Distinguishing Characteristics of Postage Stamps

The essence of philately (stamp collecting) is classification of philatelic material. Jamaican stamps aptly illustrate nearly every characteristic which is used to classify stamps. The stamps in each pair are distinguished by one characteristic. These are the characteristics which are used by catalogue makers to identify different stamps. In each case the catalogue number from the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue is included for reference.

Illustration: The design of the stamp is the initial distinguishing characteristic. These two very similar stamps differ by showing Edward VII on the left stamp (#60) and George V on the right stamp (#62).

Denomination: Like coins, stamps come in denominations. In this case the distinguishing difference is the value of 5 shillings for the stamp on the left (#230) and 50¢ for the stamp on the right (#315). This pair reflects the results of a change to decimal currency on September 8, 1969. Often the same design is used for different values of the same currency but colors are changed to reduce confusion.

Color: The stamp on the left (#121) is classified as green and light ultramarine while the stamp on the right (#140) is ultramarine and slate blue. There was a distinct decision made to change the colors, in this case, rather than just an instance of another slightly different ink on a new printing of the stamp.

Mint and Used: Stamps are meant to be used. The cancellation is used to end their usefulness for mailing. "Mint" is the term used to describe a stamp which has not been used and is in the condition it was when it left the post office. "Unused" is a term for uncancelled stamps which have had the gum removed. The term "mint" is often modified by terms reflecting past mounting with stamp hinges as in MLH (mint, lightly hinged). Such stamps should have only a minor hinge impression left on the gum. The collection of the various cancellation marks is a whole field in itself. Scott 158 is shown mint at the left and used at the right.

Watermark: Watermarks have been used to identify paper for centuries. Papers for printing securities, such as stamps, have made use of watermarks to reduce the liklihood of forgery. The watermark is imposed by a design on a roller over which the paper passes during its manufacture, creating a compressed area under the watermarking devices. The stamp on the left (#21) has a so-called Crown and CA watermark which can be seen faintly against the black background. The stamp on the right (#47) has a Multiple Crown and CA watermark. The stamp in the center illustrates the identical faces of both stamps. As you can imagine, watermarks show up in water; however, stamp collectors use volatile commercial organic fluids to avoid damaging stamps.


Perforations: The first stamps in 1840 were cut apart at the post office with scissors. This inconvenience was overcome with the invention of perforating machines. Perforations are classified by the number of holes in a 2-centimeter group. Thus, the stamp on the left (#132) is perforated 12½ and the one on the right (#132a) is perforated 13. The number of perforations are determined by the machine, the punch wheel used, the paper, and the direction of the paper's grain.

Overprint: Stamps are often used for other duties and are overprinted to indicate their function. The stamp on the left (#58) was overprinted with the words WAR STAMP. during World War I to indicate that the supplementary War Tax imposed on mailings had been paid. The overprinted stamp on the right is designated #MR7.

Design Details: During the course of the use of a stamp design, detailed changes may be made as new plates are made to replace those worn out from printing the stamp. In this case, the shading beneath "JAMAICA" was darkened in the stamp on the right (#103a) from the original stamp on the left (#103).

Shades of Color: The stamp on the left is described as ochre and blue (#99) while the stamp on the right is described as orange and blue (#99a). This difference was the result of a mixing a different ink color for a subsequent printing.

Overprint Types: This characteristic is illustrated by another example of using an overprint to make a regular postage stamp do double duty. In this instance, a second overprinting plate was made using a bold sans serif type face instead of the light sans serif type face used initially. The left stamp is O1 and the right stamp is O2.

Dimension: Stamps often have slightly different dimensions from one printing to another. This difference only appears when the plate from which the stamps are printed is dimensionally different. In the case of these stamps, the plate was made up of small blocks of type-like material -- each of which had one complete stamp on its face. The entire design of one stamp is included in one piece of type made by making a casting from a master die. One hundred castings could be assembled into a plate to print a sheet of one hundred stamps in a 10x10 arrangement. The resulting pieces of type are called "clichés." The design of the stamp on the left is from a cliché which is 17¼-mm wide while the stamp on the left is 18-mm wide. Both are varieties of #104 and would be of interest to the specialist.

Paper: Paper is a fundamental ingredient in the production of stamps. In the case of the two stamps illustrated here, the left one (#49) is printed on white paper while the right one (#50) is printed on yellow paper.

Plate Defect: As you might imagine the plates from which stamps are printed are subject to wear and damage. In this case, something damaged the plate on the banner beneath the allegorical figures. The stamp on the left (#35) shows SERVIET while the stamp on the right (#35a) shows SER. ET after the cliché was damaged. This variety is found in the same location on all the sheets printed after the plate was damaged.


Overprint Variant: Just as the basic plates can be damaged, overprint plates sometimes yield varieties as the result of defects. The overprint for this pair of stamps (#MR5 on the right and #MR5b on the left) was handset type. We do not know whether the missing S is due to a broken type face, a type face which had slipped below the printing level, or was due to a plate which was made without the S initially due to carelessness or a shortage of type.

Paper Type: Many varieties of paper have been used to print stamps. The difference between these two stamps is the result of two different papers being used. The stamp on the left (#34) was printed on so-called "normal" paper while the stamp on the right (#38) was printed on a paper which had a chalky surface coating. The chalky surface was used to make a better surface for printing. It also made reuse of the stamp more difficult as the design was destroyed when the stamp was soaked off the paper.


It is hoped that you have enjoyed this introduction to identification and classification of stamps. More information is available on these and other subjects pertinent to philately in the introduction to Scott's catalogues. Reading the introductory material in Scott's is recommended for all -- it's a must for beginners and a helpful review for experienced collectors. When you understand these subjects, you will be confident in exploring any of the many avenues which excite stamp collectors. Remember, what and how you collect is up to you. There's room in the hobby for everyone; however, understanding the common language enhances your rewards.

March 15, 1999