Philately is the art of stamp collecting . This brief glossary defines those terms most frequently encountered by stamp collectors and cover collectors. Precise definitions for many philatelic terms] do not exist so glossary terms are usually flexible because one collector, dealer or society may define a term in one way, while others will use the term in a slightly different way.

  • Agents

    Agents collected fees and mail at departure points or en route adding postmarks such as PAID along with other markings or cancellations.Agents entered items into the mail stream acting on behalf of the United States Post Office.


  • Balloon Mail

    Mail carried by balloon to make souvenirs of a particular occasion or event.

    Balloon mail began originally as a way to send mail during a siege. The most well known example is probably the Siege of Paris between 1870 and 1871.

    The earliest examples on record begins in 1793. In 1859 the United States launched the Balloon Jupiter, to begin the first endeavor to use a balloon to transport mail. It was soon discovered to be impractical to use as a regular mail system preventing Balloon Mail from ever developing past the status of a curiosity.

  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing

    The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is part of the United States Treasury Department of the U S Government and was founded in 1862. Philatelics refer to it as the BEP. In addition to producing most of the United States currency from 1894 until recently they also made a majority of its stamps.

    The first stamps produced went on sale July 18, 1894 and by the end of the first year of stamp production, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had printed and delivered more than 2.1 billion stamps.

    The Making of A Stamp

      The United States Postal Service gives the Bureau of Engraving and Printing orders of stamps to be produced each year. The designer using manual and/or computerized techniques creates a model. The stamp design, lettering and denominations are manually engraved on a steel master die. Engraved printing sleeves are produced by sidereography. Gravure printing cylinders are electronically engraved and are chromed to protect surface wear during printing. Offset lithographic plates are manufactured by photographic processes. Plate printers print stamps on intaglio, intaglio/offset, and gravure web presses. Their main objective is to prevent counterfeiting and to produce an eye pleasing stamp. Twenty billon stamps are produced each year. Examiners inspect the work for printing defects. bookbinders perforate and process into books, sheets, or coils. Production Support Operatives package, label and verify all products for delivery to vaults. The vaults and shipping department maintain accountability, storage and shipping of stamps to post offices across the nation.

    Bureau of Engraving and Printing


  • Carriers

    Carriers are companies or individuals who charged a fee to take mail to the nearest Post Office or to collect it from one and deliver it to the addressee. A missing link between businesses and individuals they issued their own adhesives and were later absorbed by the US Post Office Department.

  • Center-line Block

    The center-line block was used for two different purposes on flat plate engraved stamps of the United States. It was composed of a block of four from the center] of a sheet of stamps. It had horizontal and vertical guidelines] running through the |perforations, or through the center of the blank space between the stamps.

  • Cover

    Any postally used envelope with a stamp, a cancel, postmark and address. Thre may be other postal markings as well.


  • Error

    In the art of philately the word error has a specific meaning. It distinguishes a stamp as one that is a major anomaly from the normal stamp. Types of errors in stamp collecting encompass inverts, overprints, mistakes in watermarks, wrong ink color, wrong paper], and completely missing perforations.

  • Expertizing

    An expertization certificate is a form of insurance in philately that assures prospective buyers guaranteeing the willingness to pay some reasonable percentage of what the owner did and is important when it come when buying expensive material.

    There are two general expertizing services in operation in the US at this time, and many other specialized ones. To get an expertization certificate simply choose one and request a form from them. All services charge a fee for their services either a percentage of the item's value, or a flat fee per item. A turn around time of four to six weeks is common.

    The advances in new technology and information have led to revised opinions about some material and the experts will be cautious and conservative. Expertizing is not considered a guarantee. Sometimes items that were once judged authentic may later be judged fakes, and ones rejected as fakes may be accepted as valid, though this is not usually the case.

    Depending on the item, its value, and the complexity of the judgment most services will submit the material to three or four experts. Don't expect to have them tell you how they made their decisions, however, the experts have seen a lot of real items and fakes, so they know what to look for. With the use of sophisticated modern equipment experts can analyze the item with a special light or analyze it chemically to reveal key features like watermarks.

    Stamp collators always try and authenticate the materials first because understanding how to expertize their own material makes the hobby more enjoyable and helps protect from costly mistakes. It's best to avoid questionable material. Any problems with finding a feature that distinguishes the variety- a design element or watermark for example- will cause most serious buyers to pass on the item.

    Even if the experts say it is genuine, it's preferable to own something that exhibits its distinguishing marks as clearly as possible. This doesn't mean that there is no need a certificate for that item, of course. If there's money to be made faking it though, someone will do it.

  • Expresses

    Equivalent to today's carrier services such as UPS and Federal Express. [Expresses used to be companies operating over longer distances between cities to provide faster services in competition with the US mail. To show payment of fees, many issued adhesives.


  • Free Frank

    Free Frank is a philatelic term is actually redundant, since the verb frank means, "to mark (a letter, package, etc.) for transmission free of the usual charge, by virtue of official or special privilege."

    U S Government officials have long had this authority, Presidents, members of Congress, and Postmasters simply use their signatures in place of a stamp to prepay their official mail.

    One of the most admirable achievements of the Universal Postal Union was the establishment of 'soldiers mail'. There is franking for servicemen and women during the time of war. Unobstructed passage of this mail between combatants with the establishment of this system has not always been without its problems.

  • First Day Cover

    An envelope or postcard bearing canceled stamps denoting the date of the stamp’s release. Sometimes they are released with a commemorative cachet; a design stamped onto the cover to commemorate the issuing of the new stamp.


  • Hinge

    In philately a hinge has specific definition in the world of stamp collecting. Hinges are small pieces of glassine paper with glue that is moistened and most commonly used to mount stamps in a collecting album. From the onset of stamp collecting until the 1930's it was a common practice to apply hinges. Most modern hinges are peelable rectangular-shaped pieces of paper, usually gummed on one side. Once dry, they may be easily removed from the stamp, leaving little trace of having been applied. Hinges are useful for novices who may want to mount older less valuable stamps. Great consideration must be given before using any hinges when deciding to use them on any "mint" stamps. Once a hinge has been attached to a stamp with gum on the back, part of the gum is removed, and that could affect the value of the stamp. So, if you decide you want to keep mint stamps the way you got them, don't stick a hinge on them! There are several ways to mount stamps in an album without using hinges. The friendly neighborhood stamp shop will have advice on albums that hold and display your stamps without using hinges. Be prepared because any of them can be very expensive.

    Deliberate care must be taken with stamps that have been hinged because these can oftentimes conceal serious defects such as tears, thinning of the paper and repairs. It may be surprising to learn that the condition of the gum on the back of a stamp can greatly affect its value as a collectible. If you consider this hobby as an investment, it's reasonable to get the very best example of that scrap of paper you possibly can. The ideal stamp is therefore Post Office fresh, with bright colors, a crisp image, sharp perforations, and fresh unmarred gum.

    Most early stamps have suffered wear and tear over the years along with small variations. Because of this philatelists have developed a special vocabulary to qualify types of hinging.

    Never Hinged -- Commonly noted as NH in auction catalogs by a pair of asterisks ** -- It means the stamp is fresh from the Post Office and that the gum has absolutely no disturbance.

    Lightly Hinged -- Commonly noted as LH in auction catalogs by a singular asterisk * -- It indicates that the stamp has been hinged, and the hinge removed, leaving only a slightly discernible mark on the gum.

    Hinged --Commonly noted as H meaning that the stamp may have some hinge remnants. More than just "Lightly Hinged".

    Hinge Remnants -- Commonly noted as HR -- The back of the stamp is greatly disturbed and has a great deal of hinge remnants present with heavily disturbed gum.

    Disturbed Gum -- Commonly noted as DG but a less common term. Meaning that the gum is not pristine but that no other term accurately describes it.

    Sweated Gum and Glazed Gum -- Essentially they're synonymous terms, meaning that the gum has been exposed to too much heat (sweated) and/or pressure (glazed), melting the gum into a very smooth, shiny condition that reduces the value as much as hinging.

    Unhinged -- Refers to a stamp without hinge marks, but not necessarily with original gum.

    Unused -- Denotes an uncanceled stamp that has not been used but has a hinge mark or some other disturbance that keeps it from being in mint condition. Uncanceled stamps without gum may have been used and missed being canceled, or they may have lost their gum by accident.

    There are three ways to check for hinging. First is with a Signoscope which is a non optic-electric Watermark Detector that will bring out watermarks as well as exposing any extra light hinging, abbreviated XLX. The second method is to place the stamp in question in watermark fluid. The third and by far simplest and more preferable one because it requires no expensive equipment or dangerous chemicals, causes the least amount of damage and takes only a few moments. Pick up the stamp in a pair of stamp tongs. Extend it to arms length toward a strong light source, the reflection of the light off the gum surface will expose any gum disturbance.

    Condition is the most important characteristic in determining the value of a stamp. It refers to the state of a stamp. Several details that are considered in determine the value are centering, color, hinge, quality of stamp and gum. So how a stamp is hinged is very important to its value.

    To use a hinge:

    1. Fold over a third of the hinge, gummed side out (some hinges are already folded).
    2. Moisten the short folded end of the hinge and attach it to the back of the stamp, near the top. If you make a mistake, let the hinge dry. It will come off the back of the stamp without tearing.
    3. Wet the other end of the hinge and stick the stamp onto the album page.


  • Imperforate

    In philately, imperforate simply means that the stamp was issued without perforations. Issuing imperforates was a common practice in the beginning of stamp productions and later in the early part of the 20th Century when private companies used vending and affixing machines and converted imperforated sheets to coils for dispensation purposes.


  • Local

    A private mail-carrying entity. Operating in larger cities genuine locals provided local pickup and delivery of mail strictly within their city, mainly or at least partly independent of the Post Office. Many issued their own adhesives.


  • Misperforated

    Although the stamp has perforations they are aligned so poorly they constitute a production freak. It becomes a personal matter of judgment when a collector describes a stamp as either 'misperforated' or 'poorly centered.'


  • Pasteup

    In the beginning days of stamp productions the manual process used made it necessary to trim and paste strips of stamps together to form longer strips. The longest available strip of stamps at that time was twenty stamps in a coil so at the end of a coil of twenty stamps there would be a pasteup or a pair of stamps where two strips had been joined.

    While some stamp collectors avoid them, collectors of early coils enjoy collecting these as significant varieties.

  • Perforation gauge

    The The Society for Canadian Philately notes in their glossary that about the perforations and their guides that, “perforations are measured by the number of holes (perfs) or teeth to 20mm, or 2 centimetres. - this figure is known as the perf number, and may be expressed in whole numbers of with a fraction. Measurement is done by means of a gauge, which may be a simple printed scale on card or paper, or engraved on transparent plastic.”

  • Plate Blocks

    A plate block is the block of four (or on some older issues, six or eight) stamps adjacent to the plate number on the pane of stamps from the Post Office. Until recently plate blocks were relatively hard to find, since there was only one per pane of fifty or one hundred. Recently the USPS has started putting a plate number in every corner of even small panes of twenty, so plate blocks have little scarcity value, and have lost their appeal to some collectors. But before 1894 stamp production was performed by private companies, and there were no official policies about plate numbers, so some sheets of stamps had them, while others didn't.

    With one exception to the rule that all stamps since 1894 have plate numbers are the Overrun Nations set of 1943. When the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over production of U.S. Stamps most did have some sort of marginal inscriptions, such as the name of the company that printed them.

    The study and collection of Plate Blocks has many aficionados and are of interest because they do reveal much about stamp production methods and their development. Some collectors try to obtain one set per issue, while other more serious collectors try to obtain an example of every plate number.

  • Postage Stamp

    A postage stamp is simply a token showing that postal fees have been paid

  • Postmasters' Provisionals

    At the onset of the creation of the US Post Office many experiments were developed and provide for a rich and interesting study. Most concerned how to prepay and deliver mail. Collection and delivery points were public meeting places such as hotels and public houses. The ideas for printing, distributing, selling, and processing stamps and stamped mail had yet to be developed. Home delivery of mail did not exist and one had to drop mail at and collect it from these designated places.

    Even after the success of the Penny Black in Great Britain the United States remained skeptical that such a system would work partly because it required postal reform, including lower standardized rates, which many feared would bankrupt the government. In 1845 Congress enacted a major standardization of the postal rate structure and Postmasters in the larger urban areas began to establish the Postmasters' Provisionals by seeking and receiving permission to make their own stamps. These provisionals were later replaced in 1847 by the first official Government issues.

    At the same time that the Postmasters' Provisionals were being established many public and private organizations were developing to a large part the modern day postal system by creating stamps, adhesives, or handstamps to record the payment of fees.


  • Sheet vs Pane

    A sheet of stamps describes a larger multiple, of four or six or eight or even more panes corresponding to the size of the plate used to print the stamps.

    A pane of stamps means the largest quantity of stamps one can purchase from a post office. Many people often get the terms confused.

    Full sheets, also referred to as Press Sheets of many modern stamps can be purchased at the USPS Philatelic Services Division, headquartered in the salt caves in Kansas City, at 1-800-STAMP-24.

  • Stampless Covers

    Before the production of the first United States postage stamps, in 1847, letters could be sent Prepaid or more commonly Due. All pre-postage stamp mailings are called Stampless Covers. Prepayment of postage became mandatory in the United States in 1855, but it remains unclear as to if the use of postage stamps ever was mandated.

    The term stampless covers can be applied to other stampless mail as well such as Free Franks and Soldiers Mail.

  • Siderographer

    The occupational title of the person operating machinery who supervises mounting and unmounting of plates on presses and runs the machine that transfers dies to plates.

    Every time a plate was checked out of the vault for use, a siderographer would imprint his initials in the sheet margins. As a result many of the early stamps had many sets of initials. The majority of the good examples in circulation today are from the Pan-American Exposition issue of 1901.


  • Tagging

    There are a large variety of taggings on stamps and many collectors specialize in the collection and study of tagging. The United States began testing varieties of tagging in 1963 and since 1974 have used tagging on all stamps. Most foreign countries use taggings as well.

    Tagging is simply the use of a chemical substance on the stamp, a component of the ink, or as part of the paper that the stamp is printed on which reacts by glowing under ultra-violet light. The purpose of tagging is to make counterfeiting more difficult and to make stamps easier for automated facer-canceller and sorting machines to detect.

    A short-wave UV lamp is all that is needed to see taggings. Philatelic dealers may sell the more variable ones for as much as $200. Less expensive lamps will run around $35.00, but may required total darkness to reveal the more delicate types.

    Take care viewing with an ultra-violet light. It's safe to look as the light on the reflected surface of the stamps. However, the human eye cannot detect the light and the light can damage the eyes if looked at directly.

  • Thermography

    Thermography is a process in printing where a powder of ink and resin is deposited on paper and then fused with heat into a raised, enamel-like usually glossy, design.


  • Unperforated

    An error in the production of stamps that did not receive perforations and were released to the public by mistake. The more common and less precise term used among philatelists for a stamp issued "unperforated" in error, is called an "imperf error".


  • Watermark

"A watermark," notes Absolute Astronomy, "is a recognizable image or pattern in paper that appears lighter when viewed by transmitted light (or darker when viewed by reflected light, atop a dark background). A watermark is made by impressing a water coated metal stamp or dandy roll onto the paper … during manufacturing. Watermarks were first introduced in Bologna, Italy in 1282; they have been used by papermakers to identify their product, and also on postage stamps, currency , and other government documents to discourage counterfeiting."

Have a philatelic term you would like to add to the glossary? Please message an editor or me with a small definition and we’ll be happy to add it!


AJ's Encyclopedia Of Stamps: Basic Collecting:
Accessed November 9, 2000.

Accessed November 9, 2000.

Civilization Stamp Quest:
Accessed April 10, 2006.

The Philippine Philately:Philatelic Words & Terminology:
Accessed November 9, 2000.

The Society for Canadian Philately:
Accessed April 10, 2006.

Watermark, Absolute Astronomy:
Accessed April 10, 2006.

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