Monday, 13 August 2007

The Anniversary That Royal Mail Missed

As you undoubtedly have noticed, Royal Mail has been celebrating stamp-related anniversaries. The first, in what I will call recent times, was the 1990 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Penny Black, Britain's (and the world's) first postage stamp. The celebration took the form of five revised Machins that included the usual Machin portrait of Queen Elizabeth II plus the portrait of Queen Victoria as used on the Penny Black (and all subsequent stamps of her reign). These five classy stamps, designed by Jeffery Matthews, were on sale for the first nine months of 1990.

A long break occurred, but now Royal Mail is serious about these celebrations. The first low-value definitives of the Elizabeth era are called Wildings, because the portrait of the Queen was taken by Dorothy Wilding Studies. The first Wildings appeared in 1952, and Royal Mail's celebration took the form of two souvenir sheets, one in 2002 and one in 2003. The sheets featured reprints of the original designs, except with the denominations updated to current, decimal values. (These updated Wildings also appeared in prestige booklets in 1998 and 2002.)

The first high-value definitives of the Elizabethan era featured views of four royal castles. These first appeared in 1955, and the four were reprinted in a souvenir sheet in 2005.

Most recently, the 40th anniversary of the Machin series was celebrated with a pair of commemoratives and a new ruby-colored £1 Machin.

Next September, Royal Mail will celebrate the 50th anniversary of country (or regional) definitives. Those are stamps that feature emblems of one of the four main countries that make up the United Kingdom (and early versions were issued for other countries as well). You can see the regional Machins issued in 1971 for the Isle of Man here.

So, with all those celebrations, it's pretty amazing that Royal Mail missed another one that they could celebrate. Just a few days ago, August 4th was the 20th anniversary of window booklets.

In 1987, Royal Mail wanted to expand the sale of stamps beyond post offices. It also wanted to have a common and recognizable format for all products that were sold outside post offices. To accomplish these goals, new booklets were introduced in 1987 to be sold by retailers to the public. The first booklets in this series had a bright red cover and a small laminated window allowing one of the stamps inside to show through. This feature gave rise to the term window booklets. One of the original booklets with a window, containing four 26p stamps, is shown at the top of this post.

The first window booklets had panes of 13p stamps for second-class service, 18p stamps for first-class service, or 26p stamps for overseas airmail postcards. Each booklet contained one pane. Five booklets were issued: four 13p stamps, ten 13p stamps, four 18p stamps, ten 18p stamps, and four 26p stamps. Harrison and Sons produced all of the booklets. As with all Harrison low-value stamps, the photogravure process was used.

An unusual feature of the panes in these booklets is that they had margins all around.

The next year, these were replaced with similar versions containing 14p, 19p and 27p Machins, since these were required by new postal rates. The booklets were very popular, but as the required quantity of booklets increased, it became apparent that the window was too expensive to retain. Also, once the stamp behind the window was removed, the visual indication of the contents of the booklet was lost.

Harrison and Sons produced the initial 14p, 19p and 27p booklets with windows, and The House of Questa also produced window booklets with panes of ten 14p and ten 19p stamps. Shortly thereafter, however, booklets started appearing with a facsimile of one of the stamps replacing the window. The margins around the panes were removed as well, and as a result, the new booklets were slightly smaller than the older ones.

No further booklets with actual windows were produced, but collectors have continued to call these "window" booklets, since they look very similar to the ones with real windows.

Even if you don't collect booklets, these early window booklets are important because they contain some stamps that were not available in any other way.

In 1987, Royal Mail was in the process of converting over to the new, narrower Matthews font for the numerals. The original 26p red Machins were issued in the older font, but the ones in the window booklets had the new font. In fact, these two stamps typify the reason why the new font was needed. Look at the 26p with the old font - the denomination just barely fit in the space alotted. The new font is much more pleasing.

Also, the late 1980s was the period in which Royal Mail intentionally had straight edges on its booklet panes. This was done in response to collector complaints that booklet panes were being badly trimmed, and Royal Mail thought that straight edges would look better than a closely trimmed perforated edge. As a result, many Machins appeared in window booklets with one or two straight edges, as on the 27p stamps shown here.

Incidentally, straight edges were discontinued in 1993 because Royal Mail felt that they made it easier for stamps to be counterfeited.

I don't know why Royal Mail didn't issue a new booklet with an actual window to celebrate this 20th anniversary. Maybe they will do it in 2012 for the 25th anniversary. We'll just have to wait and see.


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