Proofs and essays
By: Alan Geisler

Nov 1 , 2000

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Those of you who missed Alan Geisler’s seminar on proofs and essays missed seeing some remarkable examples.  His decalcomanias were of the finest quality I have seen in the past thirty years.  His Bowlsby large die is the scarlet variety with the manuscript ‘A’ faint below the sinkage, confirming the note in Evans’ book.  There was a very nice horizontal pair of the 1867 John Sturgeon patent ‘unused’ carmine and the ‘used’ dark carmine without lines in the labels. Among the safety paper essays was the Jones Grant essay and several of the 1869s. (As far as I know no one has ever put together a complete holding of the 1869 safety papers.)


Notes from Alan Geisler’s seminar on Classic Proofs and Essays

As a start, although it may sound trite to say so, I find proofs and essays very interesting areas of collecting.  Certainly, if one enjoys the beauty and artistry of engraved stamps, proofs, because of their bright colors and sharp impressions are more attractive than the issued stamps, and, usually, but not always, much less expensive than the actual stamp in mint condition.  Essays, on the other hand, offer a variety of examples.  Some of these are almost identical to issued stamps, while others are quite different, and range from beautiful to absurd.

Before proceeding further, definitions are important, but really quite simple.  An essay as we are discussing, is a proposed United States stamp design.  It may vary only slightly from an issued stamp, or be a design rejected totally; or somewhere in between.  A proof is the final approved design, exactly, but in a form not intended for postage.  Since the principal thrust of this seminar is to be essays, we will talk about proofs first.

1) Proofs are basically of two types: die or plate proofs of the to be issued stamp in the approved color, on either card or paper, or trial color proofs in which the finished design is printed in a variety of colors, so the Post Office could pick which they liked best.  Trial colors also exist and die or plate proof, and can be printed on card or on India, bond, or stamp paper.  Some of these can be quite spectacular in appearance, as the 1869’s can attest.                           Interestingly, until quite recently, two trial color proofs, #66 and #74, were listed as stamps in the Scott catalog.  They are now properly listed, to the disgust of stamp dealers and auctioneers, as trial color proofs.  Finally, collectors must be on the lookout for proofs, which have been fraudulently shaved, gummed, and perforated; and offered for sale as stamps.  I have seen a number of these offered at auction, properly described, and bought in by dealers, at prices much higher than they deserve.  One can only presume what they are intended for.

2) Essays are proposed designs.   As you are undoubtedly aware, prior to 1894 all U.S. stamps were printed privately under contract to the Post Office.  Subsequent to this date, and until recently, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing printed stamps.  Stamps before 1894 were printed by various Bank Note (i.e. currency printers) Companies. In response to a request for bids for upcoming contracts, these companies would submit proposed designs (essays) as well as cost bids.  Initially, almost all essays involved portraits (vignettes) surrounded by a frame indicating the fact that it was U.S. postage, accompanied by a denomination.  To save costs the vignettes were invariably engraved from the printers’ files, which were used for currency, or bank notes.  Most essays were prepared as die essays, not entire plates although some of the 1867s were in miniature sheets of 12, and the 1869s pictorials were done in multiples.

A number of the 1861 essays were prepared in a form known as serial die essays, in which the vignette was printed first, followed by parts of the frame, until complete, and finally by the denomination.  The 1869 essays are highly prized, but I find the 1867s the most interesting.  Since my interests are most attractive to the unusual and the bizarre, the 1867s certainly fit the bill.   About this time the Post Office was becoming concerned with stamps being re-used and indicated their desire to purchase stamps, which could not be cleaned and used again.  As a result of this a flurry of activity occurred resulting in a number of patents being issued on this subject.  They range from the clever to the ridiculous.

The first, actually patented in 1865, was the Bowlsby patent, which entailed adding a coupon to each stamp.  The stamp would be presented to a postal clerk with the coupon attached, without which it would not be valid.  The clerk would then remove the coupon and affix the stamp.  If there were an unemployment problem, this would certainly solve it.

The Lowenberg patent involved the use of a goldbeater’s type of paper (decalcomania), which was printed backwards over the gum on the reverse.  When soaked off an envelope, the printing would remain on the envelope.  The paper, however, was far too brittle to be used commercially.

The Sturgeon patent was clever, I think, in that it was overprinted with a colorless water sensitive ink, which, when wet, would spell out the word ‘cancelled’ across the face of the stamp.

A number of patents, such as Thorp, Gibson, and Wyckoff involved using safety paper with fugitive inks, or starch coated papers, so that when wetted some of the printing would disappear.  The Spencer patent involved the use of rainbow colored stamps, some of which had a vignette, which was also perforated, presumably to be removed before affixing.

The ultimately accepted essay was, of course, the grilled stamp, patented by Charles Steel, an employee of the National Bank Note Co.  Steel, incidentally, supposedly received no bonus or royalties for his invention, which was utilized on the 1867, 1869 and 1871 issues in various forms.  Some of the 1869 pictorials were prepared in essays on stamp paper, which was grilled, gummed, and perforated so close to the final stamp design as to fool some collectors (and dealers) when printed in the approved color.  The only difference is the size of the numerals on the 1, 2, 3, and 12¢ designs.

The ‘August issues’, so-called, also known as Premieres Gravures, like #66 and #74, also were formerly listed in Scott until recently as stamps.  These are the former numbers Scott 55-62, other than Scott 58, which is now known as Scott 62B, which it has been for years.  Formerly the mint stamp was #58, and the used stamp #62B.  Now they have the same Scott designation.

The 1869 essays were also were also innovative in that bi-colored designs were proposed; they were first incorporated on the higher denomination pictorials.  These stamps, apparently unpopular at the time, were soon superceded by the 1871 large Bank Notes, a more traditional throwback to earlier monochrome portrait designs.

In summary, I have found collecting essays, and proofs, to be very interesting, although a bit pricey.  This is not an area of collecting which can be done on a shoestring, as a perusal of the 1999 Robert Siegel auction of the Falk Finkelburg material realizations will attest.  In common with all collectors of essays in particular, I am grateful to Clarence Brazer for the work done by him and fellow associates in cataloging this are of collecting.  In the last few years Scott also has listed known essays and contributed importantly by attributing values; these are then adjusted periodically as a result of auction realizations.  The importance of this to the collector is that it is difficult to look for something if you don’t know of its existence.