In March 1869, the Post Office Department issued a set of ten stamps that broke from convention. While the faces of American patriots had stared up at the mailing public ever since postage stamps were first issued in 1847, these designs were pictorial: a locomotive, a ship, a mail carrier on horseback, the landing of Columbus, among other scenes of American life and history. To further set them apart, the 1869 Pictorial Issues were nearly square, as opposed to rectangular. The gum was inferior. Four of the designs were printed in two colors.
People disliked them.
Six months later, the Boston Herald reported, “in consequence of the National dissatisfaction with the new postage stamps, orders have been given to prepare designs to be issued in place of the present designs.” And so began a centuries-long string of passions stirred and objections raised, for reasons related to a stamp’s subject or design, the printing technology used, or a production error made.
This issue was produced to replace the 1861-1867 regular issue stamps. In soliciting proposals for a new issue of definitive postage stamps, the United States Post Office was careful to state, “The stamps must be prepared in such a manner that any attempt to remove them from a letter or packet will so mutilate them as to render them useless.” This was to prevent reuse. Then, as now, postal officials were concerned about revenue loss from the reuse of stamps. Grilling was the preferred solution in the 1869 era.
A grill on a postage stamp is an embossed pattern of small indentations intended to discourage postage stamp reuse. Grills were intended to work by allowing the ink of the cancellation to be absorbed more readily by the fibers of the stamp paper, making it harder to wash off the cancellation. There are about ten recognized different grills (philatelists don’t necessarily agree that some are separate and distinct types), each well-documented so that identification can be made with certainty. The grills vary by the direction their points are oriented (up or down), the size of the area embossed (some stamps are covered completely by the grill) and whether the embossed ridges run vertically or horizontally. The study of grills can go so deeply that some philatelists specialize only in grills. The rarest U.S. stamp of all is the 1868 1¢ blue Benjamin Franklin Z grill. The stamp itself was the commonest workhorse stamp of the day. It is the Z grill (rarest of all the grills) that makes it so rare. Currently there are only two known and certified examples of the 1¢ Z Grill, one owned by the New York Public Library and one in the Bill Gross collection. Both are cancelled. The estimated value of these stamps is at least $3 million each.
An array of stamp grills
Four different private security printers submitted bids for the production of the 1869 stamps, and the National Bank Note Company won the contract. The Post Office authorities deliberated over designs and finally came up with a mixed bag which we know today as the 1869 Pictorial Issue – 11 stamps in ten different denominations with two different varieties of the 15¢ design.
The Pictorial Issue was available from March, 1869 until February, 1870, a period of only 11 months, when it was replaced by the Bank Note Issue, again printed by the National Bank Note Company. The Bank Note Issue was to remain available for several years.
The 1869 Issue was the first bi-colored (two-colored) issue but only for the 15¢, 24¢, 30¢ and 90¢ denominations. They were also the first U.S. stamps to feature something other than the bust or head of a famous American leader. Never before had stamps featured paintings, horses, locomotives, ships or birds. Unfortunately, the public did not accept these stamps because of their relatively small size and the difficulty in affixing them to envelopes due to the nature of their gum. Ironically, the 1869 Pictorial Issue is widely loved and admired by modern-day collectors. The four stamps that are bicolored had to be put through the printing press twice (once for each color), resulting in inverts due to human error.
The stamps are nearly square. Three of the stamps, the 1¢ Benjamin Franklin, the 6¢ George Washington and the 90¢ Abraham Lincoln feature the familiar theme of portraits of past leaders. The 1¢ Franklin stamp is the only 19th century United States stamp with a circular frame. The 2¢ Post Horse and Rider, 3¢ Locomotive and 12¢ S.S. Adriatic stamps all feature the theme of transportation of the mails, new for its day, but often repeated in future stamp series. The 10¢ Eagle and Shield and the 30¢ Shield, Eagle and Flag stamps appeal to patriotism. The United States had just finished fighting the Civil War, and the nation was licking its wounds after four and one-half years of tumultuous fighting throughout the southern part of the United States. Patriotism was a sensation to be encouraged. The 15¢ Landing of Columbus and the 24¢ Declaration of Independence stamps are the first portraits of American historical events on our nation’s stamps. In May, 1869, a second variety of the 15¢ Landing of Columbus went on sale. The two different types have very slightly different frame designs, often only obvious under magnification.
Though hard to believe, there are still mint pieces or blocks of each of the denominations that occasionally come up for auction or sale. They range from a block of 48 of the 1¢ stamp to a block of six of the 90¢ stamp as being the largest known multiples.
Surprisingly, proofs and essays of each of the denominations abound, which is not to suggest that they are not valuable relics. In fact, collectors oftentimes specialize in just the proofs and essays of the 1869 Pictorial Issue. Essays are designs for stamp vignettes, stamp borders, or both combined, that were never approved or used in the final printing of a stamp. Even though a design may finally be adopted with only slight modifications, it is still an essay if any modification was made from the original design to the printed stamp.
Proofs come in two forms: die proofs and plate proofs. A die proof is an imprint of the die block (which contains the engraved design of the stamp in reverse). A plate proof is an imprint of the full printing plate. Common philately terms are “small die proof” or “large die proof”. These have nothing to do with the die itself. It relates to the size of the paper that the proof was printed on. Proofs are in the same color as the issued stamps, or in a color very close to the issued color. Printers prepared proofs for the U.S. Post Office Department to examine and approve before going to the printing press.
Trial color proofs are also in the same design as the issued stamp, but they come in varying colors. Most trial color proofs are die proofs, but a few are plate proofs. These were produced in different colors from the issued stamp to determine which color looked best before going to press.
1¢ Stamp: Benjamin Franklin
The 1¢ buff colored stamp was issued March 20, 1869, and was used for the 1¢ drop letter rate for places that did not have carrier delivery or in combination with other stamps to fulfill large weight or destination rates. Franklin’s image is based on a bust sculpted by Giuseppe Ceracchi (1751 – 1801). The National Bank Note Company printed more than 16 million of the 1¢ stamps.
2¢ Stamp: Post Horse and Rider
In 1837, the Post Office Department had adopted a new official seal featuring the now-iconic image of the post rider and his mailbags astride a galloping horse. It is believed the image may have come from a printed leaflet Postmaster Benjamin Franklin sent to post offices throughout the country. The new Department seal inspired the brown 2¢ 1869 stamp which was the first U.S. stamp to bear an image other than a prominent American. About 57 million of the stamps were printed and paid the rate for unsealed circulars or drop letters for places that did not have carrier delivery. The 2¢ stamp could be (and was) bisected (cut in half) on the diagonal to render the equivalent of two 1¢ stamps to use as the purchaser needed.
3¢ Stamp: Locomotive
The ultramarine-colored 3¢ stamp was designed after a $1 note previously printed by the National Bank Note Company for the Northwestern Bank of Warren, Pennsylvania. Making up more than 80% of the Pictorial Issue, about 474 million of these stamps were printed, by far the most common of the Issue. The 3¢ stamp paid the one-half ounce first class domestic rate. At the time of issue, the Locomotive stamp was one of the most popular of the series.
6¢ Stamp: George Washington
The Washington 6¢ stamp was also colored ultramarine. By the time of the 1869 Pictorial Issue, three federally contracted printing firms had produced 28 major stamp designs. Eleven of those designs featured the first U.S. President, George Washington. Washington appeared on at least one stamp in every stamp issue from 1847 to 1869. The image of Washington on this stamp was based on a Gilbert Stuart painting and it is very reminiscent of the 1847 10¢ stamp portrait. The 6¢ stamp paid the rate for double-weight first class domestic mail. Nearly 5 million were printed. Well-centered examples of this stamp are difficult to find.
10¢ Stamp: Shield & Eagle
The yellow or yellow orange 10¢ stamp was the first American stamp to feature an animal (or bird). Ten cents paid the single-weight rate to several foreign destinations including Germany, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. Somewhat more than 3 million of these stamps were printed. The 10¢ stamp, printed and used in smaller numbers than other stamps of the Issue, has the largest known unused multiple example, a horizontal imprint block of 15.
12¢ Stamp: S.S. Adriatic
The New York & Liverpool United States’ Steamship Company was established in 1848. Known as the Collins Line, its ships travelled from Liverpool to New York in a little more than 13½ days on its first journey in 1850 – a very swift voyage in that era. The Collins Line ships, large and the fastest of any at the time had such luxuries as running water, ventilation and even a hairdressing salon. Over time, the Collins Line had numerous troubles, some due to ship disrepair and even a rare seagoing collision. The company’s last ship, the Adriatic, was delivered late, further complicating the company’s difficulties. After the New York & Liverpool bankrupted, the Adriatic, 351 feet long and weighing 4,145 tons, went through a series of owners until her demise when she ran aground on the west coast of Africa in 1885.
The Adriatic was considered a marvel of its day which is why it is featured on the 12¢ stamp. The 12¢ rate paid for a double-weight letter to any location in the British Isles, including Scotland and Ireland, or paid for partial postage to destinations in parts of Africa, South America and Europe.
15¢ Stamp(s): Landing of Columbus
The design for the brown and blue 15¢ stamp was based on a John Vanderlyn painting of the same name, Landing of Columbus. Printing methods in 1869 were imperfect and the fact that bicolored stamps had to be printed twice made them prone to more problems than the single color stamps. The vignette was printed first, followed by application of the framework. Maintaining alignment proved difficult-to-impossible and the Type I stamp reflects that. The Type II stamp was designed to have the visual effect of minimizing the stamps’ misalignment. The Landing of Columbus stamp, as one of the nation’s first bicolored issue, is also one of the first U.S. stamps to have known inverts.
The 15¢ rate paid for delivery to certain European destinations or paid the domestic registered mail fee. Some 200,000 Type I stamps were printed and about 1.25 million of the Type II. The Type I shows a decorative element that rises to a white point in the framework of the stamp. Type II has had that point flatted out and does not call attention to the precise midpoint as the Type I had.
24¢ Stamp: Signing of the Declaration of Independence
The John Trumbull painting called “Declaration of Independence” commissioned by the government to hang in the U.S. Capitol building after the War of 1812. The green and violet stamp is about 1/300th the size of the painting. The stamp, being a bicolor, was prone to inverts. The 24¢ stamp paid for heavy-weight domestic letters or for mail sent to far-flung foreign locations. About 225,000 stamps were printed.
30¢ Stamp: Shield, Eagle & Flag
The 30¢ carmine and ultramarine stamp bears a striking resemblance to the 10¢ Shield & Eagle for very good reason – the same engraver worked extensively on both designs. Similar to the 24¢ stamp, the Shield, Eagle & Flag was used for heavy-weight domestic letters or for mail sent to very distant foreign locations such as Indo-China, deep South America, the Pacific Rim and Asian destinations such as Japan. About 245,000 stamps were printed. As with the other bicolored stamps in this issue, as well as future issues, the 30¢ stamp was prone to inverts. There are some rare examples known of the 30¢ Shield, Eagle & Flag stamp without grills. This was a production error (actually an omission) and it is known that a block of 15 without grill survives. The Shield, Eagle & Flag is the rarest of the Pictorial Issue inverts with only 45 known to exist.
90¢ Stamp: Abraham Lincoln
Originally intended to feature George Washington, the 90¢ carmine and black stamp was ultimately issued with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln (based on a Mathew Brady photograph) who had been assassinated only four years earlier. Of the Pictorial Issue, the 90¢ stamp was the least used and had the fewest printings. Insofar as historians know, inverts were not produced or at least none survive. There are an extremely limited number of 90¢ stamps without grill, 23 of which have been certified as authentic. With this stamp, or any other in the Pictorial Issue, any stamp without grill should be authenticated carefully. This 90¢ stamp would be the last bicolored portrait stamp until 1918, far into the future. The next time a former president would be featured on any U.S. postage stamp would be in the 1938 Presidential Series when Woodrow Wilson’s stamp was unveiled. For all of these reasons, the 1869 Abraham Lincoln is highly prized by collectors. Fewer than 48,000 stamps were printed. As with the 24¢ and 30¢ denominations, the 90¢ paid for heavy-weight domestic letters, for mail sent to far-flung foreign locations or in combination with other stamp denominations to make up some required special postal rate.