Beginner’s Section

Watermarks on Stamps

Sometimes the only difference between stamps that look alike is their watermark.  Watermarks are letters or patterns impressed into the paper used to produce certain stamps.  Modern U.S. stamps don’t have watermarks, but many older ones do, in the shape of a single line or double line U, S, or P.  See illustrations below.

To see if your stamp has a watermark, place it face down in a watermark tray, and pour enough watermark fluid over it to cover completely.  (Never use water.)  The watermark should be visible; how well it shows varies with the stamp.  You may not see a whole letter or design, but only part of one.  Let your stamp dry completely before removing it from the tray.  U.S. watermarks are always letters like those shown.  (Many foreign stamps have watermarks in the shape of a crown or other symbol alone or in addition to letters.)Watermarks(1)

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Stamp Collecting Resources

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum – and its William H. Gross Gallery – is a mecca for stamp collectors around the world.  Their website is also a handy tool and a fun place to explore.

Want to go in-depth?  Arago is your resource to the study of philately and postal operations, using items from the National Postal Museum’s collection.

Keep up with the latest collecting news

There are numerous magazines and newspapers pertaining to stamps, which are published weekly or monthly.  Collectors appreciate these publications because they always contain the latest news and events and actually let you see how news, history and stamps can all be tied together.  Here’s two of our favorites:

Continue reading

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Most Frequently Asked Questions

Our Customer Service Representatives talk to hundreds of collectors each day.  Often, the callers have questions like these.  So we’re sharing the answers to these common questions here, hoping you find them helpful. Continue reading

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Lincoln, Slavery and the Civil War

Watch Eliot A. Landau Present His
Award-Winning Lincoln Exhibit

Now you can watch a video of Eliot Landau presenting his award-winning Lincoln, Slavery and the Civil War exhibit at the National Postal Museum’s 7th annual Maynard Sundman Lecture. Landau combines philately and genuine artifacts to explore Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War, and African American history.

His collection tells the story from a unique – and personal – perspective using objects such as letters, an abolitionist newspaper, photographs and genuine shackles worn by a slave. The discussion is entertaining, thought provoking ­– and personal for Landau.  Landau fought for desegregation and equal voter registration rights in the south before serving as Justice Thurgood Marshall’s law clerk.  He’s also an author who has contributed to Linn’s U.S. Stamp Facts: Nineteenth Century, the Encyclopedia of U.S. Stamps and Stamp Collecting, and several stamp-related articles on Lincoln.

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Part Two

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The Difference Between Definitive and Commemorative Stamps

Definitive stamps are sometimes called the “workhorse” of the postal system. They’re also known as regular-issue stamps. They pay postage on everyday mail and are issued in lots of denominations. Often a particular definitive stamp design is used for long periods of time, and sometimes reprinted to replenish supplies.

Definitives are fun to collect. There may be small difference among stamps, which at first glance appear the same. Characteristics to look for include small changes due to variations in printing plates or printing methods; a different shade or color; margin dates, watermarks (on older U.S. stamps), perforations, microprinting, and type of gum (self-adhesive or water-activated).

Definitive stamps

Definitive stamps

A Commemorative is a stamp issued to honor an important person, event, or anniversary. It’s printed in smaller quantities than definitives, and is sold for a limited time, usually a few months. Unsold stamps are generally destroyed.

The first U.S. commemorative stamps were issued in honor of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The 16-stamp series depicted the various stages of Columbus’ voyages to the New World. Today these stamps are highly valued by collectors.  As you can see, commemoratives make America’s history come alive.


The Columbians – the first U.S. commemorative stamp series. A total of 16 stamps told the story of Columbus’ journey to the New World.


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How to soak stamps off paper

A great way to get stamps is from pieces of mail. Unless the envelope has a neat cancel you want to save, you’ll want to remove as much of the paper as possible.

The following steps are helpful for removing water-activated (“lick and stick”) stamps from paper.

1. Put 3-4 inches of cold water in a sink or other container. Do not use hot or warm water – some ink or envelope colors will run in warmer water.

2. Be sure to separate any stamps with heavy black or red cancellations along with those attached to bright or dark-colored paper. Because the inks and dyes may bleed, these stamps must be soaked individually and removed from the water promptly.

3. Place the stamps face down in the water. It’s possible to put as many as 50 stamps in the water at once. If you’re soaking sheets you can soak 20-25 at once, but place them in the water one at a time, making sure each one becomes thoroughly wet before adding the next one.

4. Spread the stamps out and gently press them into the water so that it will soak through the paper. Leave them to soak for at least 10 to 15 minutes – time will vary due to the differences in stamp gum.

5. After 10 minutes or so, check the stamps. The gum should have loosened and the stamps started to float off. Some stamps will sink and some will float. It is very important to remove the stamps promptly after they have come off the paper. If left in the water for a prolonged period of time the stamp paper may begin to weaken.

6. Gently remove the paper (pieces of envelopes) and look at both sides to make sure no stamps are stuck to it.

7. After you have removed all the paper from the water, most of the stamps will be at the bottom of the sink or container. Discard the blank scraps of paper.

8. Gently run your fingers along the bottom and come up under the stamps, catching them in a net fashion. Place these stamps in rows, face down, on blotters (waxed paper, white construction paper, paper towels or any other white, unprinted paper surface) being careful not to overlap them. (Overlapping stamps could cause them to permanently stick to each other, thus destroying them.)

9. Placing a heavy object like a book on top of the stacked layers of paper and stamps will help keep your stamps from curling. It will take a lot longer for the stamps to dry.

10. When this batch of stamps is done, start over with a fresh container of water.

Note: To remove paper from a sheet or strip of stamps, the entire item must be soaked. If the stamps have water-activated gum they will remain attached to one another after soaking.  For self-adhesive stamps, we recommend you trim the paper to within about 1/8” rather than trying to remove the stamps from the paper.


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