US Stamps

By James E. Lee

U.S. die proofs of the 20th century present a collecting challenge

May 08, 2015 07:41 AM

Die proofs of 20th-century United States postage stamps range from scarce (just a handful known) to rare (one to three examples known), with very few exceptions.

When the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over postage stamp production in 1894, the opportunity for collectors to acquire examples of proofs slowed to a trickle. This was unlike the days when the files of the various banknote companies provided a wide array of essay and proof material that flowed into the hands of collectors.

The Bureau maintained tight control over the production of essays and proofs that originated in the proving room. Each piece had a unique number (usually in blue) stamped on the back of the blotter housing the essay or proof. This number was entered into a book along with the date produced, the item, who it was for, final disposition and if it was destroyed.

Not unlike printed currency, at the Bureau each piece of proofing paper that had received an image was supposed to be accountable.

Many of the proofs that became available, starting in the late 1930s, found their way into the market via the estates of engravers who had worked on the stamp. By long-established trade customs they were entitled to one example of their work for their portfolio. The earlier 20th-century material came onto market either by political favor or horse trading for the National collection.

Just like the banknote companies, the Bureau gradually built up files of material over time. This material was never viewed as having monetary value; it was just considered reference or archived examples.

It only achieved value once it wound up in the hands of collectors.

The first proofs that will by profiled in this series reached our hobby as the result of a horse trade; however, they were born out of political favor. Today we call these “Southgate die proofs.”

They were part of a large production run at the Bureau in 1934 and were said to be a favor for President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested by Postmaster General James Farley. They include every commemorative issue from the Trans-Mississippi issue through the 1934 Mother’s Day issue.

One example of a “Southgate die proof” is the 1933 5¢ Kosciusko issue for Scott 734. The example pictured here is just on an irregular piece of wove proof paper with the proving room number, 362850, on the front.

Since the proof was produced without being attached or die sunk onto a blotter, the number had to be stamped on the face of the proof.

As a result of the research work done in 1994 by essay and proof student Ronald Burns, we know that there were 12 sets of these 88 proofs pulled from March to June 1933 (I believe it was 1934) for a total of 1,056 die proofs.

Two of the sets were trimmed to have just 2-millimeter margins around the design. The example pictured on page 23 represents the Century of Progress issue (Scott 728-729).

One of these sets was mounted on loose-leaf pages and given to President Roosevelt. The second trimmed set was presented to a “friend.”

While the identity of the friend remains a mystery, we do know that it was given as a gift to the Philatelic Foundation in 1957. It is speculated that the donor was Stephen G. Rich, and that it was donated on the advice of his attorney.

The PF sold its set through a Greg Manning auction in 1973. The Roosevelt set appeared in part one of the sale of The Postage Stamp Collection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.R. Harmer Inc., in February 1946.

The full-size set with the proving room numbers is unique and became known as the Southgate set of die proofs. The other nine sets might well still be in the Bureau files.

The two proofs shown here from the 1928 Aeronautics Conference issue (Scott 649-650) clearly show the “production run” nature of pulling all of these proofs in less than three months. There is no consistent size to the paper used.

The Southgate set first appeared on the philatelic market in the November 1957 auction sale of part one of the Caroline Prentice Cromwell collections by Irwin Heiman. The entire set was illustrated and sold by single item or as sets (such as the Lexington-Concord issue).

An introduction by Clarence Brazer attributed the set as having come from the estate of the late Hugh McLellan Southgate, who had passed away in 1940. It is believed that Mrs. Cromwell had purchased them from H.A. Robinette, a Washington, D.C., dealer.

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So who was Hugh Southgate, and how did he get his hands on this unique set of die proofs?

Southgate, an engineer by trade, lived in Washington, D.C., and was a stamp collector who was considered the foremost expert on Bureau-produced stamps. He was the founder of the Philatelic Plate Number Association, the first president of the Bureau Issues Association (now the United States Stamp Society) and was elected to the American Philatelic Society Hall of Fame in 1941. He had a very close relationship with the Bureau and is said to be one of the first people from outside the Bureau allowed to study its files.

Did he trade material to the National collection for these proofs? I don’t know. But as you will see as this series unfolds, his name will be associated with other 20th-century proof material that found its way into the hands of collectors.

James E. Lee has been a full-time professional philatelist for more than 25 years specializing in United States essays and proofs, postal history and fancy cancels.

He may be reached via e-mail at, or through his website.

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