Some years ago, I was reading an article in the American Philatelist, if memory serves me, about how another collector had overcome the issue of price on the 19th spaces in his album. He had started acquiring proofs, either on card or India paper, in lieu of mint stamps. The cost for the proofs was far, far less than the issued stamps. What really struck me was that the proofs are actually much scarcer than the stamps. This appeared to be a winning situation anyway I viewed it; I would have something to fill the spaces of my 19th century album pages and it would be more economically feasible than the stamps. At the same time, I would be building a collection which, if finished completely, would be one of only 100 possible in the entire world.
What I’ve found is that these proofs are often far superior to the printed stamps, both in sharpness of image and in depth of color. A complete set for any of the issues is striking and immensely satisfying to view, providing those who see them with a real understanding of what the artists and engravers working for the various private printing firms who produced these proofs were striving for.
What is a proof? A proof, in philatelic terms, is “…a trial printing of a stamp made from the original die or the finished plate.1 ” In the normal sense of things, this would imply that proofs are preproduction creations used as a means of ensuring the quality and viability of the finished product, postage stamp, when the printing process is in full swing.
Types of proofs. While Dr. Clarence W. Brazer listed the different types of proofs in the books he wrote, which will be discussed later, it is easiest to follow the types in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, hereinafter referred to as the Scott Specialized. In this volume, an entire section is devoted to the proofs of stamps issued by the United States.2
There are several designations, which will not be discussed at this point, as they are outside the focus of this presentation. While the first three types I will discuss are also outside the focus, a basic understanding of these types helps to provide a frame of reference when the card proofs are considered alone. Therefore, there are four basic types of proofs, in the sense relating to the special printings created by the USPOD, as follows:
Die Proofs (Type P1 and P2). These are obtained from single dies and were created to determine the viability of the die impression prior to hardening the die, and again after hardening to ensure consistency of impressions.
(P1) Large Die Proof – Taken from a single die impression and so called because of the size of the piece of paper or card which was used to create it.
(P2) Small Die Proof – Taken from a single die impression and so called because of the smaller size of the paper or card which was used to create it. For the issues prior to 1904, the small die proofs may not have been taken from original dies.
Plate Proofs (Types P3 and P4). These are taken from finished plates. These would have been used to determine the plate impressions prior to printing to ensure the impressions on the plate were aligned, properly impressed and ready for use.
(P3) Plate Proof on India Paper. India paper is a thin, very porous paper which provided superior impressions from the printing plates. This paper will wrinkle when wet and sometimes shows pieces of the bamboo used to make it.
(P4) Plate Proof on Card. The card used was “…a plain, white card of good quality, which is found in varying thicknesses for different printings…3 ” This was quoted verbatim as it emphasizes the key identification point for these issues, namely the thickness of the card.
History. Prior to 1894, the postage stamps of the United States were produced by private companies, working under bid contracts for the United States Post Office Department. It is important to note that there are a large number of essays, proofs and trial color proofs created by these companies in the course of winning the government contracts they sought. None of these essays or proofs have anything to do with the card proofs in question.
Since these “proofs” didn’t have anything to do with preproduction checks or quality control measures, this begs the question of “Why were they created?”
In the case of the cardboard proofs, commonly referred to as card proofs, further information is required to understand the “why.” First, these are not proofs in the traditional sense. By this, I am referring to the reason for a creating a proof. The card proofs were never intended as a quality control check on the finished plates, which is the usual reason for pulling a proof. They are a proof in the sense that they were created in that manner, from the finished plates, albeit for a different reason.
These would be a product offered to the collecting community, and in a few instances, used as a means of presenting the body of work created for the USPOD and exhibited as such. While the same could be accomplished by presenting stamps, the depth of color, the sharpness of the image and the cleanness of the finished product are vastly superior to a production run stamp. This is why this method of production was specifically desired by the USPOD.
What is really known about these proofs? We, as collectors, are very fortunate to have available to us printed works by former collectors and researchers. This body of work allows us to follow the string of events surrounding issues, such as the proofs and essays.
The recognized Dean of U.S. Proofs and Essays was Dr. Clarence W. Brazer. His work in this area in the first half of the twentieth century has provided the philatelic community with information which was gathered in the years following the printing of these proofs, when it was still fresh in the minds and memories of the people who worked on the projects and in the memories of the collectors who had the foresight to obtain sets of these proofs.
Dr. Brazer wrote several books on these subjects. His published work provides the key to why these card proofs were created.. As he explains in his book Essays for U.S. Adhesive Postage Stamps 4 and in slightly more detail in Lester G. Brookman’s The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, Volume III, 1883-1898:
“In 1875 the United States Post Office Department had Reproductions, Reprints and Re-Issues of all stamps issued prior to that time specially printed and these were separated into sets and enclosed in small white envelopes with printing on the face, and sold to collectors at face value…. 5 ”
Dr. Brazer goes on to explain in more detail about each of the different printings, when he believed they occurred and the numbers produced in each printing. It should be noted that while 1875 was the “first” printing, it is not considered one of the six recognized printings. This run was overprinted “Specimen”. What it does do is set the precedent for the later printings. According to Dr. Brazer, the printings from which these card proofs came occurred in 1879, 1880, 1885, 1890, 1893 and 1894. Where there are distinctive color differences by printing, some of them quite striking, I do not have available which colors were used for each stamp by printing; that is something I am trying to either find or will attempt to develop myself. 6
Although the work of Dr. Brazer was extensive and thorough, recent research has added to the information we now know about the production runs of the card proofs. Greg Vaupotic, a collector and researcher, has scientifically analyzed the card proofs of the 19th century, working particularly on ways to identify the different printings. As an integral part of these studies, he and others have nailed down the dates of the card proof printings. In his article for the United States Stamp Society, Greg Vaupotic provided the currently recognized printing dates of 1879, 1882, 1890, 1893, 1894 and 1895.7 It should also be noted that while there may be distinctive colors or shades for some of the individual proofs by issue, the only sure way to determine which printing the proofs originated from is through the measurement of the thickness of the card stock used. Each printing used a different thickness of card, making it possible to identify them by printing.8
There is a dividing line here as well, which bears mentioning. As noted earlier, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing did not take over the printing of stamps, which included the creation of dies, until 1894. This means that all items prior to the small banknote issues with triangles, including the Columbian Exposition stamps, were created and produced by private companies.
These companies included the firm of Toppan and Carpenter, the American Bank Note Company, the Continental Bank Note Company and the National Bank Note Company. This applies to all stamps issued in the United States through the Columbian issue of 1893. It was with the small bank note issues, with triangles in the top corners, where stamps were solely produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The dividing line is thus the end of the Columbian Issue. Those printings of 1894 and 1895 would have been produced by the BEP; all four earlier printings were done by the American Bank Note Company at the request of the USPOD.
Finally, there are card proofs (Scott catalogue designation P4) for the regular issues through 1894, some of the revenue stamps (although not all), the first three Special Delivery Stamps, all of the Official Stamps and the first three issues of the Postage Due Stamps.
1 Snee, p. 27A. This is the universal definition which is somewhat different from the context necessary to understand the nature of the cardboard proofs created by the BEP.
2 Previous catalogues, prior to the Scott 2012 (actually published and released in 2011), were a bit more straightforward, using a table format which made looking at the proof issues simple and easy to follow. The difficulty was that it was not inclusive of some of the other types of proofs. Starting with the 2012 Specialized, the editors of the Scott Catalogue began using a listing format which included all types of proofs, including Trial Color proofs (designated by a TC) for each individual issue, requiring a columnar listing. This system has to be listed individually and does not lend itself to the previous table development. While the newer format is more inclusive, it is more complex and a bit harder to follow, especially when trying to determine which stamps would have been included in the original printings made available to collectors by the USPOD.
3 Snee, p. 844.
4 Brazer, pp. xi-xvi.
5 Brookman, Vol. III. p. 221.
7 According to James Lee, the 1895 printing is questionable.
8 Vaupotic, p. 3.