There are endless varieties of United States revenue stamps

December 29, 2015 05:18 PM

  • The very large 1873 $5 green and black proprietary revenue stamp, shown reduced in size here, has an ornate engraved design surrounding its portrait of President George Washington.
  • The Maine battleship appeared on revenue stamps first issued in 1898. The stamps are among the most common U.S. revenues, though some denominations have significant value.
  • U.S. postage stamps overprinted "I.R." for use as revenue stamps were pressed into service as war with Spain began in 1898.
  • The 13 tax paid potatoes stamps of 1935 are printed in various colors, with each stamp showing a vignette of a young woman.
  • The designs of private die proprietary stamps are remarkably diverse, with subjects ranging from flags and stars to the deer on this 1¢ match stamp.
  • The 1¢ black private die proprietary stamp for Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor (Scott RS74). Stamps for all sorts of liniments and medicines were created for revenue purposes.
  • The first U.S. federal duck stamp (left) was issued in 1934. A new stamp is issued each year, with a design selected from submitted artwork. The 2014 stamp (right) shows a painting by Adam Grimm.

Stamp collectors naturally gravitate toward collecting postage stamps, most likely because those stamps represent something they have seen and used all of their lives.

Revenue stamps (also known as fiscal stamps) are issued by governments around the world to document the payment of various taxes and fees.But there is another type of stamp that enjoys great popularity among collectors, and it is part of a field filled with as many collecting challenges as postage stamps have to offer.

Most worldwide stamp catalogs do not include revenue stamps, but many specialized books and catalogs have been published that identify and list revenue stamps of specific countries and regions.

Many of the revenue stamps issued in the United States are documented in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. Some revenue stamps are also included in the United States listings in Vol. 1 of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, and in the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940.

The Scott U.S. Specialized catalog listings are the most extensive of the three, listing general revenue issues and stamps covering taxes on various alcoholic beverages, tobacco, firearms, playing cards, even marijuana, as well as many other proprietary articles and documents.

The stamps are listed with the Scott prefix R for revenue, sometimes followed by one or two other letters to designate a specific type of revenue stamp, such as RG for silver tax stamps.

Just like postage stamps, the designs of U.S. revenue stamps can range from the relatively mundane to the ornate and spectacular, and include delightful engraved images, bicolor printings and a dazzling array of colors.

The stamps range in value from just a few cents to many thousands of dollars apiece.

Among the very first revenue stamps issued by the United States are the first-issue stamps from 1862, with each stamp bearing an inscription announcing exactly what it was taxing.

A multitude of items were taxed to raise needed revenue for the costs of the Civil War. Just a few of the subjects covered were bank checks (an example is Scott R5), playing cards (R11-12), telegraph (R19), bills of lading (R32) and so on.

If you're a fan of George Washington, these stamps are for you, as his portrait dominates the many stamps of the first, second and third issues in the 1860s and 1870s.

Some of the higher value stamps were printed in two colors, and just like the famous bicolor 24¢ Jenny airmail stamp, you can find varieties with the center portrait printed upside down.

Later stamps were simply identified as documentary, and included other statesmen in the designs such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, plus representations of Liberty and Commerce.

In 1898, a series of revenue stamps featured the battleship Maine, tragically sunk in the Havana harbor just a few months before, a mysterious event soon followed by the Spanish-American War.

Many collectors encounter these Battleship revenue stamps regularly, as documentary and proprietary stamps, because certain values are fairly common. However, some of the Battleship revenues have catalog values of more than $100.

War with Spain brought with it a need to pay for the expense of military action — a need for new revenue, and new revenue stamps.

To fulfill the immediate need, U.S. postage stamps were overprinted with the initials "I.R." for Internal Revenue (Scott R153-R158B).

Newspaper stamps were similarly overprinted for use as provisional revenues (R159-R160).


Various acts of Congress over the years authorized new taxes on products, and new stamps were printed as needed.

In 1866, large square revenue stamps for barrels of beer appeared with ornate engine-turned engraved designs (Scott REA1-REA6). Later issues featured portraits of presidents and other statesmen, while issues of the 20th century, though still attractive, dropped out the portrait vignettes and adopted text and numeral designs.

Some playing card revenue stamps issued in 1894 feature elements of card details, including the symbols for the four suits (Scott RF1-RF29).

The 1935 tax paid potatoes stamp (taxing growers who exceeded set allotments) features a lovely design identified in the Scott catalog as "Young Woman from The Bouquet."

In some instances, existing revenue stamps were overprinted for specific designated uses.

The 1917 documentary stamps were overprinted with text the following year for future delivery (RC1-RC28) and stock transfer (RD1-RD66), and later for taxes on cigarette tubes (RH1-RH2), silver (RG1-RG57E) and other commodities.

Collectors should always be careful to preserve intact any documents that might have revenue stamps affixed. In some instances where individual stamps are fairly easy to find, it can be a greater challenge to locate these stamps properly used on a document or product from so long ago, and the value therefore is often considerably higher.

The Revenue Act of 1862 that authorized the early stamps also allowed manufacturers to create their own revenue stamps if they chose to do so.

"Many were only too willing to do this," the Scott catalog explains, "because a discount or premium of from 5 percent to 10 percent was allowed on orders from the die which often made it possible for them to undersell their competitors. Also, the considerable advertising value of the stamps could not be overlooked."

Known today as private die proprietary stamps, these issues feature a remarkable array of designs. While the business owners often delighted in picturing themselves on their privately printed stamps, the stamps also show flags, anchors, trees, stars, eagles, chickens, horses, bulls, playing cards and more. A 1¢ black stamp from the Union Match Co. in Detroit, Mich., features a deer in the vignette (Scott RO179). Stamps from the Centaur Co. and J.B. Rose & Co. (apparently related New York liniment manufacturers) show a portrait of a young centaur, the mythical half-horse, half-human creature (RS50-RS52, RS204-RS205).

These stamps were created to document taxes paid by manufacturers, and some of the products that were taxed were at least as unusual as the stamps themselves.

Matches and perfumes were taxed in abundance, but the private die proprietary stamps were also applied to a wide range of products offered as medicinal cures before such products were fully regulated. Consider the stamps for the Holman Liver Pad Co. (RS126-RS127), Mishler's Herb Bitters (RS181), Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor (Scott RS74), and Wishart's Pine Tree Tar Cordial from J.W. Campion & Co. (RS47).

On a very different note, a 1934 Act of Congress authorized stamps for hunters, for the purpose of raising revenue to maintain lands for wildlife. Commonly known as federal duck stamps, these issues have caught the attention of many collectors because of their larger size and the beauty of the designs.

These federal duck stamps are still issued today. Each year one new design is selected from artwork submitted by artists all over the country.

Revenue stamps, including duck stamps, have been issued by individual states as well. State hunting permit stamps are listed in the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog, but most other state-issued revenue stamps are not.

You can find information about state revenue stamps in a number of different publications.

The State Revenue Catalog, edited by David Wrisley and published by the State Revenue Society, is a resource for the collector that provides information about state revenue stamps and related materials.

For additional information about the catalog, or the State Revenue Society, visit online at

Another resource for collectors interested in revenue stamps is the American Revenue Association, founded in 1947.

Details about this group and the benefits of membership can be found at

The Scott U.S. Specialized catalog provides historical information about these stamps in the introduction to the general revenue section, and at the beginning of each revenue stamp category.

With their great variety, intriguing designs and historic overtones, revenue stamps open up a broad range of possibilities for any stamp collector.