What are essays, proofs and specimens?

Apr 27, 2021, 11 AM

By Rick Miller

In the dark recesses of the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, beyond the booklet panes and covers, remote from the carriers and locals, past the postal stationery, past the revenues, yonder of the hunting permit stamps, just past the savings stamps and right after the telegraph stamps, you will find essays, proofs and specimens.

Now that we have located them in the catalog, all we have to do is figure out what they are.

We can start with stating what they are not.

They are not valid for postage, revenue or payment of any other official service.

Linn's contributing editor John M. Hotchner puts essays, proofs and specimens in the oddities category of errors, freaks and oddities, while cinderella stamp experts Bonnie and Roger Riga consider essays and proofs to be cinderellas.

Essays are stamp designs that were submitted to postal authorities and that ultimately were not used. Sometimes essay designs are altered only slightly and used, and sometimes they are entirely rejected by the postal authority.

Not all essays find their way into private hands to be collected. Some are destroyed or remain locked up indefinitely in the archives of government or private printing offices.

Some authorities, particularly in the United States, include as essays artist's sketches, models, photographs, or prints of an unadopted or unfinished design for a stamp. Some authorities specifically exclude them.

The Essay-Proof Society (disbanded in 1993) defined an essay as, "Any design or part of a design essayed to or produced by a government or established mail carrier for a stamp and differing in design in any particular from an officially issued stamp. There are die essays, plate essays, and forms of experimental essays, as well as unfinished or incomplete designs that may form part of a finally approved design."

A relief-printed British essay showing Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, is shown in Figure 1.

Essays are of interest to specialist collectors for a number of reasons.

They often show the evolution of the design leading to the issued stamp in its final form.

Sometimes essays are more interesting, striking or attractive than the stamp that was actually issued. They also have the romantic appeal of what might have been but never was.

The 3¢ green Benjamin Franklin essay attributed to Gavit & Co. shown in Figure 2, United States Scott 11-E3, would certainly have made a handsome stamp if it had been selected for production.

Great Britain, the country that invented the postage stamp, is one of the few countries never to have issued an official airmail stamp.

Airmail essays in the design of the 1-penny blue Mercury shown in Figure 3 were sold at the London International Stamp Exhibition in 1923. According to the Sanabria World Airmail Catalogue, these essays were also printed in black, brown, green, red and violet ink.

Neither the idea of an airmail stamp nor this attractive design was adopted by the British post office, and the essays remain evocative souvenirs of what might have been.

The essay shown in Figure 3 looks like a finished stamp. Essays are often obviously not postage stamps because they lack part of the design or part of the production process that postage stamps have.

The striking red and black 75-centesimo Eritrean imperforate essay, shown in Figure 4, is one of three African Portrait die essays on card stock submitted but not adopted for the colony by the Italian authorities.

Unlike the airmail essay of Figure 3, the Figure 4 essay is obviously not a postage stamp because it lacks the production details of a finished stamp. It is printed on card stock and lacks gum and perforations.

Proofs are trial printings of stamp designs before they go into production.

Proofs differ from essays in that they have the same design as the finished stamp.

Some countries have openly sold proofs to collectors, and these items are relatively easy to obtain. Proofs are virtually unknown for other countries and for most private printing firms that have never released proofs to the collecting market.

For U.S. proofs, the Scott U.S. specialized catalog notes that some essays that differ in design from the issued stamps are listed in the proof section "to keep sets together at this time." Regardless of where it is listed, if it differs from the issued stamp, it is really an essay, not a proof.

There are many different types of proofs.

Large die proofs are printed on large pieces of card that are about the size of the die block. A large die proof of the $5 John Marshall definitive stamp, U.S. Scott 313P, is shown in Figure 5.

Conversely, small die proofs are printed on a small piece of card, not much larger than the stamp design. A small die proof of the U.S. 10¢ ultramarine Messenger on Bicycle special delivery stamp, U.S. Scott E6P, is shown in Figure 6.

Progressive proofs are impressions that are taken as the design is being engraved to check the work. Progressive proofs are usually printed in black ink.

Plate proofs are printed from finished plates. They are usually printed on different paper stock and sometimes in different colors than the issued stamps.

Because they are carefully printed when the plate is fresh and new, they usually have a finer impression than normal production stamps.

Plate proofs in colors different from the stamp as issued are known as trial-color proofs. A trial-color plate proof block of six orange-brown French 20-centime Ceres stamps, including a tete-beche pair, is shown in Figure 7. The issued stamp, Scott 3, is black.

Hybrid proofs are plate proofs that were trimmed closely around the stamp design and mounted on card stock to resemble a large die proof. They usually sell for less than large die proofs, so careful examination is necessary to make sure that any large die proof isn't really a hybrid.

Proofs are most often printed on India paper or card.

India paper has no sizing and is thin, soft and absorbent. It wrinkles or disintegrates when moistened, and it sometimes shows bamboo particles. Card is thicker than paper.

Stamp fakers sometimes give plate proofs of rare and valuable stamps on India paper a thicker backing or shave die proofs on card down in hopes of passing them off as the issued stamps.

Specimen stamps are postage stamps that serve as examples. They are marked to prevent their usage as postage.

Specimen stamps are most often overprinted "SPECIMEN," "MUESTRA," "SAGGIO," "MUSTER," or the equivalent terms in other languages. Specimen stamps might also be marked by being punched, perforated, handstamped or inscribed.

The $500 Sultan Ibrahim postage and revenue stamp of the Malayan state of Johore, Scott 125, shown in Figure 8, bears a "SPECIMEN" overprint.

Specimen stamps typically are distributed to the Universal Postal Union and to individual postal authorities as examples of what stamps that are valid for postage look like.

The UPU convention of 1878 required that each member nation submit three examples of each stamp that it issues to the UPU for reference purposes.

The UPU did not require that the stamps be marked as specimens, but most postal administrations did so as a precaution against their being used for postage.

Although they are uncommon, specimen stamps are not particularly pricey because demand for them is weak. They are not listed in most stamp catalogs.

The 10¢ pale red-brown Daniel Webster stamp, U.S. Scott 307, with the unusual "ULTRAMAR" handstamp, shown in Figure 9, is an atypical specimen. The handstamp, meaning "overseas," was applied by Portuguese postal authorities to examples of stamps that postal workers were likely to see on mail coming from overseas.

Essays, proofs and specimens can find their way into your collection as an adjunct to a traditional postage stamp collection or as part of an EFO or cinderella collection.