Come to terms with the language of stamps

May 3, 2021, 7 PM

By Michael Baadke

As you read about stamps and stamp collecting in the pages of Linn's Stamp News and in other magazines and books, you may encounter words or special terms that are unfamiliar to you. Some of the terms that stamp collectors use regularly have been used in the stamp hobby for many years. Sometimes a word is used so often that an experienced collector might not realize that someone new to the stamp hobby doesn't know what the term means.

In the pages of Linn's we try to explain important terms as they come up in news or feature stories, but it's not possible to explain every term because of the great amount of space that would require. Collectors who begin reading some specialty stamp hobby publications, such as the quarterly journal for a specialized collecting society, may encounter even more terms that are unfamiliar.

Two commonly used terms in the stamp hobby are frequently confused, even by veteran stamp collectors. If you stand in line at any post office, you are likely to hear someone request a sheet of stamps from the clerk at the sales counter.

The clerk will probably sell that customer the 15 or 20 stamps that he needs, but the flat group of stamps the customer pays for is not really a sheet at all. It is properly called a pane.

Most postage stamps are indeed printed in a large sheet that comes from an even bigger roll. The sheet itself is so big that it is cut into several of the individual panes that are sold by the postal clerk. Recent U.S. stamps have been printed in sheets of as few as 60 stamps (four 15-stamp panes), and as many as 180 (nine 20-stamp panes). The page of stamps that you find in a stamp booklet is also called a pane, and it too comes from a much larger sheet of printed stamps.

Since 1995 the United States Postal Service has offered uncut press sheets of selected issues for sale by mail order through its Stamp Fulfillment Services division. For example, collectors may buy an uncut press sheet of the new 33¢ Deep Sea Creatures stamps issued Oct. 2. The sheet contains nine unsevered panes of 15 stamps and sells for $44.55, the total face value of the 135 stamps in the sheet.

Information about ordering from USPS Stamp Fulfillment Services is available by calling 800-782-6724, or by writing to Stamp Fulfillment Services, Box 219424, Kansas City, MO 64121-9424.

The Deep Sea Creatures stamps come 15 stamps to the pane: five different designs each repeated three times. The five different stamps are shown together in Figure 1.

Stamp collectors will often refer to a multiple-design issue such as the Deep Sea Creatures stamps as se-tenant, which is a French term that can be translated as "holding one another" or "joined together." In French the word is pronounced "say-ten-AWH," but most English-speaking stamp collectors pronounce the word as "say-TEN-ant" (like "lieutenant").

Stamp collectors use this word pretty regularly to describe two or more stamps with different designs that are attached to one another. The five Deep Sea Creatures stamps each have a different design, but as you can see they were all printed together and can be collected as a single strip of five.

Many U.S. stamps are issued se-tenant. Some recent issues, such as the 33¢ Stars and Stripes stamps issued June 14, have as many as 20 different designs on a single pane.

In 1962 the United States issued a stamp booklet that contained a pane of five identical 5¢ George Washington stamps with a printed label that cautioned mailers not to send hazardous items through the mail. A 5¢ Washington stamp that has never been separated from the printed label can be said to be se-tenant with that label.

Booklet stamps are sold in convenient packages for vending through stamp machines or over post office counters. Most booklet stamps have some sort of cover made of thin cardboard to protect the stamps inside.

Some recent self-adhesive stamps have been issued in small flat panes that can be folded into a booklet shape when the peel-off strips placed between the stamps are removed. This do-it-yourself type of booklet is called a convertible booklet by the U.S. Postal Service.

Booklet stamps were the subject of last week's Refresher Course column.

Another popular way to collect stamps is to save coil stamps. At the post office you may hear customers ask for a "roll" of stamps. What they want to buy is a coil of 100 stamps. Such coils are easy to keep in small dispensers, and mailers at home or in the office can detach stamps from the coil one at a time to place on letters.

These rolled-up strips of stamps are also available in much larger sizes than just 100 stamps, for use in stamp vending machines or commercial mailing applications.

Stamp collectors might save coil stamps as singles or pairs, or in longer strips of three, five, seven or more.

Although collectors save stamps from panes, booklets and coils, a collectible item known as the plate block or plate number block comes only from stamps sold in individual panes.

The plate block includes a block of stamps from the corner of the pane that contains at least one of each stamp design in the issue, along with margin paper that shows a number or numbers relating to or identifying the printing plate or cylinder used to print the stamps. One example of a U.S. plate block is illustrated in Figure 2, the 13¢ John F. Kennedy stamp issued May 29, 1967.

Collectors who save plate blocks do not remove any of the margin paper from around the block of stamps. On the Kennedy plate block in Figure 2, you can see the plate No. 29114 in the margin paper along the left side of the block.

On some stamp issues it may take more than four stamps to create a plate block, particularly if the stamp issue has multiple designs. In those cases, it is a good idea to check the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers to see in what form the plate block should be saved.

In recent years collectors have noticed an increase in the number of nondenominated stamps that are being issued. Instead of showing a specific value (known as the denomination), the stamp may be marked with a code letter to which a stamp value is later assigned, or it may bear a marking that indicates the rate the stamp fulfills.

Figure 3 shows a nondenominated stamp issued by Great Britain in 1997. The inscription "1ST" on the stamp indicates that it pays for first-class postage. When placed on sale in 1997, the stamp sold for 26 pence, the first-class postage rate at the time.

The terms described to this point all refer to stamps of one sort or another, but that's ignoring another part of the hobby altogether. While many collectors are looking for stamps, others may be searching for covers, which are complete envelopes, postcards or similar items that either have been mailed or are postmarked as a collectible souvenir.

Figure 4 shows a cover that was mailed in 1936 from the Shell Petroleum Corporation in St. Louis, Mo. The postage on this particular cover has been paid with a meter stamp instead of an adhesive postage stamp.

The 3¢ meter stamp, created by a machine called a postage meter, is imprinted on the upper-right corner. Like any postage applied to an envelope, the meter stamp can be called the envelope's franking. In other words, you could say the envelope is franked with a 3¢ meter stamp.

When a stamp is first placed on sale, a collector may choose to save a first-day cover" of the issue instead of an unused stamp. The first-day cover is an envelope or card bearing the new stamp. It is postmarked to show the date of issue for that stamp.

An example of a first-day cover for the 45¢ Pumpkinseed Sunfish stamp of 1992 is shown in Figure 5. Many modern first day covers include a cachet on the envelope, which is a decoration or text that usually refers in some way to the subject of the new stamp.

One helpful reference for understanding stamp hobby terminology is the 1,056-page Linn's World Stamp Almanacpublished earlier in 2000. A 23-page section of the book includes a glossary of more than 300 terms used by stamp collectors.

For more information about Linn's World Stamp Almanac, see the Linn's Library advertisement on page 65 (in print), or visit on the Internet's World Wide Web.