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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Philatelic Terms Illustrated - A to C

Today's post will be the start of what I hope will become a series of posts where I illustrate important philatelic terms that I use in my blog posts. It comes after one of my regular readers suggested to me that it would be useful to have an illustrated glossary. I couldn't agree more and I have to admit that I tend to assume that my readers know what I am talking about when I use certain terms. However, I realize now that that assumption is not always valid. So that is the basis upon which I have come to write this series. It will eventually be several posts arranged alphabetically. I will add to it and move content to other posts, as I expand it an each post reaches a certain length.

I will start today with some of the terms that I have good scans for, and then will continue to add to it as terms come to mind.

Air Mail Cover

An airmail cover is any cover that has been sent by airplane for at least a portion of its route, as opposed to travelling exclusively on land or at sea. Nowadays airmail is the standard method of travel for mail going outside the country of mailing, but up until the 1970's this was not the case in most countries. Up until this time, airmail was a premium service that cost more money to use and in the 1930's when it first introduced, it was very expensive, especially if you were sending to a very unusual destination. 

Airmail items would generally either have a bilingual blue and white label attached that would read "By Air Mail Par Avion", or the envelope itself would be pre-printed with that label, as well as a blue and red striped border, such as on the cover shown above. 

Barred Grid Cancellation

A barred grid cancellation is one that consists of  network of parallel lines, usually arranged in an oval or circular pattern. Such cancellations are often referred to as "killers" s their purpose was to thoroughly deface the stamps to which they were applied to prevent re-use. The grids could either consist of bars only, in which case they were known as "dumb" cancellations, or they could contain  letters or numerals. The letters or numerals often corresponded to specific post offices, or regions, and as a result, the collecting of these cancellations is another highly specialized field in which some of the cancellations can be quite rare. 

Collectors who study these cancellations generally consider the complete outside dimensions of the cancellation, as well as the thickness of the bars and the space between them. 

Barred grid cancellations were produced either by wooden or steel hammers, as well as with corks tht had the grid carved into them. 

Booklet Pane

A booklet pane refers to the block of stamps that is contained inside booklets of stamps that are sold to the public. All booklets usually consisted of a cardboard cover, one or more panes of stamps and often some wax paper interleaves to keep the stamps from sticking together. Nowadays the panes are glued right onto the covers, usually by way of a flap or tab. These are called integral booklets. However, up to the late 1960's in most countries, and sometimes later, the panes and booklet covers were either stapled or stitched together, as is the case with the 1962 5c Cameo booklet pane shown above.


Occasionally if the supply of a particular stamp ran out postmasters would improvise by taking a higher denomination and cutting it into halves, thirds or quarters. This was done in New Brunswick in the 1850's when there was a need for one and a half penny stamps. Sometimes a threepenny stamp would be cut in half diagonally to make a 1.5d stamp. This is known as a bisect. 

However, it is very difficult to prove in practice whether a bisect is genuine or whether someone has simply taken a poor copy of a complete stamp and cut it up themselves to make a more scarce bisect. For this reason, most expert committees will not issue a certificate of authenticity for a bisect unless the bisect is on cover and tied to the cover by a cancellation of some kind. However, this does not automatically mean that a bisect isn't genuine. 


A cachet is an illustration on a cover. It is most commonly seen on First Day Covers, although it can appear on any cover. In the very early days of airmail cover and first day cover collecting, cachets were produced by a handful of artistically minded individuals, usually either by hand, or using a thermographic printing process. This later process used heat lamps and was a very labour-intensive method of printing. The above cachet on this 1956 cover by H&E is an example of a thermographic cachet. Some cachets were even painted by hand using watercolours and these are very highly prized and sought after by philatelists. 

By the 1960's larger companies began to enter the business of producing and selling first day covers. To accommodate the large demand by collectors the cachets on covers produced by these companies were printed using mass-printing technology, at first in black and white, and nowadays in full colour. 


This term as far as I know is unique to Canadian philately. Between 1961 and 1967, Canada Post experimented with issuing stamps in larger sheets of 20 or 25 stamps and shrink wrapped them in cellophane packages. Collectors have come to know these as "cello-paqs". The packs were only current for just over 6 years and I suspect they were discontinued due to the lack of protection that the packaging afforded the stamps.


The term "centering" refers to how even the margins around the stamp design within the stamp's perforations are. Oftentimes, in the first 50 years or so since the introduction of perforations as a means of separating stamps within sheets, not enough room was left between printed stamps for each stamp to have margins on all sides. The stamp on the right above, from 1864 is an example of a stamp that only has a margin on three sides of the design, and even then, these are not even. Such a stamp is said to be "off-centre". To many, this off-centre stamp appears to be very poorly centred, but this example is actually very well centered for the stamps of this time period, which were very often much worse than this. 

On the other hand, the stamp on the left has margins that are completely even as far as the human eye can tell. Such a stamp is said to be "perfectly centered". Perfectly centered stamps are highly sought after by philatelists, and are often worth many, many times more than stamps that are not quite perfectly centered. Although perfectly centered stamps are easier to obtain for modern issues, such as the 1935 issue shown above, they are by no means common, or easy to find. The stamp on the right would be all but impossible to find with margins like the stamp on the left, and even if such a stamp did exist, it would be worth tens if not hundreds of times as much as the stamp actually shown above. 

Circular Date Stamp (CDS)

A circular date stamp, or CDS for short, is a type of cancellation in which the town name and date appear within a circle. Usually the circle is a single circle as is the one shown above, but occasionally, the ciurcle can be a double, or even triple circle. They are the preferred form of cancellation for most collectors because of the fact that they tend not to deface the stamps as much, and as a matter of fact, can even enhance their appearance. The first CDS's appeared in the 1870's, though they were not common until the 1890's and they were popular until the 1980's in many countries. Since then, they have fallen largely out of favour, much to the dismay of collectors who are finding very recent stamps very challenging to find in attractive used condition. 

Coil Stamp

One popular form in which stamps started to be issued, just before World War I is in roll form. Such stamps are called "coil stamps". Coil stamps will always have perforations on two of the four sides only - either vertically or horizontally. Vertical perforations are the most common, though a few issues are horizontally perforated, such as the 1962 Cameo Issue 5c stamp shown above. 

The first coil stamps were only sold by vending machines and had to be purchased one stamp at a time. However, many postal authorities eventually started selling complete rolls of 100 or in some cases 500 stamps, as with the above issue, to the general public. Companies started selling dispensers in which you could store the roll on your writing desk, and these dispensers would often come with a small water well and roller that would enable you to moisten the stamps without having to lick them. 

They are still a very popular issue format today, though many are now die-cut self-adhesives. 

Colour Key

A colour key is a reference tool used by philatelists for the consistent naming of colours used to print the stamps they are studying. While not a complete range of every known colour, the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Colour Key shown above, includes enough colours to enable you to interpolate other colours fairly readily if they are not shown directly on any swatch. Correct use of this key is not as easy s it looks and takes some practice and skill. 

Comb Perforation

A comb perforation is one where the sheets of stamps are perforated either by a single stroke, or a few strokes of a perforating comb, in which the pins are all pre-spaced. This is in contrast to the more traditional line perforation in which the sheets are perforated one row at a time. You can recognize a comb perforation by the fact that there is always a perfect intersection of holes where rows and columns meet, as shown in the centre of the above block.

Commemorative Stamp

A commemorative stamp is stamp that is issued to commemorate a specific event, person, place, or organization. Usually there will be anniversary dates or some other indication of what is being commemorated. The above stamp was issued in 2000 to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Department of Labour. This type of stamp is in contrast to a definitive stamp, which generally features either a portrait of the ruler or depicts a common theme. Commemorative stamps are usually only sold for a short period of time, usually 6 months or less, while definitive stamps are on sale for several years. 

Complete Booklet

Ever since the turn of the 19th century, stamps have been available for sale in booklet form. A complete booklet consists of a front cover, a back cover and one or more stamp panes. The above booklet is a self-adhesive booklet from the year 2000 of stamps featuring Canadian rivers. For this particular booklet, the backing of the self-adhesive stamps is folded over to form the front and back covers of the booklet. 

Cork Cancellation

Cancellations for a long period between the 1860's and 1890's were often fashioned by local postmasters using corks that they would carve patterns into. These would then be dipped into the cancellation ink and then used as handstamps. Segmented geometric designs, such as those shown above are the most commonly seen, but occasionally some postmasters with superior carving skills got very creative indeed, producing highly sought after designs, such as the Waterbury Running Chicken cancel shown below:

Image result for waterbury running chicken

Counting Mark

On Canadian stamp booklets printed by the British American Bank Note Company, every 50th booklet was marked on the cover with a solid rectangular marking as a way of keeping track of how many booklets were printed. The above booklet cover shows an example of such a marking at the top centre, in the form of the solid red rectangle. These are highly sought after by specialists, due to their scarcity.


A cover refers to an entire envelope which has been sent through the postal system, complete with the original stamps used to pay the postage, called the franking. In the very earliest days of stamps, up to the 1850's, envelopes were not used. Instead the letters were folded, sealed with wax and then the outside was addressed and sent. These are also covers.

Cutting Guide Line

With many stamp issues, the stamps are printed in much larger sheets than what gets distributed to postal counters for sale to the public. For example the above commemorative issue from 1948 was printed in sheets of 200 divided into 4 panes of 50 stamps each. So some method has to be devised to separate the panes of 50. Usually they are simply guillotined apart.

However, guide markings are usually placed in this case in the margins of the sheet so that the guillotine operator knows where to position the stamps, so as not to damage them of leave a margin around them that is too small. If the guillotine operator lines the markings up perfectly with the guillotine, the cutting action will split the guide line down the middle, and it will not be visible on the resulting pane. However, the markings and guillotine are sometimes not perfectly aligned, with the result that the cutting guideline is visible, as on the block shown above. These varieties are usually quite sought after by specialists.

Cylinder Block

A cylinder block is the correct technical term for a plate block of a stamp that has been printed using either photogravure or lithography. The reason is that such issues are printed from different cylinders, one for each colour used in the press, rather than a single plate. The cylinders can have the same numbers, as is the case with the above block, where every number is "1A". But they can also be different numbers, as with the stamp shown below:

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