By Michael Baadke
How many ways can there be to make and sell postage stamps? The answer is probably more than you think. Postage stamps are created and sold in a wide variety of formats, and all of them are saved in one form or another by stamp collectors.
Regardless of the format, most postage stamps are printed in very large sheets that most people never see. Those sheets are usually trimmed down, or processed, into various formats for sale at local post offices.As self-adhesive stamps have become more and more popular worldwide, the number of formats has virtually doubled, because booklets, coils, sheets and the rest now can be found both as perforated stamps with water-activated adhesive (lick-and-stick) and as self-adhesive (peel-and-stick) stamps. Let's look at these different formats and consider how the stamp collector decides how any or all of them might fit into his collection.
The earliest stamps were created one sheet at a time on a flat press that printed a fixed number of designs on each sheet. The United States postage stamps of 1847, for example, were printed in sheets of 200 stamps that were divided into two panes of 100 stamps each. The term pane describes a smaller unit of stamps that is taken from the larger sheet.
Modern stamps usually come from large sheets printed on continuous rolls of paper called a web. The web runs through the printing press with great speed while the stamp images are printed on the paper one sheet right after another.
The images in Figure 1 may help clarify the difference between a sheet and pane. A sheet of 120 of the 33¢ Edward G. Robinson stamp is shown at left in the illustration. Although this large item can be purchased by mail from the U.S. Postal Service, it is not generally available at post offices. The Edward G. Robinson sheet is made up of six panes of 20 stamps each. A single pane is shown at right in Figure 1. This is the item commonly sold at post offices.
Did you think the pane of 20 stamps was called a sheet? Some post office customers ask for "a sheet of stamps," but they don't expect to get the large sheet of 120 stamps shown at left in Figure 1. They generally expect something along the lines of 20 stamps.
Stamp collectors are a little more careful using the terms "sheet" and "pane," though, so that other collectors fully understand what kind of item they are talking about.
What do you do with an uncut press sheet? You can't put it into your stamp album intact; it's just too big. Some collectors save their sheets flattened between two pieces of sturdy, acid-free board. Special large storage pages for press sheets are sold by some stamp hobby supply dealers.
Some collectors divide their sheets into smaller units called gutter blocks and gutter pairs that clearly show the stamps are taken from the sheet, not from the standard post office pane. The type of blocks typically saved from U.S. press sheets are described in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers.
From standard panes of stamps, collectors may choose to save only a single stamp. In fact, that's how many stamp collectors fill their albums: one stamp at a time.
There are other collectors who save plate blocks. These are four or more stamps that are attached to one another in two rows, taken from a section of the pane that includes plate numbers in the margin paper.
On modern issues the plate block is often a corner block of four stamps, with all margin paper attached. Plate block details are also described in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog.
On occasion, postal authorities will print small panes to celebrate an upcoming major stamp show or similar event. The souvenir sheet shown in Figure 2 was issued for the Fifth International Philatelic Exhibition of 1956.
Souvenir sheets may hold as few as one or two stamps. Just like the more conventional stamp panes, souvenir sheets are printed in groups on larger sheets that are later cut into individual units. However, the individual souvenir sheets normally are not called panes: they are simply known as souvenir sheets.
If you understand that a pane is a smaller unit cut from a press sheet, then you may also see that stamps in booklets consist of panes as well. A booklet of 20 stamps, for example, may have two panes of 10 stamps each, or four panes of five stamps each.
Figure 3 shows a pane of 10 29¢ stamps from the Wood Duck booklet of 1991. The front cover of the folded booklet is shown above it. Notice that the pane includes a paper margin at left where the stamps were bound into the booklet. Collectors do not remove that margin paper if they are saving the full pane from a booklet. The panes from this booklet were printed on sheets of 480 subjects (meaning 480 stamps), which translates to 48 10-stamp panes on each sheet.
Some collectors save booklets intact. They may display it opened or closed on an album page, stock page or exhibit page. Others may save just one pane from the booklet, or even just one stamp, if that's all they need for their collections.
A very different kind of booklet is shown in Figure 4 — Or is it a booklet at all? The U.S. Postal Service calls this item a convertible booklet. It is sold as a flat pane of stamps with a peel-off strip that allows mailers to fold the pane into a booklet shape, making it easier to carry in a pocket or purse.
A collector usually saves a convertible booklet pane intact, meaning not folded. Some collectors may choose to save just one stamp from such a pane.
Collectors who save single self-adhesive stamps should save them intact on the original backing paper. After surrounding stamps have been removed from the backing paper, the collector can use scissors to trim away paper from around the one stamp he would like to save. The stamp should not be trimmed too close: A small margin of paper should be left on each side of the stamp.
Another basic stamp format to consider is the coil stamp. United States coils are available in various sizes, ranging from 100 stamps to 10,000 stamps.
Figure 5 shows self-adhesive 33¢ Flag Over City coil stamps. Notice in the lower illustration that the self-adhesive stamps saved by the collector are still on the original backing paper.
On this strip of five stamps, the center stamp bears a small printed plate number sequence in the bottom margin. This type of collectible is called a plate number strip. Collectors may choose to save a single coil stamp or an attached pair, or larger strips of five or more stamps.
Most collectors try to keep some consistency in their collections. If they choose to save single stamps, they usually follow that for all the issues they collect. The same is true of coil plate number strips, plate blocks from panes, and so on. There are always exceptions, however. For example, a collector of single stamps may choose to save his coil stamps in pairs, as with older coils.
The U.S. Postal Service and other postal authorities continue to think of new stamp formats all the time. Some are created for the convenience of the mailer, while others are created to provoke the interests of stamp collectors. Each collector should look over the possibilities and choose to collect the stamps and formats that provide the most interest and fun.