By Michael Baadke
Stamp collectors in the United States know that when postage rates change they can expect a large number of new stamps to fulfill many of those new rates.
Recent articles in Linn's Stamp News have described how some of these issues are already available for next year's U.S. postage rate changes.
The new H-rate Hat stamp doesn't have a value printed on it, but it sells for 33¢ and is accepted at that value for postage. The 33¢ first-class letter rate goes into effect Jan. 10.
Several varieties of the H-rate Hat design were issued Nov. 9, including coil stamps and booklet stamps, and collectors are just starting to sort out the differences between them.
For some collectors, the thought of new definitive issues like the H-rate Hat stamp is dreadful. For others, the new stamps mean new collecting challenges and an opportunity to begin an exciting new collecting specialty.
Even the beginner collector can look at the many new stamps that will appear in the coming months and envision ways to build a new collection.
Is that possible? Can a collector build a collection around a single issue like the H-rate Hat stamp?
The answer, of course, is yes. There are many ways that the collector can specialize in a modern stamp issue, and some of the most recent series have provided the greatest challenges.
Let's take a look at the 32¢ Flag Over Porch stamp, shown at left in Figure 1. It may seem sometimes like it's the stamp that everyone loves to hate, but a number of diligent collectors have been compiling important information about this issue since it first appeared in the spring of 1995.
Many of those details appear in the 1999 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. Other details have been discovered by members of specialist societies, including the Plate Number Coil Collectors Club and the Bureau Issues Association. These collectors often publish their findings in their club's journals, to share with other collectors.
The Flag Over Porch stamp is not just one stamp. The specialist begins by finding out about all the different basic varieties of the stamp that were issued. With the Flag Over Porch, this includes self-adhesive booklets and coils and similar formats with water-activated adhesive.
The stamp was also issued in panes of 100 with water-activated adhesive, and even in a self-adhesive coil version that was issued with no liner paper (known as the "linerless" coil).
When U.S. postage rates change next month, the 33¢ Flag Over City stamp, shown at right in Figure 1, is expected to be the new workhorse definitive stamp in the United States.
The stamp will be issued Feb. 25, but it's not known how many different formats have been created or how long the stamp will be made available for U.S. postal customers.
Additional details about this stamp appear in this issue on page 1 (in print).
Besides the basic formats described in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog, what should collectors look for as they begin a specialized collection?
Self-adhesive stamps often show variety in the wavy die-cut edges that resemble perforations. Specialists take note of how the edges begin with a peak (or point extending outward) or a valley (a point extending inward, toward the design).
They also count the number of peaks along the edge, measure the space between the peaks (often using a simple perforation gauge, such as Linn's Multi-Gauge), and they observe differences in the edges that indicate various stamp finishing techniques.
Many of these differences have been documented for the various Flag Over Porch stamps, but the fun is just about to begin with the Flag Over City stamps. No one knows yet if the issue will be more or less challenging than its predecessor, but many collectors are looking forward to finding out.
Where else does specialization lead?
Coil stamps are issued with plate numbers on certain stamps set a specific number apart. Collecting these numbers on stamps in mint or postally used condition continues the specialization of the series.
Figure 2 shows as an example the nondenominated (5¢) Wetlands coil stamp issued for nonprofit organization bulk mailings. At bottom in the illustration is a strip of five mint stamps, with the printing cylinder number combination (often called the plate number) at the bottom of the design in the center stamp.
Above it is an envelope that has a single plate number coil for its franking. The stamp is enlarged in the illustration to better show the number combination, S1111, the same as on the mint strip.
A similar number system was used for Flag Over Porch coils and H-rate Hat coils, and it will probably be found on the 33¢ Flag Over City coil stamps as well.
Collectors look for different numbers on such issues. For some, only a single number combination may be used. For others, the collector may find dozens.
Booklet stamps, including the flat panes described as "convertible booklets" by the Postal Service, are also issued with plate numbers that may change as printing cylinders are replaced.
So far we've considered only definitive issues. Are there specialization possibilities in other areas?
Yes, collectors can choose almost any issue or series to make the focus of their interest. Because many definitive stamps are sent to press over and over again, they make for the most interesting specialty studies, because the chance for printing varieties increases whenever the stamps return to press.
The United States issues many different commemorative stamps in series as well, though, and there are often new opportunities for study.
In 1998 the first U.S. semipostal stamp was issued: the nondenominated Breast Cancer Research semipostal shown in Figure 3. Available in panes of 20, the stamp sells for 40¢, with 32¢ designated for first-class postage and 8¢ donated to assist cancer research agencies.
Collectors have already begun adding postally used examples on cover, as well as mint examples, to their collections.
A recent Linn's article by Washington correspondent Bill McAllister described how a second printing of the Breast Cancer Research stamp may occur. If that happens, specialists will start looking for differences in stamp paper, die cuts, color, backing paper and more.
In 1999 collectors will see the debut of a new commemorative series titled "Nature of America," when the Sonoran Desert issue of 10 self-adhesive stamps is placed on sale March 25. It's not known yet what shape this series will take, but it's not too early to begin thinking about creating a specialized commemorative collection.
What other areas can specialists investigate?
Production errors and freaks associated with the chosen issue are always interesting and may provide insight into manufacturing procedures.
First-day covers and examples of earlier uses document when the stamp was first made available.
Finding interesting uses of your stamp can be challenging, but that's part of what specialization is all about. Can you find an example of your stamp used on mail to Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa? On certified and registered mail? How about Express Mail?
Some collectors choose to specialize in these different types of mail services to show changes in rates and service options.
Figure 4 shows an envelope mailed in 1995 by Worldpost Priority Letter, which at the time was an experimental overseas expedited mail service. That service later became Global Priority Mail, which continues today.
Every year brings new services, new stamps, new series and new opportunities for the collector to launch a new collecting specialty. Many collectors are alerted to these possibilities by reading articles in Linn's to stay ahead of what's new in the world of stamps.