Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Ruby, Baby

When I learned that there would be a new ruby-colored Machin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Machin design, I immediately thought of Dion's 1963 hit song, "Ruby, Baby." The refrain in the song is "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby will you be mine?"

So now Ruby is mine, and yours, as part of our Machin collections. The £1 ruby stamp is shown above in the 40th Anniversary souvenir sheet, where it is se-tenant with its predecessor, the mauve £1. The ruby stamp was also issued in standard sheet format. Machins are issued in panes of 200 that are cut from the printed sheets of 400.

This is an unusual year because we've gotten two new Machin colors. Earlier this year, the 16p was issued in pink (sometimes called bright pink).

Colors are, of course, the signature characteristic of the Machins. Talk to any casual collector about the Machins, and the response is, "oh, you mean those ubiquitous Queen Elizabeth II stamps that come in zillions of colors. How many colors are there, anyway?"

In response, you (like I) sputter, cough, and say, "uh, well, a lot!"

The fact is, we as Machin collectors haven't paid much attention to the colors in recent years because Royal Mail has standardized on a group of colors and just keeps reusing the same ones, except on those rare occasions when we get a new one (or two), such as this year.

It wasn't always that way. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when a tariff change was announced, we all waited to see what colors would be used. The Post Office (which became Royal Mail in 1981) might come up with new colors or might reuse old ones. It was a surprise.

But no longer. That free spirit led to some dull and unattractive colors. The Machin series had also lost its consistency. There were three types of stamps: dark color with a light head (predominant), gradated color (gradual change from dark to light), and light color with a dark head. They are shown above.

Angela Reeves, Royal Mail's design manager wrote in the Philatelic Bulletin in 1983, "Many of the colors had become insipid and dull; the Machin definitive range badly needed 'spring-cleaning'."

Reeves brought in Jeffery Matthews, a graphic artist who had already done work on the Machin series. He had designed the regionals, with the smaller Queen's head and the emblem at upper left. He had also designed the narrower typeface that was introduced so that larger denominations, such as 20 1/2p, would fit without altering the Machin design.

Matthews decided to stick to the light head on a dark background, which of course was Arnold Machin's original design. He developed a palette of 16 15 different colors.

It soon became clear that 15 wasn't enough.

The reason is that Machin colors fall into three groups:

1. Colors used on denominations that are permanently on sale, such as 1p, 10p, and 50p.

2. Colors used on denominations paying a current postage rate. These are generally retired when the rate changes.

3. Colors that were previously used and are being held for future use. Royal Mail has a policy of not immediately reusing a color for a new denomination. For example, if red is being used for the 26p Machin, and it goes off sale because the rate has changed, the red color is not immediately used for a different denomination. It is held in reserve so that customers and postal staff are not confused by two red stamps being on sale at the same time or one right after another.

When I was writing the Machin chapter of our book in 2000, I tallied the number of colors in each group. There were 11 colors permanently in use, 8 colors used for current postal rates, and 5 colors that had been recently withdrawn. That's 24 right there, far more than 15.

So when this requirement was foreseen, Matthews expanded his group to 30 colors.

The first stamps using his colors were the 2p green and 75p dark grey issued in February 1988. These had just a change in shade from the prior versions.

Even though 30 colors were available, it wasn't long before new colors were added to the list. In 1989, Royal Mail decided to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first stamps by converting its two primary Machins to black (in honor of the Penny Black) and blue (in honor of the Twopenny Blue). The 15p Machin, which paid the second-class rate, was converted to a new color called bright blue (or sometimes light blue). The 20p Machin, which paid the first-class rate, was converted to black. The non-denominated stamps paying those rates were also converted.

The black color could not remain permanent because postmarks don't show up on the stamp. (Royal Mail temporarily switched to using red ink for its cancellations during the period that the black Machins were in use). When the celebration came to an end towards the end of 1990, the first-class stamps reverted to their prior color, flame, but the bright blue continued to be used for second-class stamps and remains in use today.

Around that time, Royal Mail identified a fourth group of colors - colors that are considered too dark because, like black, they don't show postmarks well and so potentially can be reused. Also, some letter recipients need to see the postmark date. Those colors are dark grey, dark blue and dark brown. In spite of this problem, those colors have been used periodically, though none are in use right now.

In 1997, a gold color was introduced to celebrate the Queen's golden wedding anniversary. It was used for the 26p Machins and the first-class non-denominated Machins. Gold was retired at the end of the year, but it was brought back in 2002 to celebrate the Queen's golden jubilee (50th anniversary of her reign), and it remains in use today for first-class non-denominated Machins.

Sometime in the late 1990's, Jeffery Matthews was asked to develop three new colors. I don't know why this was done, since there were enough colors to meet Royal Mail's needs, even without the dark colors noted above. Maybe Royal Mail simply wanted more variety.

His three new colors were grey-blue, orange and pink. The grey-blue was first used for the 40p in 2000, the orange appeared on the 9p in 2005, and the 16p pink appeared earlier this year.

And then we got the ruby color in June.

Will there be still more Machin colors? Probably not in the near future, but I'm sure Royal Mail will find a reason to introduce some new ones some day.

(Note: The above history excludes the engraved Machin high values of 1999, which had colors similar to but not exactly matching the Matthews colors, except for the £5; the Millennium Machin of 2000 which had an brownish-olive portrait on a white background; and the universal, or one-stop, airmail Machins with the smaller portrait, half-chevrons and descriptive text.)


(Never too late to make a couple of corrections. Matthews first submission was 15 colors, and his second was an additional 15. (Corrected above). Also, the universal Machins do use Matthews colors, but since the design is very different from the traditional Machins, it's hard to see that they match.)


Anonymous said...

Nice Informative post Larry.

If we are going to break into song we also have Ruby Tuesday which was June 5th (was this the date of issue? And Ruby, Dont Take Your Love To Town - Love being MACHINS :-)

Roy - Yes im still connected although its on my daughter computer.

larry said...

Yes, June 5 was the issue date, and it was a Tuesday. I didn't even think of the Stones' Ruby Tuesday. Thanks for reminding me.