts of using Queen Victoria's image were eventually used.

The result became known as the "Penny Black," the world's first postage stamp, issued on May 6, 1840, valued at 1 penny for letters up to 1/2 ounce; and the "Two Penny Blue" issued days later for letters up to one ounce. Hill was knighted by Queen Victoria for his efforts.


The idea of prepayment for a letter by using a stamp caught the attention of governments around the world. Over the next several years many countries and territories, especially the Swiss cantons, issued stamps. Here are a few of them.

Zurich Canton
March 1, 1843

August 1, 1843

Geneva Canton
September 30, 1843

Basel Canton
July 1, 1845

July 1, 1847

September 21, 1847

January 1, 1849

October 17, 1849

November 1, 1849


Mail volume was increasing internationally with the advent of stamps, and the old system of countries signing private treaties with one another to establish postal rates was too fragmented cumbersome and confusing to continue.

Appointed to the position of Postmaster General by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Montgomery Blair spent four years managing the wartime posts on the home front while becoming an international advocate for standardized rates among all nations. He convened an international postal conference in Paris in 1863 where delegates from 15 American and European countries laid the groundwork for future agreements on uniformity.


(click to enlarge)


(click to enlarge)

Heinrich von Stephan, a postal official from the North German Confederation, continued Blair's work. He arranged for another major postal convention, this time in Bern, Switzerland on September 15, 1874 that concluded with a treaty on October 9 signed by 22 nations. Among other things, it established an organization named the "General Postal Union" as an international body to manage postal affairs. Later renamed the "Universal Postal Union" in 1878, the body continues into our own time as a specialized agency of the United Nations carrying on with its mandate.


From Design to Stamp

  Have you ever wondered how stamps are made? While technological advancements have shortened the timeframe in producing them, the basic steps remain the same. As legal tender, stamps have a value associated with them and are printed under tight security and control.

All stamps start with the artist coming up with preliminary sketches. In some cases, a specific artist is commissioned to design a stamp or series of stamps by a postal administration or stamp printing company contracted by that government. Other times competitions are held inviting artists to submit designs based on an idea or concept.


(click any sketch or stamp above to enlarge it)


There are several ways of producing stamps. The next series of slides show how engraved stamps are made. It is used sparingly today, as the process is time-consuming and printing costs are higher than other methods.

The Republic of Panama issued a set of stamps on March 1, 1915 to honor the Panama National Exhibition. The 8 value set was designed and printed by the American Bank Note Company the previous year in 1914. A small number were also overprinted for use in the Canal Zone at the same time.  
A postally used first day cover bearing all values
(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)
  The 20 centesimos denomination depicted the ruins of a landmark in Panama City, El Arco Chato (The Flat Arch) of the Church of Santo Domingo built by the city's founding friars. A fire in 1756 destroyed the interior, but the stonework remained, including the famous arch, until it finally collapsed on November 7, 2003. Here is how that stamp came to be.


As a major landmark, the best views of the church and arch proved to be postcards produced for tourists. Two were sent to the American Banknote Company for consideration as its stamp model.

Postcard by Maduro
(click to enlarge)
Postcard by Vibert and Dixon
(click to enlarge)

The selected card was mounted on a hardboard sheet that was marked for sizing and scaling needs of the ABNC designers. Also marked are notes on the desired wording, foreign order number (F4245) and die cast number.  

(click to enlarge)


A black and white photo was taken of the postcard's image, reduced in size, and placed in the center of a hand-drawn and colored frame. It was attached to a large card for review and acceptance.

(click to enlarge)



(click to enlarge)

  The approved design was then brought to a master engraver. These skilled craftsmen begin with a softened steel slug onto which the design is incised in reverse using very tiny tools. It can take weeks to finish each engraving, called a "die."  

This was a bi-colored issue per the accepted mockup, so two dies needed to be prepared, one for the brown-tone frame and one for the black vignette.


  The line engraving technique cuts ridges of various lengths and depths in the reverse-image steel die. When inked and printed, the ink deposits left behind also leave raised ridges that can be felt to the touch, similar to the feel of banknotes.


  A series of test colors were printed on a spider press from the dies to determine the best shades to enhance the design. Eventually the printers would decide on the exact color combination to use.

Specialist Ross Towle provided details about the two items pictured here. On the left is a 1914 approval die proof in an unaccepted color with the approval initials of ASM (A. S. Major, head of engraving department) and FWG (Frank W. Gullett, resident foreign sales manager). The index copy card on the right was produced years later (no earlier than 1924) by the American Bank Note Company as they organized their archives.

1914 Approval Die Proof
in unaccepted color (click to enlarge)
Index Card- right stamp is a die proof with
the original frame die number (click to enlarge)


The master die for each color would have been hardened for final replication onto a transfer roll which is used to create multiple copies on the master printing plate in as many images needed to create a full sheet of stamps. Although depicting another stamp issue, this diagram may help to visualize the process.

 Master Die           Transfer Roll           Master Printing Plate

The master printing plate was then hardened and used to print the stamps. Two passes were needed, one for the brown border and one for the central black vignette.

The sheets were then fed through a perforator, a device that punched holes around each design to make them easy to separate. The resulting stamps were packaged, stored the and shipped to post offices close to their date of issuance.

Motorized Rosback straight-line
pin-hole perforator (1916 era).


Selvage strip of 7, with Foreign Order # for the issue, F4245.
(click to enlarge)

Inverted corner single from the above strip.
  At least one sheet of the 20 centesimos stamps was entered into the printing press incorrectly after its first pass, creating in an inverted (upside-down) error. It is unknown whether the frame or central vignette was printed first, i.e. resulting in a center invert or frame invert, respectively.

Thanks to the Panama/Columbia Philatelic web site for some of the information and images presented here about this issue.


III- What is Philately All About?

Stamp collecting has a language all its own, as do other hobbies.

The term "philately" was coined by the French in the early days of postage stamp collecting. It is a combination of two Greek words, philo (lover, or fond of) and ateleia (free of payment or tax). Philatelists are people who like not having to pay taxes! Remember that for a very long time it was the receiver, not the sender of the letter who got stuck paying for its transportation.

Let's take a look at seven main features of a stamp. Not all are present on all stamps.

Click the blue term to see it on the stamp.

1. Vignette- central main image
2. Frame- outside image of a stamp
3. Denomination- value of a stamp
4. Country of Origin
5. Margin- unprinted area around a stamp
6. Border Line- margin and frame separator
7. Perforations- holes on the edge of a stamp


It is interesting to note that Great Britain is the only country allowed to issue stamps without a country name in deference to Rowland Hill's great idea.


Stamps can easiest be separated into four major categories:

Commemoratives- stamps printed in limited quantities and available for a short period of time in honor of important people, places, events or subjects. They are often larger and more colorful than other types of stamps.

Definitives- stamps often reprinted to meet continual use by the public paying a standard rate or value to make up a specific need. Many times these are smaller in size than commemoratives and have a common look, design and/or theme among many denominations.

Special purpose or service stamps- like definitives, but issued for a particular need and oftentimes an exclusive use. These include: airmail stamps, postage due stamps (non-payment of fees), semi-postal stamps (surtaxed stamps for a charitable cause), special delivery stamps, and alike.

Revenue stamps- non-postage receipts representing a tax paid for a variety of needs. Shown above are the following: Canadian law stamp, Irish dog license stamp, revenues from Japan, Mexico and South Africa.


Same Design, Different Stamps

There are many ways to differentiate stamps that have the same design. Knowing these basics allow collectors to tell whether they have a stamp worth a few cents or several thousand dollars. Take a look here and view examples of the one cent "Washington-Franklin" U.S. definitive issued between 1908-1922.
One stamp is worth $7, the other $7,500.
Can you tell which is which?

First, check for straight edges. Stamps were released in three formats: sheets, coils (strips for use in vending machines and by mass-mailers), and booklets.

Sheet Stamps
Stamps can have 0, 1, or 2 straight edges.
Coil Stamps
Stamps always have 2 straight
edges on opposite sides.
Booklet Stamps
Stamps can have 0, 1 or 2 straight edges.

Some sheets were never run through a perforator and needed to be cut from each sheet. These are known as "imperforates."

A full sheet of stamps with a
Salem, Ohio precancel overprint
(click to enlarge)

vertical pair

horizontal pair

The lines in the center of each pair only occurs
every 20th stamp. These are called "line pairs."

pane of 6
(click to enlarge)

pane of 30 placed in booklets
used by troops in Siberia
(click to enlarge)


  Second, check its perforation. The first "Penny Black" stamps from Great Britain and a number of issues afterwards needed to be cut from the sheet. This proved inconvenient for postal employees and patrons, so a machine was devised to punch pin holes between stamp designs to make them easy to separate.

Pin sizes and the gaps between pins used to punch the holes varied among the various stamp printers. Early collectors invented the perforation gage, a special ruler, to measure the number of holes (or alternately, the teeth next to them) in a standard 20 millimeter length.

The stamps here all have different perf measurements. The higher the number, the more holes. A stamp is simply placed over the printed patterns until it exactly matches, resulting in its perf size. The horizontal measurement is denoted first, followed by the vertical. They are not always the same in both directions.


Perf 10

Perf 11

Perf 12

Perf 12 1/2

Perf 8 1/2 Vertical

Perf 8 1/2 Horizontal

Perf 10 x 11

Perf 11 x 10


Third, check its watermark. A watermark is a security impression stamped at regular intervals when the stamp paper is made. The result is a thinning in the paper at the spot where the impression is struck. Designs or lettering are typically used, which may be found partially or fully on every stamp. The Penny Black used a crown.

Two separate watermarks were used on this issue- single and double lettering of "USPS." A highly evaporative liquid is dropped or poured into a black tray ove ra stamp placed face-down. This allows easy viewing of the watermark to identify the stamp.

Dropping watermark
fluid on a stamp.

Single-line watermark

Double-line watermark

Sample results.

Single-line watermark

Double-line watermark


Fourth, determine its printing. This stamp issue was printed by three different methods.

Flat Plate Stamps
Rotary Stamps
Offset Stamps

These stamps were engraved for perforated issues and are slightly smaller in size than rotary issues.

These stamps were engraved and are longer or wider than those from the flat plate method. Mostly used to produce coils.

Produced by taking a photo of the engraved die and retouching it. Typically resulted in poorer quality and greyer colored stamps.

Placing one type of stamp over another is an easy
way to determine which printing type you may


The Scotts Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue is considered the Bible of philately to collectors in the US and Canada.

  Available yearly in 6 volumes for worldwide stamps and several specialized catalogues, it lists all postage stamps from stamp-issuing countries and their retail prices in both mint and used condition. Scotts uses a unique numbering system to identify each stamp.

By checking all of the parameters above--commemorative/definitive/special purpose, sheet/coil/booklet, perforation, watermark and printing type--any collector should be able to look up any stamp and properly identify it.

Remember the
stamps from

On the left is Scott #424A, a rare Perf 12x10, valued around $7,500.
On the right is Scott #405, Perf 12, valued around $7.


Other Factors in Determining Stamp Value

Properly identifying a particular stamp and then finding its catalogue price is only a starting point in figuring out what its true worth is. Several other factors need to be considered.


The age of a stamp is not a factor when you consider value. Some stamps from the Civil War era can be bought for under 25 cents each. Millions of these stamps were produced over many years, as it paid the standard letter rate of the time. Rarity is more a factor of how many of a stamp exists and how interested collectors are in buying it.  

Mint versus Used

  Mint (unused) stamps are generally more valuable than unused stamps, but again, quantity printed and saved is the key. Tens of thousands of people bought full sheets of U.S. 3 cent stamps in the 1940's believing their value would increase. Hundreds of millions were printed. They flooded the market and sell for less than face value now.


Gum Condition

Mint stamps with original undisturbed gum, i.e.
as they came out when purchased from the Post
Office, are preferred by collectors. These are
termed MNH, or mint never-hinged stamps.

In the early days of collecting, small glassine strips of paper gummed on one side were used to attach mint and used stamps to album pages. These became known as hinges, reflecting their fold. half would be licked and attached to the stamp, the other half licked and attached to the page. They could easily be removed by peeling them, but a small hinge remnant would remain and the gum would be disturbed. Such stamps are called MH, or mint-hinged stamps.

  Hinges are still used today, but mostly for used stamps. Mint stamps are best mounted using clear and durable archival-safe Dupont Mylar and similar material made specifically for collectors.

It is difficult to find mint-never hinged stamps issued in the 1800's through the early 20th century. These are highly sought after and command a premium when offered for sale or at auction.



Stamps can be graded against a theoretical "perfect" stamp that would command the highest price. A scale of 6 grades has been developed to describe stamp condition.

Examples of Good - Fine - Very Fine - Superb Centering

  • G (Good) - design is completely off-center with perforations well into the design of the stamp, face of stamp may contain a blemish or short perfs
  • VG (Very Good)- design is off-center, perforations touch the design in one or more places, may have a few short perfs
  • F (Fine)- design is still off-center, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects
  • VF (Very Fine)- well-centered stamp with one or two sides narrower than the others, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects
  • XF (Extremely Fine)- near-perfect centering with wide margins, perforations do not touch the design, no visible defects
  • S (Superb)- perfect centering with wide margins, perforations do not touch the design, free of any defect, printing crisp and clear

    (click to enlarge)
      New on the scene is computerized grading of stamps. Several companies now offer "slabbing" services that grade stamps on a perfection scale from 1 to 100. These are mostly for investors and stamps of great value, but more and more are being used for lesser expensive stamps of superb quality to bring a premium price.


    IV- Security Measures

    Stamps are legal obligations of the issuing country, just like currency. Printers and businesses through the years have devised hundreds of ways to prevent counterfeiting, pilfering and re-use of stamps. Here are some of them.



    From the early days, stamps were used for payment of small items that lead to stealing. The Oxford Union Society of Great Britain was the first organization allowed to overprint their stamps in 1859 as a security measure to dissuade pilfering.

    Over 50 reported companies unofficially printed their name on the gummed side of the stamp as a way of marking their holdings. Only a trace of the print would remain when used. By 1867 this practice was approved by the British Post Office and stamp producers did this by special request at the time the stamps were printed in the same color ink.




    Dept. of Health,
    Harrisburg, PA
    from the US

    Great Britain

    Hong Kong &
    Bank of China


    El Salvador

    from Denmark
    Another idea to identify stamps purchased by companies also originated in Great Britain. Inventor Joseph Sloper patented the idea of punching holes in stamps forming letters or designs in 1858. Known as perfins (PERForated INitialS), the Post Office gave its blessing to the scheme 10 years later on March 14, 1868.

    Perfins became popular right through the end of the 20th century, as companies in over 300 countries around the world picked up on their use. In the U.S. alone more than 6,500 patterns have been identified in postage stamps, revenue and special service stamps. Specialists in Great Britain have catalogued over 23,000 varieties. Less than 1/3 of these have been matched to their company of origin. New discoveries are made regularly.



    sample reverse
    (click to enlarge)

    front view
    (click to enlarge)
      Stamp re-use has always been a problem, as people tried to wash cancellation ink to make them appear unused. Some U.S. stamps from 1867-1871 were impressed with a small square waffle iron type pattern of parallel rows. This broke the fibers of the stamp enough to allow the ink to penetrate thoroughly through the paper, creating a blotched, more blackened cancel.

    This is the most expensive U.S. stamp, known as the 1867 "Z" Grill. One of two known, it was most recently auctioned off by Robert Siegel Auctions (lot #226 of Sale #804) in November of 2005 and sold for a record-breaking $935,000. The other known copy is held by the New York Public Library as part of the Miller Collection of 19th century stamps and can never be sold.  

    (click to enlarge)

    magnified reverse


    Ultraviolet Coatings

      Stamp producers began experimenting with near-invisible band of phosphor and fluorescent ink coatings on stamps in the late 1950's. These stamps "glowed" when exposed to UV light. Mail bearing these stamps could be sorted from the rest by running it through machines which look for these UV tags and orient letters properly for high-speed cancellation. Different tagging types developed through the years and eventually evolved into a security feature to detect counterfeits.




    Printing technology has enabled stamp printers to insert "secret" words in various places in a design to prevent illegal reproduction. Designs have also incorporated these finely printed letters in other ways.

    2001 British T.S. Eliot stamp with the entire "The
    Ad-dressing of Cats" poem in readable microtext
    (click to enlarge)

    "BOTANISTS" in the petal

    Design made up of "USPS"

    "LOVE" in upper right bud



    Austria was the first country to use a hologram as part of a postage stamp in 1988 for both security and aesthetics. Other countries have since done the same for all types of philatelic products.





    Optically variable inks contain tiny flakes of special film that change color as the viewing angle is varied. This technology was first used on banknotes.

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)

    before and after heating- see the lower cloud color change

    before and after heating- check out the pan
      Heat-sensitive thermochromic inks have been used on stamps that turn color when heated by slight rubbing with a finger.

    before heating-
    pink lei
    turns white
    when warm
    before and after heating- black turns grey
    revealing the inner molecule and Chemistry inscription
    (silver Queen's head did not reproduce
    well in upper left corner of each stamp)

    checkerboard background and boxes in the border turn color


    Hidden Images

    Scrambled Indicia is a "patented pre-press process that scrambles, distorts, intertwines, overlaps or otherwise manipulates images making encoded information on them unreadable by the naked eye, and non-copyable by current color copiers and digital scanners" per the Graphic Security Systems Corporation's web  
    site. The technology has been in use since 1977, and was adopted as an anti-counterfeiting measure on US postage stamps in 1997. When printed, the images are seen through a simple plastic decoder lens allowing the viewer to see the encoded images.

        Here are two demonstrations of the decoding technology from the company. A variety of images appear on the 1998 "Bright Eyes" animal commemoratives and $1 fox definitive USPS issues.



    Printers have also experimented with different perforation shapes to deter counterfeiting.

    In 1993 Great Britain postal authorities uncovered a massive plot selling fake 24 pence Machin definitive stamps (on the right) around the country. Their perforations were uneven and crude, but probably not noticeable to the general public. The Post Office turned to Dutch printer J. Enschede that created an elliptical perf to thwart future forgeries. The 29 pence stamp was issued this way later that year. Two different distinct types of these perfs have been used on British definitives, best seen while two stamps are attached together.




    J. Enschede and other printers have used variants of these perfs on other stamps.

    horizontal elliptical perfs

    "B" shaped elliptical perfs

    maple leaf perfs
    (click to enlarge)

    double elliptical perfs

    elliptical perfs and large holes in corners
    star perfs in corners


    V- These Are Stamps?

    So you think stamps are just rectangular pieces of paper with some glue on the reverse? Are you in for a surprise! Countries around the world have found that stamps raise significant revenue, especially from philatelists looking for something different. While valid for postage, most of these were rarely if ever used in the post and simply collected. Take a good look at these and you'll never look at stamps the same way again.

      In 1964 the African country of Sierra Leone became the first to issue a free-form die-cut self-adhesive stamp in the shape of their country. Some collectors were outraged over the gimmick. Self-stick stamps are popular the world-over now.

    Click here to see an enlargement
    of the stamp and cancel.


    Who needs paper? An ungummed souvenir sheet made of synthetic polyester fibers with two stamps was released by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) on March 12, 1963. It commemorated "Chemistry for Peace and Socialism."    
    Bhutan's plastic bas-relief stamps came out a few years later.

    (click to enlarge)
      The USA turned to a plastic-based stamp in 1991 when it needed a material stronger than paper for stamps to be dispensed by bank automatic teller machines (ATMs). Sheetlets of 12 were sold to bank patrons at face value and had to be the same size as paper bills.


    The island of Grenada issued the world's first stamp printed on silk on June 1, 1971 honoring Jennifer Hosten, Miss World 1970-71. Mongolia's first silk stamp commemorated the 1982 soccer World Cup.

    Also honoring soccer was a set of stamps from Singapore in 2004 printed on felt.

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)



    (click to enlarge)
      Swiss Post issued on June 21, 2000 the world's first "lace" embroidered stamp and souvenir sheet. Over a fifth of the eastern Swiss population in 1900 earned a living from embroidery, very much a cottage industry at the time.

    (click to enlarge)

    (click to enlarge)
      Neighbors Italy and Austria came out with similar stamps in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Both depicted flora. Italy's stamp depicts flowers and buds. Austria's national flower, edelweiss, is seen against a green background.


    Gold and silver foil have been used for years on stamps from some countries. Do not confuse these actual postage stamps with embossed foil reproductions created by some companies and sold for high, unrealistic prices.  

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    Stamps from Norway, Poland and The Vatican were printed on wafer-thin sterling silver ingots.


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    Stamps have also been printed on sheets of steel...


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    as well as aluminum.


    The elusive 1973 record stamps of Bhutan have long fascinated collectors and non-collectors alike. They actually play at 33 1/3 speed! The set of seven features native folk songs and a brief history in English. Click below to listen to some of them here!

    (click to enlarge)
    History of Bhutan (.ram file)
    Folk Song 1 (.ram file)
    Folk Song 2 (.mid file)

    Click to read a 1/27/07 Linn's article.

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    3-D lenticular stamps began appearing in the mid-1960's. As their name implies, a thin plastic lens is placed over a printed image. The result is an image that slightly moves in a stereoscopic effect as one views it from different angles or turns it slightly.  

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      Taking the technology a step further, 2006 "Motionprint" issues from the Netherlands and Ireland contain about two seconds (12 frames) of video, as seen here.

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    Sometimes called "scratch-and-sniff" stamps, scented stamps have been around since 1973. Flowers have been popular in this category, but other smells also captured the imagination of artists, postal administrations and collectors.

    1973 Bhutan- roses

    1999 Brazil- burnt wood for
    a fire prevention issue
    (click to enlarge)

    2001 Switzerland- chocolate

    2001 Hong Kong- jasmine tea

    2003 Russia- fruit

    How did they do it? Micro-encapsulation, developed in the 1940's for carbonless paper, uses plastic or gelatin nodules only a few microns (millionths of a meter) in size within an aromatic chemical. Scratching the surface breaks these, a few at a time, releasing the scent while preserving the rest for years. Soap and cosmetics use this same process.  


    Stamps have had various
    substances "attached" to
    them. Here are just a
    few examples.

    2003 Russia- clay dust on court, silver on cup
    (click to enlarge)

    2006 Austria- meteorite dust on the orange ink
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    Famous Swarovski glass crystals were set into stamps for the first time in 2004 to honor the company's 100th anniversary. Numerous smaller gems were used on stamps in the 2006 joint "fireworks" issue souvenir sheets with Hong Kong.

    2004 Austria, Swarovski's Crystal Worlds
    (click each stamp to enlarge, or center for sheet)

    2006 Austria joint issue with Hong Kong
    (click each stamp to enlarge, or center for sheet)

    2006 Hong Kong joint issue with Austria
    (click each stamp to enlarge, or center for sheet)


    1997 Netherlands Valentine issue

    1996 New Zealand
    "Scratch and Win"
    (click to enlarge)
      Scratch-off stamps
    debuted in 1996 on
    a tab of a New
    Zealand Post
    "Centenery of
    Cinema" contest.

    even printed
    stamps on .7 mm
    thick pinewood
    120 years old.

    2004 Switzerland

    2003 Norway Valentine issue


    Personalized stamps
    were first released in
    March 1999 by
    Australia. Patrons of the
    Melbourne international
    stamp exhibition could
    get their photos taken
    and printed on the tabs
    of a special sheetlet of
    10 stamps.
      British "Smiler" stamps
    were issued at The Stamp
    Show in London in May
    2000 in sheets of 10.

    Canada's 2000
    stamps placed
    photos on
    stickers inset
    into stamp


    The US Postal Service trialed "PC Postage"
    stamps nationwide on August 9, 1999 after a
    year-long test in Washington, DC and the
    Pacific states. Called "Information Based
    Indicia" (IBI), these could only be purchased
    through a number of private companies via
    the Internet and printed at home or work.

    They were viewed as convenient
    replacements to postage meters. Each stamp's
    encrypted barcode detailed information about
    its user, verifying its validity and making them
    supposedly tamper-proof. As meters, they are
    not intended to be canceled like stamps.

    2000 indicia samples

    Introductory lobby poster
    Domestic Mail Manual
    (click to enlarge)

    Depiction of IBI types
    Domestic Mail Manual
    (click to enlarge)

    IBI types, Domestic Mail Manual, June 2001
    (click to enlarge)


    Sheet of 20 PhotoStamps
    (click to enlarge)
      On August 10, 2004 the USPS authorized testing of personalized "PhotoStamps" by for 7 1/2 weeks, allowing images to be printed along side the indicia. Over 2.7 million were purchased. Despite strict controls, creative patrons submitted pictures of questionable personalities, like Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic. This made many reassess the future viability of the program without additional safeguards in place.

    Avery Dennison
    Fun Stamps
    (click to enlarge)

    Pitney Bowes
    Zazzle stamps
    (click to enlarge)
    PhotoStamps (click to enlarge)

    Phase II of the photo stamp concept was authorized by the USPS in April 2005, allowing multiple companies to get in the market for a one year period. Four companies participated, (PhotoStamps), (PictureItStamps), Pitney Bowes (Zazzle stamps), and Avery Dennison (Fun Stamps). Fun Stamps lasted only a few months before dropping out of the program.



      Are stamps as we've known them for over 160 years going the way of the dinosaur?

    The USPS and other postal administrations in the developed world are suffering from reduced revenues. People are just not writing as many letters as they used to. The Internet, emails, instant messaging, the growth of cell phones and other "immediate" modes of communications seem to take priority today.

    Somehow I suspect people will always have a need for physically sending cards and letters, whether it be while traveling, for Christmas or other holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special events. Of course, like the middle stamp here, we'll always have bills to pay!


    Images in this presentation came from items in my own collection or were taken from various sites on the Internet where many additional references can be found. Some of the "must-sees" include: Linn's Stamp News-, Ask Phil- and the National Postal Museum-

    Created in December, 2006