The advent of the adhesive postage stamp officially began onMay 6, 1840 with the release of the famous Penny Black and 2 dayslater the Tuppence Blue. Thus began a series of events that wasto change how the world communicated. The early issues of GreatBritain, from May 1840 until 1855, where printed almost exclusiveusing the line engraved (gravure, recess) printing method. Billionsof stamps were printed using more than 480 printing plates. Mostof these plates had 240 individual stamp images, all different,since, as a forgery precaution , "check" letters wereplaced in the corner squares with the stamp in the upper lefthand corner being lettered AA and in the lower right hand cornerbeing TL. For engraved stamps printed before 1864, the letterswere individually punched into the printing plate. As this wasdone by hand, the position of the letters relative to the surroundingsquare varied and allows an expert to tell from what plate anindividual stamp comes. These issues, that had the letters handpunched, all have letters in the 2 bottom squares only, the upper2 square containing "stars". After 1864, line engravedissues had letters in all 4 corner squares, that were engraved,rather than punched into the printing plates, but more importantlyalso had the plate numbers engraved onto the stamp, making platingmuch simpler.
This exhibit will discuss the stamps having hand punched checkletters and stars in the upper corners, issues prior to 1864.The World's First Adhesive Postage Stamp:
The penny black was printed from 11 plates numbered 1 to 11,many having more than one state due to repairs and re-entries.There are other differences between the plates which are beyondthe scope of this exhibit and can be found in the references forthose interested. The following 2 stamps illustrate 2 plates ofthe penny black.
The positions, angles and typography of the check letters,'BB', in the lower squares are clear in the above 2 examples.
The Penny Red:
In 1841, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do withfraudulent re-use of postage stamps, the color of the one pennywas changed from black to red. The term 'Penny Stars' is oftenused for this incomparably complex series of stamps which werein continual production from Fed. 10, 1841 until April 1862. Thecomplexity of this series is due, ignoring at least 20 distinctshades color shades, not only to the hundreds of plates used forprinting, but to that fact that 2 master dies, both imperforateand perforate issues (2 gauges as well as experimental perforations),2 watermarks (and 2 varieties of one) and 4 fonts (alphabets)as well as various combinations were used for these stamps.
The first printing of the imperforate penny reds were madefrom the some of the same plates as the penny blacks. The following2 stamps are both printed from black plate 10.
Notice that the positions of the check letters are identicalon both stamps. The differences in the strength of the check lettersand the absence of the white flaw at the bottom of the 'O' inONE on the red is due to the fact that this plate position wasre-entered before this red stamp was printed. Note also a primereason for changing the color from black to red. Initially thepenny blacks were canceled using red ink that was easy to remove.This was later changed to black which was more permanent. As youcan see, black shows up much better on a red stamp than a blackstamp.
The imperforate penny red was printed from about 166 plates,besides those printed from the black plates. An interesting changeoccurred in February 1852 with plate 132. The style of the fontused to punch the check letters was changed. This is now knownas Alphabet II, the previous font being known as Alphabet I. Later,2 more fonts were used, Alphabet III and IV, the latter beingengraved directly onto the plate rather than punched.
Above is illustrated the 4 alphabets for the 'B' check letter.As you can see there are variations within an alphabetas well as between alphabets. The letter 'B' is fairlyeasy simple to assign to an alphabet, some letters are much moredifficult. Shown below are two penny reds showing examples ofthe the two alphabets used for imperforate penny reds. The differencesin these fonts is quite obvious.
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Penny Red, plate 65, Alphabet I
Penny Red, plate 173, Alphabet II
In general alphabet I letters are smaller and more delicatethan alphabet II, while the latter are blockier and larger thanalphabet I.Perforated Penny Reds:
The next major change to the line engraved Victorian issues,occurred in February of 1854 with the release of officially perforatedstamps for the first time in Great Britain. A number of experimentalperforation trials were conducted largely by Henry Archer andis an interesting tangent to this issues, but it beyond the scopeof this exhibition. The first printings were made from existingplates that were used for imperforate issues. As illustrated below:
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Penny Red, plate 164, Imperforate
Penny Red, plate 164, Perforated 16
Note the absolute identical configuration and position of thecheck letters.The New Master Die II:
In February 1855 and new master die was produced by retouchingthe original master die to provide roller dies for laying downthe printing plates. All previous impressions had come from theoriginal master die, now known as die I. There are many distinguishingfeatures of these two dies. But, the overall effect is to createan illustration of Victoria that looks different. With a littlepractice stamps from these dies are immediately recognizable inthe same way that one recognizes a friend's face-- hard to explain,easy to do.
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Heath's Die I
Humphrey's Die II
With the advent of Die II, plate numbering started over atplate 1 for the penny Reds. Plates 1-21 were used for alphabetII stamps. The large crown watermarked paper began being usedin May of 1855 for per. 16 stamps and in June, 1855 for perf 14stamps.
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Die II, Plate 1, perf. 16, Small Crown
Die II, Plate 1, perf. 14, Large Crown
The Change to Alphabet III:
In August, 1855, alphabet III stamps started appearing. Thesewere printed from plates 22 through 68 and a reserve plate calledR17. All alphabet III stamps were perforated 14, except for asmall printing on Dec. 16, 1857, when the perf 16 machine wasused on large crown watermarked sheets. Also nearly all are watermarkedwith the large crown paper, except from printing from the earlyplates, 22 to 26, from August to November 1855 during which smallcrown paper was also used. Alphabet III stamps on small crownpaper are particularly rare which can make knowing your alphabetsprofitable.
In general letters of alphabet III are as large or larger thanalphabet II letters, less blocky, and somewhat more delicate:In the letter 'B' the lower space is larger than the upper.
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Die I, alphabet II
Die II, Alphabet III, perf 14
In 1861, experiments were done to engrave the check lettersdirectly onto the printing plate after the impressions had beenrolled in. This was done on large crown watermarked paper, perf14, die II. Only 2 plates were used, plates 50 and 51. As allengraved stamps with check letters in all 4 corners were donein this manner, the experiments must have proved successful.
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Alphabet IV, plate 50
Alphabet IV, plate 51
Although the stamp from plate 51 above is off center so thatthe left check letter is not visible, it illustrates another factorthat can make plating easier. Plate 51 , from the 'BB' positionhas a constant plate flaw. As can seen above the lower portionof the 'E' in POSTAGE is missing, a characteristic of BB, plate51, alphabet IV.The Two Pence Blue:
The two penny blue, line engraved stamps with stars in theupper corners present many fewer complexities compared to thepenny reds. Only 6 plates were used. All of these used the originalmaster die, die I. Plates 1 and 2 were imperforate and is essentiallyidentical to the penny black except for the word 'TWO' and thecolor. They are of course die I, alphabet I and on small crownpaper.
1840, 2d blue, Alphabet I, Plate 1
Although the positions of the check letters can be used todifferentiate plate one from 2, an easier method is the presenceof a small notch on the 'O' and a joining of the 'TW" onTWO on most stamps from plate 2:
The 1841 2d blue, plates 3 and 4 are also imperforate, dieI, alphabet I, but have the addition of white lines above TWOPENCEand below POSTAGE. Although plate 3 was only issued imperforate,plate 4 was also issued perforated 14 and 16 on small crown paperin 1854 to 1855
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1841, plate 3, alphabet I
1841, plate 4, alphabet I
Besides the positions of the check letters, these plates canoften be differentiated by the firmness if the left border andoften irregular letters in TWO PENCE on plate 3.
Plate 5 is easy to recognize since the check letters are nowalphabet II. It was issued on both small and large crown paper,and both papers perf 14 or 16. Plate 6 is also easy to recognizeas it used alphabet III. It was only issued on large crown paper,perf 14 and 16. An additional feature (which one stamp catalogmakes too much of, since it is hard to recognize on an individualstamp) is that the white lines above and below with words area bit thinner than on plates 3 to 5.
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1855, plate 5, alphabet II
1857, plate 6, alphabet III
| Date ||Descr ||Die ||Alpha ||Wmk ||perf ||Sc ||SG |
|1840 ||1d black ||I ||I ||SC ||Imp ||1 ||1-3 |
|1841 51 ||1d red ||I ||I ||SC ||Imp ||3 ||7-12 |
|1852 53 ||1d red ||I ||II ||SC ||Imp ||3 ||7-12 |
|1854 ||1d red ||I ||II ||SC ||16 ||8 ||17-18 |
|1855 ||1d red ||I ||II ||SC ||14 ||11 ||22 |
|1855 ||1d red ||II ||II ||SC ||14 ||12 ||24-25 |
|1855 ||1d red ||II ||II ||SC ||16 ||9 ||21 |
|1855 ||1d red ||II ||II ||LC ||16 ||14 ||26 |
|1855 ||1d red ||II ||II ||LC ||14 ||16 ||29 |
|1855 ||1d red ||II ||III ||SC ||14 ||12 ||24-25 |
|1856 63 ||1d red ||II ||III ||LC ||14 ||20 ||37-41 |
|1857 ||1d red ||II ||III ||LC ||16 ||18 ||36 |
|1861 ||1d red ||II ||IV ||LC ||14 ||20 ||42 |
|1840 ||2d blue ||I ||I ||SC ||Imp ||2 ||4-6 |
|1841 ||2d blue ||I ||I ||SC ||Imp ||4 ||13-15 |
|1854 ||2d blue ||I ||I ||SC ||16 ||10 ||19-20 |
|1855 ||2d blue ||I ||I ||SC ||14 ||13 ||23 |
|1855 ||2d blue ||I ||II ||SC ||14 ||13 ||23a |
|1855 ||2d blue ||I ||II ||SC ||16 ||10 ||20a |
|1855 ||2d blue ||I ||II ||LC ||16 ||15 ||27 |
|1855 ||2d blue ||I ||II ||LC ||14 ||17 ||34 |
|1857 ||2d blue ||I ||III ||LC ||14 ||19 ||35 |
The 2 best general references are the Stanley Gibbon's SpecializedStamp Catalog for Great Britain, volume 1 and The GreatBritain Concise Stamp Catalog, published annually by StanleyGibbons. The Specialized Catalog lists nearly all the pertinentreferences for those interested in delving deeper into this interestingsubject.
A remarkable new series of books about the Plating of theseissues is being written by Kenneth W. Stathan and published byEric Paul Ltd: The Essential Guide to the Great Britian LineEngraved 1d and 2d Stars 1840 - 1864, vol 1 and vol 2 1995.This series will eventually run to 8 or 9 volumes.