Series of 1908-09 5¢ Washington
Issue Date: February 25, 1909
Quantity issued: 124, 500 (estimate)
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Method: Flat plate
Watermark: Double line
It was mainly through Postmaster General Meyer’s cooperation with the vending machine companies that improvements were made in the industry. Under his direction, the first coil stamps were produced. One of the major problems had been that the machines had to use government perforated stamps. However, the Bureau gauge 12 perforations were much too fragile to use in an automated machine.
In 1906, when Meyer was appointed as Postmaster General, several private companies expressed a need for sheets of stamps without perforations. Because he was interested in developing the vending machine industry for postage stamps, their requests were honored. The first sheets of imperforate stamps were supplied on October 2, 1906, for experimental use.
This system proved to be much better. Sheets were simply removed from the production process before being perforated and then sent to the individual companies, who would then apply perforations to fit their machines. However, the sheets they were using were panes of 100, with each strip containing only 10 stamps. This required a “paste-up” every ten stamps. Not only was this a time-consuming task, but these pasted strips often posed problems in the machines.
Another request was made, this time for full, “uncut” sheets of 400 stamps. Again, the sheets were supplied. Soon, the companies began demanding that the Post Office Department issue stamps which were perforated to fit their machines. By this time, there were over twenty-five manufacturers of vending machines, and each one had its own unique perforations. The Bureau could not realistically manufacture stamps with that many different perforations, and it refused to adopt one type.
In 1908, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing perforated coil issues as part of an experiment. On February 18th, the “sidewise coil,” which was perforated vertically (on either side) was introduced. Five months later, the “endwise coil,” perforated horizontally (on the top and bottom) made an appearance. A test was conducted, and of the twenty-five original companies, five were chosen to participate. Five cities: Baltimore, MD; Indianapolis, IN; Minneapolis, MN; New York, NY; and Washington D.C., were selected as test sites.
The experiment ended in disaster. An expert thief was hired by the Post Office Department to “legally” steal stamps from the vending machines located at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Using a variety of tactics, such as using counterfeit coins, picking locks, jimmying, jamming, smashing, and kicking, he was able to get stamps from the machines without ever having to give up any money. He was so successful at stealing stamps, the companies began suspecting one another of trying to sabotage their machines.
Only one machine, that of the U.S. Automatic Vending Machine Company, didn’t give in to the thief’s attempts to steal its contents. Several of their units were purchased, but eventually the Department discontinued their use, since the coils required special perforations. Although the idea of using automated vending machines had been discarded, the Bureau continued to make imperforate sheets available to private companies. Believing they had a good product, the manufacturers persisted and eventually sold thousands of their vending machines for use by the public.