Why Bother? The Appeal of Studying These Stamps

Why Bother? The Appeal of Studying These Stamps

Almost everyone loves a good puzzle. Many people thirve on the thrill and possibility of being able to solve a mystery that few others can. There is an element of self expression inherent in being able to tell a story about something through detective work. 

Detailed study of stamps is one such puzzle. While detailed records of the printings made of these stamps exist in the archives of the printing companies, they do not, by themselves paint the full picture of how these stamps came into being. Philately is the attempt to reconstruct the details of this story from the forensic evidence in the stamps themselves. By studying the differences in the physical attributes of the stamps and looking at how these changes developed we can draw definitive conclusions as to how the stamps were produced, how they were distributed, the problems encountered during production and how these problems were overcome. 

How is this done?

Consider the following 6 stamps from the 1935 Silver Jubilee Issue:

six 1 shilling 1935 Silver Jubilee stamps

Take a good look at these 6 stamps, and you will notice that the purple colour of the frame is different for all 6 of these stamps. Moving from left to right on each row, we have the following frame colours:

  1. Pale purple
  2. Deep bright purple
  3. Plum
  4. Deep mauve
  5. Purple
  6. Deep purple

You will see that of the 6 stamps above, five are from Antigua and one is from Bahamas. 

What is the significance of this? Well, each shade of purple indicates a new batch of ink. These stamps were initially issued in 1 batch for each colony and then, as supplies ran low, another batch would be printed and sent within the 1 year period that this issue was current. Now, an issue this large would not have been printed all at the same time. Some colonies would be printed first, and then others in succession. So, by studying the differences in these shades and looking at which shades occur on which colonies, we can corroborate the known printings documented in the records and determine which shades correspond to which printings.

Most of the stamps printed for this issue were issued in between 2 and 4 printings of each colony. Here we can see 6 shades and I am not completely finished studying these. I expect that I will find at least 2 more shades of purple. This would suggest that some printings have two or more shades, which is quite possible, if the ink was replenished in the middle of a printing. Once again, the fact that the printings were not all carried out on the same dates allows us to determine which shades correspond to specific printings. 

Here, I have only considered the frame colours. However, the blue-black of the centre vignettes varies also. It turns out that the vignettes were all printed well in advance and stored at the printer's premises and taken out when it was time to run off a batch of printings. This is an interesting twist, because it means that the colours of the vignette will not necessarily align with the printings in the exact same way as the frame colours. 

So, while we may already know what the sequence of the printings is from the printer's records, studying the shades allows us to bring this information to life by stating definitively which colours were used for those printings. 

It is a lot of fun to sort these stamps and to discover a new shade and then later see that exact same shade on the stamps of another colony and to know that those two stamps ver very likely printed at the same time. This is where the fun lies for me. I never know where this is going to take me. 


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Peter Summers - March 8, 2020

Tom and Chris, Where/how can we access the printer’s records? How detailed are the records?

Tom Cusick - March 8, 2020

Chris, there are also cases of the ink color changing during the same printing. There are two distinct shades of the Ascension 1/2d King George VI first printing – perforated 13.5. (SG 38, Scott 40a). The printing ran into two days and they had to mix the colors the second day, but the colors don’t match. You will find there are stamps with a black center from the first day and a greyish center from the second day – both from this one printing. These things are what makes collecting interesting.

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