Definitive or commemorative? It's hard to tell

Nov 23, 1998, 5 AM

By Michael Baadke

For a number of years some stamp collectors have relied upon a rather unreliable rule of thumb for determining whether a stamp is a definitive or a commemorative issue.

One look at the stamp should tell you, according to this erroneous rule: a small, single-color stamp is a definitive, and a large, multicolor stamp is a commemorative.

That guideline has a huge number of exceptions, however, and it really isn't the basis at all for identifying a definitive or commemorative stamp.

What makes the difference between these two stamp types is the way postal authorities print and distribute the issues.

Commemorative stamps are created to note a special event or anniversary, according to the fifth edition of Linn's World Stamp Almanac (now out of print, but undergoing revision).

More importantly, the almanac notes, "A limited quantity of these stamps is available at the post office for a limited period."

The almanac describes a definitive stamp as one "issued for an indefinite period and in indefinite quantity, usually for several years or more. The United States Presidential issue of 1938 and the Transportation coil stamps are examples. Definitive stamp designs usually do not honor a specific time-related event."

In many cases, these proper definitions and the unreliable rule of thumb described at the beginning of this column actually do match up.

That is, there are many times when definitive stamps are small, single-colored stamps, and commemoratives are larger and more colorful.

The five stamps shown in Figure 1 serve as examples. From left to right in the top row are the type I 2¢ George Washington stamp of 1928 (Scott 634), the 3¢ Thomas Jefferson from the 1938 Presidential series (Scott 807), and the 20¢ Harry S. Truman stamp issued in 1984 as part of the 1980 Great Americans series.

These are all small, single-color stamps that were returned to press repeatedly to fulfill needs for everyday postal use.

The bottom row of Figure 1 shows the 10¢ Preserve the Environment stamp commemorating the Expo 74 World's Fair (Scott 1527), and the 32¢ First World Series stamp (Scott 3182n) issued in 1998 as part of the Celebrate the Century series.

These commemoratives are larger and more colorful and celebrate specific events.

Each of the two latter stamps also was created in a single press run, and it is unlikely that either will ever see a second printing.

Collectors should always remember that the printing and distribution histories are the most reliable characteristics of commemorative and definitive stamps.

Definitive stamps can be either small or large in size, and they are often manufactured with full-color designs, such as the 32¢ Flag Over Porch definitive stamps that have been printed again and again and again.

The two stamps shown in Figure 2 are also definitive issues that may be deceiving.

The 20¢ Ring-necked Pheasant coil stamp at left in Figure 2 is indeed small, but it is also a full-color stamp.

It was issued this year on July 31 to meet the current postcard rate. Since that 20¢ rate will not be changing when the United States Postal Service increases first-class letter rates Jan. 10, the Ring-necked Pheasant design will almost certainly be sent back to press when the need for additional 20¢ stamps arises.

The initial printing of the 20¢ Ring-necked Pheasant coil alone was 300 million stamps, far exceeding the 28 million 32¢ Klondike Gold Rush commemoratives, or even the 188 million for each of the Celebrate the Century issues.

At right in Figure 2 is an even more deceptive definitive stamp, the $2 Bobcat stamp that was issued June 1, 1990. It remains on sale to this day at most U.S. post offices.

Though large in size and printed in full color, it is definitely a definitive.

Commemorative stamps can also be surprising in appearance, as illustrated in Figure 3.

The 2¢ Electric Light Golden Jubilee stamp of 1929 shown at the left must certainly be considered a commemorative stamp, though it is small and a single color.

The combined printings of the flat plate (Scott 654) and rotary press sheet and coil versions of the stamp (Scott 655 and 656) exceed 375 million.

Keep in mind, however, that definitive stamps are regularly printed in quantities of multiple billions.

At right in Figure 3 is the 29¢ Dean Acheson commemorative stamp issued in 1993, Scott 2755. It is a larger stamp, but it was printed in a single color, greenish gray.

A great number of other factors help to muddle the distinctions between definitives and commemoratives.

Foremost among these are that many commemoratives don't seem to commemorate much of anything at all.

Engaging as they may be, what indeed are the 32¢ Bright Eyes commemorative stamps commemorating? These five stamps depicting cartoonish household pets were issued by the United States Aug. 20.

Are the 32¢ Tropical Birds stamps issued July 29 really commemorating Tropical Birds, or are they simply using the birds as a pretty design for mailers to use on postage?

Some modern U.S. commemorative stamps have been sent back to press for additional printings, which previously has been a characteristic of definitive stamps.

Additional printings were made of the 29¢ Elvis stamp (Scott 2721) and the 32¢ Wisconsin Statehood stamp (Scott 3206) after the initial printings were completed.

What about definitive stamps that mark anniversaries? Isn't that a form of commemoration?

The 29¢ Thomas Jefferson stamp was issued April 13, 1993, precisely on the 150th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, but the single-color small-size stamp was part of the Great Americans definitive series.

And are all the stamps in that series actually definitives?

The 32¢ Henry R. Luce stamp shown in Figure 4 was issued April 3 as part of the Great Americans series. Yet the total single print run was only 30.25 million, according to updated figures from the Postal Service, fewer than most commemorative stamps.

With a first-class letter-rate change on the way in just a few weeks, it is a certainty that the Luce stamp will not see additional printings, and it will probably be withdrawn from sale soon after.

Henry Luce was born April 3, 1898, 100 years to the day before the stamp was issued, obviously in commemoration of the famous founder of Time magazine.

Everything about this stamp makes it seem like a commemorative, except its similarity in appearance to other definitive stamps.

If there ever were clear-cut boundaries between definitive and commemorative stamps, they seem to have disappeared in recent years. Collectors can still recognize that the billions of 32¢ Flag Over Porch stamps are definitives and the 45 million 32¢ Madam C.J. Walker stamps are commemoratives, but there are plenty of times when the distinction is far less clear.

There may come a time when collectors will have to use other terms to describe the stamps they are pursuing, whether it is "pictorial" or "monocolor," or simply "small" and "large" (of course, there are always medium-sized stamps to further muddy the issue).

Collectors often are the type of individuals who prefer tangible, concrete answers to everything, and they spend much of their hobby time tracking such information down.

That's probably why the commemorative-definitive debate is frustrating to some.

Still, the sheer variety that these production changes have created can be seen as a positive fact for collectors. There are now more ways that one can shape a collection, more variety in the ranks of definitive and commemorative stamps, and more opportunities to study and learn about stamp production and distribution.