Fun Facts

Did you know…

  • In the Central American countries of Bolivia and Paraguay, stamps actually provoked a war!  The conflict began when Bolivia issued a stamp claiming an undefined and long-disputed area of wilderness.  This stamp was simply a map with this territory’s possession clearly labeled.  Enraged by this bold claim, Paraguay countered by issuing a larger stamp, which even more clearly showed the territory and labeled-in Paraguay’s name.   Also on the stamp were the words, “Has been, is, and will be.”  Soon afterwards a vicious war over the territory began.  The war raged for many years with Paraguay eventually proving to be the victor.  Several stamps were then issued proudly proclaiming the territory as Paraguay’s.
  • The world’s longest-lived mail delivery system exists to this day in India.   Called the Dak or Dawk system, this organization can be traced back to Roman relay runners.   Dak runners carried the mail over long distances by inserting it in a stick, split down the middle.   A torch bearer helped guide the runners at night, and another ran along beating a drum to scare off dangerous animals.  Sometime during the seventeenth century, the job of carrying the torch and tom-tom were combined.  The East India Company ran the system while Britain controlled India.   During that time, postal inspectors were employed, and time keepers kept the runners on schedule.
  • The first recorded stamp collector was John Bourke, who served as Receiver-General of Stamp Duties in Ireland.
  • Dr. John Edward Gray of the British Museum became the first collector of adhesive stamps when he purchased a block of Penny Blacks on May 1, 1840.

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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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Secret Marks on Classic U.S. Stamps

Do You Know Where to Find Secret
Marks On Classic U.S. Stamps?

As stamp collectors, we love to have the “inside” story.  It’s fun to know things about stamps others would certainly overlook.  The Bank Note stamps on this page, with their “secret marks,” are great fun for us.  Identifying these sought-after classic stamps can be as easy (or difficult) as finding a tiny design difference intentionally placed there by the stamp printer.  Without these hidden design elements, it would be extremely difficult to properly identify these stamps.  But, aided by the proper information, you’ll be able to identify them like a pro!

Secret Marks Used By Printer to
Distinguish Look-Alike Stamps

On May 1, 1873, the Continental Bank Note Company received the government contract to produce U.S. stamps.  Continental took over some of the materials the former stamp printer, the National Bank Note Company, had used to produce the stamp issue of 1870-71.  These goods included dies and plates.  So with the exception of inks and paper, Continental was producing the same exact stamps.

Officials at Continental wanted a way to easily distinguish the stamps they produced from the ones National had manufactured – possibly because there had been complaints about stamp quality in the past.  So “secret marks” were introduced on the 1¢ through 15¢ stamps.

It’s Great Fun Exploring these Old Stamps –
Compare Them Side-By-Side!

The following illustrations give you the inside scoop on secret marks and their locations, as well as other helpful identification tips.  To really explore these stamp designs, you’ll want to have a good magnifier.  It will make working with these stamps much easier and much more rewarding.  You’ll love the detail…these stamps are beautifully engraved.

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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:

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Roger Brody’s Second Purpose

Roger S. Brody, a specialist in early twentieth century U.S. stamps, was introduced to the world of stamp collecting at the age of ten, when he was given a general world-wide album filled with a smattering of stamps. His interest eventually led to collecting regular issue and commemorative united States and British North America postage stamps, with particular interest in color varieties. Continue reading

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100 Greatest American Stamps

Don Sundman and Janet Klug
Discuss the 100 Greatest American Stamps

Enjoy listening as Don and Janet Klug introduce the stamps selected as the “100 Greatest American Stamps.”  And when you’re done, order a copy of the book for yourself!


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