UPU Specimen Stationery

In the earliest years of prepaid postage, samples of postage stamps and postal stationery were often sent to Postmasters to announce new designs, changed colors, new denominations, etc., so mail bearing unfamiliar postage would not be challenged. It also enabled comparisons to be made with suspected forgeries. For example, in 1840, specimens of the first adhesive stamps and the Mulready stationery were applied to Circulars and sent to all Postmasters in the United Kingdom, before the stamps were put on sale. The samples were mint, and could theoretically be illegally removed from the circulars and used for the payment of private postage. When the first one shilling stamps were prepared in 1847, specimens sent to Postmasters were handstamped with the word SPECIMEN to prevent their use to defraud the post office. The use of a defacing or cancelling device became a common practice to avoid loss of post office revenue.

The philatelic meaning of a specimen item of postal stationery is: A proof or issued item of postal stationery which has been provided or preserved as a sample, for which no payment has been made and which has been defaced to prevent its postal use.

The “defacement” is very often the word SPECIMEN (or its equivalent in other languages), hence the term “specimen stationery”, often shortened to “specimen”. In this listing, a “specimen” may also be an item which has not been defaced, provided it can be shown that it was supplied as a sample to a member of the UPU, and it does not also exist as an issued item sold to the public, such as an item prepared but never publicly issued.

Types of Specimen Stationery
The subject-matter of this catalog is confined to UPU specimens, explained in detail in the next section. They have come into existence through a UPU procedure for keeping member countries informed of one another's officially issued postal paper. It is worth noting, however, that there are many other reasons for preparing samples and these “non-UPU” specimens are outside the scope of this work. They can be classified as follows.

  1. Postal Authority specimens. To give notification of an issue, the Postal Authority may circulate specimens to its postmasters. As the postage stamp came to be introduced in more and more countries, postal administrations notified one another bilaterally (prior to, or outside of, the UPU) of their new issues, often sending unused stamps and stationery as specimens. From the mid-1850s the practice of protecting the revenue by applying some suitable marking slowly took hold.
  2. Printers' reference specimens. The printers of stationery need to keep records of their work in the form of proofs, essays, color schemes and issued material. To prevent postal use of these reference items, the printer may be required to overprint or endorse them suitably as specimens.
  3. Official reference specimens. In Great Britain senior officials of the Post Office and the Inland Revenue kept reference collections of postal material in current use: These bear SPECIMEN or CANCELLED overprints. The Crown Agents also had reference collections, though the items were uncancelled. Before the UPU began distributing specimens in 1879, some reference collections were supplied by Britain to overseas postal administrations, made up of uncancelled stamps of the Crown Colonies.
  4. Presentation specimens. Special sets or collections made up for important dignitaries have sometimes been given protective cancellations before presentation. This is the origin, among the British Crown Colonies, of many of the locally overprinted types of specimen.
  5. pecimens of stamp printing. When seeking orders, security printers have often put together collections to illustrate the scope and quality of their work. Previously issued stationery would normally be protected with a SPECIMEN or CANCELLED overprint. Waterlow & Sons, Limited salesmen had a large portfolio of examples, and the postal stationery samples previously produced for many counties were overprinted with a distinctive red or blue circular design.
  6. Printers' samples. Samples for use in obtaining new contracts were sometimes submitted. In some cases, such as in USA, the bidding process for each contract usually required such specimens to be submitted with the bid.
  7. Post Office training specimens. These are stationery defaced before supplied to postal clerks in training schools. Examples include stationery of Great Britain cancelled with vertical black bars, and of France with 'SPECIMEN' or 'ANNULE' overprints.
  8. Exhibition specimens. There are instances where security printers have been given permission to display issued stationery or proofs at National and International Exhibitions.
  9. Philatelic specimens. Postal administrations sometimes dispose of unwanted remainders of obsolete issues or supply current issues at below face value to stamp dealers and collectors, giving the stationery suitable protective markings or cancelling them with a datestamp. Examples include remainders of Mauritius which were overprinted 'CANCELLED' following the change to decimal currency in 1878, and stationery then current in the Australian States and Commonwealth which were protected prior to sale at a discount to collectors. The Italian Post Office similarly sold high denomination postal money orders to collectors at nominal prices after they had been demonetized by handstamping them “ANNULATO”. Philatelic agencies may also arrange for the supply of specimens, sometimes in artificially controlled small quantities, to their agents. The great majority of specimens produced in the last four decades fall into this last group. In some cases, reprints are made for the collector market that, because they would still be valid for postage, are demonetized.
  10. Press specimens. Administrations may publicize their new issues by sending them direct to philatelic editors.
  11. Display specimens. Post Offices and bureaus sometimes have lobby displays of postal stationery envelopes currently on sale. The USA, for example, offered a wide range of sizes, colors and denominations, and display cases were made, using SPECIMEN overprinted material.
  12. Receiving authority specimens.

Specimen Postal Stationery in Normal Unused Condition
Many postal authorities distributed unmarked examples from the very outset of the system in 1879. These are naturally indistinguishable from the normal issues without independent confirmation of their status, such as a Receiving Authority marking.

The notes to individual countries in UPU Members make clear where circulation was by means of stationery in normal unused condition. Territories which became members of the UPU after 1900 but which only circulated specimens in normal unused condition, are included in UPU Members but have no corresponding entry in the listing. Any defacing markings encountered in these areas are from one of the non-UPU types listed above.

The British Post Office adopted a compromise system both for Great Britain and for the British Post Offices Abroad. In 1948 the British Post Office and the Crown Agents decided to cease protecting stationery sent to the International Bureau.

Unissued Stationery
There are a few cases where stationery samples were circulated through the UPU but were, for various reasons, never issued. One of the best known examples is the 8c carmine, King George V post card of Straits Settlements, which exists only with a SPECIMEN overprint. Another is the Gibraltar brown Queen Victoria 1½d reply card with the Type 1 surcharge, again only known as a specimen.

Administrations have sometimes made special printings and reprints solely to supply the International Bureau,: when a distribution had been overlooked, when insufficient stocks were available or upon joining the UPU.

Protective Markings
Various methods have been adopted to protect stationery from unauthorized use:

  1. Overprints. The word SPECIMEN (or equivalent) is applied by a printing press.
  2. Handstamps. The word SPECIMEN (or equivalent) is applied by a manual device. This handstamp is very often made of rubber that deforms somewhat during use, and the dimensions and shape of the impression can vary.
  3. Perforations. The word SPECIMEN (or equivalent) is perforated into stationery as a pattern of small holes.
  4. Postal markings. Datestamps and other postal obliterators may be used to protect stationery. Examples include most of the Australian States, Australia and its postal dependencies.
  5. Controls. Spain and its Colonies utilize a serial number scheme on its stationery, with each impression of the press advancing the number. They usually consist of a six-figure control marking with a prefix letter. Those reading “000,000”are reserved for specimens, and are not valid for postal use.

Standard Type Protective markings may be applied either by the printers at the request of the Postal Authority which ordered the product, or may be applied by the Postal Authority itself (or by some other Government Department) after receipt from the printers and before sending them to the International Bureau for distribution.

Where the stationery printers apply the protective markings, recognition of certain standard types becomes possible. Markings applied by Postal Administrations, on the other hand, rarely exhibit such general patterns. Close study of the five British security printers, responsible for so many issues of the former British Empire, has led to the a classification of standard types set out in “Catalog Information”. Foreign printers have been less intensively investigated but standard types may also be recognized among their work. Fuller details of all these non-British types are given under the respective country headings.

Numbering System for Types
The numbering system, illustrations, and descriptions of the types of protective markings are provided in Classification of specimen types . The catalog for each country repeats the information related to its listing.

As with any area of philately, collectors need to seek authoritative opinions when there is suspicion or doubt. Forgery of postal stationery distributed by the UPU with specimen overprints and handstamps is most unusual. However, bogus overprints, perforations, and handstamps are an easy means for unscrupulous people to enhance the value of the most common stationery.