Souvenir sheets are a little hard to define

May 4, 1998, 1 PM

By Michael Baadke

When you think of a souvenir, you probably think of an item that reminds you of a place or event you visited.

However, there are a lot of different opinions about what constitutes a souvenir sheet.In the world of stamp collecting, that's the idea behind a souvenir sheet. A souvenir sheet normally contains one or more postage stamps, is issued specifically on the occasion of a special event, and has wording around the margin paper naming that event.

Some collectors insist that a souvenir sheet does not contain more than 25 stamps.

In many cases, the special event commemorated by the souvenir sheet is a major stamp show or exhibition.

Souvenir sheets have changed in appearance and intent over the years, and, like commemorative stamps, it's sometimes hard to tell what is a souvenir sheet and what's not.

Let's start by looking at what is considered by some to be the world's first souvenir sheet.

On Dec. 22, 1922, Princess Elisabeth of Luxembourg, the younger sister of that country's present ruler, Grand Duke Jean, was born.

Just 12 days later, on Jan. 3, 1923, Luxembourg issued a special small sheet that contained a single green 10-franc stamp with perforations all around, and a wide border of margin paper.

The souvenir sheet, Luxembourg Scott 151, is shown in Figure 1.

There was no inscription in the margins, and the birth of the little princess was not an event one could attend, but the special sheet was prepared specifically upon the occasion of the royal birth.

In the 1997-98 Prifix stamp catalog, which is published in Luxembourg, the Princess Elisabeth sheet is described as "der erste Block der Welt." In German stamp collecting terminology, "Block" is often used to describe what is known in English as a souvenir sheet, so the description can be interpreted as "the first souvenir sheet in the world."

However, this was not the first small sheet issued to commemorate a royal event. Two years earlier, when Prince Jean was born, a sheet of five stamps depicting Grand Duchess Charlotte was issued by Luxembourg. The sheet containing these stamps is listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue as Scott 125a.

An even earlier sheet of 10 stamps honored the ascension of Grand Duke William IV to the throne in 1906. In the Scott catalog, this sheet is listed as Scott 82a, and is described in the Scott catalog as a "souvenir sheet."

With these previous Luxembourgian issues in existence, why is the Princess Elisabeth sheet considered the world's first souvenir sheet by the Prifix catalog?

The catalog description doesn't really provide any clues. Perhaps the answer is because the Princess Elisabeth sheet bore only one stamp, which certainly was a novelty at the time. Or it may be because the stamp on the small sheet had never been issued previously.

The fact is that the term "souvenir sheet" means something different to American collectors than it does to collectors in other countries. Many collectors don't use the term at all, preferring to describe such special smaller items as "sheetlets," "miniature sheets," and so on.

In the many reference works that have been written about stamp collecting, one can find numerous definitions of "souvenir sheet," and almost all of them are different from one another.

In the early years of stamp production, most stamps were printed in large sheets that were cut apart into smaller panes of 100 or 50 stamps before they were sold at the post office. A pane with only 20 stamps was quite unusual and drew special attention.

Today, many stamps are issued in panes of 20. In Germany, almost all issues nowadays come in panes of 10, and have special markings around the margin paper.

Just as stamp production methods have changed, some opinions of souvenir sheets have changed as well.

Some collectors call a small pane of stamps a souvenir sheet only if an inscription specifically mentions a stamp show.

That definition would make United States Scott 630, a sheet of 25 2¢ stamps commemorating the Battle of White Plains, N.Y., the first U.S. souvenir sheet. The stamps, shown in Figure 2, were issued Oct. 18, 1926, at the International Philatelic Exhibition that took place in New York, N.Y., from Oct. 16-23, 1926.

The White Plains souvenir sheet of 25 stamps included an inscription in the margin paper at top and bottom, noting the date and location of the international stamp show.

Using the same stamp show definition, the most recent U.S. souvenir sheets would be the two sheets issued May 29 and May 30, 1997, at the Pacific 97 world stamp show and exhibition.

However, those two sheets, Scott 3139 (the 50¢ Benjamin Franklin) and Scott 3140 (the 60¢ George Washington) are not described as souvenir sheets in the 1998 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps. Instead, each is listed as a "Sheet of 12." The two Pacific 97 souvenir sheets are shown in Figure 3.

Some catalogs and postal authorities refer to any pane with a small number of stamps and a decorative inscription as a "souvenir sheet." The pane of four 50¢ stamps featuring Norman Rockwell paintings issued July 1, 1994, is described as a souvenir sheet in the Scott specialized catalog, but what is it a souvenir of? Even Linn's referred to that issue as a souvenir sheet because of the small-sized format and the fact that only four stamps appeared on the pane.

In the 1999 Scott catalog, the Mars Pathfinder pane issued Dec. 10, 1997, is listed as a souvenir sheet. It is, in fact, a souvenir of the successful 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, as noted by the inscription in the margin paper around the single $3 stamp.

The Mars Pathfinder issue, Scott 3178, is shown in Figure 4.

So how does the collector determine what is a souvenir sheet and what isn't?

For most, the decision will be a personal one, because reference works provide no clear answer.

Most of the souvenir sheets issued by the United States to honor national and international philatelic exhibitions are clearly described in the Scott specialized catalog.

The stamps on many of these philatelic souvenir sheets are imperforate; that is, there are no perforations around the stamp to allow it to be removed from the souvenir sheet.

A collector wishing to assemble a collection of souvenir sheets may use the Scott catalog as a guide. The illustrations and descriptions should help the collector determine if an issue fits his own criteria as a souvenir sheet, and if the item belongs in his collection.