Since the issue of the first American postage stamps in 1847, stamp designs exclusively featured the images of American patriots and founding fathers. In March 1869, the Post Office Department broke with tradition, issuing a set of ten pictorial stamps. Featuring inferior gum and four bicolored issues, these stamps were nearly square instead of the expected rectangular. They showed various scenes of American history and life including the landing of Columbus, a locomotive, a mail carrier on horseback and a ship. The public was outraged!
1¢ Stamp: Benjamin Franklin
Issued March 20, 1869, the 1¢ buff colored stamp was used for a few postage requirements: used in combination with other stamps to cover large weight or destination rates or the 1¢ drop letter rate for destinations that did not have carrier delivery. More than 16 million copies of the 1¢ stamp were produced by the National Bank Note Company.
2¢ Stamp: Post Horse and Rider
It is believed that the now-iconic image of a post rider and his bags on a galloping horse may have come from a leaflet Postmaster Benjamin Franklin sent to post offices throughout the country. In 1837, the Post Office Department had adopted a new official seal featuring this image and it inspired the brown 2¢ stamp which was the first to feature any image other than a U.S. patriot. 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. Covering the rate for unsealed circulars or drop letters for places that did not have carrier delivery, about 57 million stamps were printed.
3¢ Stamp: Locomotive
Covering the one-half ounce first class domestic rate, the 3¢ stamp was possibly the most popular of the issue. By far the commonest of the Pictorial Issue stamps, about 474 million were printed, making up more than 80% of the issue. 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.
6¢ Stamp: George Washington
The Washington 6¢ stamp was also colored ultramarine. The 6¢ stamp paid the rate for double-weight first class domestic mail. Nearly 5 million were printed and well-centered examples of this stamp are difficult to find. 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. Washington appeared on at least one stamp in every stamp issue from 1847 to 1869.
10¢ Stamp: Shield and Eagle
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. 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.
12¢ Stamp: S.S. Adriatic
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.
The New York & Liverpool United States’ Steamship Company was established in 1848. Known as the Collins Line, its ships traveled 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.
15¢ Stamp(s): Landing of Columbus
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 eliminated and does not call attention to the precise midpoint as the Type I had.
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 issues, is also one of the first U.S. stamps to have known natural inverts.
24¢ Stamp: Signing of the Declaration of Independence
The 24¢ stamp paid for heavy-weight domestic letters or for mail sent to far-flung foreign locations. About 225,000 stamps were printed. 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, was the basis of the stamp’s image. The green and violet stamp is about 1/300th the size of the painting. The stamp, being a bicolor, was prone to inverts.
30¢ Stamp: Shield, Eagle and Flag
The Shield, Eagle and Flag is the rarest of the Pictorial Issue inverts with only 45 known to exist. The 30¢ carmine and ultramarine stamp bears a striking resemblance to the 10¢ Shield and Eagle for very good reason – the same engraver worked extensively on both designs. Similar to the 24¢ stamp, the Shield, Eagle and 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 and Flag stamp without grills. This was a production error (actually an omission) and it is known that a block of 15 without grill survives.
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.
Six months after the introduction of the 1869 Pictorial Issue, 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 – virtually any and every element of the hated stamp.
The Pictorial Issue of 1869 was produced to replace the 1861-1867 regular issue stamps. The U.S. Post Office Department was careful to specify the following when it solicited new design proposals: “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 of stamps. Then, as now, postal officials were concerned about revenue loss from the reuse of stamps. The preferred solution in 1869 was Grilling.
A grill on a postage stamp is an embossed pattern of small indentations. 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 become so intensive 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 bicolored (two-colored) issue but only for the 15¢, 24¢, 30¢ and 90¢ denominations. The four stamps that are bicolored had to be put through the printing press twice (once for each color), resulting in some inverts due to human error.
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 exact 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.