Stamp collecting glossary - a guide to philatelic jargon


01 May 2018
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The jargon of stamp collecting is explained in our glossary of philatelic terms

Discover the meaning of stamp collecting terms and phrases with our stamp glossary…

Approvals: Priced collections of stamps sent to on request to collectors by dealers. Collectors select which stamps they wish to buy and then return the rest of the selection to the dealer with payment.

Admirals: The 'admirals' is the name given to three British Commonwealth series of stamps that depict King George V in a naval uniform.

Aerogram: This is a pre-paid airmail letter which can be folded to form an envelope. These are usually lower cost than regular airmail. 

Albino: A completely un-inked stamp design with no colour. This can occur if two sheets of paper are fed through the press at the same time, or if no ink is applied. Such errors are more common on postal stationary than stamps. 

Album weed: An album weed refers to either a counterfeit stamp or an item which mimics a stamp. These are not accepted to pay postage. 

Arrow: A V-shaped marking applied to stamp sheet margins which serves as a guide for cutting. 

Bisect: To bisect, is the process in which a stamp is physically halved, whilst also keeping its original full value. Therefore, each half will be worth half the stamps original price. This method has been used during times of common stamp shortages. 

Bishop mark: Henry Bishop presented the first ever postmark in 1661. This postmark included the month and day of recipient by the post office, so postal carriers would deliver on time. 

Bourse: A conference in which stamps and covers are sold or traded, typically without competitive exhibits. Most stamp exhibitions have a dealer bourse, but most bourses occur without an exhibition.

Burelage: Sometimes part of the design, the barelage is an array of thin lines. These are printed on the security paper to prevent forgeries, cleaning and reuse. 

Cancel: The handstamp or postmark placed over a stamp to show it has been used. While stamps are usually marked with simple cancels showing the date and location of post office, commemorative cancels show relevant images or slogans.

Centring: The position of the design in relation to its margins. A stamp’s grade is largely determined by its centring, presuming the stamp is not damaged, so a well-centred stamp would command a higher value than an example with smaller or inconsistent margins.

Changeling: Referring to a stamp with changed colours from the original. This can be accidental or intentional.

Cinderella: a label or stamp that is not valid for postage. Cinderellas, so called as they are not invited to the ‘postal party’, include seals, advertising labels, poster stamps, local post stamps and more.

Coil: Stamps which are issued in a long row and prepared for sale in rolls, usually from stamp vending machines. Many coils are perforated on two parallel sides, with straight edges on the other two parallel sides. Coil stamps first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century and were particularly popular in the United States.

Combination cover: When stamps from more than one country are found on a cover, due to the postal item’s journey through multiple nations. The term is also used to describe combinations of cancellations, including those of the same country added on different dates. 

Controlled mail: Also known as ‘philatelic mail’ or a ‘philatelic cover’. The term refers to a letter sent deliberately through the postal system by a collector who wishes the item to be cancelled on a particular date or at a particular location, making the item more desirable. 

Cotton Reels: The name given to stamps with a circular design similar to the label placed on the end of a cotton reel. The most famous examples are the early Bermudan stamps produced by William Perot, the postmaster of Bermuda between 1812 and 1862.

Crash cover: A cover retrieved or rescued from a vehicle crash of some kind, as the name states. The cover will usually include an explanation if there is any damage or a delay, and may exhibit signs of the accident, such as being torn or singed.

Dead country: A ‘dead country’ stamp was produced in a country or territory which no longer exists or no longer produces postage stamps. 

Die: The original engraving of a stamp design, usually placed onto steel, is known as the die. Multiple dies are often used in the production of a stamp creating a number of distinctive varieties for the specialist collector to identify.

Die cut: A form of separation used mainly on self-adhesive stamps. During the production process, an edge tool called a die penetrates the stamp paper, so that individual stamps can later be easily removed. Die cuts can be straight or shaped and are often designed to mimic the marks made by perforation teeth.

Deltiology: The collecting of picture postcards. 

Dummy stamp: Official ‘fake’ stamps created, and used, for training or testing processes. 

Ephemera: Collectable items, usually printed matter, that were initially intended to have only a short life. Examples include posters, pamphlets, invoices, tickets and catalogues.

Error: A stamp with incorrect printing, perforations or folding resulting in a lack of a particular colour or a misprint of some sort. Famous examples of errors include the 3d Opening of Post Office Tower issue from October 1965 which was missing the Olive-yellow missing ink – making the actual image of tower absent. Known errors would often be destroyed by the issuing authority, however many examples reach the market and can fetch huge amounts at auction.

Essay: The proposed design for a stamp, as submitted by the artist. Essays can be highly collectable as pieces of stamp-related history, often showing the signature of the artist and the staff of the philatelic bureau, and usually illustrating the evolution of the design, with artist's sketches and text often being updated for the final design. The 1839 Treasury Essays showed the many suggestions for the world's first postage stamp as submitted by members of the public.

Expertization: The practice of confirming a stamp’s authenticity and condition by a panel of expert philatelists. Once a stamp has been expertized, certification will be given. The certificate will include information on the stamp and signatures of the experts. Certificates are often cited when a stamp is sold at auction, and the certificate is included as part of the sale.

Exploded: An ‘exploded’ stamp booklet has its staple removed without causing damage, allowing the panes to be easily undone and checked for the gum condition, centring, etc.

Fast colours: How resistant a stamp’s colour it is to running or fading. 

Fiscal: A stamp for financial purposes, such as a tax stamp or revenue stamp, which has been authorised for postal use. 

Europa stamp: Special stamps issued by European postal administrations which bear the official EUROPA logo. The first Europa stamps were issued in 1957 and followed a common design. Today, the stamps follow a common annual theme selected by PostEurop's Stamps & Philately Working Group. PostEurop is the trade association that represents European public postal operators.

Free franks: Up until the introduction of the Uniform Penny Postage on 10 January 1840, Members of Parliament were allowed to send and receive letters free of charge – what became known as the ‘Parliamentary Privilege’. To send a letter by this means, the privileged sender was obliged to write the place and date on the front of the letter, and then sign it. Many 'free frank' covers also feature a seal of the MP or a 'FREE' stamp.

Forgery: An illegal reproduction of a postage stamp produced either to defraud the postal authorities, or to defraud stamp collectors. There are many famous cases of forged stamps, including those used at the London Stock Exchange Post Office in 1872 and 1873. Some bogus examples are actually collectable themselves, including much of the work of Italian-born forger Jean de Sperati (1884-1957), who made accurate copies of some of the world’s rarest stamps.

Foxing: The term ‘foxing’ refers to a rust-like brown stain which can appear on stamps, particularly older ones. The causes of foxing are still not fully understood, but it may be caused by high humidity or by a fungal growth on the paper. To prevent foxing, stamps should ideally be stored at a temperature of less than 18 ºC and a humidity of 55 to sixty percent. Obviously, this would be difficult to achieve in a home environment and so the next best thing is to store your stamps away from sources of heat or direct sunlight, in a well-ventilated room. Bleaching products to remove foxing are available, but carry a risk of damaging the paper.

Fugitive inks: Inks which easily disappear and break down in water or any water-based component. 

Gravure: Rather than by hand engraving, this is a printing process created by both chemical and photographic means. A gravure uses an intaglio printing plate.

Hinge: Small, rectangular pieces of glassine paper used to mount stamps by folding and affixing one side to the album, the other to the gum of the stamp. Hinging stamps can result in a small loss of the stamp’s gum, hence the rise in the demand for higher quality, ‘unhinged’ stamps. 

Imperforate: Stamps with no perforations and no straightforward way of being separating. Such items are often created by mistake, while the first stamps of many stamp-issuing countries did not feature perforations and were instead cut from the sheet using scissors or a cutting machine.

Lithography: Now the most popular method of printing stamps, photo lithography involves the use of water and oil. The printing plate is dampened, then oil-based ink is applied which sticks to the greasy image and not to the damp areas. The image is then transferred to paper. Offset lithography involves a further process involving a rubber blanket, which takes the image before it is transferred to paper. The process creates clean, solid blocks of colour.

Locals: Stamps issued in a particular town or region by a small, independent post office or a private organisation. Locals can be philatelic, such as the stamps of small islands Lundy or Shuna, or can be produced in times of war when the national postal service is not operating efficiently.

Marcophily: A specialised study which relates to postmarks, handstamps and cancellations, applied by hand or by machine. Many cities with several post offices have a huge variety of handstamps and machine cancellations which can be studied.

Missionary: The first stamps issued by Hawaii are some of the most desirable and renowned stamps in philately. The primitive stamps got their name from the American missionaries stationed on the island, who used the stamps to write home (see page 54).

Mulready: Designed by William Mulready, the first letter sheets and envelopes introduced as part of the British Post Office postal reforms of 1840, featured a pictorial design which also served as proof of prepaid postage. The elaborate design on the stationery shows Britannia at the centre with a shield and a reclining lion, yet the product was met with derision by the public.

Newspaper stamps: Stamps for the mailing of newspapers and other printed papers. 

Overprint: The printing of text over an original stamp design, for use in a different country or territory, to update the value of the stamp, or for use at a special event. The printing method presents a number of varieties, with differences in the direction of the text, and mis-spellings, and double overprints, to search for.

Paquebot: Paquebot cancellations show not only the routes used around the world, they also provide a record of the time certain vessels were on the high seas, making the markings a useful tool for recording maritime postal history.

Perfins: The term is a contraction of the phrase ‘perforated initials’ and is used to describe stamps punched with perforated letters or designs. Britain was the first country to use perfins in 1868 and since then, more than 23,000 different perfin designs have been used on British stamps. Perfins were originally a means of detecting stamp theft, since stamps could be exchanged for cash at post offices and so were regularly stolen. 

Photogravure: The photogravure stamp printing process involves screening the image to create rows of cells or dots. The ink then rests in the depressions created and the paper is forced into these depressions to form the image. The colours seen on photogravure stamps are less solid, with distinct edging to the image. 

Philately: The study of postage stamps, postal history, and the history of the postal system. Find out more in our introduction to philately

Precancel: A stamp which has had a special cancellation or marking applied before it enters the postal system. Precancels are often used for mass mailings, for which stamps are not used, and such items can then bypass the normal postage system.

Propaganda stamp: A stamp issued either legally by an official philatelic bureau or as a private, unofficial issue to communicate a political point of view or to claim to a disputed territory. Many propaganda stamps appear during wartime.

Provisional: A stamp issued for temporary use until new or regular stamps can be re-obtained. Such stamps have often been issued at times of upheaval, such as wartime, a change of government or a change of currency. Provisional stamps can be made by overprinting, bisecting or surcharging existing stamps.

Regional: Stamps produced to represent a particular region. Introduced by the Post Office in 1958, the UK's regionals were intended to revive the tourist industry of the Channel Islands and meet calls for more representative issues. The stamps were issued for Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Rocket mail: A rare type of mail, which has been transported by rocket. Many attempts have been made to send post by means of rocket, perhaps most notably the experiments of German inventor Gerhard Zucker who tried to create a rocket mail service to the remote Scottish island of Scarp.

Se-tenant: A French phrase meaning 'joined together', which is used to describe adjoining stamps which differ in design, colour, value, or overprint. The first se-tenant stamp, it could be argued, is the Penny Black, since each stamp features a different check letter in the corner. While some se-tenant issues show minor differences, others create a larger image, such examples are also referred to as 'composite' stamps. Once a very rare occurrence, se-tenant stamps are now very common, with most issuing countries using the format on most of their commemorative issues.

Speculative issue: A stamps produced ultimately for collecting and are unnecessary for legitimate postal requirements. 

Surcharge: An overprint (in either number or text format) which changes the value of a stamp. Surcharges are usually issued when there is no time or resources to create a brand new stamp showing the new denomination. Surcharging existing stamps was a relatively common occurrence, but is now more scarce. Notable surcharges include the many variations of overprints on the Red Revenue stamps of China in 1897, and the Niger Coast surcharges of the 1890s, which displayed a variety of values.

Underprint: A form of authentication, with text or a symbol printed beneath the stamp's main design.

Wilding: Named after the photographer Dorothy Wilding, the Wildings are another name for the first definitive stamps of Elizabeth II. The portrait of the Queen was taken in February 1952, following the death of King George VI. The image was replaced in 1967 with the introduction of the Machin head design.

TPO: Stands for Travelling Post Office. A TPO consisted of a railway wagon, van or coach fitted out with frames (known as 'pigeon holes') to sort letters and other mail items while the train is on the move. The first such service began in January 1838.