By Ken Lawrence
Most 1¢ green Benjamin Franklin stamps are common and valued at less than $1, but two rotary press varieties that look almost the same as common flat-plate issues are scarce and worth thousands. Ken Lawrence explains how to understand and identify the rare ones.
Probably not. These are the scarce (Scott 594) and rare (596) rotary press 1¢ green Benjamin Franklin stamps of 1924 with gauge 11 perforations both horizontally and vertically.
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The 1¢ green Franklin stamps are among the most common of all United States stamps issued from 1922 to 1938. To a novice they seem identical to the rare ones, but experienced stamp collectors can tell the difference.
The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers lists 16 different stamps that share the same design type A155 engraved design. That total includes sheet, booklet and coil stamps; overprinted varieties; flat-plate and rotary press prints; stamps with different perforation measurements; and an imperforate issue.
All those stamps are illustrated here, but to a true specialist, those represent only the beginning. One can go on to collect color shades, gum varieties, double transfers and other plate varieties, plate numbers and other marginal markings, vending- and affixing-machine perforations, errors, freaks, oddities, cancellations, postal uses and other interesting features.
But here we are concerned with two that are seldom seen.
These are the common 1¢ Franklin look-alikes: Scott 552 was printed from flat plates. It has gauge 11 perforations in both dimensions, but its printed design is smaller than either of the rare ones. It is narrower than Scott 594 and shorter than Scott 596, although all three stamps have matching perforations.
Another way to identify a flat-plate stamp is to look on the back. It will usually have specks of green ink, called set-off, transferred when printed sheets were stacked one on top of another to dry. Rotary press stamps were dried by passing the printed web through a heated chamber before being rolled up, so they seldom have set-off on the back.
For collectors who know how to use a perforation gauge properly and who take careful measurements, it isn’t difficult to identify the common rotary press sheet stamps that share this design. Scott 578 has gauge 11 by 10 perforations; Scott 581, gauge 10; and Scott 632, gauge 11 by 10½. But careless measurements can lead to faulty identification, so always be meticulous when so much is at stake.
All coil stamps of the 1922 series were printed on small intaglio rotary presses invented by Benjamin R. Stickney a decade earlier. Horizontal format coils were printed from 170-subject curved plates, 10 subjects across the plate and 17 subjects in the rotary dimension. Curvature of the plates stretched the engraved images in the horizontal dimension, so the printed images are wider than sheet and booklet stamps printed from flat plates.
Two plates were printed in tandem, so that when mounted together on the press they formed a cylindrical surface 34 subjects in circumference, with a line of ink printed in the space where the plates adjoined. Collectors call the two stamps that straddle the joint line “line pairs,” which are premium items. The 1¢ Franklin horizontal coils are listed as Scott 597.
The catalog advises users that the stamp design of Scott 594 measures approximately 19¾ by 21¼ millimeters, and Scott 596 measures approximately 19¼ by 22½mm. Unfortunately, inexperienced collectors have seldom been trained to make reliably accurate measurements, and they often tend to read rulers optimistically.The consequence is invariably disappointment. All too often, they misidentify a common Scott 552 as either 594 or 596; many are reluctant to believe experts who advise them of their mistakes.
In my opinion, a better method is to understand how these different stamps were manufactured, and why they are different. With that knowledge, positive identification becomes an exercise in applying those lessons to the study of each stamp.
Vertical format coils were printed from 150-subject plates of the same size but with the dimensions in a perpendicular layout, 10 subjects across the plate and 15 subjects in the rotary dimension, so those plates when paired had a cylindrical circumference of 30 subjects with joint lines at 15-subject intervals.
Curvature of those plates stretched the engraved images in the vertical dimension, so the printed images are taller than sheet-stamp prints from flat plates and narrower than horizontal format coil stamps. The 1¢ Franklin vertical coils are listed as Scott 604.
During the years when Scott 597 and 604 coil stamps were produced, both formats were perforated gauge 10 between subjects in one dimension across the printed web and finished on Stickney coilers that slit each row apart and rolled it up, with manila leader and trailer strips attached to the inner and outer ends of the stamp ribbons.
Both formats were offered in 500- and 1,000-stamp rolls wound with the gum side in.
Horizontal coils also were available on special order in 3,000-stamp rolls wound with the gum side out, to accommodate users of Mailometer high-speed office mailing machines. But no smaller rolls were issued until long afterward, so perforated web pieces at the beginning and end of the webs that were too short to finish as 500-stamp rolls were set aside, designated “waste.”
Most of those leftover pieces of coil waste had gauge 10 perforations across the paper web width, but smaller end pieces left over from threading and disengaging the perforator had no perforations at all. Yet all these scraps bore acceptable engraved 1¢ Franklin prints. Although they were too small for coil pieces, they might be useful as sheet stamps if they were perforated in both dimensions and broken up into panes.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing policy of salvaging coil waste had begun in 1919 when the 1908-21 Washington-Franklin series was still current, and continued as 1922 series stamps replaced them. This allowed the BEP to invoice the Post Office Department for those finished stamps instead of absorbing the cost of treating the waste as spoilage.
Because the demand for horizontal format coils was great, substantial quantities of horizontal coil waste accumulated, which the BEP processed into finished sheets. By separating them at the joint lines, each sheet was 17 subjects wide and 10 subjects high, representing the horizontal coil plate layout. (Quantities of vertical format waste were negligible, so those were never made into finished sheet stamps.)
Since nearly all the pieces to be salvaged had already been perforated gauge 10 vertically, all they needed was horizontal perforations to complete that part of the process. The sheet perforators were fitted with gauge 11 pin spacings, as seen on the Scott 552 flat-plate stamps, so one or more of those perforators finished that stage, yielding stamps with gauge 11 by 10 compound perforations, Scott 578.
(Coil waste stamps of the 2¢ carmine George Washington design had been issued first, and in greater quantity, but here we are concerned with 1¢ Franklin stamps.)
The POD did not consider these to be new stamps, so no announcement accompanied their appearance in the fall of 1923. After collectors learned of their existence, the POD placed sheets of 170 on sale at the Philatelic Agency in Washington, D.C.
Because no other 1¢ Franklin stamps have compound perforations that measure 11 by 10, these are seldom misidentified by experienced collectors. But coil waste made from small pieces that had not passed through the coil perforator is not so easy to identify.
Scott 594, the rotary press coil stamp with gauge 11 perforations in both dimensions, was first reported in April 1925. By then, coil waste production had ceased, so there were no more to be had and none available for philatelic sale.
The BEP had kept no separate records of quantities produced, but they must have been small. In the book Linn’s United States Stamps 1922-26, Gary Griffith offered an estimate of 51,000.
Known examples were used at three New York City post offices between March and October 1924.
The Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries census of Scott 594 lists 11 unused with gum, seven unused without gum, 92 used singles off cover (four are on piece), four pairs off cover (two on piece), and five covers, one of which is franked with a pair, for a total of 124 individual stamps, at least one of which is badly damaged.
Both the flat-plate sheet stamp, Scott 552, and this scarce coil waste stamp, Scott 594, have gauge 11 perforations in both dimensions, so it is not easy to tell them apart. As noted previously, the printed design of each coil waste stamp is slightly wider than its flat-plate counterpart, but the difference in width is less than one millimeter, so using a ruler is not the best method of identification.
The point here is to keep in mind that Scott 594 began as a coil stamp print, the same as the actual Scott 597 coil, so the easiest way to identify the former is to see whether the printed design on the stamp is exactly as wide as the printed design on a 1¢ Franklin coil used for comparison.
Then to double-check, compare it with a common Scott 552 1¢ Franklin sheet stamp. The printed design of a genuine Scott 594 is visibly wider than the flat-plate sheet stamp image. If the stamp passes both of those tests, it should be submitted to an expertizing service for authentication.
Shown is a cover, not included in the Siegel census, which has a pair of genuine Scott 594 coil waste stamps on it, with a 2015 Scott catalog value of $25,000. The owner, Oklahoma collector Roland Austin, bought it for 25¢, fulfilling every collector’s dream of discovery.
Here is his story:
I was at the Wichita Stamp Show in 1999 when a dealer came in and dumped boxes of covers out onto three or four tables priced at four for a dollar. As I was going through the piles, I came across a cover with an auxiliary marking which caught my eye, but the 2¢ added postage was canceled by a smudge of ink instead of a dated cancel, which I did not find appealing, so I put the cover back and moved on to another table.
As I did, I decided that the auxiliary marking was a good deal for 25¢, so I went back and retrieved that smudged cover and put it in my pile. Arriving at home, I put the cover in my box of auxiliary markings and did not look at these covers for several months, and had no plans to, until I read an article about the Bristol pane [a rare rotary press 2¢ Washington booklet pane with guide line along the edge discovered in about 1960 by a collector named Thomas Bristol].
I remembered this cover had a 2¢ stamp with a red line on it, so I dug it out and checked the perfs and stamp size to see if I had found a gem. Although not surprised, I was disappointed that it was not a Bristol pane example. I looked at the added two 1¢ stamps and thought, “common work-horse stamps.”
Why I checked the 1¢ stamps, I do not know; perhaps because I already had my perf gauge out and just wanted to use it. Sure enough, they were rotary printing, so that meant they had to be perf 10. When I could not get the perfs to match gauge 10, I thought I had mismeasured, thinking, “Rotary press-printed stamps with 11 x 11 perforations?”
Rechecking, it was a definite rotary printing and gauge 11! Upon looking through my Scott catalogue, I found the listing of this stamp and was stunned that this cover did, indeed, turn out to be a gem, but not for the reason I first suspected.
After enduring bouts of ridicule from friends in the hobby for daring to believe he had discovered a true rarity, Austin submitted his cover to the American Philatelic Expertizing Service, which issued certificate No. 158888, dated Nov. 23, 2004, that declared it to be genuine in all respects. He has one of only two known used pairs of Scott 594. Both stamps have very fine centering.
Large Stickney rotary presses began production of 1922 series 1¢ Franklin stamps in 1923, printed from 400-subject curved plates laid out in 10 by 10 quadrants, each of which yielded one 100-subject pane of sheet stamps. Curvature of the plates stretched the engraved images in the vertical dimension, so the printed images are taller than prints from flat plates.
This order in May and June 1923 inaugurated the production of Bureau precanceled stamps that were overprinted in black ink at a relief printing station during the same run on the Stickney press that printed the intaglio stamp design.
Just as with coil production on the small rotary presses, two plates were printed in tandem, so that when mounted together on the press they formed a cylindrical surface 40 subjects in circumference plus interpane gutter spaces, with a line of ink printed in the space where the plates adjoined. Joint lines on sheet stamps appear at the top or bottom edge of printed panes, not between adjacent stamp subjects, so there are no sheet stamp line pairs to collect.
Until 1927, rotary press sheet and booklet stamps were processed on a bar-and-wheel perforator that applied gauge 10 perforations in both horizontal and vertical directions simultaneously, which made them easy to distinguish from flat-plate sheet stamps that had gauge 11 perforations.
Some amount of rotary sheet-stamp production was not perforated gauge 10, probably pieces that were at the leading end of the printed web when it was fed through the gauge 10 perforator. One fact might help explain why these stamps were subsequently salvaged and finished with gauge 11 perforations: In accepting orders for Bureau precanceled stamps, the BEP required postmasters to order them in quantities of at least 250,000 coil stamps or 500,000 sheet stamps. Smaller amounts were precanceled locally.
According to Gary Griffith, the initial 1¢ Franklin precancel orders were for four cities: New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City (Missouri). To manufacture half a million stamps from paired 400-subject plates required 625 impressions of both plates for each city. No doubt the printers ran several extras to allow for spoilage, but suppose the women who were responsible for perforating and completing the orders discovered that they were a few sheets short for the Kansas City order.
I think that’s what happened. Being resourceful, they retrieved the unperforated scrap from the perforating station, processed them on a gauge 11 sheet perforator that had been set to take into account the taller vertical dimension of these prints, and perforated enough of them to fill the balance of the Kansas City order. Having taken that trouble, they probably also perforated one or two pieces that had been printed when the overprint unit on the press was disengaged, and inserted those into regular sheet stamp orders so they were not wasted.
Sheet waste of the rotary press 1¢ green Washington stamps of the previous issue, Scott 544, and black 2¢ Warren G. Harding memorial stamps, Scott 613, had been produced, but fewer examples of Scott 596 exist than either of those. In fact, Scott 596 is the rarest 20th-century non-error U.S. postage stamp. Had it been discovered while the issue was fresh, more might have been found, but the first report of their existence appeared in 1936, a dozen years too late.
The Siegel census has recorded five examples with ordinary cancels and eight precanceled Kansas City, Mo. In the Feb. 9 issue of Linn’s, page 8, Michael Baadke reported a newly discovered precanceled example that was scheduled to be sold by Harmer-Schau Auction Galleries at its Feb. 13-15 sale held in conjunction with the Ameristamp Expo show at Riverside, Calif., and I am aware of one other, for a current tally of 15.
Scott 581 was printed on the rotary press, but it has gauge 10 perforations in both dimensions. Its printed design is the same size as Scott 596, so the perforation spacing is the only difference. Both are taller than Scott 552 flat-plate sheet stamps.
Scott 632 also was printed on the rotary press, but it has gauge 11 perforations across the top and bottom, and gauge 10½ perforations along the left and right edges. Its printed design is the same size as Scott 596, so precise measurement of the perforations is necessary, because the difference between the two is very small.
Two coil stamps also have the same 1¢ green Franklin design. Scott 597 is a horizontal format coil stamp with straight edges at the top and bottom, and gauge 10 perforations on the left and right sides.
Short printed ends of these coil stamp prints were salvaged as so-called coil waste. Examples with gauge 10 perforations along the left and right sides and gauge 11 perforations across the top and bottom are Scott 578 coil waste stamps. Examples with gauge 11 perforations on all four sides are scarce Scott 594 coil waste stamps.
All horizontal format coil and coil waste stamps have wider printed designs than any of the other look-alikes.
Scott 604 is a vertical format 1¢ Franklin coil stamp with straight edges at the left and right, and gauge 10 perforations at the top and bottom. It has the tallest design of all the 1¢ Franklins, taller even than rotary press sheet stamps Scott 581 and Scott 596. No vertical coil waste stamps were ever issued.
With those pointers as a guide, every collector can join the hunt for previously unrecognized rarities.
Who will be the next to report one?
The photo of Scott 632a is shown courtesy of the American Philatelic Society Reference Collection. Other photos are courtesy of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries.