U.S. definitives offer collecting challenges

Apr 29, 2021, 6 PM

By Michael Baadke

On view (in print) on pages 34-35 of this week's Linn's Stamp News and here online are pictures of the commemorative stamps that the United States Postal Service plans to issue in 2001.

Commemorative stamps from the United States are often larger and more colorful than U.S. definitive stamps, but the real telling feature is that commemorative stamps are normally sent to press only once and remain on sale for a shorter time.

Definitive stamps, however, are usually actively sold for longer periods and may be sent to press again and again whenever additional stamps are needed.

The U.S. Postal Service generally does not promote its definitive stamp issues to collectors, presumably because they're more plain than the commemoratives, which often feature interesting themes or more detailed artistic designs.

Definitive stamps are considered to be workhorse postage, and that's actually one reason why some collectors like them so much. After all, these stamps are really used day in and day out to carry the mail: the purpose for which they are created.

When you go to the post office and ask for 20 stamps, it's more than likely the clerk will hand you definitives. Most of today's definitives, including the 33¢ Fruit Berries or the 33¢ Flag Over City stamps, are printed in bright colors with varied subjects, but for many years U.S. definitives were mostly small, single-color stamps showing presidents or other well-known figures of history.

The first postage stamps issued by the United States were definitives: the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin and the 10¢ George Washington stamps of 1847. These two early stamps also shared similar designs that linked them together: Franklin and Washington were each shown in ovals with the words "POST OFFICE" above and the denomination or face value of the stamp below.

Different stamp printers created U.S. definitive and commemorative stamps during the 19th century, but in 1894 the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., began printing U.S. postage stamps.

The first BEP definitive series consisted of 13 different values. Eleven of these, including the 1¢ Franklin stamp shown at left in Figure 1 (Scott 246), reproduced the designs of stamps manufactured only four years earlier by the American Bank Note Co., but with a small change: two triangles were added to the upper corners.

The two new designs in the series were a $2 stamp depicting James Madison (262) and the $5 stamp depicting John Marshall (263) shown at right in Figure 1.

Stamp collectors today often refer to this series of stamps as "the first Bureau issue." There are obvious stylistic similarities among the 13 values in this series, but nearly 50 different major varieties were created over the course of the issue's decade-long run, as well as overprinted stamps for use in U.S. possessions.

Varieties are another reason why some collectors turn their attention to definitive stamps.

Because the stamps are sent to press more than once, it is sometimes possible to distinguish characteristics that identify otherwise identical stamps as being from one printing or another.

Take the $5 Marshall stamp of Figure 1, for instance. There are two major varieties for this stamp: the first (263) was printed on unwatermarked paper. The second (278) was printed on paper with a "USPS" double-line watermark.

The watermark can be seen when watermark fluid is applied to the back of the stamp while it rests face-down in a black tray.

Other characteristics besides paper type that help to identify different printings of the same definitive designs include flaws or detectable repairs made to printing plates, perforation gauge differences, color varieties, gum type and more.

Recent U.S. definitive stamps have shown important changes in the way phosphor tagging appears on the finished stamps over the course of multiple printings.

Definitive stamps are often, but not always, created in series. That is, the postal authorities plan a group of stamps with certain denominations that either fulfill specific rates or can be used in combination to pay for odd postal fees.

The stamps in a definitive series may be created to closely resemble one another. The four stamps shown at the top of Figure 2 are all from the 1922 definitive series known as "the fourth Bureau issue."

Notice that each stamp has a precisely engraved rectangular border with four simple corner ornaments and triangular decorations at upper left and right.

Each oval-shaped portrait is surrounded with the words "UNITED STATES POSTAGE" and the word "CENT" or "CENTS" appears below it.

The stamps in this series were all designed by Clair Aubrey Huston. The seven higher values in the series (20¢, 25¢, 30¢, 50¢, $1, $2 and $5) resemble the lower values, even though they have a horizontal orientation rather than vertical.

Compare these stamps with another series issued a little more than 40 years later: the Prominent Americans issue of 1965-78. Four stamps from this series are shown together at the bottom of Figure 2.

Except for all four stamps showing portraits of men, there are really no stylistic elements that make these stamps appear to be from the same series.

Stamps in a series are often created and placed on sale as the need arises for a new stamp of a specific denomination. The 2¢ Frank Lloyd Wright stamp in the Prominent Americans series (1280) was first issued in June 1966, while the 1¢ Thomas Jefferson did not appear until January 1968.

Today's United States Postal Service appears to be following a similar policy for its newest definitive series, which it calls the "Distinguished Americans."

The first two stamps in the series, shown in Figure 3, are the 10¢ Joseph W. Stilwell stamp (3420) issued Aug. 24, and the 33¢ Claude Pepper stamp (3426) issued Sept. 7.

The Stilwell stamp will probably be available for a long period of time as a handy add-on denomination when the need arises. The Pepper stamp may be pulled from production soon if first-class letter rates increase to 34¢ as is expected early next year.

Obviously these two stamps strongly resemble each other and can be identified as coming from the same series. Both were created by the same artist, and the Postal Service has confirmed that other stamps in the series will follow in 2001.

There are many different ways that definitive stamps are collected.

They can be part of a full collection of U.S. stamps, either mint (unused) or postally used. Preprinted album pages often group definitive stamps together.

Some collectors try to accumulate large numbers of the same definitive stamps to compare them with one another and look for unusual varieties. Others choose to save either single stamps, plate blocks or full panes, keeping an eye out for anything unusual.

Coil and booklet stamps are commonly issued as definitive stamps as well, opening up more interesting collecting possibilities.

Certain covers bearing definitive stamps are often sought after by postal history collectors, who may be looking for examples of specific rates being fulfilled or the proper use of standard or unusual denominations in a definitive series.

A cover, you may recall, is any envelope, postcard, postal card, parcel wrapping or similar mailed artifact.

Figure 4 shows a postcard mailed July 18, 1949, from Waverly, Tenn., to an address in Karlsruhe, Germany. The postal history collector may wonder why the postage for this particular card was paid for with the 15¢ James Buchanan stamp (820) from the 1938 Presidential definitive series. The stamp pays the half-ounce overseas airmail letter rate in effect at the time, as there was no separate rate established for postcards sent overseas by air.

Nearly 50 different Presidential series stamps were issued in 1938 and 1939, and they remained on sale for many years.

Imagine how many different covers must exist that illustrate every conceivable postage rate that existed from 1938 until the Liberty definitive series stamps began replacing the Presidentials in 1954.

That's the kind of challenge many postal history collectors enjoy.

Keep in mind that with the Distinguished Americans series we're witnessing the beginning of a new group of U.S. definitives.

There's no telling at this point if the series will consist of just a few stamps, or more than 60 face-different, as did the Great Americans definitive series that began in 1980 and ended in 1999.

Many collectors will enjoy collecting the new definitive stamps and seeing where the series will go.