By Michael Baadke
Last week in Refresher Course I described some of the differences between definitive and commemorative stamps and remarked upon how telling the difference between the two has become more difficult in recent years.
This week the topic is special stamps, a category containing stamps that just don't fit the descriptions of definitives or commemoratives.
Generally, definitive stamps are general-issue postage stamps produced in enormous quantities and returned to press again and again as additional stamps are needed.
Think of the 32¢ Flag Over Porch stamps from the United States and you'll probably get the idea.
Almost every country issues definitive stamps, either as single issues or in an identifiable series.
Commemorative stamps are issued in lesser quantities, and usually remain on sale for a limited time. Often they specifically commemorate an individual or memorable event.
The 32¢ Alfred Hitchcock stamp from the United States is a commemorative stamp. The U.S. Postal Service issued 65 million Hitchcock stamps Aug. 3. That may seem like a lot, but it's a tiny amount compared to the billions of Flag Over Porch stamps that have been manufactured.
The Hitchcock stamp is likely to be withdrawn from sale within a year or so.
So what's left? The category of special stamps, which includes a number of stamps that don't quite fit into either of the definitive or commemorative categories.
As with definitive and commemorative stamps, the definition of a special stamp is hard to pin down.
In the 1996 Linn's U.S. Stamp Yearbook, George Amick wrote, "Special stamps are issued to convey certain generic messages on the part of the mailer. They customarily are printed in greater quantities than commemoratives and are on sale for longer periods."
Most often, the term is applied in the United States to holiday issues and Love stamps. The stamps are intended to convey holiday greetings or to communicate an added message of love.
Let's look at holiday stamps first.
Although holiday stamps are issued in far greater quantities than standard commemoratives, they don't reach the level of definitive stamps: they fall somewhere in between.
They aren't used day after day as definitive stamps are, but they are seen much more frequently than commemorative stamps.
The United States issued its first Christmas stamp in 1962, a single-design 4¢ stamp depicting a wreath and two candles.
This year on Oct. 15 the Postal Service issued a set of four 32¢ stamps depicting wreaths, and one 32¢ stamp showing the Madonna and Child based on a 15th-century sculpture.
The 1998 U.S. Christmas stamps are shown in Figure 1.
The printing totals reported for the 1998 Christmas issues are more than 1.1 billion for the contemporary 32¢ Wreath stamps, and 925.2 million for the 32¢ Madonna and Child issue.
Two years ago the Postal Service initiated a new stamp series known as Holiday Celebrations, with the issuance of a 32¢ self-adhesive stamp marking Hanukkah (Scott 3118).
A 1997 32¢ issue celebrated Kwanzaa (Scott 3175), and a 32¢ stamp for Cinco de Mayo was issued April 16 of this year (Scott 3203).
These three stamps are shown in Figure 2.
The status of these stamps is unclear, though they certainly seem to fit into the special stamp definition of conveying a message on the part of the mailer.
However, the print totals are considerably less than those of the U.S. Christmas stamps.
In 1997 the Postal Service created an unexpected second printing of the Hanukkah stamp. The initial printing had produced 103.5 million stamps.
A total of 133 million Kwanzaa stamps were made in 1997, and 85 million Cinco de Mayo stamps were issued this year.
Other countries offer holiday stamps in different ways. British holiday stamps are issued for Christmas, often in sets of five denominations.
The U.S. Postal Service prints and distributes Love stamps much in the same way as it handles Christmas issues.
The first U.S. Love stamp was an 8¢ issue (Scott 1475) that resembled many commemorative stamps from 1973: it was multicolor and about twice the size of the 8¢ Dwight D. Eisenhower definitive stamp (Scott 1394) issued a couple of years before. The 8¢ Love stamp is shown at bottom left in Figure 3.
The Postal Service printed 320 million of those Love stamps, about twice the normal print run for a commemorative stamp in those days.
A publication of the USPS Stamps Division described the issue as "A Special Stamp for Someone Special."
The Postal Service didn't really get its Love stamp program underway until it issued its next Love stamp nine years later. The 20¢ Love in Flowers issue (Scott 1951, shown at bottom right in Figure 3) was released Feb. 1, 1982, in time for mailing Valentine's Day greetings.
New Love stamps have appeared nearly every year since then, including some two-denomination sets like the 1997 32¢ and 55¢ Love Swans (Scott 3123-24, shown at the top of Figure 3).
The 55¢ stamp pays postage for letters weighing more than 1 ounce but not more than 2 ounces.
The Love Swans were issued in quantities of 1.66 billion stamps for the 32¢ stamp and 814 million for the 55¢ stamp. As with the Christmas issues, those figures far exceed the normal commemorative stamp printings, but fall short of the average first-class rate definitive issue.
Special stamps lend themselves to grouping in various ways. Collectors can create specialized collections of Christmas, holiday and Love stamps, and may be able to identify other stamps worldwide that fall into the special stamp category.
Because they are printed in larger quantities, special stamps are often easier to find than some of the more elusive commemorative stamps, but specialists can also closely examine these issues for varieties that sometimes occur when large printings of stamps are undertaken.