On May 8, 1971, the USPS issued the first stamp printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) on its new Andreotti photogravure press. The press enabled the BEP to print stamps with more colors more affordably.
For decades before that, the BEP printed its stamps by intaglio. With intaglio printing, the stamp’s design was engraved onto a printing plate and then ink was filled into these areas. The plates were then pressed up against the paper with immense pressure, transferring the ink. The resulting stamps were beautifully intricate. However, the process of making the plates was time consuming and required knowledgeable craftsmen. Additionally, intaglio printing could only use up to three colors – and those colors had to be separate from each other.
The BEP began considering new options for printing full-color stamps and settled on photogravure. Similar to intaglio, photogravure also carves images into a plate – it’s a little more complicated but is also more automated. Photogravure uses up to five plates – cyan (blue), yellow, magenta, black, and another mixed color if needed. Each of the plates are produced using a photographic process that etches small dots that are much shallower than the lines created for engraving. The paper is then passed through the press and the ink dots are transferred to it, one color at a time. The different sizes and spacing of the dots overlapping each other results in a full-color, photo-quality image. The dots usually can’t be seen without the use of a magnifier.
The USPS wanted to test the quality of photogravure stamps before the BEP purchased a press. So, they hired the outside firm of Photogravure & Co. to produce the first US stamp printed by photogravure – the 1967 Thomas Eakins stamp, issued on November 1, 1967. The following year, they enlisted the Achrovure Division of Union-Camp Corp. to print another photogravure stamp, the Walt Disney stamp issued on September 11, 1968.
Impressed with the quality of these stamps, the BEP ordered a seven-color Andreotti press. They originally planned to print the 1970 Christmas and Anti-Pollution stamps on the press, but it wasn’t installed and fully operating in time. Those stamps were printed by another outside firm with BEP workers there who would operate their own press once it was ready.
After a successful test printing in December 1970, the BEP printed its first stamp on the Andreotti press, the 8¢ Missouri Statehood stamp, issued on May 8, 1971. They used the press for the USPS emblem stamp and the Prevent Drug Abuse stamp that year as well. The BEP soon began printing all its commemoratives on the Andreotti press, with only definitives being printed by intaglio. The Transportation coils were the last definitives printed by intaglio. The BEP began printing them by photogravure starting in 1985, though some stamps would occasionally be printed by intaglio.
In the 1970s and 80s, the BEP acquired a series of new presses that combined gravure and intaglio. Then in the 1980s, the USPS began contracting stamp printing out to private firms, with the BEP drastically reducing their production. The last BEP stamp was a 2005 flag issue printed on an older four-color Andreotti press.