Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Philatelic Terms Illustrated - G to Z

Inscription Block

Increasingly in recent years the sheet margins of most issues have contained inscriptions that give details of who printed the stamp, who designed the stamp, what the stamp depicts and so forth. A block of 4 stamps showing these inscriptions is called an inscription block. If it also contains a plate number, then it is a plate block. Inscription blocks now are usually found on all four corners of a post office sheet, though in the very distant past, prior to the 1970's they were often found in only one corner of a post office sheet, due to the fact that post office sheets were often mere portions of much larger sheets that were printed of between 200-600 stamps. 

Jubilee Line

On a large number of British Commonwealth stamps, there was a coloured border printed around the outside margins of the sheet in the main colour of the stamp. This border is called a "jubilee line". The purpose of the line was to enable the printer to assess the evenness of the plate wear. Sometimes, as in the case of the above block, the line is continuous. Other times, the lines were broken, with the breaks occurring in between the stamps. 

Line Perforation

When stamps were first perforated the main method used was to perforate 1 row and 1 column of the sheet at a time, using pins arranged on a wheel. The sheet was fed through the perforator while the wheel rotated, producing the perforations. However, quite often, when perforating a row or column and intersecting another row or column of perforations, it was quite common for the pins to either miss, or double punch the holes. Very seldom would the rows and columns ever meet perfectly. This can best be seen by looking at blocks and observing the appearance of the perforations at the areas where the columns and rows intersect. Interestingly, the above block shows both a corner where the perforations line up perfectly in the centre, and then one on the right where they do not line up at all. It is this feature that indicates that the block is line perforated. If you place two line perforated stamps directly on top of one another, the perforations will never line up perfectly on all four sides, whereas comb perforated stamps will always line up exactly on all four sides. Both types of perforations have been around since the late 1850's, so line perforating is not older than comb perforating, even though comb perforations were not in general use in some countries until the 1970's. 


The term overprint refers to any marking that has been added to a stamp design after the original printing was completed. In the above example, a "G" has been printed on top of the original design to designate these as being for governmental use only. A specialized type of overprint in which the face value of the stamp is either raised or lowered is called a surcharge by philatelists. 

Overprints as a group comprise a very troubling field for philatelists, as many are rare and as a general rule, many have been extensively forged, often very well, so that proving the authenticity of the overprint can be a major concern for philatelists. 

Panes, Pairs, Blocks and Strips

A complete unit of stamps, undisturbed and in the original format in which is was sold, is called a pane. The above NHL Hockey Issue from 2001 is an example of a pane, as this was the only form in which this stamp was issued, and the sheet is complete. This is different from a "sheet", as sheets were the unit produced by the printer and not necessarily what was sent to the post offices. For example, a sheet of the above issue would consist of several of the above panes. 

A block of stamps is a unit that consists of at least 3 stamps arranged in at least two columns or two rows, but which is not the size of a pane. So if the above pane was missing the bottom two stamps, it would be a block of 4. A strip is three or more stamps that are in a single row or column. Either column of the above pane is a strip of 3. A pair is just two stamps joined either vertically or horizontally. 

Phosphor Tagging

When post offices began to mechanize the sorting and cancelling of mail, they relied on machines
that used optical scanning technology. A method had to be devised to enable the machine to "see" the stamp on the envelope. The solution adopted by a number of countries was to overprint stamps with an inconspicuous chemical taggant that would be visible to the machines. The block of four of the 1962-1967 Cameo issue above shows a single band of this taggant running down the middle of the block. 

Most tagging like this at least in the late 1950's and early 1960's was phosphorescent, which means that it glowed when exposed to either short-wave ultraviolet light (the dangerous kind), or long wave ultraviolet light. Phosphorescent chemicals would also glow for a few seconds after the light source is removed, whereas later fluorescent tagging will stop glowing immediately after the light source is removed. 

Plate Block

A plate block is simply a block of stamps in which the plate number appears in the sheet margins, which are also called selvage. The above block of 4 halfpenny stamps from Lagos, issued in 1901 shows the plate number 2 inside a solid ball of colour. 

Plate Flaw

A plate flaw is a stray marking that is not part of the intended design, that appears on a stamp after printing. Plate flaws usually result from damage to the printing plate, such as scuffs or dents, and even pitting caused by corrosion. However, they can also be caused by over-inking or splattering of ink. The above 10c Queen Elizabeth stamp is from a stamp booklet that was issued as part of the 1972-1977 Caricature issue. The spots above the eye, next to the eye and above the eyebrow are not part of the design and these constitute a plate flaw.

The most desirable plate flaws from the perspective of a collector are those which are constant, which is to say that they occur in the same stamp from every sheet printed. These types of flaws are always caused by damage to the printing plate and will generally persist until they are corrected by repairing the damage to the plate. One of the reasons why they are so desirable to specialists is because they can provide proof of a stamp's position on a sheet as well as proof of a particular printing. 

Plate Guide Marking 

The plates used to print stamps were produced using what is called a transfer roll, which was essentially a cylinder of steel onto which the master design was copied and which was then transferred to the new steel printing plate. The production of the plate is known as the "laying down of the plate", and it is a job that was done by a person known as a sideographer. Occasionally the sideographer would make markings, often in the form of a cross on the plate to assist them in judging distances or other things. Usually, these markings were burnished off the plates before printing, but occasionally they were not, and you can find these guide markings on individual stamps. The 1c codfish stamp from the 1937 Coronation Issue of Newfoundland, shown above, has one such cross marking just visible inside the mouth of the fish. It is known to collectors as the "fish hook variety" and is highly sought after. 

Postage Due

Today if you fail to attach enough postage to an item you are sending through the mail, and this deficiency is caught by the authorities, the item will never reach its intended recipient, and will instead be returned to you. However, such was not the case until relatively recently in the 1980's and 1990's. Prior to this time, most countries utilized a system of taxing items that were shortpaid with double the deficiency and collecting the money from the recipient. Postage due stamps were affixed to such items to denote the amount of postage that the recipient was required to pay in order to pick up the item. Occasionally, the stamps would be affixed to a receipt that would be left at the recipient's address, along with the item, and instructions to pay the deficiency at the post office, as shown above. 

The system for taxing deficient postage on international mail was developed in Switzerland and is interesting in and of itself. The country from which the item was being mailed, if it caught the deficiency would mark the item with a "T" in an handstamp usually. This symbol was universally recognized by UPU member nations as indicating that an item was shortpaid. Often, the deficiency in local currency would be indicated on the envelope as well. However, the postage due stamps would be affixed in the recipient country, which used a different currency in most cases. So what would usually happen is that the clerk in the recipient country handling the item would convert the deficiency into a common currency, which for the postal system was Gold Francs and Centimes. This amount would then be doubled and converted back to the currency of the recipient country, and then the appropriate amount of postage due stamps would be affixed. 


A precancel is a stamp on which the cancellation has been applied in the form of an overprint, by the post office prior to the sale of the stamps. The first precancels appeared in the 1880's and very closely resembled regular cancellations. Later, the precancels were distinctly different and appeared in the form of vertical or horizontal bars, like the stamp shown above, town names between bars, numerals between bars and many others. They were issued as a means of saving labour, since they did not have to be cancelled after use. However, they were not sold to the general public, but only to organizations that had a permit to buy them. Part of the reason for this is that they were sold below face value usually. 

Registered Cover

Registration is a service offered in most countries, in which a letter, or parcel is tracked through the postal system. A registered item is assigned a specific identification number so that it can be tracked through the postal system, which is supposed to provide some additional security over the item and reduce the chances of loss, though it also provides proof of sending. 

Thus in the 19th century, most registered letters either contained important legal documents, or money. In those days, their registered status would be indicated by a handstamp that would say "R" or "Registered", or the cancellation itself would indicate the status. The identification number of the item would also appear right on the front of the envelope in pen. Quite often the number would change as the letter made its journey through the system, in which case you will see several numbers on the envelope, with the earlier ones crossed out. 

In recent years, self adhesive labels are attached to the envelope that bear the letter "R" and have the tracking number and a barcode printed right on them. This is generally scanned by an optical reader at several transition points along the item's route, and the information gets uploaded to the post office server. This allows the sender, or the recipient, who has the tracking number to go online and actually see where in the system their item is, and approximately when they can expect to receive it. 

There is a common misconception that registering a mail item makes it pass through the postal system faster. This is NOT the case. All registration does is provide a record of the items journey through the postal system. The risk of loss is only lowered because the tracked nature provides some deterrent against theft. However, registering an item does not eliminate the risk of damage through accidents nor genuine accidental loss. The increased security and handling means that most registered items actually take longer to reach their intended recipient. 


Stamp designs used to be printed one design per sheet, with all stamps in a sheet being exactly the same. Starting in the 1950's many issues, usually commemoratives, consisted of three of four designs, which would all be printed in rotation on the same sheet. These are called se-tenant designs. They are not uncommon in mint condition, but properly used se-tenants on cover, used in the proper period of time (i.e. when on sale at the post office) are some of the most challenging items in modern philately.

The above scan shows the 2000 "Stampin the Future" issue, which consisted of four se-tenant designs.

Souvenir Sheet

A souvenir sheet is a small sheet consisting usually of fewer than 10 stamps, which has a very large decorative border. These sheets were first issued just before World War I, and have continued to increase in popularity over the years. Originally the sheets issued in the 1920's and 1930's were generally only available at philatelic exhibitions and you could only buy one sheet with one exhibition ticket. As a result the issue quantities of early souvenir sheets were quite low and these are worth a lot of money today. By the 1960's most souvenir sheets are only worth a small premium over the basic stamps contained in them. Once again, mint sheets are not uncommon, but used ones on cover, used when on sale are rare, and highly desirable.

Special Delivery Cover

One service that used to be offered in most countries, that no longer is in many, is special delivery. Special delivery was simply a faster delivery of a mail item than the regular first-class mail stream. There was no tracking and no additional security for the item. The post office would generally charge a fee for this service and would attach a label to the envelope to indicate the payment of this fee, such as the cover shown above.

Most countries have discontinued special delivery services and have replaced them with courier services or quasi-courier services, such as Expresspost (in Canada), which have built-in tracking and insurance, and which cost A LOT more money. 

Surface Cover

A surface cover is one that traveled exclusively by land and sea. Surface was the standard method of transmission until airmail became popular and affordable in the 1950's. However, airmail did not become the standard method of transmission until the 1970's, with surface still being offered as a less expensive option. Today, surface is generally not available in many countries for lettermail, though it is often still offered for parcels.

Envelopes sent by surface were generally not marked, though sometimes "by sea" or "sea mail" will appear on the envelope. Most of the time though, the only way to identify a surface cover, particularly for modern covers, is to know the postage rates. Quite often, pre-printed airmail envelopes were used for surface mail, such as in the case of the above cover to the Canary Islands. This can mislead the unwary collector into thinking that the cover went by air when it did not.


Tete-beche refers to a unit of two or more adjoining stamps in which the design of one stamp is inverted in relation to the other. The above pair issued for the Calling of an Engineer in 2000, is, as far as I know, the only regularly issued tete-beche pair issued by Canada.

Traffic Lights

When stamps are printed using multi-colour photogravure or lithography, there has to be an easy way for the press operator to ensure two things:

1. That all the required colours for the stamp have been printed, as oftentimes, several runs through the presses are required to get all the colours printed., and, 

2. That the correct density of ink is being printed. 

These two things are partially achieved by having the printer place markings on the side margins of the sheet in the various colours that will allow the press operator to see instantly that the colour has been applied, and to the correct depth. These markings are usually in the form of coloured dots, like the ones shown in the block above. Collectors have come to refer to these as "traffic lights".

Warning Strip

This is another term that may be specific to Canada, through many issues of the US have similar items to warning strips. Precanceled stamps issued by Canada post were only made available to qualifying organizations at a discount from the face value. Consequently it was not legal for unauthorized individuals to use them. Each sheet of stamps sold accordingly contained a warning to this effect. Vertical strips of 20 from either the right or left side of the outer panes that contain the full warning, are called "warning strips", and are highly collectible. 

This concludes my rundown of the first 21 philatelic terms of many which I will write about over the next few weeks. After I have completed these posts, I will return to my posts about the issues I was writing about before. 


A watermark is a design that is impressed into paper when that paper is manufactured. The design actually results from the fact that the paper is thinner than the surrounding paper at the points where the design is. The watermark is produced using an dandy roll, which is run over the paper pulp under very high pressure. The parts in the dandy roll that comprise the actual design of the watermark are called the 'bits". The above scan shows a commonly used watermark within the British Commonwealth that was in use from 1880 until about 1903: the Crown CA watermark. 

Wove Paper and mesh

Wove paper refers to the majority of stamp papers which do not show laid lines or batonne lines. It is manufactured in much the same manner as laid paper, except that the wire mesh over which the pulp is laid prior to being pressed, has evenly spaced gaps and hence the paper will not show lines as such. However, if the gaps in the wire mesh are large enough, the paper will exhibit what we call mesh, which is the term we use to refer to the distinct grain that is sometimes visible in the paper. On the half cent black Large Queen stamp shown above, you can see a clear horizontal grain. This is referred to as horizontal mesh. On other papers, particularly on modern issues, the paper is manufactured in such a way that there is no visible grain at all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment