Modern Canada – Treasure Trove of Endless Possibilities for the Specialist

Modern Canada – Treasure Trove of Endless Possibilities for the Specialist

As a philatelist for over 4 decades now I am always amazed at the fact that organized philately in this country seems to me to be stuck in the 19th century and early 20th century. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Large Queens, Small Queens and Admirals. They are all very beautiful stamps and are also very, very expensive to collect to anything resembling completion. But, I feel that the modern, post-1934 material has been unjustifiably neglected by the majority of Canadian philatelists, who simply treat it as a space to fill, in an album, at best, and at worst as mere postage, to use on mail. I do, and have always found this later trend extremely dismaying, as there is no telling what scarce varieties and printings are being lost to philately forever in this manner. The purpose of this article then, is to set the record straight and to outline the different ways to collect and organize material from after 1934, and the different collecting possibilities that exist with it.

The first topic that I will address then, is how the period after 1934 can be categorized into distinct sub-periods. Each of these, while offering a lot of scope, in terms of the different physical attributes, will tend to dominate along one or two attributes, as far as where most of the interest to a specialist lies. The sub-periods are as follows:

  1. The Dated Die Issue period, from 1935 to 1937.
  2. The Mufti Issue period, from 1937 to 1942.
  3. The War Issue period, from 1942 to 1949.
  4. The Peace Issue and Postes-Postage period, from 1946-1953.
  5. The Pre-Centennial Issue Elizabethan period, from 1953 to 1967.
  6. The Centennial period, from 1967 to 1972.
  7. The Caricature period, from 1972 to 1978.
  8. The Abitibi-Price period, from 1978 to 1983.
  9. The bankruptcy period, from 1983 to 1998.
  10. The post-1998 period.

So, why has modern philately been largely relegated to filling spots in albums then? My theory is that most collectors have failed to recognize that the hobby of modern philately is different from that of classic philately, and therefore they try to compare modern stamps to classic stamps. Invariably most conclude that there is little to interest them, almost no challenges and no scarcity or long-term value to speak of. I would argue that while there are a lot of common stamps in the modern period, the same can be said of the classic period as well, it’s just that demand for the classic stamps has made many, very common stamps worth far more than they otherwise would be. Most modern stamps today, especially on the last 15-20 years are printed in far lower quantities than ever before, and are much scarcer, in absolute terms than many classic stamps that catalogue far more.

How is modern philately different? I would say that the main difference is that classic philately, at a specialized level tends to focus on physical attributes and phenomena that are readily obvious and visible to the naked eye. All the listed shade varieties in the mainstream stamp catalogues for classic material are sufficiently distinct that an experienced person can identify them easily without the use of reference copies. Perforation differences can be seen with a basic perforation gauge that is accurate to only ½ a perf., or ¼ of a perf. Paper differences tend to be limited to obvious differences in thickness, texture, colour or the method of manufacture, in the case of laid paper versus wove paper. Re-entries and plate flaws are all generally visible either to the naked eye, or with a 10x loupe, in normal lighting conditions. Most of the collectible varieties of the classic period arise due to the technical inexactitude inherent in the production process itself. So inexact is the process in general, that if one were to sit down and sort a pile of 1000 3 cent Small Queens, it is very likely that over 100 varieties will be identified, if not more. Of course, most of these are not listed in catalogues, but the sheer breadth of collectible varieties means typically that most collectors will forever be consumed by just the stamps. Only the most advanced collectors of classic material will delve into postal history, positional multiples, proof material or errors as a result.

In contrast, modern stamp production is incredibly precise – to the point that if you would sit and sort a pile of 1000 identical appearing modern stamps, you might not find any varieties at all. Or, you might find that the entire pile can only be split into 3 or 4 varieties. This means necessarily that those variations are highly significant and therefore collectible. However, what constitutes a significant variation in the modern period would probably not even register on the scale during the classic period. That, I believe, is the fundamental difference between the two hobbies. In addition, many of the collectible variations in the modern period require different equipment to detect: a more precise perforation gauge, like an Instanta, for perforations, and an ultra-violet light for ink differences, paper fluorescence differences and tagging differences. Generally speaking, Canadian stamps require a long-wave UV lamp, which is the safer kind, and the one most readily available in lighting stores. Other countries like Great Britain and US require a short-wave lamp as well, to properly study them.

Another major difference in modern philately is the role and significance played by paper fluorescence. Many collectors dismiss fluorescence as being random and insignificant variations in paper manufacture. However, there is evidence from philatelists who have closely studied the tagging trials done in the 1950’s in the UK that experiments were also done with paper fluorescence as well, as a means of aiding the automatic facer cancelling machines in detecting the stamps in the envelopes. Then, of course, there is the issue pf paper recycling, which did not really become a “thing” until the 1960’s and 1970’s. But the introduction of bleaching agents into paper manufacturing created other challenges for the efficacy of tagging compounds in use at the time and required experimentation and tweaking – all of which can be studied in the stamps themselves. Other philatelists speak about the subjectivity of paper fluorescence. While this is indeed true, paper fluorescence is no more subjective than colour. But very few philatelists would suggest ignoring and not studying colour differences solely because of the experience and subjectivity involved. But, the reticence of many collectors to delve into this aspect of modern philately has resulted in many issues and periods that are very interesting receiving little attention from collectors in general.

A third major difference in the modern period is the prominence of postal history and the challenges it poses. There are a lot of covers that have survived from the classic period, but not so for the modern period. When you combine this fact, with nearly annual changes in postage rates over the past several years, and the issuance of souvenir sheets and se-tenant combinations whose face value does not correspond to the prevailing postage rates, it becomes apparent that the postal history is where the majority of the challenge in the modern period lies, and it is not at all cheap to collect – at least not when you get into the scarcer rate covers.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that each of the ten periods that I identified above had its own dominant area of interest for specialists. I will now briefly discuss what these are for each period identified.

The Dated Die Issue period, from 1935 to 1937

During this period, the most marked differences in the stamps are in the different kinds of gum used on the stamps, some of which are very obvious, as well as differences in the papers. You can find paper that appears to be horizontally ribbed, as well as paper that shows a distinct vertical mesh. Different combinations of paper and gum are possible, such that the same stamp may exist in 9 or 10 different combinations of paper and gum. There are very few plate flaws, errors or perforation differences during this period. However, it is during this period that the modern CBN coils first appear, with all their accompanying spacing, cutting and jump varieties, and the dotted cover dies appear on the booklets, making them an extremely complex field. Finally, it is during this period that 4-hole OHMS perfins appear to begin gradually replacing the 5-hole types that first appeared in 1923. With all possible errors and 8 different orientations that can exist for both perfins, this is one of the more challenging and often overlooked areas in Canadian philately.

The Mufti Issue period, from 1937 to 1942

This period marks the beginning of WW2, so there are some interesting postal history items to be found. All the paper, gum and shade differences found in the previous period continue in this period, as do the variations in the coils and booklets. This is the last period in which both 4-hole and 5-hole OHMS perfins can be found on most all issues. Another aspect of this period that is very attractive are the plate blocks: there are a very large number of plates used on the 1c 2c and 3c values; more in fact than for any other issue up to this point, except for the Admirals. Some are expensive, but all are within realistic reach of most serious collectors.

The War Issue period, from 1942 to 1949

During this period WW2 is in full swing, so the censored covers and special rates make the postal history interesting, as does the introduction of new services, such as airmail-special delivery in 1942. But the most complicated aspect to these issues is, without a doubt, the booklets. Up to 8 different dotted cover dies for both front and back covers, different rate pages, different staple sizes, English versions, French versions and, for the first time, bilingual versions can be found for most all the booklets that were issued. Of course, there are still a lot of paper, shade and gum varieties that can be found on these issues also. The coils show the same types of varieties as always, but there are two different perforations during this period: 8 and 9.5 vertically, with the 9.5 perforation being scarcer. During this period the use of 5-hole OHMS perfins disappears completely, with only the 4-hole perfins available to collect. Plate blocks become a very extensive field, with this issue having more plate blocks than any other up to this point except the Admiral issue. Like the previous period, some of these are expensive, but none are out of reach of the patient and determined collector.

 This is, by far my favourite period out of the pre-Elizabethan periods, I think.

 The Peace Issue and Postes-Postage period, from 1946-1953

This period is marked by an apparent simplicity, I think due to the plain nature of the stamp designs, that is nonetheless deceptive. Postal rate changes with the abolition of the War Tax and the introduction of new airmail rates and changes in the preferential rates to South America, West Indies, France and Spain, make the postal history quite interesting, not only for the rates, but also the fact that this is the first time since 1932-34 when it is possible to find the higher rates being paid entirely with in-period commemorative issue frankings. There are fewer paper and gum variations than in the previous periods, but there are still at least 2 or 3 different paper types to be found, including the rare thin transparent ribbed paper, found on the 7c and 14c Peace issue. Shades are less abundant for most inks, but I have found some very worthy variations in the rose-violet, carmine, olive-green, turquoise and vermilion inks.

Perforated officials peter out in this period, with only 2 values of the Postes-Postage, the airmail special delivery and the special delivery stamps being so perforated. They are replaced instead now by the OHMS and G overprints, and these display a good range of missing period and narrow spacing varieties, some of which are very rare. There are also several well known forgeries of the overprints, which can form an interesting sideline as well.

Plate blocks and booklets are both less extensive and complex than in the prior period, but both still offer the specialist quite a bit of scope, and some challenge, as some of the plate positions are very scarce and expensive. French only booklets disappear during this period, so that the booklets issued are only either English or bilingual. But the chewing gum booklets still remain, and these can be found in up to 64 different types.

Thus, this period is ideal for a collector who likes simple engraved designs, and wants some complexity, but not too much because they want to be able to focus on postal history as well.

The Pre-Centennial Issue Elizabethan period, from 1953 to 1967

This period is when everything changes philatelically speaking. Booklets become bilingual only, official stamps are discontinued, the cello-paq miniature stamp panes are introduced, the first se-tenant stamps appear in 1957, the postal rates are largely unchanged, with air-mail becoming the standard for most mail. But by far the most dominant aspect to the stamps of this period is the introduction of paper fluorescence in early 1960 or so, and the introduction of Winnipeg tagging in 1962, to facilitate mail sorting. Many issues of this period can thus be found on non-fluorescent and papers containing some fluorescence, mostly in the form of fluorescent fibres of varying brightness levels. Experimentation was done for the tagging also and came in the form of different tag bar configurations on the sheets, different spacings between the tag bars and different intensities of the taggant on the stamps.

However, it may surprise collectors to learn that there were other changes introduced during this period that impact the issues. The Canadian Bank Note Company (CBN) had, up to this period been using line perforating machines that gave a gauge of exactly 12.0. However, at some point early in the 1950’s we begin to see the appearance of 12.15, 11.9 and 11.95 gauges, as well as compounds thereof. This makes the collection of the 7c, 10c, 15c, 20c, 25c and 50c high value stamps particularly interesting because these stamps can be thought of as being part of all three definitive issues that appeared during this period: the Karsh issue, the Wilding Issue and the Cameo issue. Then, around 1961-1962 we see the appearance of the 11.85 gauge and at this point only 11.85, 11.95 and compounds of these are found on all issues to 1972.

The stability in the postal rates makes it possible to collect the postal history for all the issues that came out, due to the large number of commemorative stamps that were issued during this period. Nonetheless there are many items such as the miniature panes that are very difficult to find on cover.

Coils and booklets continue to show the many collectible varieties that they did before, but by now, there are no French booklets, and by 1954, all booklets are bilingual only. There are some shade variations on a few of the blue stamps, and the violet stamps. but not too many other than that.

The plate blocks are a very interesting aspect to this period, despite there being fewer plates for most values. In addition to plate numbers, one can find different configurations of dots in the margin of the blocks, whose exact origin is unknown, but are thought to denote different printings from the same plate. When you combine differences in the spacings of words in the plate inscriptions, with the different dot configurations, with paper varieties, with shades, the 1954-62 Wilding issue becomes every bit as complicated and fun to collect as the Admiral issue, but at a fraction of the cost.

Finally, this period is really the last one in which you find a lot of different cachet makers producing first day covers. Many are relatively common, but some of the hand-painted watercolour cachets are highly sought after and rare.

The Centennial period, from 1967 to 1972

Of all the periods for Elizabeth II, this is probably the most popular with most collectors, because of the Centennial issue, which receives a lot of attention. However, the commemorative issues from the period have not, until very recently, received much attention at all. This is the period during which all varieties to do with paper appear: all different varieties of fluorescence, and chalk coated papers, which appear for the first time.

This is also the period during which many other game-changers occur: coils are now only sold in rolls of 100, which are broken off larger sticks containing 10 rolls. Thus, the possibility of imperforate between varieties on the coil stamps occurs, as do all the usual spacing and jump varieties. The use of photogravure and lithography is expanded during this period after first being introduced in 1964 with the Provincial Emblems issue and 1965 Churchill issue. Se-tenant stamps now become a normal and often used format, with several of the commemorative issues being printed this way. Gum becomes a major issue during this period with the normal dextrin gum giving way to a hybrid of PVA and dextrin gum that we call “spotty white gum”, before becoming PVA gum. There is also an invisible gum, called DAVAC, which first appeared on the Highway Safety issue of 1966, which appears again on the Centennial commemorative stamp and never again, though the postal scrip stamps of this period and Saskatchewan Law stamps printed during this period can be found with this gum. Cello-paq panes and stapled booklets are both discontinued during this period in favour of larger, integral booklets that have the se-tenant booklet pane attached to the booklet cover, by a selvage tab. These were printed by the British American Bank Note Company (BABN), which appears on the Canadian stamp scene for the first time since 1934. Finally, Winnipeg tagging is phased out in favour of Ottawa General tagging, which at first is found to be migratory and unstable (OP-4 compound), but is chemically altered and perfected by the end of 1972 (OP-2 compound).

This period is marked by three separate postal rate increases: an increase in the local domestic rate from 5c to 6c in 1968, followed by increases to 7c in mid 1971 and 8c by the end of 1971. This creates a fairly narrow window between mid-1971 and the end of 1971 for the 7c rate, and so covers from this period are relatively scarcer than from other periods, and there is also a 25c airmail rate to Asia and Africa during this period that is quite a bit scarcer, than the standard 15c rate to Europe. It can be quite a lot of fun to collect the 7c local covers and 25c airmail covers with different frankings used to pay the rates.

Finally, it is during this period that a new printing firm, Ashton Potter, makes its first appearance, introducing multi-colour lithography to the production of stamps and breaking the monopoly that had been held by the CBN and BABN.

The Caricature period, from 1972 to 1978

When I was a boy back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I remember thinking that this period had nothing to offer the specialist, as almost no varieties were listed in any of the catalogues. Most all stamps from this period are tagged as the norm, fluorescent papers are the norm and there were only a few perforation varieties listed on the 10c-$1 definitives of the Caricature issue. However, much research done over the past 40 years reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, this period boasts a level of complexity that is on a par with the earlier periods.

Where this period really shines is in the paper varieties and constant plate varieties, with postal history coming in a close third, in terms of top areas of interest. This is the first period in which coated papers become the norm for stamp production. They were introduced in the previous period, but it is here that the experimentation with printing inks and tagging occurs that allow the postal administrations to overcome some of the problems caused by having a chalk coating on the paper. The tagging transitions from the unstable OP-4 3 mm tagging, to stable OP-2 3 mm tagging and finally to the 4 mm OP-2 tagging that is used now. The use of the chalk coatings means that paper fluorescence is different on the front and back of stamps, so that a very large number of different paper types emerge. In addition, the chalk-surfaced papers are found with both ribbed and smooth textures between 1972 and 1976.

In addition to the introduction of coated paper, this is also the period in which line perforating is abandoned completely in favour of comb perforating, which is done first using a 12.5 x 12 gauge and then 13.3. Comb perforating had been introduced on the Centennial issue by the British American Bank Note Company (BABN) and perfected by them, but the CBN had a lot of difficulty perfecting this technique on the low value Caricature stamps as can be seen from careful study of full sheets, where one can see unceremonious gaps between successive comb strikes, double strikes and misalignments between strikes, before eventually perfecting the technique.

The constant varieties are perhaps the most misunderstood of all the areas to study during this period, largely because the exact printing layouts of the sheets and panes for many of these issues is not well known, even though the sheet size is known. Thus, there are many varieties that exist, that are thought not to be constant, which actually are constant, but only occur every 4 or 5 sheets in the print run. Thus, many collectors wind up vastly underestimating the true scarcity of a number of these vary significant flaws. One has to remember that a relatively minor looking flaw or variety during this period is actually very significant in most cases, unless it is a random “donut” flaw caused by a dust speck on the plate. 

Although all stamps are supposed to be tagged during this period, most all issues exist with the tagging omitted in error. Most are very scarce, being valued at $75-$150 per stamp, so this is a very challenging and expensive aspect to the collection of these issues. Indeed, it could keep even the most diligent and patient collector occupied for years, or even decades.

This is really the last period in which one can find surface mail rates and the third-class mail rate, though both are quite uncommon by now. The se-tenant blocks and pairs, which are now fairly common, do not correspond to the local and foreign basic airmail rates, which are now the same for every country, at 15c per ounce. So, finding covers with proper usages of the high value commemoratives, such as the Olympics stamps, the semi-postals and the se-tenant pairs and blocks, is quite challenging and fun. Most will be found only on foreign and domestic registered covers where they exist at all.

During this period Ashton Potter becomes the main printer of all commemorative Canadian stamps, with the CBN and BABN only printing the definitives and a few commemorative stamps.

The Abitibi-Price period, from 1978 to 1983

This period I have named after the paper company that supplied all the paper to Ashton Potter, the CBN and BABN, until its bankruptcy in 1983-1984. This period is marked by annual postal rate increases after 1982, and an increasing prevalence of se-tenant combinations of stamps that do not correspond to the postage rates, making the collection of any covers other than domestic covers challenging, fun and rewarding. In addition to the rate increases, Canada Post went from Imperial to metric in 1979, which creates a very short period during the 17c period where the rate was for ounces as opposed to grams.

The period is marked by fewer tagging errors and most of the interest outside of postal history comes from the errors, the paper varieties, of which there are still many, most of which remain unlisted in Unitrade to this day, and the constant plate varieties.

The bankruptcy period, from 1983 to 1998

This period is so named because the main paper supplier, Abitibi Price went bankrupt, which forced the sourcing of paper from different suppliers and results in the appearance of 8 different paper manufacturers, which are now largely identified right on the sheet inscriptions. These papers all have individual textures, thicknesses and gums that make them identifiable to experienced collectors. These papers are:

  1. Harrison paper
  2. Clark paper
  3. Rolland paper
  4. Slater paper
  5. Peterborough paper
  6. JAC paper
  7. Coated Papers paper
  8. Tullis Russell Coatings paper

Each issue released during this period was typically found on one type of paper only, though occasionally, an abnormal paper type that was not supposed to be used is found, such as the 74c Wapiti definitive on Rolland paper (normally found only on Harrison paper). Naturally, this creates the possibility that other rarities may emerge also through careful study of the papers. In addition, though most of these papers are non-fluorescent, Rolland and Peterborough papers show a wide range of different fluorescences, and some varieties of Harrison paper are found to be fluorescent as well.

During this period Ashton Potter also went bankrupt and was reorganized into Ashton Potter Canada. This necessitated the involvement of Leigh Mardon, an Australian printing firm, in the production of stamps between 1993 and 1995, while this was taking place.

Perforation differences, many of which were never announced by Canada Post appear on several of the issues during this period, both definitive and commemorative. Many of these are extremely rare, especially in the blank field stock corner blocks. Again, the possibility of further discoveries that have hitherto gone unnoticed all these years remains.

Finally, it is during this period that the booklets move from being a fixed denomination, with the number of stamps and pane layout changing, to a standard pane layout, which results in booklets of different face values. For first class definitives the booklet formats are 10 stamps, 25 stamps and finally 30 stamps, which replaces 25 stamps as the larger size in 1998. For US and International the panes are always 5 stamps plus a label during this period.

The Post 1998 Period

Most all stamps printed since 1998 are printed on non-fluorescent Tullis Russell Coatings (TRC), JAC paper, Fasson paper, or Spicer paper. Consequently, there are very, very few paper fluorescence varieties to be found during this period. All stamps are tagged also with mainly 4-sided General Ottawa tagging, with very few errors being noted. Thus, two of the aspects that provided the most interest to the earlier periods of the reign, provide little to no interest to this period.

Instead, almost all the interest in this period comes from the transition from perforated stamps on water-activated, gummed sheets, to self-adhesive, die-cut stamps. Different die cutting mats were used for many issues, which results in different die cut sizes being collectible. This is the first period in which most stamps are only found either in souvenir sheet, coil or booklet form. Furthermore, distinguishing between coil stamps and booklet stamps often depends on the appearance of the die cuts, since they appear identical in all other respects. Coils become interesting to collect again, with Unitrade listing starter and end strips, as well as gutter coil strips. Many of these are quite hard to find, as they were not stocked by dealers, due in large part to the very high face values now, and resultant cost.

Booklets continue to be issued in fixed pane formats, resulting in differing face values as postage rates increase. Labels are eliminated completely from panes, so that now, the international, oversize and US booklets contain 6 stamps and the domestic booklets contain either 10 or 30 stamps.

Field stock panes have disappeared, so that all panes printed have inscriptions, and sheet sizes are generally much smaller now than 50 or 100 stamps, being as small now sometimes as just 8 stamps, or 16 stamps. Booklets continue to be available in philatelic and field stock formats. From 1998 until 2003, the distinction between the two lies in whether or not the booklet is open or closed and the UPC barcode on the booklet itself. However, after 2003, all booklets are open and the distinction can only be made by carefully examining the barcode, which will be different for philatelic stock and field stock booklets.

This period sees the introduction of “Permanent” non-denominational stamps, for the first time since they were experimented with in 1981. Postage rates increase almost annually, with a dramatic 22c increase from 63c to 85c in late 2014. This, combined with the very large number of souvenir sheets issued, provides a very interesting challenge in collecting the postal history, much of which will not have been saved by anyone, as it is all so recent.

Finally, Lowe Martin replaces Ashton Potter Canada as the primary producer of Canadian postage stamps, most likely because their expertise lies in the production of the die cut self adhesives, which form the bulk of the postage stamp issues now.

So, there you have it: my synopsis of the collecting possibilities that exist for all the stamps issued after 1934. In my opinion, you could just choose to focus on mint singles and I think you would be occupied for a long time. But if you tackle the postal history of the Elizabethan period and just focus on the se-tenants and souvenir sheets, I very highly doubt that even with unlimited resources that you could locate it all. Who said this was just “postage” again?


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Very interesting reading!
I love philatelie (obviously!) however the technical aspect of the hobby never really interested me. But your paper made me interested in it. Good reading, thank you.

Sylvain Dore

Excellent summary. Do you have this in brochure format you could send me?

Brian Carr

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