Classification of Overprints

Classification of Overprints

By Richard Tarrant

Until the early 1990s, collectors noted the names of users but made no real attempt to classify overprinted stamps in any other way. Overprint enthusiasts owe a great debt of gratitude to John Bonney and David Lane in the UK, who devised a classification system that brought a welcome rigour to the study of overprinted stamps. The system takes into account seven main factors:

– the overprint format, i.e. the exact wording of the entire overprint and whether it appears in upper or lower case.

– the overprint user. Most overprints allow easy identification of their users as they use organisations’ names. Some, however, are less clear, consisting of initials or a service, e.g. “Received”.

– the style of overprint. There have been many different styles of overprint, reflecting the fact that much overprinting was carried out by local printers. Styles include print in horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved lines and combinations of these. There are also several different overprint patterns that incorporate initials.

– dimensions. Different overprints can be distinguished by such measurements of line lengths, spacing between major parts of the overprint and height of lettering.

– printing. Distinction is made between overprints in block, serif and other lettering.

– colour of overprint. Most overprints were in black ink but some can be found in other colours, viz. red, blue, violet and mauve.

– particular stamps overprinted. Stamps are identified in accordance with Gibbons Part 1 catalogue and take account of variations in watermark and phosphor banding.

This system enabled collectors to record accurately any overprinted stamp and led to John and David producing catalogues of overprinted stamps. Part 1 was of electricity, gas and water boards and companies, while Part 2 recorded banks and insurance companies. The detail of the catalogues is exemplified by the identity of no less than 48 different Prudential Assurance overprint patterns on 79 different stamps. Part 3 was of local government users.

It is for each collector to decide how to form a collection of overprinted stamps. At its simplest, a collection can be formed comprising one stamp for each user. Some collectors, though, choose to collect an example of every different overprint, whether the difference is one of format, user, style, dimension, printing, colour or stamp issue.

As the stamps were used on receipts one way to collect overprints is on the original receipts – the equivalent of collecting postage stamps on cover. Many millions of receipts must have been issued but only a small proportion seems to have survived. Early receipts are naturally most desirable, with attractive engraved receipt headings particularly so.

Although it was illegal to use overprinted stamps for postal use, occasionally they are found on cover. It is likely that the period of greatest postal use was at the time of the abolition of the duty in 1971, when organisations used up the remaining stocks they had on their hands.

Collectors may by now have realised how close are the collecting fields of commercial overprints and perfins. and I suspect that many overprint collectors are also collectors of perfins. Many organisations used both types of security device. A few organisations even appear to have perfinned and overprinted the same stamps, although that may just have been the result of postal clerks idly perfinning overprinted stamps for their own amusement!