Stamp Site of the Week

The advent of the adhesive postage stamp officially began on May 6, 1840 with the release of the famous Penny Black and 2 days later the Tuppence Blue. Thus began a series of events that was to change how the world communicated. The early issues of Great Britain, from May 1840 until 1855, where printed almost exclusive using the line engraved (gravure, recess) printing method. Billions of stamps were printed using more than 480 printing plates. Most of these plates had 240 individual stamp images, all different, since, as a forgery precaution , "check" letters were placed in the corner squares with the stamp in the upper left hand corner being lettered AA and in the lower right hand corner being TL. For engraved stamps printed before 1864, the letters were individually punched into the printing plate. As this was done by hand, the position of the letters relative to the surrounding square varied and allows an expert to tell from what plate an individual stamp comes. These issues, that had the letters hand punched, all have letters in the 2 bottom squares only, the upper 2 square containing "stars". After 1864, line engraved issues had letters in all 4 corner squares, that were engraved, rather than punched into the printing plates, but more importantly also had the plate numbers engraved onto the stamp, making plating much simpler.

This exhibit will discuss the stamps having hand punched check letters and stars in the upper corners, issues prior to 1864.

The World's First Adhesive Postage Stamp:

 PB mint
  This image illustrates the points that this exhibit will attempt to make clear. The stamp is imperforate, has stars in the upper corner squares and a 'B' in each of the lower corner squares. The difference in the position of the letters in the lower squares is easily seen. What is not visible is the watermark. All of these issues printed before May 1855 had a small crown watermark, centered on each stamp: After May 1855, most stamps used the large crown watermark (right below).



The penny black was printed from 11 plates numbered 1 to 11, many having more than one state due to repairs and re-entries. There are other differences between the plates which are beyond the scope of this exhibit and can be found in the references for those interested. The following 2 stamps illustrate 2 plates of the penny black.

 Penny Black plate 6  Penny Black plate 8


The positions, angles and typography of the check letters, 'BB', in the lower squares are clear in the above 2 examples.


The Penny Red:

In 1841, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with fraudulent re-use of postage stamps, the color of the one penny was changed from black to red. The term 'Penny Stars' is often used for this incomparably complex series of stamps which were in continual production from Fed. 10, 1841 until April 1862. The complexity of this series is due, ignoring at least 20 distinct shades color shades, not only to the hundreds of plates used for printing, but to that fact that 2 master dies, both imperforate and perforate issues (2 gauges as well as experimental perforations), 2 watermarks (and 2 varieties of one) and 4 fonts (alphabets) as well as various combinations were used for these stamps.

The first printing of the imperforate penny reds were made from the some of the same plates as the penny blacks. The following 2 stamps are both printed from black plate 10.



Notice that the positions of the check letters are identical on both stamps. The differences in the strength of the check letters and the absence of the white flaw at the bottom of the 'O' in ONE on the red is due to the fact that this plate position was re-entered before this red stamp was printed. Note also a prime reason for changing the color from black to red. Initially the penny blacks were canceled using red ink that was easy to remove. This was later changed to black which was more permanent. As you can see, black shows up much better on a red stamp than a black stamp.

The imperforate penny red was printed from about 166 plates, besides those printed from the black plates. An interesting change occurred in February 1852 with plate 132. The style of the font used to punch the check letters was changed. This is now known as Alphabet II, the previous font being known as Alphabet I. Later, 2 more fonts were used, Alphabet III and IV, the latter being engraved directly onto the plate rather than punched.

Above is illustrated the 4 alphabets for the 'B' check letter. As you can see there are variations within an alphabet as well as between alphabets. The letter 'B' is fairly easy simple to assign to an alphabet, some letters are much more difficult. Shown below are two penny reds showing examples of the the two alphabets used for imperforate penny reds. The differences in these fonts is quite obvious.


Penny Red, plate 65, Alphabet I

 Penny Red, plate 173, Alphabet II


In general alphabet I letters are smaller and more delicate than alphabet II, while the latter are blockier and larger than alphabet I.

Perforated Penny Reds:

The next major change to the line engraved Victorian issues, occurred in February of 1854 with the release of officially perforated stamps for the first time in Great Britain. A number of experimental perforation trials were conducted largely by Henry Archer and is an interesting tangent to this issues, but it beyond the scope of this exhibition. The first printings were made from existing plates that were used for imperforate issues. As illustrated below:


 Penny Red, plate 164, Imperforate

Penny Red, plate 164, Perforated 16


Note the absolute identical configuration and position of the check letters.

The New Master Die II:

In February 1855 and new master die was produced by retouching the original master die to provide roller dies for laying down the printing plates. All previous impressions had come from the original master die, now known as die I. There are many distinguishing features of these two dies. But, the overall effect is to create an illustration of Victoria that looks different. With a little practice stamps from these dies are immediately recognizable in the same way that one recognizes a friend's face-- hard to explain, easy to do.


 Heath's Die I

 Humphrey's Die II


With the advent of Die II, plate numbering started over at plate 1 for the penny Reds. Plates 1-21 were used for alphabet II stamps. The large crown watermarked paper began being used in May of 1855 for per. 16 stamps and in June, 1855 for perf 14 stamps.


 Die II, Plate 1, perf. 16, Small Crown

 Die II, Plate 1, perf. 14, Large Crown


The Change to Alphabet III:

In August, 1855, alphabet III stamps started appearing. These were printed from plates 22 through 68 and a reserve plate called R17. All alphabet III stamps were perforated 14, except for a small printing on Dec. 16, 1857, when the perf 16 machine was used on large crown watermarked sheets. Also nearly all are watermarked with the large crown paper, except from printing from the early plates, 22 to 26, from August to November 1855 during which small crown paper was also used. Alphabet III stamps on small crown paper are particularly rare which can make knowing your alphabets profitable.

In general letters of alphabet III are as large or larger than alphabet II letters, less blocky, and somewhat more delicate: In the letter 'B' the lower space is larger than the upper.


 Die I, alphabet II

Die II, Alphabet III, perf 14



Alphabet IV:

In 1861, experiments were done to engrave the check letters directly onto the printing plate after the impressions had been rolled in. This was done on large crown watermarked paper, perf 14, die II. Only 2 plates were used, plates 50 and 51. As all engraved stamps with check letters in all 4 corners were done in this manner, the experiments must have proved successful.


 Alphabet IV, plate 50

 Alphabet IV, plate 51


Although the stamp from plate 51 above is off center so that the left check letter is not visible, it illustrates another factor that can make plating easier. Plate 51 , from the 'BB' position has a constant plate flaw. As can seen above the lower portion of the 'E' in POSTAGE is missing, a characteristic of BB, plate 51, alphabet IV.

The Two Pence Blue:

The two penny blue, line engraved stamps with stars in the upper corners present many fewer complexities compared to the penny reds. Only 6 plates were used. All of these used the original master die, die I. Plates 1 and 2 were imperforate and is essentially identical to the penny black except for the word 'TWO' and the color. They are of course die I, alphabet I and on small crown paper.


 1840, 2d blue, Alphabet I, Plate 1


Although the positions of the check letters can be used to differentiate plate one from 2, an easier method is the presence of a small notch on the 'O' and a joining of the 'TW" on TWO on most stamps from plate 2:

The 1841 2d blue, plates 3 and 4 are also imperforate, die I, alphabet I, but have the addition of white lines above TWOPENCE and below POSTAGE. Although plate 3 was only issued imperforate, plate 4 was also issued perforated 14 and 16 on small crown paper in 1854 to 1855


 1841, plate 3, alphabet I

1841, plate 4, alphabet I


Besides the positions of the check letters, these plates can often be differentiated by the firmness if the left border and often irregular letters in TWO PENCE on plate 3.


Plate 5 is easy to recognize since the check letters are now alphabet II. It was issued on both small and large crown paper, and both papers perf 14 or 16. Plate 6 is also easy to recognize as it used alphabet III. It was only issued on large crown paper, perf 14 and 16. An additional feature (which one stamp catalog makes too much of, since it is hard to recognize on an individual stamp) is that the white lines above and below with words are a bit thinner than on plates 3 to 5.


 1855, plate 5, alphabet II

1857, plate 6, alphabet III



 Date Descr Die Alpha Wmk perf Sc SG
1840 1d black I I SC Imp 1 1-3
1841 51 1d red I I SC Imp 3 7-12
1852 53 1d red I II SC Imp 3 7-12
1854 1d red I II SC 16 8 17-18
1855 1d red  I II SC 14 11 22
1855 1d red II II SC 14 12 24-25
1855 1d red II II SC 16 9 21
1855 1d red II II LC 16 14 26
1855 1d red II II LC 14 16 29
1855 1d red II III SC 14 12 24-25
1856 63 1d red II III LC 14 20 37-41
1857 1d red II III LC 16 18 36
1861 1d red II IV LC 14 20 42
1840 2d blue I I SC Imp 2 4-6
1841 2d blue I I SC Imp 4 13-15
1854 2d blue I I SC 16 10 19-20
1855 2d blue I I SC 14 13 23
1855 2d blue I II SC 14 13 23a
1855 2d blue I II SC 16 10 20a
1855 2d blue I II LC 16 15 27
1855 2d blue I II LC 14 17 34
1857 2d blue I III LC 14 19 35

Stamp Site of the Week





The 2 best general references are the Stanley Gibbon's Specialized Stamp Catalog for Great Britain, volume 1 and The Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalog, published annually by Stanley Gibbons. The Specialized Catalog lists nearly all the pertinent references for those interested in delving deeper into this interesting subject.

A remarkable new series of books about the Plating of these issues is being written by Kenneth W. Stathan and published by Eric Paul Ltd: The Essential Guide to the Great Britian Line Engraved 1d and 2d Stars 1840 - 1864, vol 1 and vol 2 1995. This series will eventually run to 8 or 9 volumes.

Wm F. Blank, MD | Home