The bang-bang stamp: Vintage, antique postage stamps

The proverbial boiler factory might be considered a place of serenity compared to the United States Postal Service, if the idea of one genius had been adopted by the Postal Service back in the latter part of the 19th century.

expstamp1a.jpgThe post office was not satisfied with the system of canceling its stamps. Too many stamps were being reused, by having the cancellation removed; this fraudulent reuse was costing the government big money.

To discourage reuse, the grill system was tried in 1867. A grill on a postage stamp was an embossed pattern of small indentations. They were supposed to work by allowing the ink of the cancellation to be absorbed more readily by the fibers of the stamp paper, making it harder to wash off the cancellation.

The most imaginative inventor came up with quite a different way to solve the problem. The stamp he designed was one that when used, could not be used again, because once cancelled, it changed form completely. To accomplish this, he proposed that every stamp have on the back a bit of gunpowder, just like the “caps” used in toy guns.

expstamp2.jpgThe stamp would be affixed to the letter in the ordinary way, and the postal clerk, to cancel it, would hit it with a hammer. If he aimed correctly, the hammer would explode into bits, and there would not be a chance in the world the stamp could be reassembled and used again. The Post Office was actually impressed with this zany idea and trial stamps were produced.

Today, these exploding stamps are not great rarities, and can be found in various museums around the country, according to the Virginia Philatelic Forum newsletter. The printing on the stamps says U.S. Postage and U.S. Internal Revenue. They bear the portrait of Hugh McCullough, the Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of Chester Alan Arthur.

grill_1869.jpgHappily, cool heads prevailed and the stamp was never officially adopted by the Post Office. Aside from the noise, there was the possibility that letters would catch fire, resulting in blazes in post offices, which would require more firemen in regular attendance than postal employees!

The problem of missed cancellations on postage stamps has not gone away. Today a fair proportion of the stamps in our mail system gets through without any defacement, and is still costing the Postal Service money.