Water-activated vs. self-adhesive stamps

The world’s first adhesive postage stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1837.  The Penny Black had a substance applied to the back made from potato starch, wheat starch, and acacia gum.  For more than a century, most stamps were water activated, meaning they had a gum backing that had to be moistened before use.   Collectors soaked these stamps in water to remove the paper the stamp was applied to.  (For more information about soaking stamps click here.)

Self-adhesive stamps are issued on a special backing paper.  Once peeled off the backing, the adhesive allows the stamps to be affixed without being moistened.  If you want to put mint self-adhesive stamps in your collection, don’t remove the backing paper!  Just trim it within 1/8” of the edge of your stamp.

3632-serpent-perfMost U.S. stamps issued today are self-adhesive.  They have wavy, “serpentine” die cuts
made to look like perforations or they’ll have no perforations at all.

1552The first U.S. self-adhesive stamp was issued in for the 1974 Christmas season.  It was more expensive to produce than water-activated stamps and Postal Service officials thought it was being reused.  For collectors, the problem occurred over time.  They found if they tried to soak the stamp off the paper, the stamp’s paper would separate destroying the stamp.  Many collectors just trimmed the paper.  After several years, the stamps became discolored because of the unstable adhesive that was used.  It would be many years before the U.S. would issue another self-adhesive stamp.

The Postal System tried self-adhesives again in 1989 with greater success.  The 1990s and 2431early 2000s marked a transition time.  In 1994, less than 10 percent of U.S. stamps
were self-adhesive.  By 2013, almost all the stamps were issued with that way.






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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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The Miller Collection & Private Bank Note Stamps


Benjamin K. Miller assembled the first complete U.S. stamp collection in history.  His amazing feat was only rivaled later by the daring theft of several of his rare stamps.  The theft became one of the greatest philatelic mysteries.  Now you can listen in as Scott Trepel discusses the Miller Collection and the era of Private Bank Note Stamps in this video taken during the 2006 Maynard Sundman Lecture at the National Postal Museum…

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The Queen’s Own


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Get an insider’s look at Queen Elizabeth’s amazing stamp collection with this exclusive video.

In celebration of “The Queen’s Own” exhibit at the National Postal Museum, the 2004 annual Sundman Lecture featured Michael Sefi, Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection.  Sefi was recently appointed Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order for his service to the Queen.

In this video, Sefi discusses the Royal Philatelic Collection, highlights his experiences working with this world-renowned collection and reviews some of his favorite objects.

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The Art of the Stamp

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Kick back and enjoy the 2012 Sundman Lecture, The Art of the Stamp.  This video focuses on the art, process, and philosophy of contemporary stamp design.  It features speakers from the stamp designing and collecting community, including author and Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee member Janet Klug, US Postal Service art director Antonio Alcala, stamp artist and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology Kam Mak, artist/illustrator Howard Koslow, and photographer Sally Andersen-Bruce.

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