Saturday, 12 August 2017

CHAT: The US Newspaper Stamps, or: The Headaches of a Philatelist (part 1)

27 July 2017
Being slightly bored before I retired, I went onto the ebay website and typed in 'signed die proof', just to see what would come up. And something came up all right! A signed die proof of one of those beautiful US Newspaper stamps from the late 19th century.

I remembered having seen it before, but never followed it up. All I knew was that the stamps are not mentioned in Gene Hessler's The Engraver's Line, and that I would therefore have a hard time finding out who engraved them. So I thought I had better take another look in the morning. And with that happy thought I retired.

28 July 2017
Okay, so I started looking again at this die proof. It was of the $2 value, issued in 1895, and it was signed by both Lyman F Ellis and George FC Smillie. Ellis was a letter engraver and Smillie a vignette engraver, so the two signatures made sense. There being no third signature I'm just assuming for the moment that Ellis did both frame and lettering, though it has been known, of course, for US stamps to have different engravers for frame and lettering.

A quick look at the stamp catalogue shows that the newspaper stamps have quite a long history with various printings and printers involved. My immediate concern is that the vignette of this $2 stamp was used in 1875 for a $3 value. The $2 stamp was printed by the Bureau for Engraving and Printing (BEP), but the $3 by the Continental bank Note Co (CBNC), later to become the American Bank Note Co (ABNC). This does not concern the Ellis bit because he signed off the frame/lettering, which is for the $2 only so that's firmly done in 1895. But what if the vignettes of the 1875 and 1895 stamp are the same one? Could the BEP have made use of the original CBNC dies? If so, does that mean that Smillie actually engraved the 1875 vignette?

Gene Hessler's book, which I had hoped would bring some clarification, unhelpfully stated that Smillie worked for the CBNC/ABNC from 1871 to 1887, and for the BEP from 1894 to 1922. So he could have been responsible for the 1875 CBNC die.

I figured that the only way to find out was to sollicit the help of some American philatelists, and so I started a topic on the website. Most helpfully, this soon yielded a scan made by YeaPolska of the two engravings:

Having studied them well, I would come to the conclusion that it seems probable that the 1895 vignette was a copy of the 1875 die, with some enhancements here and there. After all, they look pretty identical with just some minor alterations. These would then most probably have been done by Smillie, as he signed them off on the 1985 die proof.

Then I suddenly remembered that Smillie did not just sign this die proof, but there was something written in front of his name as well. I tried to scan it and enhance the contrast as best as I could, and came up with this:

I would swear, though maybe just to corroborate my theory, that it says: worked over by GFC Smillie.

Remains to be seen, though, who engraved the original die.

While doing this little research on the $2 stamp, I bumped into two other signed die proofs, which, thankfully, were less of a headache. First up there was this signed die proof of the 1c value, again from 1895.

Although the vignette is the same allegorical figure as that of the low value stamps from 1875, they're anything but identical so they're easy to tell apart. This proof was signed by James Kennedy who was a letter engraver, so he will have done the lettering and probably the frame as well.

The second proof I found was featured on aforementioned stampcommunity website and it was of the $60 value from 1875.

It was signed by Charles Skinner, who was a vignette engraver, so he will have done the allegorical figure of the 'Indian Maiden'. A similar vignette is used for the $100 stamp of 1895, but as I have no copies at all of anything at this moment, I cannot compare them yet to see if they're identical or not.

Finally, as if it wasn't enough for a single day, I bumped into a website on these stamps by D, who had also written handbooks on them. So I fired off an email to him as well.

To be continued!


  1. Intriguing investigation! I look forward to the next chapter.


    1. :-)
      There'll be four parts in all, so watch this space!