US Stamps

John M. Hotchner

Which postage due stamp do you have?

July 01, 2017 08:30 AM

  • Postage due stamps from 1879 to the 1916 issues are difficult to catalog because of the wide range of ink colors used. One reference that makes the task easier is Vol. 5 of R.H. White’s Encyclopedia of the Colors of United States Postage Stamps. One of the many color plates from the 60-page volume is shown.

U.S. Stamp Notes — By John M. Hotchner

Linn’s reader M. Denis recently asked, “How can a working-man collector” be sure he is purchasing an authentic catalogue numbered postage due stamp from 1879 to 1916, with the huge variances of shades observed?”

 What is behind the question is that most of the used, and many of the mint postage dues of this era don’t have high catalog values, so expertizing is not cost-effective. However, there are often two or more colors listed for each individual major number, and sometimes the only way to tell which major number stamp you have or are looking at is to properly determine the color.

An example is the 2¢ postage due first issued in 1894. Scott-listed color varieties include: vermilion, deep vermilion, claret, deep claret, lake, carmine lake, rose, rose-red, dull rose, bright rose, carmine rose, rose carmine, and carmine. And there are other shades not listed.

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The 1879, 1884 and 1891 postage due stamps share the same design, are all perforated 12, and were all printed on unwatermarked paper. The only way to tell the three printings apart is the color: The 1879 issue is brown, the 1884 is red brown, and the 1891 is bright claret. But within each postage due listing there are varieties, such as pale brown, deep brown, yellowish brown, pale red brown, deep red brown, light claret, and dark claret. What’s a collector to do?

 The best reference is, again, R.H. White. Vol. 5 of his color study is called Postage Due Issues: 1879-1916. It includes 60 pages of both text and color plates that make it possible to determine the proper descriptor for the example you have or are considering buying.

 The White books are out of print, and when they are found for sale, they are not cheap. But quality never is.

There are fallbacks. First, you can build your own reference by using identified color illustrations from auction catalogs. Also, you can develop a reference to the most often-seen colors using mint or used stamps that have been reliably identified as to color and catalog number. Mint is preferable, but where those are expensive, a used example may have to do.

The question is timely as the great majority of early generations of U.S. collectors paid little attention to U.S. issues past the airmail listings in the catalog. But of late, the so-called  back-of-the-book issues have been growing in popularity as early regular issues have climbed in value