This ornate and complex portrait of Franklin is notable for the seemingly endless varieties that were produced in both imperforate (1851) and perforated (1857) issues. These varieties resulted not only from the design’s complexity, but also from two other factors: the large size of the stamp image and the resultant difficulty in manufacturing the printing plates to accommodate this size. In this month’s column, I’ll introduce you to this stamp and its varieties and then explore the challenges encountered in expertizing individual stamps. And, as I promised in the March 2020 column, we will see what happens when experts disagree.
Students of the hobby will recognize the names of the early authors who have written about this stamp: Stanley Ashbrook, Carroll Chase, John Luff, Mortimer Neinken, and Jerome Wagshal, among many others. But it was Ashbrook who first definitively identified the subtleties of the stamp’s design (Figure 2).
I’ll touch briefly upon the plate manufacturing process, but if you would like a thorough grounding in stamp production, I recommend you start by perusing Fundamentals of Philately by L.N. Williams, perhaps the most frequently referenced book in my philatelic library. If you are more of a “hands-on” learner, then come to the APS Summer Seminar and take Wayne Youngblood’s “Stamp Technology” course. You’ll be glad you did!
When it comes to the specifics of the 1¢ Franklin issues, I recommend two recent books. For the 1851 issue, The 1851 Issue of United States Stamps: a Sesquicentennial Retrospective by Hubert Skinner and Charles Peterson is available as a free download, compliments of the US Philatelic Classics Society (aps.buzz/1851USPCS). Its description of plate production is expansive. For the second series, consider the resource First United States Perforated Stamps – The 1857 Issue by Jon Rose.
How to make a printing plate
Now join me as I attempt to summarize many hundreds of pages and decades of research about this stamp’s engraving, plate making and production into three paragraphs. The detailed images seen in Figures 1 and 2 were produced using the line engraving, or intaglio, printing process. First, the design is engraved into a piece of “soft” steel in recessed form. The steel is then heat-treated to harden the steel, creating a die. The die, in turn, is used to embed three reversed or “relief” images onto a cylindrical device called a transfer roll (Figure 3). As with the die, the transfer roll starts with soft steel that is then hardened. Importantly, the three relief images are not identical. Next, the relief images on the transfer roll are “rocked” onto a sheet of steel in recess form. When the steel is hardened, it becomes the printing plate used to produce the stamps.
Figure 3. Transfer roll illustrating a circular relief — reproduced from Skinner’s and Peterson’s book. Courtesy U.S. Philatelic Classics Society.
Postal authorities ordered the stamps to be produced on a plate containing 200 subjects in two panes of 100 stamps each. Each pane was ten stamps across by ten rows deep. And that is where the problems arose. The design of the stamp was just a bit too tall for the plate size that the printer’s presses could accommodate. In order for there to be sufficient space between stamps for them to be cut when sold, the designs had to be truncated just a little bit, either at the top or bottom or both. Thus, one die created three unique relief images which in turn resulted in 200 identifiable images on the printing plate. With effectively five plates, that is 1000 collectible stamps from this one original die.
(A brief technical note: there were only four physical plates manufactured. The first plate was not hardened and quickly became worn. As a result, the printer reentered the images on the plate and then hardened it. From a philatelic standpoint, this is regarded as a fifth plate.)
Philatelic specialists identify each stamp from each plateusing the following nomenclature in this format:
• The stamp’s position on the pane, numbered from 1 to 100
• The letter L or R representing the left or right pane
• The numbers 1 through 5, representing which of the five plates was used
• The letter E or L, representing the early or late states of the plate, may optionally appear at the end of the description. (Plates wore out and were reentered over time, creating different states.)
Thus, 11L1 would represent the first stamp on the second row of the left pane from plate one. An E or L at the end would tell us the state of the plate’s use.
A similar discussion of the perforated issues of 1857 would require more space than I have, but the complexities are very similar, as are the resulting varieties.
The Scott Catalogue organizes these stamps
The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers has an essential chapter titled “Identifier of Definitive Issues” that lists a single image for this stamp. Image A5 is the basic stamp. Given the 1000 plate varieties for the 1851 issue and the varieties for the 1857 issue, Scott has added images A6-A9 and A20 to identify the major types of frame differences.
For the 1851 issues, Scott has assigned catalog numbers 5, 5A, 6, 6b, 7, 8, 8A, and 9 (with subtypes for several of these). For the 1857 issues, the Scott catalog numbers are 18, 19, 19b, and 20-24 (also with subtypes).
Not surprisingly, there are many instances where the earlier issues are more valuable than similar-appearing 1857 stamps. Philatelic fakers are not above trimming the later issues to imitate more valuable imperforate counterparts.
It is also true that the stamps were produced with varying image print quality, especially as the printing plates wore, resulting in incomplete or imperfect image details. Correctly identifying the plate and position of an individual stamp can be a daunting challenge. But with similar-appearing stamps ranging in catalog value from a few dollars to thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars, proper identification is very important.
Expertizing the 1¢ Franklins
These myriad variations and variables result in uncertainty among collectors, even those who have been specialists for many years. Thus, the 1¢ Franklins are frequently submitted to APEX for authentication. Our process is simple. APEX is blessed with some 180 Expert Committee members that expertize most of the world. Several are renowned specialists on the 1¢ Franklins. Any time a stamp is submitted that looks even remotely like the Scott A5 image, we have a protocol that ensures that two or three Expert Committee specialists will examine and authenticate the stamp. And very frequently “Expert 1” will request that we “have Expert 2 take a look” for a second opinion on a particular aspect. Expertizing is a collaborative process as practiced by APEX.
Figure 4. The “patient” submitted by the owner as a Scott 22.
Collaboration notwithstanding, so great are the nuances that even our experts can disagree. Recently the stamp in Figure 4 was sent in for a certificate. The discussion that follows is abstracted from the notes of three experts. A word of caution: we are about to dive deep into the weeds of the specialized nomenclature associated with the 1¢ Franklins. (Caveat coactor; let the philatelist beware!)
The first expert declared the stamp a Scott 20; one reason for the decision is, quote, “the bottom line is faint but complete at the bottom.” On to expert two.
Let me quote a large portion of expert two’s notes: “This stamp is Relief “B,” position 19L4 from plate 4. Relief B always has a break in the top line, even though the top of the design is cut away by the perfs. Thus, this cannot be Scott 20. 19L4 is shown in Neinken as Type III, outer line broken Top and Bottom. However, this stamp seems to have a faint but complete bottom line. I leave “break” or “no break” to others. The stamp is either Scott 21 or Scott 22…” No consensus as of yet.
A third expert was called upon as part of the normal authentication process. From his notes, we learn additionally: “…There is a faint line of ink in the area under the “C” of CENT. So, the bottom line is Not broken and so the stamp is Not a Type III, but a Type IIIa. That makes it a Scott 22.”
APEX does not use a “majority vote” or “tie-breaker” when preparing opinions. I reached out to the first expert and discussed the subsequent evaluations. He was satisfied with those findings. We could all agree that this patient was, indeed, a Scott 22.
And that is what the APEX certificate stated: “United States Scott No. 22, Type IIIa, “B” Relief, position 19L4. Genuine…”
A Valentine letter addressed to Miss M. A. Cribbet, care of Dr. Rolker. No. 122 7th Street [Cincinnati, Ohio]. The 1¢ local drop rate paid by an 1857 Scott No. 24. From the APEX Reference Collection.
* * *
I am grateful to Richard Celler for his assistance with this column.
I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions on any philatelic topic. Please feel free to email me at Gary@stamps.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
* * *
Editor's Note: The article "Expertizing the 1¢ Franklins: When Experts Disagree" was published in the April 2020 issue of The American Philatelist, available exclusively to members of the American Philatelic Society. Click here to view the full issue.