Refresher Course

Some terms are simple and some are not

By Michael Baadke

At the bottom of this page is a chart we publish (in print) from time to time to help explain some of the symbols and abbreviations you may encounter in articles or advertisements that appear in Linn's Stamp News and other philatelic publications.

Figure 1. A scarce mint example of the U.S. 15¢ stamp of 1869 (left) and a used example of the same issue (right).
 
Figure 2. A block of four stamps. Attached multiple stamps of more than a single row are called a "block."
 
Figure 3. Stamps are sometimes collected "on piece" to preserve postal markings or other interesting details.
 
Figure 4. An entire mailed item may be referred to as a "cover." Often this simply means a mailed envelope. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Click on image to enlarge.

For someone just learning about the stamp hobby, though, even the explanations of those abbreviations can be a little puzzling. For example, it's fine to explain that LH stands for "lightly hinged," but what does "lightly hinged" mean?

In case you're wondering, it means the adhesive (back) side of a stamp shows some small sign of disturbance because a glassine-paper hinge was once used to attach the stamp to an album page.

When the hinge is removed from the stamp, some marks in the stamp gum are usually visible.

The first five items on the list on this page have very simple one-word explanations, but that simplicity may not help make the term or symbol clear to someone who is still learning the basics of stamp collecting.

Let's look at those five terms, and one other term, "unused," that isn't on our list, to see what we can learn about how collectors describe stamps.

The terms "mint" or "used" describe the condition of a postage stamp.

Figure 1 shows two copies of the 15¢ 1869 issue (type II), Scott 119. The stamp at left in the illustration is "mint" or "in mint condition" and the stamp at right is "used" or "postally used."

The term "mint" is often indicated by a star or asterisk symbol and is intended to describe a stamp as being unused and undamaged.

Describing the 15¢ stamp at left in Figure 1 as "mint" means the stamp is in the same condition as when it was sold by the post office 129 years ago.

Remember my description of a lightly hinged stamp? If a stamp hinge had been attached to this 15¢ stamp, it would no longer be mint.

Affixing the hinge changes the condition of the gum on the back of the stamp, and that stamp would properly be described as "unused."

The term "unused" describes a stamp that was never used for postage and has no postal markings, but may have disturbed gum or a minor fault, such as faded color, so it is no longer a mint stamp.

The term "unused" may also describe a stamp that has been regummed.

Because the 15¢ stamp at left in Figure 1 has original gum that has not been hinged, it may be described as a mint stamp. For the 15¢ 1869 issue, this condition is very rare. Most known unused examples of this stamp have been hinged.

Richard McP. Cabeen, in Standard Handbook of Stamp Collecting wrote, "Mint is a philatelic term to describe a stamp in the condition as sold by the post office. In nearly all cases it indicates that the stamp has its full original gum (o.g.) and is without hinge marks."

Cabeen continues, "Unused is a term which may designate mint stamps but usually means no more than that the stamp has not been canceled."

Some collectors and dealers disagree with this definition of a mint stamp and assert that concern about whether or not a stamp has been hinged is frivolous.

While that may be true, the terms "mint" and "unused" should be properly applied to describe the condition of a stamp.

Still, the collector should not be surprised to find advertisements and auction listings describing stamps that are "mint, with original gum, lightly hinged," and so on.

Though the use of the word "mint" may not be technically accurate in such a statement, the dealer is quite fairly describing the condition of the stamp in the remainder of the commentary so the collector knows the precise condition of the item.

Fortunately, a "used" stamp is easier to describe.

When a stamp is used to mail a letter or other item, a postmark is normally applied to the stamp.

A stamp with evidence of a postmark can be identified as "used." The used 15¢ 1869 stamp at right in Figure 1 has a dark rosette postmark near the upper-left corner and part of a faint transit cancel near the lower left.

In most cases, postally used stamps are offered "off paper," meaning the stamp was soaked free from the envelope paper, dried and flattened.

Of course, that process removes the adhesive from the back of the stamp, so postally used stamps generally have no gum on the back.

The three remaining terms from our chart are not too difficult to understand.

A "block" refers to a "block of stamps," that is, multiple stamps attached to one another that extend beyond a single row.

A single row of stamps (usually three or more) is called a "strip."

Figure 2 shows a block of four of the 1883 9-penny stamp from Great Britain (Scott 106).

While a block of four stamps is quite orderly, it is possible to have irregular blocks of any number. For example, two rows of four stamps attached to a third row of three stamps could be called a block of 11.

Blocks of stamps may be mint, unused or postally used.

The term "piece" describes a portion of a mailed envelope, wrapper or other mailed item that is saved.

Figure 3 shows two stamps from Anguilla's 1967 Independence issue, Scott 10 and 13, on piece — in this case, paper from an airmail envelope.

Stamps are sometimes saved on piece to preserve an entire postmark or to show how two or more stamps were used together to pay postage.

These days, collectors who wish to preserve these types of details usually save a "cover," the last of our philatelic terms.

A cover is a complete envelope, postcard or similar item — usually one that has been sent through the mail.

The cover shown in Figure 4 is a simple envelope mailed from Venezuela with a single stamp affixed. The 40-centimo airmail stamp (Venezuela Scott C664) is very common, but the cover always tells a little story.

By looking at details, the collector can see who mailed the item (by the return address), where it was sent (by the address in the center), how it was sent (by the airmail label at lower left), and when it was mailed (by the postmark on the stamp).

This type of examination is the beginning of the study of postal history, which was described in more detail in the Aug. 3 Refresher Course.

Collectors may use the information they learn from studying a cover to illustrate how stamps were used to meet specific postage rates in effect at the time that the cover was mailed.

Although the graphic symbols that appear in the list on this page are commonly used by many advertisers and dealers, they aren't used exactly the same by everyone.

If you read an auction catalog or dealer price list that makes use of descriptive symbols, it's always a good idea to check the dealer's explanation of what the symbols mean.

I've seen a plain star used to describe an unused stamp, where other dealers might use the same symbol for a mint stamp.

Stamp collectors are known for paying attention to small details, and this is another case where that attribute can be quite useful.