Tools for Philatelists – Watermarks

by Raymond MurphyThis is a series of articles on what tools are available to help the collector.  Some may be basic, and some advanced. It is not necessarily related only to Irish collecting, but Irish examples will be used as available.

What is a watermark?  The correct answer is that it isn’t something, but rather the absence of paper at a specific spot in a pattern.  In paper making, wood or linen is cut to small pieces, and dissolved with chemicals to make a watery pulp mixture called “Stuff”. The “stuff” solution is pumped on a continuous moving belt and the water drains off. At this point another mesh drum with raised bits of metal, called a “Dandy” roll, is rolled on the stuff as it moves along the belt.  The “bits” are in the design of the watermark. This causes thin spots in the paper, which is eventually rolled and pressed smooth.  The thin spots however, are still there, just difficult to see.  If it wasn’t pressed by further rolling, it would be easy to see, as on certain brands of toilet tissue. (Figure 1).  Yes, that’s a watermark, just not a philatelic one.

Why is this done?  In the case of toilet tissue – advertising, but for stamps or negotiable paper, Security !  If you control the distribution of watermarked paper of a specific design, the absence of that specific watermark flags that something is wrong.  

How can we check the watermark.  Several methods are available, however one must assure that there is nothing that gets in the way, such as stamp hinges or pieces of debris where it was removed from a cover.
    1.  Try laying the stamp, face down, on a dark non-glossy surface.  Sometime you can see the watermark.

    2.  Use watermark fluid while the stamp is face down on a dark surface.  Do not substitute naphtha or lighter fluid since this may affect the ink. Certainly avoid hazardous substances, such as carbon tetrachloride, the old favorite, which is now known to cause liver damage.

    3.  Use a commercial signoscope where the stamp is placed under a clear plastic block, then compressed, which places a plastic block under pressure.  The pressure causes the block to distort slightly because of the stamp watermark, and when light enters the block at a right angle to our vision, this slight distortion appears as a dark area, thus the watermark. There are other commercial versions that operate on the same principle. Figure 2.

    4.  Use a colored filter that is identical or close to the color of the stamp.  In some cases, you may be able to see the watermark.  Of course, with multi-colored stamps, this method usually doesn’t work.

A watermark can vary in size.  Some countries use small ones, others spread the watermark over three or four stamps, and a few use the entire pane.  U.S. watermarks of the USPS variety may have a distinguishable letter on a stamp, or maybe only part of a letter, or possibly just the corner of a letter.  (See Scott’s Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers, Introduction for layout of letters versus stamp positions).
Since watermark production is a mechanical process, it is subject to problems.  Pieces of the metal bits can come off the Dandy roll, creating unusual watermarks.  Paper with the wrong watermarks can be used by the printers.  The example of the USIR watermarked paper (for Internal Revenue) accidentally used instead of USPS paper on stamps of 1895, (Scott 271a & 272a) are good examples. And, of course, the infamous inverted watermark occurring when paper is incorrectly fed to the press.

On foreign stamps, watermarks usually change on security paper when a sovereign dies.  This normally coincides with new stamp designs of the incoming ruler.  If paper manufacturers are changed or new equipment is introduced, an accompanying change in watermarks may occur.  The British Victorian and George V periods are particularly interesting due to the great variety of watermarks used.  The 1911 set of two stamps of King George V (Figure 3) initially had a large crown watermark.(Figure 4)  It was reissued in August 1912 re–engraved, but with a script GVR watermark in a single line.(Figure 5)  In October 1912, another re-issue but this time using a crown and script GvR watermark in alternating lines.(Figure 6)  Fortunately, later in 1912, a different stamp series were issued.

Ireland is fortunate in having used only two watermarks on postal stamps, the entwined SE, of Saorstát Eireann from 1922 to 1940, and the “E” of Eire after 1940.  These can appear in 8 possible positions depending on how the paper went through the press.  See figures 7 and 8.

 Collectors of Irish stamps should check their examples of the £1 architecture of the sixth definitive set  for watermarks. It should have an “e” watermark.  (Figure 9).  Counterfeiters printed some stamps on paper without watermarks (and incorrect perforations), resulting in removal of the stamp from circulation in 1984 and the early replacement of the definitive set. None of the fakes have been found postally used – only used in TV tax books.

Some inverted watermarks are done as a result of how the pane was laid out.  Booklet stamps use the gutters as points where the panes are secured in the booklet.  Depending on the plate design, 50% can be inverted.

Can watermarks be faked?  Yes, and No. Modern printers can print a very faint layer, but this is usually detectable by most methods.  Sometimes a very heavy cancellation can obscure a watermark or the absence thereof.

Williams, L. N.,  Fundamentals of Philately, APS, 1990.
Repeta, L., “Comprehensive Look at Key Stamp Subjects”, American Philatelist, Vol.101,#2, February 1987, p128 ff.
Buxton, B.H., The Buxton Encyclopedia of Watermarks, Tappen, NY, 1997.


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