To soak or not to soak? That is the question

Jul 19, 2004, 12 PM

By Janet Klug

We stamp collectors are always on the prowl for stamps to add to our albums. I personally prefer collecting nicely canceled stamps that demonstrate they were used for the purpose they were printed.

The automatic response when you see a new stamp that you need for your album that is attached to an envelope is to remove the stamp carefully by clipping it and soaking it in a tepid water bath until it releases from the envelope paper. After allowing the stamp to dry thoroughly, you hinge it in the appropriate space in your album.

That may be your first inclination, but it might not always be the best thing to do. Sometimes the stamps are better left on the envelope. Why?

Sometimes the entire package — stamp, postmark and envelope — will have an interesting story all its own. If you remove the stamp from the cover, it is equivalent to removing the middle pages of a good mystery. You are left with a beginning and an end, but the device that moved the story along is missing.

So how do you decide whether or not it is advisable to soak? You just need to do some basic sleuthing to help you make a case to remove the stamp. It takes some practice, but if you follow these steps, you should become proficient in determining when to let a cover live or clip it.

Look at the stamp. Sure, you have already looked at the stamp and know it is one you want in your album. But how closely did you really look at it? Are the colors correct? Are the perforations right? Is the stamp from the right country? You may think that is an odd question, but look at the cover shown in Figure 1.

At a quick glance, any collector might think it was an ordinary letter sent from Argentina in 1929 with a very common 5-centavo Jose de San Martin stamp. If you weren't paying close attention, you might have torn the corner of the envelope from the cover for soaking and ruined a real oddity.

More careful observation of the cancel, return address and addressee tells the complete story of a foreign stamp that was used erroneously but successfully to mail a letter from one address to another in Topeka, Kan., where it was successfully forwarded to yet a third Topeka address.

Figure 2 shows a cover sent to me from Great Britain in 1976. I nearly removed the stamp from the cover but noticed at the last moment that there was something interesting going on with the stamp.

It is an example of a doctor blade flaw, created when the blade that wipes the excess ink from the printing cylinder develops a nick. This nick leaves a line running the length of the stamp. The line can be seen just to the right of the queen's head. It would be a great collectable variety off cover too, but used on cover it is even more desirable.

Look at the postmarks. Postmarks exist in incredible variety. They can be handstamped or applied by a machine. They can have a slogan or illustration that prints over the stamp, effectively killing it so that it may not be reused.

Sometimes these slogans or illustrations can have a comical effect that would be sad to lose by removing the stamp from the cover bearing the brunt of the postmark.

Other times a postmark might give an important clue about how the letter was carried from sender to recipient. The cover shown in Figure 3 is an example of this.

The cover was sent in 1940 from a business in Greenfield, Ohio, to another business in Cincinnati. It is franked with a strip of three common 1¢ Famous American stamps bearing the portrait of Washington Irving.

So far, none of this would signal the cover is a keeper. But look closely at the postmark. It says "Wash. & St. L. M.D. R.P.O." and "RMS" within cancel's killer bars. This postmark reveals that the cover was carried by train on the Railway Mail Service and was canceled en route on the Washington-St. Louis line that ran through Greenfield in Highland County west to Cincinnati in Hamilton County, Ohio.

Postmarks from small villages and countries are scarcer than those from large urban areas with dense populations. I collect covers from my hometown Pleasant Plain in southwestern Ohio. It is a small place with only a few hundred residents. It is far more difficult finding 19th- and early 20th-century covers from Pleasant Plain than from, for example, nearby Cincinnati.

Finding postmarks from unusual countries where there is neither a large population nor much mail is also a challenge, and keeping the stamps on the cover is advisable.

Figure 4 shows an ordinary-looking Australia cover bearing two very common coil definitive stamps. Everything is ordinary except the postmark from Thursday Island, a tiny, sparsely populated island in the Torres Strait that separates northern Australia from Papua New Guinea.

Removing the stamps from this cover would leave only partial postmarks on them. It would be difficult to identify the exotic origin from the part of the postmarks that would remain on the stamp.

Look at any other markings on the cover. Letters can pick up an astonishing variety of additional markings to denote routings, methods of delivery, additional services, return to sender, censorship, damage in handling and more. A good rule of thumb is to keep any cover intact that bears any auxiliary marking. If you don't want it for your collection, it is a certainty that someone else will.

Covers bearing auxiliary markings such as "Unclaimed" or covers sent to a dead letter office are highly collectible.

The cover shown in Figure 5 is a little less obvious. This little cover bears two colorful Egyptian stamps and was sent to Kansas. One of the stamps is torn. The other is nicely canceled, and it might be tempting to remove it from the cover. But don't. Look a little closer and you will see a censorship marking to the left of the stamps. This diminutive cover is worth saving as an example of Egyptian World War II civil censorship.

Look at the envelope, front and back. Some covers have added an decoration that sets them apart, such as the Australian illustrated advertising cover shown in Figure 6. Such envelopes are worth preserving even if you don't have an immediate interest or need for them.

Figure 7 shows the back of a fairly commonplace cover that was mailed from New Zealand to the United States in 1939.

It bears one of my all-time favorite stamps, a gorgeous 2½-penny engraved bicolor definitive showing Mount Cook, located in the Southern Alps on the South Island of New Zealand. The stamp is nicely canceled, and the envelope is a bit rumpled, so the natural urge is strong to remove the stamp from the envelope for placing in an album.

But before I did that, I flipped the cover over. Affixed to the back of the cover is a glorious multicolor poster stamp advertising the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. The ordinary is suddenly extraordinary, and removing the stamp on the front would really destroy this interesting cover.

The next time you contemplate removing a stamp from a cover, think like a detective. Make your case for removing it first. Even if it is truly ordinary, try to consider whether or not the stamp in question is someday going to be difficult to find on cover.

Because of their short period of use, those 34¢ Greetings From America stamps are tough to find on cover. So are stamps taken from souvenir booklets that were on limited sale. Think first. Don't be hasty with your scissors and soaking bowl.