Helpful Hints for Building Your Stamp Collection
Eleven Major Categories of U.S. Stamps
Definitive: Also known as regular issues, definitives
are the “workhorses” of the stamp world and are most
often used to pay postage on everyday mail. Generally
smaller than a commemorative, a definitive is usually
issued over a period of several years. Often reprinted,
sometimes by a different printer, definitives may show
small differences between stamps that at first glance
appear to be the same. Differences may be in color,
margin date, type size, perforations, gum, to name a few.
Commemorative: Stamp that honors an important
person, event or anniversary. Often larger and
more colorful than definitives, commemoratives
are printed in limited quantities and sold for
a limited time. Unsold commemoratives are
destroyed by the Postal Service.
Semi-Postal: Collects an extra non-postal surcharge to raise money for
a specific cause. Designated by a ‘B’ before the Scott number.
Airmail: First issued for mail transported by plane.
Today used only on international mail. Designated
by a ‘C’ before the Scott number.
Airmail Special Delivery stamps (‘CE’) paid the air
postage plus a special delivery fee.
Special Delivery: Originally issued in 1885 to
indicate an extra fee had been paid for immediate
delivery to a person’s home upon arrival at the post
office. Designated by ‘E’ before Scott number.
Postage Due: Used to indicate
the amount due to the Post Office when not enough
postage was used on mail. (Designated by ‘J’.) From
1912-13 twelve Parcel Post stamps (‘Q’) were issued to
pre-pay postage on packages. Also issued in 1912 were
Parcel Post Postage Due stamps (‘JQ’), which showed
the amount owed on a delivered parcel.
Watermarks are faint patterns impressed into paper during its
manufacture. From 1895 to 1915, the U.S. used a watermark consisting
of the letters USPS to discourage counterfeiting. Watermarks are no
longer used on U.S. stamps. Watermarking tools (tray and special fluid)
will help you identify them on your older U.S. stamps.
In 1908, the U.S. government began issuing imperforate sheets
for private coil makers. Coil stamps, sold in vending machines, are
generally perforated on two sides only (left & right or top & bottom);
the other two sides are imperforate. Booklets consist of one or more
panes of stamps stapled together. Panes are perforated only between
the stamps, the outer edges are imperforate. A single booklet stamp’s
straight edges are next to each other, unlike the coil’s, which are
opposite each other. These stamps may have one, two or three straight
edges. The self-adhesives provide exceptions to these rules.
With more than one printer producing the same stamps, small
differences in the color, date size, etc. of “look-alike” stamps may occur.
In 1974, the Postal Service issued the first self-adhesive stamp.
However, regular self-adhesive production began with the 29¢ Eagle
and Shield stamp of 1989 (U.S. #2431). They quickly became popular
and now the majority of U.S. stamps are self adhesive.
Most self-adhesive stamps are peeled off a special backing paper,
ready to stick. An exception is linerless coils, which are more like a roll
of tape. Each stamp adheres to the stamp beneath it, but can be peeled
off due to a special coating on the face of the stamps.
The majority of self-adhesive stamps have special “wavy” or
“serpentine” die-cuts, which simulate the look of perforations. Selfadhesives
don’t always “follow the rules” of water-activated stamps.
For example, self-adhesive booklet stamps may have perforations on all
four sides, or no perforations at all. That’s part of the fun of collecting!
Mint self-adhesive stamps should be placed in their mounts while
still attached to their backing paper. Trim the backing paper fairly close
to the stamp’s edge for a good fit.
Official: Originally issued in 1873 for use only by a
department of the federal government, with separate Tools You’ll Need
designs for each. Today there is one common design for
Albums provide a proper home for your collection. They not only
protect your stamps, but also make it easy for you to view your collection.
Revenue: Issued for the
Most collectors of U.S. stamps prefer to use an illustrated album.
first time during the Civil
However, an unillustrated album gives you the flexibility of arranging
War to show the collection of a tax or fee.
your stamps in a way that pleases you. If you are a worldwide collector
(Designated by ‘R’). The most popular U.S.
you may prefer to use an unillustrated album, simply because there are no
revenues are the migratory bird hunting or
worldwide albums that illustrate all the stamps issued by every country.
Duck stamps (‘RW’).
If you collect a particular country, specialty albums are available. For a
topical collection, a loose-leaf binder and blank sheets are recommended.
(For a listing of albums, binders, and pages see pages 151-52.)
Additional Collecting Information
Glassines are semi-transparent envelopes used to store stamps
You can collect stamps in used and/or mint condition. A used
before they are mounted in an album. (These and other collecting
stamp has been used for postage. The gum is missing and the stamp
supplies are sold on page 152.)
bears a cancellation mark. A mint stamp is a stamp that is in good,
uncanceled condition. Mint stamps issued through 1890 may or may Hinges are an economical way to mount stamps in your album.
not have their gum. Stamps issued from 1893 through 1940 will have They also allow for examination of the back of the stamp, as well as
their original gum, although they may be hinged. Most stamps issued the front. Hinges are made of strong, lightweight paper, backed with
after 1941 are never hinged. a peelable gum. When properly applied, most hinges can be removed
The first postage stamps didn’t have any means to separate them easily when dry without damaging the stamp or the album page.
from the large sheets in which they were printed. Post office clerks A Magnifying Glass makes collecting more fun, since it lets you
simply cut the stamps apart with scissors or tore
study all the details of your stamps. It’s also a very useful tool, allowing
them along the edge of metal rulers. These early
you to distinguish many small differences between similar stamps.
stamps are called imperforate. In 1857, perforations
Mounts are small, clear plastic holders, designed to attach stamps
were developed. Perforations are the rows of
in your album. Because they do not damage the gum, mounts are
small holes which allow stamps to be separated
ideal for mint stamps and more expensive stamps. Mystic Mounts are
easily. The number of perforations in the space of
archival-quality. (An assortment of mounts is sold on pages 153-54.)
two centimeters is called the gauge. Both early and
modern stamps were perforated differently and that
Tongs are the best way to handle or move your stamps. There
is sometimes the only way to tell two stamps apart.
are several different kinds to choose from, but generally, beginners are
A perforation gauge allows you to measure the
better off with a short, rounded-tip model. Regular tweezers should not
perforations on your stamps. (Page 152) be used, as the sharp, angled tips could damage your stamps.