By Kathleen Wunderly
We moved recently, and when the crew came to empty the bedroom I gave them special instructions. "Under the bed you will find a large gray cardboard box," I told them. "Don't tilt it and have two men carry it, one on each side." Something live inside? Something volatile or explosive? They were a bit alarmed. "Nothing like that," I said, "It's part of our stamp collection."
People think of stamps as tiny bits of paper. They have to think again when it comes to uncut press sheets. All United States postage stamps were printed as press sheets. The sheet of stamps that comes off the printing press is normally cut into smaller pieces, usually four, six or eight, before it is sent to post offices for sale to customers. When uncut press sheets are made available to the public, they become a separate collectible entity.
Collectors should distinguish between sheets and panes. What comes off the press is a sheet (or a web, a long roll that is cut into sheets). The sheet is then cut into panes. It is correct to refer to sheet stamps, as opposed to coil stamps or booklet stamps, but the smaller units cut from the sheets are panes, not sheets.
The number of stamps per sheet varies, depending on the press, the size of individual stamps and the format. A sheet may have 400 individual stamps, resulting in four panes of 100 stamps each. A 200-subject sheet could have four panes of 50 stamps each, and so on.
The first modern U.S. uncut press sheets were issued in 1994. Some hailed them as the first of their kind in almost 60 years, counting back to the 1935 sheets disparagingly known as "Farley's Follies." In reality, uncut press sheets were available for sale to collectors as early as 1907. The Post Office Department didn't intend to offer them to the public but it was forced to do so by circumstances.
Various U.S. stamps of the 1902 series were sold in imperforate sheets to commercial users of stamp vending and affixing machines. These mass mailers required uncut sheets for use in their stamp-affixing machines. Word of the imperforate sheets reached the collecting public. The resulting outcry led the USPOD to make the sheets available to collectors. Imperforate sheets were available throughout the affixing-machine era, 1907-26, through the Philatelic Sales Agency.
Dealers and collectors cut these sheets up and saved position blocks that came only from uncut sheets. They used the rest of the stamps from the sheets for postage. Figure 1 shows a used center block from a press sheet of the 1¢ Washington stamp of 1916, Scott 481. The vertical and horizontal lines were the guidelines for cutting the press sheet into four panes.
Collectors didn't protest when the USPOD stopped providing uncut sheets in 1926. It wasn't until 1935 that stamp collectors learned that uncut sheets were again being provided to a select group, and this time they were not even paying customers.
In 1933 and 1934, Postmaster General James A. Farley supplied uncut press sheets of some U.S. new issues to various friends and dignitaries, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When word got out, the furor went well beyond the stamp-collecting community.
The USPOD, yielding to pressure, in March 1935 made available uncut sheets of 20 previously issued stamps. The 1935 special printings of the 3¢ Peace of 1783 stamp, Scott 752, and of the 3¢ Byrd stamp (753) were perforated. The rest of the 1935 special printings, Scott 754-71, were issued imperforate. All were issued without gum, although in 1940 the USPOD offered to gum full sheets of Scott 754-71 for collectors. Collectors had a field day, separating the sheets into pairs and blocks containing gutters or marginal markings that did not appear on the stamps as originally issued.
Five souvenir sheets, Scott 766-70, were issued as press sheets, with nine, 20 or 25 panes in each sheet. Figure 2 shows a used block of four with crossed gutters for the 3¢ Byrd stamp souvenir sheet for the 1934 National Stamp Exhibition in New York City, Scott 768.
It wasn't until 1994 that the idea of public sale of uncut press sheets was revived. Unlike the previous sales, the modern uncut sheets were a deliberate marketing ploy. The Postal Service had hopes of tremendous philatelic sales. As George Amick describes it in the 1994 Linn's U.S. Stamp Yearbook, press sheets of the Legends of the West stamps were "for sale to collectors as a revenue-raising scheme."
Collectors wanted to know how uncut sheets fit into the hobby: how to store them, how the catalogs would list them and how albums would allot space for them. Leaving the Legends sheets in the original Postal Service packaging was the least desirable storage choice. The packaging materials were not safe for long-term storage. As the USPS continued to issue uncut sheets, the stamp market developed storage products for them. These can be found in the hobby accessory dealer advertisements in Linn's classifieds and at web sites such as www.amosadvantage.com.
Framing the sheets is an expensive option. It should be done with archival-quality mounting materials and appropriate glass and hung in a location protected from the long-term ill effects of light.
The Legends uncut press sheet was followed by press sheets of the 1995 32¢ Marilyn Monroe stamp. Uncut sheet sales for both the Legends and Monroe did not gladden the hearts of postal marketers or accountants: 46,385 of 58,420 Legends sheets, and a dismal 15,400 of the 29,000 Monroe sheets were sold.
The USPS pressed on in 1995 with the 32¢ Civil War and 32¢ Comic Strip Classics press sheets. The Civil War uncut sheets sold very well, 14,684 out of 15,000 available, but Comic Strips sold less than half of the 30,000 printed.
Two 1996 issues were released in uncut sheets: the 32¢ Olympics and 32¢ James Dean both of which sold fairly well. The uncut sheets for the 32¢ Pacific 97 triangular stamps of May 1997, Scott 3130-31, sold out, starting what proved to be a record-setting year for U.S. press sheets.
Six other 1997 stamp issues were available as uncut press sheets, but it was the 32¢ Bugs Bunny sheet that ignited collectors and dealers alike. The wascally wabbit adorned the first self-adhesive press sheets, which were actually half press sheets, cut in half horizontally, purportedly to facilitate handling. The USPS asked the printer to deliver 10,000 each of the top and bottom halves.
What the USPS made available for sale, however, were 5,244 of the top half and 5,856 of the bottom half. Bugs press sheets were a sellout, largely because of a startling discovery. Stamp writer and U.S. specialist Ken Lawrence noticed that the uncut sheets were not simply larger versions of the same Bugs panes being sold at post offices.
The Bugs uncut sheets differed in that they had no roulettes, the tiny vertical slits for separating the panes of stamps. This discovery resulted in the Bugs sheet inventory selling well and evaporating in nine weeks. The 2002 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers reflects the ongoing scarcity of the Bugs sheets: $350 for the top half, and $625 for the bottom.
There are some variations in catalog listings, because of differing catalog formats. Scott usually lists and values the uncut sheet, a cross-gutter block, a horizontal pair with a vertical gutter, and a vertical pair with horizontal gutter. Blocks of varying sizes also may be valued. The uncut sheets and the special positions are not assigned catalog numbers and are not listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, Vol. 1.
Many collectors keep their uncut sheets intact. So far, all of the press sheets, except the Trans-Mississippi, were sold at face value. Until the long-term resale market is established, many collectors consider it wise to just sit on their purchase (or sleep over them).
The Bugs sellout spurred interest in uncut sheets, but exasperating times lay ahead for eager collectors. In November 1997 the USPS issued the self-adhesive 32¢ Kwanzaa stamp, with the press sheet format of five panes in a strip, the first such layout in press-sheet history.
These unusual-size sheets required tight rolling to fit in shipping tubes, and the self-stick stamps reacted by unsticking. Half of the available 1,000 sheets were recalled 35 days after going on sale. Eventually 2,000 were available and sold out, making the 1997 32¢ Kwanzaa the scarcest modern U.S. press sheet.
All 10,000 sheets of the next issued press sheets, the $3 Mars Pathfinder stamps, Scott 3178, issued Dec. 10, 1997, sold out by the end of the following April. Around that same time, the 32¢ Sylvester & Tweety press sheets sold out a mere three weeks after release. The bottom-half sheets, which had the plate numbers, sold out through advance orders before the official release date.
In 1998, press sheets for the 32¢ Alexander Calder, Scott 3198-202, and 32¢ Cinco de Mayo, Scott 3203, went on sale without announcement. Because of collector complaints, effective with the Space Discovery stamps, Scott 3238-42, the USPS began limiting sales of press sheets to five per customer, with no orders taken prior to the date of issue.
Sixty different modern uncut press sheets have been offered. The question of collecting formats was decided by catalog and album editors, and storage materials are available.
The USPS seems settled into the press-sheet habit, although U.S. stamp formats continue to vary. For example, the Space Achievements uncut press sheet, shown in Figure 3, Scott 3409-13, consists of five dramatically differing souvenir sheet panes.
There has been speculation about how many uncut sheets are retained by the USPS. Postal Service spokesman Don Smeraldi says, "Selected press sheet issues have been archived, but space considerations severely limit the quantities."
Are uncut press sheets good investments or white elephants that can always be used as postage? Only time and future tastes will tell.