February 2007 is the 150th anniversary of the introduction of perforations on United States postage stamps. The U.S. issued its first stamps in 1847 and for the first ten years it was necessary to use scissors to separate a stamp from the others printed on the same sheet. This was inconvenient and especially time consuming for postal clerks and large businesses. In contrast, today most postage stamps are “self-adhesive” and the user just peels the stamp off its paper backing and sticks it on the envelope. But self-adhesive stamps are a modern invention, having being put into widespread use in the late 1990s.
The solution implemented in 1857 in the United States (and used until the late 1990s) to make separation of stamps from sheets more efficient was the process of perforation. This process removed small circular pieces of paper in the rows and columns between stamps. This weakened the paper but did not cause the sheet of stamps to fall apart. When a user was ready to remove a stamp this could now be easily done with the fingers.
Developing equipment to do this was quite difficult in the 1850s. Figure 1 shows a machine (called a rotary perforator) in the museum’s collection that was used at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) in 1918. The machine used rotating wheels with matching sets of pins and holes (figure 2) to remove the paper between the stamps.
The rotary perforating principle was patented by William and Henry Bemrose of Derby, England in 1854. Toppan & Carpenter of Philadelphia, the company that printed all U.S. stamps for the U.S. Post Office during the 1850s, purchased a machine from Bemrose & Co. in 1855. There were few design changes from the earliest rotary perforating machines (such as figure 3) and the machine in figure 1.
The first U.S. stamps to be perforated on this machine were the common three-cent stamps in use in 1857 (figure 4). The earliest recorded use of such perforated stamps is February 28, 1857. Initial capacity was insufficient to perforate all stamps printed, thus perforated U.S. stamps used between February and July 1857 are scarce, after which time additional machines were available.
Little has been written on how the United States developed this capability. Below is a brief summary of key events leading to the introduction of perforated stamps in the United States.
In mid-March 1855 Postmaster General (PMG) Campbell set the wheels in motion to perforate U.S. stamps. He may have previously contemplated perforation, but this was the point that he took decisive action. Several events prompted his actions.
First, the PMG’s staff was forecasting that the demand for stamps would significantly increase. The Act of March 3, 1855, made prepayment of postage mandatory beginning April 1855, and prepayment of postage mandatory by stamps effective January 1, 1856. The prediction proved correct. Usage of stamps of all denominations doubled in two years, and quadrupled by 1861.
Second, existing methods of separating stamps were inadequate. Separation by scissors was common, but far too slow. Many examples can be found where stamps were torn from the sheet, usually by folding and tearing against a straight edge. Some individuals invented alternative methods, evidenced by rouletting and sawtooth separations found on letters from various cities.
Third, perforated stamps from Great Britain began to show up in the United States. These were done on a machine invented by Henry Archer in London (that was based on a different design that the rotary perforator) and placed in operation in 1854. A letter written by Horace Binney, Jr. encouraging the use of perforating stamps in the U.S. was the trigger. Binney and his father were fellow members of the Philadelphia bar with their friend, Postmaster General (PMG) James A. Campbell. Upon receipt of Binney’s letter the PMG initiated steps to obtain similar U.S. capability.
Perkins Bacon Involvement
Since 1840 Perkins, Bacon had engraved and printed all stamps for Great Britain. These stamps were issued perforated using Archer’s invention commencing January 1854. Since 1851 Toppan, Carpenter had engraved and printed all U.S. stamps. Thus from a professional viewpoint, it is not too surprising that Toppan, Carpenter turned to Perkins, Bacon & Co for help on this matter in 1855.
However, it was on the basis of personal relationships that Toppan, Carpenter felt comfortable in asking advice. Perkins and Bacon were both Americans, who moved to London. Charles Toppan was Perkins’ nephew. He accompanied Jacob Perkins to London in 1819, and worked as an engraver at Perkins, Bacon until the mid-1820s. These relationships allowed both companies to comfortably share information.
Perkins, Bacon had additional motivation for being helpful. They needed a perforating machine for the British colonial stamps they produced, as the Archer machine could only perforate sheets identical in size and layout to the British stamps. Cost was important due to the comparatively low quantities of colonial stamps issued, and they anticipated they could get a better price if two machines were purchased at the same time.
It would have pained Perkins, Bacon to see Archer’s machine adopted by United States' stamp contractor. While building his machine, Archer had tried unsuccessfully to annul Perkins, Bacon’s contract for printing British postage stamps. He accused Perkins, Bacon of sabotage and prevailed upon the British Post Office to locate his perforating machine at Somerset House, a government facility some distance from Perkins, Bacon.
Toppan, Carpenter wrote to Perkins, Bacon regarding the Archer machine. Perkins, Bacon almost immediately steered Toppan, Carpenter to Bemrose and Sons. They convinced Toppan, Carpenter and themselves the Bemrose machine was significantly less expensive to purchase and operate, and it was more flexible in terms of the sheet size that it could accommodate.
When Toppan, Carpenter purchased the machine from Bemrose, they intended to use it as a rouletter (i.e., a slitter), not a perforator. Perkins, Bacon purchased a similar machine at the same time in order to get a lower price. Both machines ultimately proved to be unsatisfactory, due to mechanical problems and because the paper tended to fall apart after rouletting. Toppan, Carpenter successfully converted their machine to a perforator, but this was an expensive and time-consuming conversion, requiring design changes. Perkins, Bacon never got their machine to work.
Below is a summary of key dates of the correspondence relating to the purchase of the perforating machine by Toppan, Carpenter:
The question of whether the perforating machine invented by Henry Archer ever entered service has long been debated. The latest research findings¹, based on a study of the original records of the Stamping Department of the Board of Inland Revenue, conclude that it did not. The Department’s Perforating Account records confirm that the only machines used from January 1854 onwards for the official perforation of British postage stamps were those manufactured by D. Napier & Son, Ltd. Toppan Carter’s original intention was to acquire a machine from this source.
1) R. C Simpson & P.J. Sargent, Stamp Perforation: The Somerset House Years 1848 to 1880, RPSL, London, 2006.
Bacon, E.D., and F.H. Napier, Grenada, to Which is Prefixed an Account of the Perforations of the Perkins Bacon Printed Stamps of the British Colonies, London, England: Stanley Gibbons, Inc. 1898.
Boggs, Winthrop S. Early American Perforating Machines 1851-1857, New York, New York: Collectors Club of New York 1954.
Chase, Carroll, The 3c Stamp of the United States 1851-1857 Issue, Hammondsport, New York: J.O. Moore, Inc. 1929.
Hulme, Wilson, “The Chicago Perforations,” The Chronicle of the U.S. Classic Postal Issues, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May 1997), pp. 95-120, and Vol. 49, No. 3 (August 1997), pp. 157-196.
Peterson, Charles and Hubert Skinner,The 1851 Issue of United States Stamps: a Sesquicentennial Retrospective, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2006. Pages 138 – 169 contain a chapter by Hulme, Wilson, Unofficial Roulettes on the Three-Cent Stamp of the United States 1851 Issue
Wiggins, W.R.D., The Postage Stamps of Great Britain, Part Two: Revised Edition The Perforated Line-Engraved Issues, London, England: The Royal Philatelic Society London 1962, page 11.
Written by Wilson Hulme