Revisiting The Small Queens
I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable philatelist, but this issue has always troubled me, as it does most collectors. The number one question most collectors have is: how can I tell if it is Montreal or Ottawa? This has become important due largely to the fact that the standard postage stamp catalogues list both Montreal and Ottawa printings, with the prices assigned to the Montreals, being as much as 10 times higher than Ottawas. This concern among collectors has been addressed by a plethora of articles purporting to provide an algorithm to enable collectors to sort through their stamps and identify them with 90% certainty. The problem is, most of the time when you try to apply these tests, you find that you are still uncertain about whether a particular stamp is one or the other.
I have been sorting this lot out now for for about a week and I can share some new insights that I have gained as a result of this effort, as to why this issue is so problematic. Once I get through my sort, plus another 3,500 stamps that I just purchased today, I will publish some new posts giving updated tips on how to sort these stamps by value.
One of the main reasons why this issue is problematic is that there was really no clear demarcation between the periods. Many collectors mistakenly think that up until 1887 in Montreal, the plant would be using one type of paper and ink and then somehow miraculously in March 1889 when the printing was moved to Ottawa, that the papers and inks would be completely different so that you would be able to clearly tell the differences between Montreal and Ottawa printings. Of course, the reality is not so clear cut. There are many stamps which on first glance appear to be Ottawa printings, but are in fact late Montreal printings from the late 1880's.
A second reason why this issue is problematic is that each of the tests used to identify the printings has exceptions or instances where the test fails. Therefore, it is critical to use all of the tests and then evaluate the results of all the tests in arriving at a decision as to which is which. It is important to bear in mind that the Scott or Unitrade prices for stamps are for the most common printings in each case. Thus even though the Ottawa printings are, as a whole more common than the Montreal printings, there are printings within each period that are scarcer than the others. It is also important to realize that there are also really two Ottawa periods. The very first printings of this issue were in Ottawa until printing was relocated to Montreal in 1871 I believe. Thus there are first and second Ottawa printings.
This post will look at what I have noticed about the various tests commonly employed to distinguish the printings of this issue. These are just my observations after having examined about 2,000 stamps so far this past week.
Use of Position Dots
A common test for Montreal printings and first Ottawa printings is to look for small dots in side the lower left margins of the stamps. The experts such as Hillson maintain that all stamps on the sheets printed before about 1880 except for the left column should have these dots. The problem is, I have seen many, many examples of 1c and 3c stamps now that I know are Montreal printings, that have no dot. It may be that these were all from the first column of the sheets, but I think that what is more likely is that the dots have been punched out by the perforations because the stamps in question were off-centre. Most of the stamps from this issue are off-centre. So while in theory, it should be possible to identify most Montreal printings by these dots, in practice, there will be many that will not show them. It also appears to me that no dots were used for the 1/2c, so this test cannot be used for that value.
What many collectors new to this issue do not know and what Hilson has pointed out in his articles, is that for all stamps except the 6c, the lower left dots were eliminated and the dots were moved to the sides of the design, near the portrait at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock. This was done in about 1880, so in theory, it should be possible to identify Montreal printings made between 1880 and 1887 by looking for these dots. The only problem is, these dots can be extremely hard to see. In the case of the 1/2c. I have seen blocks where some of the stamps have these dots and others in the same block do not. On the 1c, the colour is so pale, that it can often be very difficult to see the dots when they are present. I haven't gone through any 2c stamps yet, so I cannot comment on those. But I've been through many late Montreal printings of the 3c and have yet to see one with these side dots. Another problem is that some of the early second Ottawa printings can have these dots when printed from the older Montreal plates.
Unitrade greatly oversimplifies the perforations on this issue on the one hand and the recognized experts seem to be confused as to the significance of certain perforations on the other. Most catalogues list 11.5 x 12 and 12, but what most collectors may not realize is that there are actually many more such as:
11.9 x 12
12 x 11.9
11.75 x 12
12 x 12.25
12.25 x 12
The reason that this is important is that there are certain perforation combinations that seem to be confined to certain periods. Hillson states that 11.75 x 12 is only found from 1876 to 1878, while 11.5 x 12 covers the full period from 1873-1880. Thus the perf. 11.75 x 12 is actually scarcer than 11.5 x 12 and without this information a collector could mistakenly classify these as perf 12, since they don't match 11.5 on the gauge. In addition, the various permutations of 11.9 seem to exist only in the first Ottawa period. I have checked many perf. 12 Montreal printings, and I have yet to find one that measures 11.9, whereas nearly every first Ottawa Indian red or dark rose 3c that I have measured is some combination of 11.9 and 12. So it would appear that these two perforations are critical to identifying first Ottawa printings and Montreal printings from 1876-1878.
Then there is the compound of 12.25 and 12. Hillson says that this is only found in the Montreal period, but I have looked at enough known, dated second Ottawa printings now to know that he cannot possibly be correct in his assertion unless every one of those stamps were used 8 or 9 years out of period. It clearly is the most common perforation during the Montreal period after 1876, but it does extend into the second Ottawa period, though in this period it is less common than straight-up perf. 12. Thus perf. 12 is actually scarcer during the Montreal period than some combination of 12 and 12.25, while it is the most common perforation in the second Ottawa period from 1889-1897.
So you can use perf 11.9 compounds, 11.5 x 12 and 11.75 x 12 to positively identify printings as a fail-safe test. But for the other measurements, you will need to consider other tests.
Paper is another characteristic that is held up as a fail safe test, with many articles stating that the second Ottawa printings are always on poor quality wove that resembles newsprint, while the Montreal printings are on stout wove. The problem lies in interpretation as many beginners will not be sure how to identify stout paper, nor will they know how to judge quality. Another problem is that the poor quality paper actually came into use in Montreal, just about a year before the move to Ottawa. Thus there are several late Montreal printings that many collectors might identify as second Ottawa if they are only looking at the paper. On the other hand, the paper quality started to improve in about 1895 for a time, being of almost comparable quality to the earlier papers. So there are some second Ottawa printings that can resemble earlier Montreal printings but for the dates on the cancels. However, as a general rule, most papers showing clear mesh will either be Montreal or first Ottawa. Most of the second Ottawa papers can be identified by the lack of clear grain that only becomes visible when the stamp is held to the light, or the paper appears rough under magnification. In contrast, the earlier printings in Montreal and first Ottawa, have a smooth appearance under magnification.
Many publications talk about the paper feeling silky smooth or rough, but I find this to be too subjective to be reliable as a test, particularly for people who are not used to what the actual silky first Ottawa paper is supposed to feel like: many of the later papers can feel silky unless you have felt the true silky paper and know the difference.
From what I can see so far, shades actually hold a lot of promise as an aid to identification, provided that they are properly described using an external colour key like Gibbons so that other people can readily identify the shade. It is pretty clear to me that the shades found on the first Ottawa printings are unique and do not repeat into the Montreal period, which is extremely useful. Also most of the second Ottawa shades are very distinct and not seen in the Montreal period. There are however, a few shades that are found in both periods, so that in these cases, it will be necessary to look at other factors in making a determination.
Another important attribute which should prove very helpful are cancellations. Generally, it was against postal regulations until the late 1870's to cancel a stamp with a date stamp, so most dated examples will be second Ottawa printings. Conversely most of the cork and fancy cancellations are from the first Ottawa and Montreal periods, although care has to be taken because many of the cork cancellations continued to be used in the second Ottawa period. Having a handbook on the cancellations of this period that lists the dates between which certain cancels were used will prove invaluable to the study of these stamps. There are certain cancellations which are only found in the second Ottawa period, such as roller cancels and squared circle postmarks. Even if no date is visible, you can be pretty certain that these stamps are second Ottawa printings if they bear these types of cancellations.
So these are my insights so far. The remaining 3,500 stamps I just bought should arrive next week and I will work on them over time, whenever I can. So I may not have a definitive post on the identification of these for a while, but I will share whatever insights I gain as the sorting progresses.