Years ago, I attended a judge’s feedback discussion in which Peter McCann explained his evaluation of an exhibit and offered constructive suggestions for improvement. In the question-and-answer period a young exhibitor asked, “Why do philatelists do research?”
“Because we like to find things out,” Peter said. What a perfect answer!
The verb form of research means simply “to investigate systematically.” When we look up something about a stamp or cover in a book or a catalog, we do only secondary research, because someone before us acquired the data, developed it into knowledge, then organized and published it for others to use. We also do secondary research when we look up ship-sailing dates in old newspapers; the reporter who gathered and published the dates did the primary research. Primary research is not simply looking something up.
Does philately have mysteries that can only be solved by primary technical research? That question was perhaps best answered by David Beech, former curator and head of Philatelic Collections at the British Library, in his keynote address to the first International Symposium on Analytical Methods in Philately, held in November 2012 at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Beech stated:
“This paper relates to my realization, reinforced by my access to the developments at the British Library for the conservation and preservation of rare documents, that certain philatelic problems could be better solved or understood by the quantitative methods traditionally associated with the physical sciences than by the taxonomical methods traditionally associated with the biological sciences. In 2001, I worked with University College London on a project to use spectrographic analysis to study the very rare (and valuable) Post Office Mauritius stamps of 1847, developing definitive information about the inks used and establishing a basis for a similar study in 2002 that evaluated the 1851-1852 Grinnell Missionary stamps of Hawaii.”
In the case of the Grinnells, philatelic importance and monetary value depend on proof of genuineness.
Similar judgments are made nearly every day by philatelic expertizing services that use a range of modern analytical instruments to root out fakes and alterations. The use of such equipment is no longer limited to expertizing, however, as philatelists are increasingly using technical analyses to understand the physical and chemical composition of paper and printing inks simply for the joy of learning how the stamps were made. A list of the published research results of such projects, compiled by Richard Judge, is available on the Institute for Analytical Philately website: https://www.analyticalphilately.org/reference_library.php.
The Institute for Analytical Philately
The concept of an organization that would encourage and help fund technical research in philately was an idea spawned by my late friend, David Herendeen, at the Chicagopex stamp show in 2008. David and I roomed together there, and, as usual, spent a lot of time in the evenings debating scientific and philatelic issues. An eavesdropper might have thought we were annoyed with each other, but we were just having fun. We wandered into the topic of what fellow philatelists do and don’t know about items on which we all spend lots of time and money. Because we both had technical backgrounds – his in mathematics and mine in geochemistry and geophysics, we felt there was a lot more knowledge and enjoyment to be had for those who may aspire to more than collecting to a catalog.
As a result of those discussions, in 2010 we designed and established The Institute for Analytical Philately (IAP) as a philanthropic, non-profit corporation. The institute is dedicated to deepening the understanding of philatelic materials using the latest technology and ensuring publication of experimental results regardless or whether the outcomes were conclusive.
The research support IAP provides can be tailored to the needs of any philatelist, from those with no scientific background to those with advanced degrees in science, mathematics or engineering. We are aided in this venture by alliance partners who can provide access to analytical equipment and advice. Current partners include the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, the Philatelic Foundation, the Vincent G. Greene Philatelic Research Foundation, the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society and the Civil War Philatelic Society. We also have technical alliances with the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering at Western Michigan University and the Munsell Color Science Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Table 1. Data from Scott catalogs and paper thickness measurements of 3-cent green Washington stamps
Scott 147 Scott 158 Scott 184 Scott 207
Dark yellow green
|Paper Type (Scott)
||White wove, thin to medium thick
||White wove, thin to thick
||.0020 - .0033
||.0019 - .0034
||.0025 - .0041
||.0026 - .0040
|# of examples
The institute is not a contractor, so will not perform research for you. Rather, the IAP can provide you with research support by offering technical advice, research planning and financial assistance. Our scholarships can range up to $4,000 and are intended to reimburse travel, lodging and laboratory expenses. Payments to researchers are made in arrears when a project has been completed and the results submitted for publication in any reputable journal or magazine. For more information about IAP financial support, consult our website at https://www.analyticalphilately.org/applying_for_a_research_grant.php
Figure 1. The 1856 One-Cent Magenta was examined on the VSC 6000 by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, using an 830 nanometer infrared filter. Courtesy of Smithsonian NPM.
From the very beginning, IAP board members were pleasantly surprised at how many collectors were already involved in advanced technical studies. Many projects were being done in the philatelic lab at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum under the tutelage of Tom Lera, who at the time was the Winton M. Blount Research Chair. That work included a detailed examination of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp, which had arrived at the lab under armed guard (Figure 1). Some researchers had even built their own high-tech equipment or altered commercially available gear to suit a special experiment. Cameras and computers had been repurposed to study color and to automate the process of finding plate or printing flaws.
Covid-19, as frustrating as it was for all of us, provided a surprise benefit for research studies.
Researchers were at home and thus had more time to work on their projects, but we were concerned about how to share research results during a quarantine. The IAP’s fourth International Symposium, which was to be held at the National Postal Museum, was canceled due both to the Smithsonian Institution’s pandemic restrictions and widespread travel difficulties.
To the rescue came Susan Smith, current Winton M. Blount Research Chair. Susan quickly learned how to run a large-scale ZOOM video conference and was a terrific moderator who asked direct and seminal questions of our presenters. ZOOM allowed many philatelists to participate who would not have attended even in the absence of the pandemic. Participation was far larger than any of the three previous symposia.
To date, the institute has sponsored four international symposia: November 2012 at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington DC; November 2015 at Chicagopex; October 2017 at the Royal Philatelic Society London; and the November 2020 virtual meeting – notionally at The Smithsonian National Postal Museum but conducted from Susan Smith’s home. All publications resulting from research papers presented at these meetings can be found on the IAP website under “Symposia” at https://www.analyticalphilately.org/. All four volumes of these papers are also available from the American Philatelic Research Library.
A beginner’s simple research project
Following is an example of results from one of my own projects, chosen because the technical research was simple, inexpensive and straightforward. The study involved very common, inexpensive issues owned by virtually every collector of U.S. 19th century stamps. The project’s goals were to:
- Quantify “thin,” “thick,” “soft” and “porous” paper and determine what in the manufacturing process caused the observable variations in thickness, softness and porosity.
- Understand what ink pigments contributed to the stamps’ color variations.
Only paper characteristics are discussed in this article.
Data collection methods were:
- Paper thickness was measured with a Mitutoyo micrometer accurate to 0.0001 inches, (0.00254 mm). Measurements were taken only in stamp margins to avoid the influence of the ink-layer thickness.
- Determination of pigment chemistry was carried out at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum Laboratory using X-ray fluorescence under the guidance of Lera.
- Paper permeability and elastic modulus (“stiffness”) were both measured in the laboratory of the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering at Western Michigan University under the guidance of Alexandra Pekarovicova, PhD, department chair.
- The sizings (substances added into the pulp used in paper manufacturing) were identified at the Department of Chemistry at Hope College, supervised by Dr. Graham Peaslee, PhD, then-department chair.
- Paper-fiber identification was kindly provided by Robert Hisey, whose PhD is in paper engineering.
The items chosen for analyses were the four issues of the U.S. 3-cent Washington stamps of 1870-1881 printed by bank note companies under U.S. Post Office contracts. A large hoard of these stamps was donated to the project by fellow IAP Director James Allen. Table 1 is per descriptions in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers, with exception of the last two rows (in blue), which list paper thickness measurements from the author’s research.
Figure 2. A chart representing rigidity, impermeability, and paper thickness of four 3-cent green Washington issues.
The next chart (Figure 2) summarizes a few of the key results of the study.
Elastic modulus is a measure of rigidity (resistance to bending). An object with an elastic modulus of 1.0 is essentially unbendable, so “stiffness” increases to the right on this chart.
Impermeability is the rate at which a fluid can flow through a paper sample under a constant pressure, in this case measured by the number of seconds taken for 100 milliliters of water to flow through the stamp.
Permeability increases downward on this chart. The pair of numbers for each data point represents one stamp’s thickness in inches, and the year in which a given printing was issued.
The colored ovals in the chart enclose data points based on the paper sizing present in each of the four printings. Sizing is added to the pulp during paper manufacturing to reduce a paper’s tendency, when dry, to absorb liquid. That allows inks and paints to remain on the surface of the paper and to dry there, rather than be absorbed into the paper. Without sizing, ink would bleed into the paper, resulting in blurry images.
Although the number of tests documented in the chart are limited, it is tempting to assume that paper-sizing chemistry, and/or printers’ preferences, “evolved” during the 1870s. Whether such changes were due to economics, or the intent to produce higher quality stamps, the American Bank Note Company was the first to use papers sized with rosin and alum in these issues.
One need not be a scientist to conduct analytical studies of your stamps and covers. IAP can provide free advice in conceiving a project as well as technical and financial assistance in carrying out the work and writing it up.
This is a free shot on goal for anyone who wants to learn more about their philatelic materials. If you want to try your hand, go to analyticalphilately.org.
John is President Emeritus of the U.S Philatelic Classics Society. He has been a member of the APS Finance Committee since 2007 and was Chair of the Search Committee that hired the current APS Director. He co-founded and is President Emeritus of the Institute for Analytical Philately. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Philatelic Society London and the Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria. In 2010 the Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria awarded him the Gartner Medal for best philatelic literature for his book The Half Lengths of Victoria. In 2018 he was honored with the APS Luff Award for Distinguished Philatelic Research, and in 2020 was honored by the Collectors Club Lichtenstein Award. In that same year he was honored by having his name added to the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. He is the co-author of the upcoming book with Richard Winter, North Atlantic Non-Contract Steamship Mailings 1838-1875.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
Barwis, John and Thomas Lera (editors). Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Analytical Methods in Philately (Akron, OH: The Institute for Analytical Philately, Inc., 2016). [HE618 9 .I596ps 2016]
Lera, Thomas, John H. Barwis, and David L. Herendeen (editors). Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Analytical Methods in Philately (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013). [HE6189 .I596pf 2013]
Smith, Susan and John H. Barwis (editors). Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Analytical Methods in Philately (Akron, OH: The Institute for Analytical Philately, Inc., 2020). [HE618 9 .I596p 2020]