United States Postage Meter Stamp Catalog/Information for collectors
Information for collectors (the basics of U.S. meter stamp collecting)
- Postage meters and mailing machines
- Meter and Permit numbers
- Ink colors and fluorescence
- Town and date marks
- Surcharge slugs
- Essays / Specimens / Proofs
- Rarity and values
Information for collectors
Classification of U.S. meter stamps:
The stamps are assigned to a Group (and Sub-group if applicable) and then given a Type number. Types can be further designated into Sub-types and Varieties if necessary:
GROUP: Meter stamps having the same basic shape or frank design. The GROUP is designated by the initial capital letter. (e.g., A, B, C...). Some groups are based on the usage of the stamps rather than their appearance. Examples are Post Office stamps, Postage Due stamps, stamps from vending machines. Such special "back-of-the-book" groups are designated by two capital letters (e.g., PO, PD, PV...)
SUB-GROUP: Meter stamps within the same basic GROUP may be further divided into Sub-groups due to a shared feature. The SUB-GROUP is designated by the second capital letter (e.g., AA, AB, AC...) or in the case of back-of-the-book groups, by a dash and capital letter (e.g., PO-A, PO-B, PO-C...).
TYPE: This is the basic identifier of all meter stamps with identical or nearly identical appearance produced by the same meter model. (e.g. A1, AA1, PO1, PO-A1)
SUB-TYPE: Where stamp designs of the same Type show variations based on differences in production or planned usage, capital letter Sub-type designations are used. (e.g. A1A/B, PO-A1A/B)
VARIETY: Variations that are generally unplanned, the result of factory mistakes, or apply to only a small sub-set of the Type are identified with a lower case suffix. (e.g. A1a, PO-A1a)
Listing Policy for Varieties:
- a. Varieties arising from mistakes originating at the factory, such as:
- 1. mis-assembly of the Value Figures,
- 2. omission of a die component, such as the meter number or a decimal slug,
- 3. inclusion of "P O" or "US PS" in a meter die not used in a post office.
- b. Missing or inverted town marks created by accident or necessity for non-philatelic reasons.
- c. Varieties created by the mailer if they are unusual and non-philatelic in motive.
- a. Varieties arising from mistakes originating at the factory, such as:
- a. Varieties arising from wear of otherwise normal dies, including:
- 1. broken or missing components,
- 2. damaged town mark circles.
- b. Varieties that typically arise from poor inking, irregular envelope contents, or misaligned components, such as:
- 1. missing decimal in the Value Figures (unless a factory omitted slug),
- 2. partial impressions.
- c. Varieties arising from the mailer's mistakes, such as:
- 1. double or multiple prints,
- 2. incorrect date.
- d. Varieties created intentionally by the mailer for philatelic reasons, such as:
- 1. unusual colors,
- 2. multiple colors on stamps from machines not designed to print in more than one color,
- 3. town marks skewed or sideways,
- 4. town marks inverted or missing (unless non-philatelic).
- a. Varieties arising from wear of otherwise normal dies, including:
Postage Meters and Mailing Machines
Postage meters from the 1920s were detachable components of mailing machines. The postage meter did nothing but print the postage stamp. The mailing machine fed the mail through the meter for franking. Besides feeding the mail through the meter, some mailing machines were capable of sealing and sorting the mail.
Starting in the early 1930s self-contained postage meters came into use. These meters were mostly fed by a hand-crank and included a bed or plate to back the mail piece while being franked. They were cheaper and suitable for low volume mailers. High volume mailers still required high speed mailing machines with detachable meters.
To prevent fraudulent use of postage meters they were required to contain two registers, one ascending and the other descending. The ascending register added the total of all postage generated by the meter. The descending register subtracted the postage generated from the dollar amount pre-paid by or credited to the meter user. The descending register would be re-set and re-sealed every time the meter user purchased more credit. This seal could be broken and replaced only when the meter was returned to the post office for resetting.
Many current meter models will take up to $9,999.99 worth of postage. The descending register indicates the total amount of postage remaining in the machine. When it reaches the maximum value that the meter will print in one stamp (usually $9.99 or $99.99) the meter locks, preventing further use until it is reset at the post office.
The ascending register is accessible only by postal security authorities. Periodically the ascending register is matched to the total credit purchased for the meter. Any discrepancy points to mechanical failure or potential fraud.
Meter and Permit Numbers
In order to use a postage meter, a customer must obtain a permit from his local post office. A postage meter can then be rented from a meter manufacturer. In practice a customer can approach the meter company first. The company will then obtain the permit for their new customer. Both the permit and the meter number are registered with the post office.
All early meter stamps showed both the permit number and the manufacturer's meter number. After 9 May 1929, the permit number was no longer required if the stamp included the meter number. Meter stamps showing a permit number have not been used in decades.
The meter number identifies the actual postage meter machine. Meter numbers often have a letter prefix that identities the meter manufacturer. Meter numbers generally run in series. The series often identifies the meter model. The meter number does not necessarily change when the stamp design changes. Different meter stamp design types are known with the same meter number generated before and after the print head was changed.
Ink colors and fluorescence
Colors of Inks:
The most commonly used color for meter stamps is red although other colors are often used. With modern digital meters blue is becoming more common and appears to be overtaking red as the most used color. The earliest meters, which could print only a single postage value were required to use ink colors that matched the colors used to print the same denominations of regular adhesive stamps: l¢ green, 2¢ red, 3¢ violet, etc. The only exception was for the 5¢ meter stamp which had to be in red instead of blue. Five cents was the basic first class rate on international mail in the 1920s, and such mail had to be franked in red according to Universal Postal Union regulations at the time.
With the introduction of the first multi-denomination meters in 1929, the Post Office Department relaxed the rules regarding meter ink colors. Multi-denomination meters were allowed to print all stamps in the same color. The only exception was that postage below 2¢ in value could not be printed in red.
In practice soon after the 1920s a wide variety of colors were used indiscriminately with red just being the most common.
Each manufacturer has its own particular shades of colors. By manufacturer they are (from most common to least):
Pitney-Bowes: red, salmon, black, blue, green, brown, violet, orange
Friden: red, red-violet, black, blue, green, orange
Postalia: red, black, blue, green, brown
NCR: purple, black, green, blue, pink
Hasler: red, blue, green
Many other color varieties exist. They are caused by the use of non-standard inks and by mixing inks. In a few instances, multi-colored impressions have been produced by applying different colored inks to separate areas of the ink roller.
In order to speed up the sorting, facing, and postmarking of mail, in the early 1960's the U.S. Postal Service began experimenting with luminescent (fluorescent and phosphorescent) coatings on adhesive stamps. With meters, experiments using fluorescent inks were carried out by Pitney-Bowes in the late 1960's. In September 1972, Pitney-Bowes was awarded a contract from the U.S.P.S to distribute special samples of a machine-detectable postage meter ink to 240,000 meter users. Metered mail using this fluorescent ink can be detected by the same sorting and facing equipment used for postage stamps. Therefore, those pieces of metered mail not bundled by the mailer can be sorted and faced together with ordinary adhesive stamped mail.
Fluorescent ink has been required for all metered mail in the United States since 1 July 1973. Pitney-Bowes' fluorescent ink often shows up poorly as a salmon pink color. Friden's fluorescent ink is frequently a red-violet color.
Town and date marks
The Town Mark (TM) is that part of the stamp which contains the identification (town, state) of the post office where the meter is licensed plus the date of mailing. On most U.S. meters the TM is a circular mark immediately left of the frank. Meter designs in Group A have no town mark, and those in Groups E and F have straight-line town marks.
Town mark circles can be single (SC), double (DC), or broken inner circle (BIC), i.e., a single circle with arcs inside. Modern digital meter stamps mostly have straight line town marks.
Town marks can also be absent. Before 1951 postal laws and regulations banned the date of mailing and the name of the originating post office from the front of registered mail. (On the back was OK.) Prior to this date metered registered mail normally showed the frank without a town mark. The catalog listings show only the town mark formats that are normally found with the stamp. Users should be aware that "without town mark" was an option for nearly all the stamp types.
Town marks occasionally include the name of the postal station as well as the town and state. Mailing permit numbers also can be found inside the town mark and are listed in the catalog as small letter varieties.
Starting in the 1960s meters used by some mailers occasionally contained the postal (ZIP) code rather than or in addition to the post office name. Most such town marks were in the form of MAILED FROM ZIP CODE plus number. Variations are MAILED FROM ZIP and MAILED FROM. These "MFZC" town marks are common and are not listed as varieties in the catalog. Town marks containing the town and state as well as the ZIP code are scarce, and these are listed as small letter varieties.
Town mark spelling errors are not normally listed.
Beginning in 1963 new postal rates required unusual postage values that incorporated fractions of a cent. None of the meters in use at the time could print these fractional values. While new more versatile meters were being developed meter manufacturers supplied customers with surcharge slugs to show that the extra fractional value was accounted for. Meter users paid for the fractional values by providing the Post Office with sheets of paper with meter stamps affixed totaling that fractional postage used.
Surcharge slugs usually included the mail classification such as "Bulk Rate" or "Nonprofit Organization" as well as the fractional value.
Essays / Specimens / Tests / Proofs
Many meter stamp collectors are confused about essays, specimens and proofs because the terms have slightly different meanings when applied to traditional press-printed postage stamps.
Generally speaking, a meter stamp ESSAY is an experiment, a trial impression of a stamp design. In practice the term has come to mean only those trial impressions that are abandoned and never reach production. Essay designs that reach production are called pre-production proofs. Meter stamp essays are almost universally rare.
A meter stamp SPECIMEN is an impression from a die that has been designed or modified to show that it is not meant for postage. This is done by incorporating "SPECIMEN", "SAMPLE", "VOID" or similar wording into the die or by eliminating all references to “U.S. Postage". Most, but not all specimens also have no meter number or an all zero number. Many have the generic "CITY / STATE" in the town mark. Specimens are not experimental nor are they rare except in a few cases. They are used mostly for promotional purposes, handed out at office equipment shows and in similar venues.
TEST stamps are similar to Specimens but are used internally by meter companies to preview town marks, slugs and slogans. They are not meant to be seen by the public.
A meter stamp PROOF is a pre-production impression of an approved stamp design. Such proofs can be distinguished from regularly issued stamps by a pre-release date (if known), unusual postage value such as all nines or all zeros, or by the item being on an unaddressed card or envelope with the return address of the manufacturer. Some proofs have the word "PROOF" or "SPECIMEN" printed or handstamped on or near the impression. Such pre-production proofs are uncommon to rare.
Stamps from regularly issued meters can have these features and are easily mistaken for pre-production proofs. These so-called "favor proof" impressions are not true proofs and have less value than postally used meter stamps.
Rarity and Value
Many stamps in the catalog are assigned an availability factor as follows:
- [C] Common to fairly common
- [S] Scarce
- [R] Rare, difficult to find
- [RR] Very rare
- [RRR] Exceptionally rare
- [RRRR] Extremely rare to unique
For those stamps where the availability is unknown a range such as [RR-RRRR] may be used.
These availability factors are estimates based on a 1994 Meter Stamp Society survey of the largest collections known at the time plus our own decades of buying and selling experience.
Dollar values are not provided because they are unreliable and go out of date quickly. For what it's worth, here are my personal estimates of 2016 dollar values for nice examples of items in each category.
- [C] free to $5
- [S] free to $15
- [R] $5 to $35
- [RR] $10 to $75
- [RRR] $20 to $150
- [RRRR] $25 to thousands
Notice both the wide ranges and the overlap. Minor varieties, even if extremely rare do not sell for thousands of dollars, and really fine examples of relatively common items can bring several tens of dollars.
Stamps without an availability factor are nearly always [C] but with some of them I just don't know.