I was invited by Susanna Mills, editor-in-chief of this journal, to share some of my experiences from doing research for my 2021 book, Inventions of Prevention: A History, Analysis, and Catalog of 19th-Century Patents and Inventions for Preventing Reuse of Postage and Revenue Stamps (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Inventions of Prevention.
I’ll discuss various aspects of my research journey, the role of philatelic literature, and the kinds of information I gleaned from online resources — with special focus given to how these same online resources can serve philatelic researchers studying subjects far afield from reuse prevention.
First, some background on Inventions, which at 530 pages is really two books in one.
The first part chronicles the history and extent of postage and revenue stamp reuse from 1860-1872, and includes my analysis of the actual extent of postage stamp reuse during that period. The second part is “The Patent Catalog,” an illustrated, annotated compendium of more than 125 nineteenth-century patents for preventing the reuse of postage, revenue, and taxpaid stamps (distilled spirits, cigars, tobacco).
Some inventors’ patents consist only of written descriptions, while others include diagrams of how their stamps would appear before and after being permanently canceled via their patented processes (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Various examples of 19th-century patents for stamp reuse prevention. From top left: Dummer, Fletcher, and Winner patents.
Many of these inventors went further and produced actual specimens for testing purposes, and/or to submit as models with their patent applications. During this period, established banknote companies – such as National and American, Butler & Carpenter, and others – also prototyped stamps according to some of these inventors’ processes. A great number of these experimental stamps, classified as essays, have survived over the years and are in collectors’ hands. Some examples are truly one-of-a-kind, while others, such as the decal-like stamps of New York inventor Henry Loewenberg, were produced in large numbers (Figure 3).
The methods conjured up by inventors to prevent reuse run the gamut of ingenuity. At one extreme are methods for printing stamps with fugitive inks that would dissolve in water or adversely react with reagents used to remove cancelations. Then there are the ever-so-sensible Bowlsby Coupon essays (Figure 4) that required nothing more than to tear off a coupon to cancel them. At the other extreme are stamps embedded with a percussion cap (also known as a bang cap) to be canceled with the blow of a mallet (Figure 5).
Figure 3. A strip of 3 of Loewenberg’s decal-like version of the 90-cent stamp of 1861, Scott 79-E72P5.
Figure 4. A Bowlsby coupon stamp, Scott 63-E13f, essayed by the National Bank Note Company. The stamp would be considered canceled solely with removal of the coupon.
Figure 5. A pair of 2-cent revenue essays, Turner 41-A, with embedded explosive canceling devices.
Inventions got its start in the late 1990s when I began collecting these essays and wanted to know more about their namesake inventors. For example, who was Mr. Bowlsby, and what prompted him to rise to the occasion to invent such a stamp? I had the same questions regarding the Loewenberg (decal stamps), Francis (chemical cancellation), and Douglas (double paper) essays, to name but a few.
The role (and joy) of philatelic literature
It was in the mid-1990s that I started taking collecting seriously, focusing primarily on U.S. postage and revenue essays. I indulged myself in the joy of being a student of philately by purchasing copies of the standard literature (Luff, Brookman, Thorpe/Bartels, Mason, Brazer, Turner, etc.), auction catalogs, books on stamp production, you name it. I also purchased specific years of the American Philatelic Congress Yearbook for their articles on the grilled stamps of 1867 and later.
At the time, I was regularly buying philatelic literature from Bill Langs, James Lee, Leonard Hartmann, Eric Jackson and others, and in short order I accumulated a nice little philatelic reference library. There was also a highly memorable trip to the New York Public Library that gave me a taste for the wealth of information available in the now defunct Essay-Proof Journal, though a complete run is now accessible online at the Newman Numismatic Portal, nnp.wustl.edu.
(As an aside, internet resources notwithstanding, I continually add to my philatelic library. It provides equally as much pleasure as does collecting U.S. essays, proofs, and in more recent years, some actual stamps. When it comes to philatelic research, there’s nothing quite like being able to locate a book on a particular shelf, and turn to a page based on muscle memory from having read it before.)
From my study of the literature I came to appreciate the degree of scholarship already dedicated to the subject of reuse prevention; and as you might imagine, the volume of information on this subject is heavily weighted with discussion of Charles Steel, his invention of embossing (grilling), and production of the grilled stamps.
As I accumulated more always-charming essays and learned more about the ones I didn’t own, I got the impression that a great deal of effort had been expended by inventors and banknote companies in the 1860s to prevent reuse of stamps. But, why? Was the problem of reuse ever so rampant as to warrant all this effort?
I was surprised to find that a definitive answer to this key question was not to be found in the literature! Some authors described the Post Office Department’s “obsession” with finding a solution to reuse, a few others cast doubt on the extent of the problem, but none of them substantiated their statements with facts or figures. It was all speculation.
A single sentence in Brookman (1989) encapsulated the haziness of it all: “In the years between 1860 and 1870, the Government became much concerned over the real or imaginary cleaning and reuse of postage stamps.”
That philatelic seed sprouted many other related lines of inquiry on reuse prevention, which I posted about on The Museum of U.S. Essays & Proofs website, of which I was co-founder and chief content provider for many years. In response to my posts, a collector from Chicago, Barry Boggio (now deceased), gifted me with a binder of some 85 reuse-prevention patents. This was a gold mine of information that offered perspective on the degree to which these solutions were being devised before and after the introduction of grilled stamps.
The museum site went dark in the early 2000s and, coincidentally, my enthusiasm to pursue the subject waned. But in December 2021, during another listless day of the pandemic, I decided to revisit Barry’s binder of patents and was struck with a bolt of enthusiasm to resume my research. This was at a time when libraries and academic institutions were closed.
However, the pandemic provided an opportunity to dive deeper into the knowledge base of my personal philatelic library, to buy a few more key books, and to discover significant sources of information online (discussed below) that enabled me to complete my research and answer the question of “reuse, real or imagined?” within a matter of months.
Saving the Printed Word
I would like to emphasize the value (if not the outright necessity) of printing important information you find online.
Of course, you’ll want to bookmark information you find on the web, but that’s no guarantee that recalling those links in the future will retrieve that information (we’ve all experienced “404 Error, Page Not Found”). In fact, while this article was being prepared for publication, two of the websites mentioned in my original draft significantly changed in appearance and function. Those URLs and website descriptions have been updated and are current as of the date of this publication.
Another common occurrence is that a web page appears differently from when you initially bookmarked it. This can happen on certain web pages consisting of a “frame” and menus or search functions that load content within it. Recalling a saved bookmark for such a page will only recall the “frame,” not the content.
Philatelic patent studies, then and now
Although patents related to reuse prevention are given significant attention in Inventions, philatelic patent studies aren’t specific to reuse-prevention methods. In fact, patent studies are just one of many particles that regularly orbit the philatelic studies nucleus. There is much pre-internet philatelic scholarship reflecting on patents for canceling devices (for postage and revenue stamps), envelope manufacture, perforating machines, postal cards, security printing techniques, stamp affixing machines, and so on.
The literature reflects patent searches dating to as early as 1889 and John K. Tiffany’s serialized listing of U.S. essays and proofs in the American Journal of Philately. In the last installment of the series, Tiffany listed 31 stamp-related patents that I believe he researched without the convenience of being able to search for them online from his laptop (in his bathrobe).
We can go back even earlier in time to see how a patent search became important to an actual producer of U.S. stamps.
In 1864, the Philadelphia firm of Butler & Carpenter, designer and printer of the first U.S. revenue stamps, cast doubt on a competitor’s claim to a patented plate-making process that would have enabled them to undercut B&C’s cost for printing proprietary match stamps. Here I refer to American Phototype’s claim to the phototype process developed by a French inventor, Alphonse Poitevin. This tale, which involves the patent office’s inability to locate the patent, is documented in the Butler & Carpenter Archives, a resource only available online at The American Revenuer website (www.revenuer.org).
How did Tiffany and others living before the age of the internet search for and locate patents?
One way may have been to pour through the annual reports of the Commissioner of Patents. These often multi-volume reports (some more than 1,000 pages each) list all of the patents issued within a given fiscal year. Many of these are available online as PDF downloads from such websites as the Smithsonian Library (library.si.edu/digital-library/book/report-commissioner-patents-year) and Archive.Org (archive.org).
You can also do a simple online search to locate these reports. For example, search for “commissioner of patents annual report 1864” and you will get hits from the previously mentioned websites, as well as a link to purchase a hardcopy reproduction from Walmart in your choice of red or black leather binding. I kid you not.
However, it is almost entirely unnecessary to sift through these voluminous reports to locate philatelically related patents. Patent information can be accessed for free directly from the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office website, https://ppubs.uspto.gov/pubwebapp/static/pages/landing.html. However, due to the complexity of this search engine I would not recommend it as a first choice for philatelic patent research. Instead, use the Google Patents search engine at google.patents.com/advanced. Figure 6 shows a sample results page from Google Patents for postage stamp patents between 1863 and 1865. This result was easily obtained by entering just three criteria: the keywords “postage stamp” (within quotation marks), the start year, and the end year. When using this service, I suggest setting the search order to “oldest” (the default setting is “relevance”).
Figure 6. A typical Google Patents results page that includes clickable thumbnails of patent documents.
The best way (if not simply a prerequisite) for starting new research is to immerse yourself in the existing standard literature on the subject, as well as the most up-to-date.
Google Patents returns results with optical character recognition (OCR)-generated excerpts of the patent descriptions, often accompanied by clickable thumbnails of the patent letters and/or diagrams. The image quality of these PDFs is the best available, but be aware that sometimes the originals were not in very good condition.
Spelling mistakes are common in the OCR excerpts, but don’t let these kinds of minor errors put you off. As seen in Figure 6, inventor Emanual Harmon’s surname is misspelled “habmon.”
Note also that the search results shown in Figure 6 include two items for “post-office stamps,” although these are actually patents for canceling devices. It is not uncommon for results to include items related to your search criteria, or to reveal – albeit inadvertently – the period terminology used to describe an invention. For example, I learned that both “postage stamp” and “hand stamp” are period terms for canceling devices.
On the other hand, a search for the single term stamp will return patents for everything from letter envelopes to ore crushers. The upside of searching for “stamp” is that you won’t inadvertently miss a listing for a patent relevant to the topic you’re researching. The downside is that you’ll have to weed through a large number of results to locate relevant patents.
If you want to publish U.S. patent letters and diagrams, I have it on good authority that they are in the public domain. This was confirmed in a phone conversation I had with a legal representative from the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office in early 2021. Given the sheer number of patents I wanted to include in the book, it was crucial that I know with absolute certainty what, if any, restrictions I might have faced.
Another online source of philatelically related patents, some of higher quality than those obtainable from the above-mentioned sources, is the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society (www.uspcs.org). Specifically, you’ll want to access the Brazer Archives at https://www.uspcs.org/resource-center/research-projects/the-brazer-archives.
From there, select “Patents” from the top menu. From another menu you can select patent subcategories such as “Affixing, Cancel Devices, Chemical, Design, Engraving, Fraud Protection, Gum, Ink, Paper, Perforating,” and “Printing.”
Note that permission to publish or reprint material from this archive needs to be obtained from the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society.
Postmasters general annual reports
One of the preliminary conclusions of my earlier research was that postage stamp reuse was never so pervasive so as to justify the need for a solution (the grill), let alone the increased cost of producing grilled stamps in 1867. But with the literature silent on specifics, I set out to find a primary source for this information.
It occurred to me that if anyone would have had first-hand knowledge of the extent of postage stamp reuse, had documented its financial impact on the Post Office Department (POD), and possessed the power to instigate a solution, it would have been the various postmasters general holding that office leading up to when the grilled stamps were issued.
From previous research I knew that the postmaster general (PMG) was required by law to publish an annual report on the POD’s state of affairs, and locating these reports online was usually as easy as searching for “postmaster general annual report” plus the year of the report. This search typically returned results from Google Books (books.google.com) and HathiTrust (hathitrust.org). If you select a link for a title on Google Books, look for the option in the page header to “Try the new Google Books.” I found this to be a more useful version of the service than the “Classic” version.
Outside of reuse-prevention studies, these annual reports offer philatelic researchers invaluable first-hand insights into the operation and development of the postal service. For example, while examining reports from 1860 to 1870, I learned about quantities of stamps sold, comparison to prior years’ sales and future projections, postal treaties with foreign countries, the creation of new mail routes, the development of the postal money order system, operations of the dead letter office, the introduction of stamped envelopes, mail train robberies, abuses of the franking privilege, and much more.
Both of those resources became my go-to’s for locating these and other government documents, but each of them have significant quirks and limitations.
With Google Books, there’s a good chance that your search for a specific year’s report will not show up at the top of the list of results. In fact, it may not show up at all. Or, you might get hits for reports from adjacent years as well as various 20th-century reports. It’s vexing! The key to finding the report you want is to locate a report from an adjacent year, click the conspicuous “X” to clear the view of the report you selected, and then click on “Other Editions.”
With HathiTrust you may encounter similar difficulties. The workaround is to view any year’s report from the search results and then click on the always-present “Catalog Record” link. That loads up a chronological list of PMG reports from which you can easily find the one you want. In light of Google Book’s hit-or-miss results, the usefulness of that list cannot be underestimated. Additionally, HathiTrust often provides links to the same publication from multiple academic institutions. This is important because one institution’s copy may be of better quality or more complete than another’s.
Here is another important distinction between these resources: With Google Books, you can download the entirety of a PMG report as a PDF. This is only possible with HathiTrust if you’re logged in as a member of a “Partner Institution.” Barring that, you are restricted to downloading one page at a time.
Commissioners of internal revenue annual reports
Annual reports were also required of the commissioner of internal revenue, and these can be of immense value to those researching revenue and taxpaid stamps. From these reports I retrieved exacting information about the extent of revenue stamp reuse, which made the job of writing about that topic very easy.
To find these reports from a general search engine, search for “report of the commissioner of the internal revenue” plus the year of the report. You’ll likely get results from Google Books and HathiTrust as previously described. Note that commissioner’s reports were always included in the annual Report of the Secretary of Treasury, so some search results will return that report in its entirety instead of the isolated commissioner’s report.
The last resource I’ll discuss is that of digitized newspaper archives. Given the ubiquity of Geneology.com and Newspapers.com, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that such resources exist. But the number and variety of these online archives may be greater than you think. Though I’m not a fan of Wikipedia, its list of online newspaper archives is useful for shedding light on the vast world of digitized newspaper archives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_online_newspaper_archives
Searching through period newspapers for stories on reuse proved essential to my research.
As useful as the postmaster general reports were for shedding light on the degree of reuse and what (if anything) the POD was doing about it year-by-year, they are effectively summations for an entire year’s worth of events.
Additionally, these annual reports are typically dated several months after the end of a given fiscal year for which the report was made. A more granular or day-by-day perspective on the extent of reuse, and the circumstances under which it was being perpetrated, came from the daily papers. Inventions includes clippings and transcriptions of many of these newspaper accounts, from excerpts to full articles (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Inventions of Prevention shows day-to-day newspaper accounts of stamp reuse and inventor’s efforts to thwart it.
Here I relied heavily on Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper archive (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) and also Newspapers.com. Interestingly, the frequency of reporting on reuse was greatest from 1862 to 1863 and waned significantly in 1864. From 1865 to 1870, newspaper reporting on postage stamp reuse on any scale was minimal, save for reporting on the new embossed (grilled) stamps in 1867.
I was very happy to discover a website that provided a West Coast news-reporting perspective: the website of the University of California, Riverside, Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research (https://cdnc.ucr.edu/). It wasn’t until I found this archive that I realized how the scope of the previously mentioned newspaper archives didn’t quite reach the West Coast. Interestingly, this California-centric archive provided insights into postage stamp reuse in various Southern states during the Confederacy.
Over the past five to six years, it seems that the number of online resources relevant for in-depth philatelic research has mushroomed.
For philatelic researchers new to using the web for information, the number of choices can seem overwhelming — as can the sheer number of results returned by any kind of academic search engine. To that effect, the best way (if not simply a prerequisite) for starting new research is to immerse yourself in the existing standard literature on the subject, as well as the most up-to-date. Then consider using online resources to argue or augment previous research with your new discoveries and insights.