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1847-1851 Issues

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5-cent Franklin

Though Postmasters' Provisionals and Locals may have preceded them, the 1847 5-cent and 10-cent stamps represent the beginning of U.S. philately to most collectors. Traditionally, the 1847 stamps occupied the first two spaces in albums, but due to their high catalog value, most young collectors of U.S. stamps could not afford to buy them. Hence, these spaces were almost certainly left empty. Such circumstances have created a certain mystique about the 1847 stamps, which hold a special place in the minds of many collectors since they are the premiere issue and represent a genesis of sorts.

On March 3, 1847, Congress fixed the future of the U.S. postage stamp by passing an Act to establish Post Roads "and other purposes" [Congressional Record, March 3, 1847]. It appears that stamps fell into the category of "other purposes." Effective July 1, 1847, the placement of an adhesive stamp on a letter paid its necessary postage. With the authority vested in him by the statute to prepare postage stamps, Postmaster General Cave Johnson retained Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson (RWH&E), a New York City banknote engraver and printer, to print the first postage stamps. His choice was likely premised on the fact that RWH&E was the prominent firm of the time, and the firm had engraved and printed the New York Postmasters' Provisional two years prior. RWH&E became part of the American Bank Note Company in 1858.

Jacob Perkins, founder of the famous British printing firm of Perkins, Bacon and Company, invented the process by which the stamps of 1847 (and nearly all early U.S. stamps) were engraved and printed. First, a die was made by engraving, in reverse, a single image of the design. This engraving was etched into soft steel and then hardened. An arc-shaped band of soft steel called a 'transfer roll' was rocked repeatedly over the die, transferring the impression from the hardened steel die into the soft steel of the transfer roll. The image on the transfer roll was not in reverse. Next, a plate large enough to accommodate two side-by-side panes of one hundred entries each (to be laid down with 10x10 entries) was held fast to a table. Although not conclusive, evidence indicates the transfer roll was placed above the left side of the plate. The impressions were then rocked in one position at a time, starting at the top of the column and working downward, until all two hundred transfers were made. These images were in reverse, and the plate produced the positive image postage stamps.

Wade Saadi

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5-cent Franklin

The 5-cent Franklin stamp exists in a vast number of shades. There are more than twenty-five major shade classifications for the stamp, and there are almost a hundred more varieties listed under those. Consequently, these shades are a truly fascinating part of 1847 collecting. Some shades are very hard to find; others are quite common.

The plate was put to press five times, and the stamps from each printing are distinguishable by the characteristics of their impressions. Brown inks, which contained oxides of various metals, eroded the engraved plate's fine lines through the several thousand impressions. Repeated, inconsistent wiping of the plate after each impression also eroded the engraving. After the third printing, the plate was virtually useless. The plate was then acid-etched before the fourth printing, cleaning the plate, deepening its lines, and thereby enhancing the impression. However, in the process the lines of the engraved plate were widened twice as much as they were deepened, the acid eating away at the left and right sides simultaneously. It also ate away at the bottom. While this helped strengthen medium-to-deep lines, it gave them a soft or fuzzy appearance. Many of the extremely fine lines completely disappeared from the stamps of the fourth and fifth printing. A few positions on the plate might have been re-entered after the fourth and/or fifth printing.

Plate varieties included six so-called double-transfers, a "T" Crack, the dot in "S," and a few others. Cancellations are usually a red grid, town, or manuscript. Any other well-defined strikes are sought after.

Wade Saadi

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10-cent Washington single, 1847

Unlike the printings of the 5-cent 1847 stamp, the four printings of the 10-cent stamp are not academically important. There is no dispute over whether the plate was re-worked, had re-entries, or was cleaned. These actions, presumed to have been performed on the 5-cent plate, changed certain details of the 5-cent stamp's appearance. Since these did not occur on the 10-cent plate, the 10-cent deliveries are almost completely indistinguishable from one another. The range between the first delivery and the fourth delivery is very narrow and barely perceptible. The primary reason for this is the composition of the inks. The composition of the inks was likely carbon-based pigments, similar to carbon black. Unlike the pigments of the 5-cent stamp, the 10-cent inks were not abrasive. Another reason for lack of wear to the 10-cent plate is that only 1,050,000 stamps were printed. That is less than twenty-five percent of the 4,4000,000 stamps for the 5-cent stamp. If the 5-cent plate had made only 1,050,000 stamps, production would have stopped during the second delivery, leaving only excellent impressions known from the 5-cent stamp as well.

Elliott Perry plated all two hundred positions of the 10-cent stamp. He found that, because of the black ink's non-abrasive nature and its sharp contrast on the paper, the nuances of each impression rendered them virtually indistinguishable. There are four double transfers and many well-known varieties from this plate.

The 1847 issue was demonetized on July 1, 1851, replaced by new stamps and new postal rates. The contract to print the new issue was not awarded to Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson, which retained ownership of the 1847 printing plates and dies. From that point onward, all printing contracts provided for government possession of all the plates and dies. The lack of government control over the printing media, it is believed, caused the 1847 issue to be demonetized.

Wade Saadi

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1847-1851 Issues | National Postal Museum

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