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The Bank Note issues represent the cream of the crop for the United States specialized collector. In the years between 1870 and 1893 dozens of varieties of stamps were produced. These varieties (stamps that appear similar but are treated as distinct issues by philatelists) include the scarcest and most valuable stamps in US collecting. Similar appearing stamps of this era are distinguished from one another based on many characteristics including color, paper type, the appearance of a security feature called a grill, and a series of "secret marks" included by one of the printers.
Much of this variety is due to the fact that the stamps were produced through a succession of contracts with different security printing companies - the National, Continental and American Bank Note Companies. When Postmaster General Jonathan A. J. Creswell commissioned the new series of stamps in 1870, the security printing industry in America was in its heyday. From Canada to Argentina the emerging economic engine of the Western Hemisphere produced a nearly insatiable demand for paper documents that would be difficult to counterfeit. Common examples include stamps for postage and tax collection, currency, and stock and bond certificates. In the 19th Century, one of the best weapons against counterfeiting was the use of ornate and intricate engravings that could only be produced by a master craftsman. In the thriving industry that arose to meet this need, firms competed fiercely to recruit the best engravers and win the most lucrative contracts from both public and private institutions.
The background of the Bank Note issues is very political. It is widely reported that the Pictorial series of 1869 was terribly unpopular. This view is reflected both in official government documents as well as the philatelic press reports of the day. In actuality it is difficult to know whether the general public was critical of the stamps (if they cared one way or the other) or if criticism of the Pictorials was confined to bureaucrats and stamp collectors. Regardless, it is clear that President Grant's administration sought to distance itself from the Johnson administration in any way possible, and the look of the nation's postage stamps was no exception. The Pictorials were small therefore the Bank Notes were large. The Pictorials featured "frivolous" themes therefore the Bank Notes featured stately busts of deceased Americans in profile.
The National Bank Note Company, which had the contract for printing the Pictorials, printed the first series of the new stamps between 1870-1. The stamps were printed on a hard, white paper. Some of these stamps were "grilled" with a special embossing machine, a technique intended to prevent the reuse of stamps by making it harder to wash off cancellation ink. Sometimes the grill on these issues is faint and other times it is nonexistent. Experts disagree on whether National intentionally did not grill all of the stamps issued under its contract, or if the un-grilled issues are accidental. Regardless, most examples do not have a visible grill. The grilled examples have different Scott numbers and are considerably more valuable.
The National Bank Note Company's contract expired in 1873 and the Continental Bank Note Company won the contract to continue printing the series. Most of the stamps printed by Continental can be distinguished from the National printings by the identification of small design differences. These minor changes are called the "secret marks" and were almost certainly added to the plates intentionally by Continental to help distinguish its work.
Secret marks are known on the 1 through 15 cent issues and are found in the following locations:
Although both National and Continental printed the 24 cent Scott, there is no way to tell the issues apart; there is no secret mark or consistent color variation. There is one exception: a single example of the 24 cent exists on ribbed paper which was only used by Continental. That stamp recently sold at auction for an astounding $337,000.
In 1875 a small quantity of the Continental issues were produced on a hard, bright-white wove paper without gum. These "Special Printing" stamps were only available through the Third Assistant Postmaster General's Office. The stamps of this series are quite rare. There were no more than a few hundred of any of the values printed. However, because they were collectible at the time they were sold, a good number did survive and are in the hands of collectors.
In 1877, the United States Congress directed that the printing of all notes and securities be transferred to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Post Office Department continued to have stamps printed privately until 1894. Nonetheless, the loss of the U.S. notes and securities business was a major blow to the security printing industry which immediately scrambled to reorganize and consolidate. The National, Continental and American Bank Note Companies merged under the name of the American Bank Note Company which assumed the contract for printing stamps in 1879.
When American first took over the contract it used the Continental plates. The American stamps are distinguished from the Continental printings by paper type. American used paper that is described as "soft porous." When held to a light, soft porous paper looks mottled or quilted. All of the 1893 Columbians were printed by American on soft porous paper, so any example from that series can be used as reference when comparing paper types.
In 1881 American re-engraved the 1, 3, 6 and 10 cent varieties to sharpen the image. These re-engraved issues have subtle variations that require some expertise to distinguish from the product of earlier plates. The design variations are as follows:
In 1882 the 5c Garfield replaced the old 5c Taylor design, resulting in a new stamp and a new Special Printing.
In 1890, American introduced a series of redesigned, smaller stamps which anticipated the look and feel of definitive stamp issues for the next 50 years. Referred to, appropriately, as the Small Bank Notes these stamps are also easy to identify with only a few varieties in the 2 cent Washington issues.
In 1894 the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over the printing of U.S. postage stamps bringing an end to the era of the Bank Notes.