The Transfer of Stamp Manufacture from the American Banknote
Company to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The year 1894 marked a new era in the manufacture of United
States postage stamps. Since 1847, the contract for printing stamps had
been awarded to various printing companies, the last being the
American Banknote Company whose most recent printings included the
"Baby Banknotes" of 1890, Scott 219-229, as well as
the 1¢ to $5 Columbians.
On July 1 of 1894 the American Banknote Company of New York City
handed the reins over to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C., where stamps are printed to this
day. This transfer included, among other things, all existing
stamps, dies, rolls and working plates of the current issue as
well as previous issues, and all of the paper stock on hand. For
some reason, the name of the paper manufacturer was not passed on
to the Bureau, and when the supply of paper American turned over
was exhausted, the Bureau was forced to find another
It is thought that the Bureau did not have enough time to make
their own designs, dies and plates to meet the public demand for
stamps in the first few months of takeover and therefore simply incorporated the American Banknote
definitives for regularly issued stamps, much as American and Continental
before them had done. To distinguish their stamps from
American's, primarily addressing the issue of liability, the
Bureau added triangles in the upper corners of the designs, stamps we now know as the "First Bureaus"
or the "Triangle" Series of
1894, Scott 246-263.
It is interesting to note that some of the "Triangles"
were printed on the soft porous paper that the American Banknote
Company turned over to the Bureau in July of 1894. These
can be distinguished rather easily from their later counterparts
printed on the
newer, slightly harder and thinner paper of the Bureau's new paper
source. The earlier printings of the
"Triangle" Series can also be distinguished by their perforations. The
Bureau was new to mass production of postage stamps and the
equipment used to perforate the stamps had not yet been perfected. The
first "Triangles" often have perforations with quite ragged
edges, many experienced collectors can sort unwatermarked "Triangles',
Scott 246-263, from their watermarked counterparts,
Scott 264-278, merely by the raggedness of
The Addition of Watermarks to
U.S. Postage Stamps
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was not entirely new to the
printing of stamps. In addition to printing paper money and
securities, they had been printing revenue stamps since 1862, and
had been using watermarked
paper, by law, on the revenue stamps since at least 1878.
When the Bureau took over the printing of regularly issued stamps
in the middle of 1894, they were obviously aware of the law that required
government securities to be printed on watermarked paper and most
that since stamps fell under the broad window of securities, they
too should be printed on watermarked paper. For whatever reasons,
the Bureau did not implement this policy until at least the end of
the year, possibly as a cost saving measure, wishing to avoid the
waste of dumping the unwatermarked paper stock turned over by the American
Banknote Company. This makes sense, in that the Bureau had won the
printing contract by proposing the lowest bid and they were not in
a position to waste any resources they might have had.
Since the first stamp on watermarked paper was issued in April of
1895, with an earliest known usage of May 2, 1895 (for Scott 265),
and a commonly accepted lag time of between 2 to 3 months between
production and distribution, it is fairly safe to assume that the
first printings of U.S. postage stamps on watermarked
paper was sometime in the early part of 1895. This adds credence
to the idea that watermarks were added as a control measure and in
accordance with the law governing securities, rather than the idea
that it was primarily a deterrent to counterfeiters.
In something of a coincidence, in that same year the famous
2c "Chicago" counterfeits were discovered. This led to the conclusion that watermarks were
added to U.S. stamps as a security device aimed at deterring
counterfeiters in direct response to the Chicago counterfeits.
Most authorities feel this highly unlikely since the Chicago counterfeits were
"discovered" on April 8, 1895 and the watermarked one
cent stamp was issued three weeks later on April 29, 1895. It would
have been an impossibility for the Bureau to have been informed of
the counterfeits on April 8 or 9, have a committee reach a
decision to print stamps on watermarked paper, design the
new watermark, require the paper manufacturer to add this new
watermark and provide the paper to the Bureau, print the sheets of
stamps, allow the ink to dry (usually about a week or so), gum and
perforate the sheets, and issue the sheets to Post Offices all in
less than three weeks. Further, if the threat of counterfeiting
was so great, why did the Bureau wait so long to issue the 15c and
50c stamps on watermarked paper? These were not issued until
nearly two years later, when the existing stock on unwatermarked
paper was exhausted..
The impression that watermarks were added to U.S. stamps as a
security device, as a direct response to the Chicago counterfeits,
persists. In reality, there are probably three
reasons watermarks were added to U.S. stamps:
1. A federal law stated that all U.S. securities were to be
printed on watermarked paper and the Bureau may have regarded
postage stamps as "securities".
2. A watermark would make identification of the paper manufacturer
and printer possible. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing had no way of
knowing that they would be printing stamps for many years to come,
the government could award the contract to a private printing
company at any point in the future. The watermark would help
identify a stamp as having been printed by the Bureau.
3. And yes, a watermark if clearly visible, could provide a means of
thwarting counterfeiters, since a watermark would be difficult
The USPS Lettering on the Watermarked U.S. Stamps
As mentioned above, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had
been using watermarked paper to print money, securities and
revenue stamps since at least 1878. The design was a simple set of
"USIR", for "United States Internal Revenue".
For revenue stamps "USIR" made sense, but for postage
stamps, changing the lettering to read
"USPS", for "United States Postage Stamp",
made sense. The size and
spacing of the lettering was maintained, and for the most
part, the first two letters "U" and "S" are
fairly indistinguishable between the "USIR" and
double-line "USPS" watermarks.
Almost fifteen years later, the Bureau began to get
serious about cost cutting measures and made a series of
experiments aimed at reducing uneven paper shrinkage and the
associated paper waste. The first experiments were the
"China Clay" and "Blue Paper" experiments of
1909 aimed at strengthening the paper, but were deemed
unsatisfactory. The next experiment concerns us here, the
watermark was reduced in size from the double-line
USPS to the single-line
USPS, again in an attempt to strengthen the paper
by reducing the amount of paper removed in the watermarking
process. The results were acceptable and the single-line
watermark was implemented. The only commemoratives the
single-line watermark appear on are the Panama-Pacific
Exposition Issue of 1913, Scott 397-404. The only regularly
issued stamps the single-line watermarks appear on are the
In 1916, a mere six years later, with the advent of World War I and the
associated cost-consciousness, the fact that unwatermarked paper
could be produced cheaper than watermarked paper, and the
realization that the nearly invisible single-line watermark was
hardly a deterrent to counterfeiters, the Bureau decided to
substitute the cheaper unwatermarked paper for postage stamp production.
U.S. postage stamps have been printed on unwatermarked paper
since, with two notable exceptions, the "error" stamps
Scott 519 and 832b.
All-in-all watermarks on U.S. postage
stamps were used for only a short time, from
1895 to 1916. Yet these watermarked stamps present some of the
most interesting challenges to modern U.S. philatelists.
H. A. Froom's study: "USPS WATERMARKS"
available from the APRL library
Winthrop S. Boggs' study "U.S.P.S.: NOTES ON
UNITED STATES WATERMARKED POSTAGE STAMPS"
Reprinted from THE LONDON PHILATELIST - July, 1958 also
available from the APRL library