by Hank van der Linde
May 12, 2014
What is a Plate Block?
It has become a generic description for a block of stamps very much like Kleenex has become for tissues. Technically this term is used to identify a block of stamps, usually four with selvedge on two sides with an imprint identifying the printer and the plate number. This was generally the case with engraved stamps. When lithograph printing was used, the imprints changed to include the designer’s name, the printer’s name and sometimes other information but no plate numbers as they were no longer being used.
Prior to 1958 stamps were printed in large sheets of 200, 400 or 600 stamps which had the printer’s name and plate number imprinted in the selvedge. These were then cut into panes of 100 which resulted in only one corner of the pane having an imprint. The procedures evolved over time, as a consequence the location of the imprints on the selvedge vary from early issues to the now common corner imprints.
In 1957 CPC decided to trim the imprints off the panes prior to them being shipped to the various post offices. This decision was made as a result of the high demand for plate blocks resulting in many panes in post office inventory having only the plate block missing. These trimmed panes are referred to as “field stock”.
Due to pressure from the philatelic community, CPC reversed itself and agreed to have plate blocks or untrimmed panes sold through its Philatelic Service while trimmed panes or field stock would be available through the post offices. CPC stopped creating field stock in the early 1990s.
As a consequence of this effort, there are two commemorative issues (Sc #375 and 376) and several of the definitives (#337 – 341) issued in this period without plate numbers.
Collectors may collect one or the other of the four corners or they may collect all four corners which are referred to as “matched sets”. If the selvedge on the four corners is not the same, they are obviously not “matched”. Due to the placement of imprints, collecting early stamp issues results in a somewhat different collection.
Why have plate numbers?
Plate numbers were used by the printer as a quality control mechanism. If a sheet of stamps were poorly printed or had some defect, the printer could quickly check the plate to determine the problem and correct it. When a plate had been in service too long, metal fatigue would result in cracks occurring. Plate blocks with cracks are highly sought after by collectors.
Who were the printers?
The printers for the first colonial stamps were Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson of New York which evolved into the American Bank Note Company in 1858 and continued to print colonial stamps until 1867.
The contract was then given to the British American Bank Note Company who held it until 1897. At that time the American Bank Note Company regained the contract until 1922 when their wholly owned subsidiary the Canadian Bank Note Company took over the contract. In 1930 the British American Bank Note Company again won the contract and held it until 1935 when it reverted to the Canadian Bank Note Company. They in turn held the contract until 1967 when they shared the printing of some issues with British American Bank Note Company. Ashton-Potter Limited became the third company to share in the contracts to print stamps in 1970 when lithography began to be used. In the 1990s Leigh-Mardon Pty, Limited were also given a few contracts with Lowe-Martin entering the business in 2002.
What Did They Print?
Selvedge Imprint or Inscription - The Pence Issues 1851-57
The colony of Canada contracted Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edison of New York to print the first stamps of the colony. Although this series was initiated in 1851, there were no imprints or inscriptions in the selvedges until 1856-57.
The 3d, 6d and 12d were printed with one plate of 200 stamps which consisted of two panes of 100 stamps per pane (10 x 10) separated by a 10 mm gutter to allow for dividing the panes. In 1856-57 the “Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edison, New York” imprint or inscription was added to the selvedge of these stamps. It was added at the top of the plate over stamp positions 2-4 and 7-9; at the left next to 11-31 and 61-81 reading up; at the right next to 20-40 and 70-90 reading down; and at the bottom below 92-94 and 97-99. The latter was inverted on the 3d but upright on the 6d. There was no inscription on the 12d.
The ½ d, 7 ½ d and the 10d were printed on one plate of 120 stamps (12 x 10). The “Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edison, New York” inscription was added to the ½ d and 7 ½ d stamps at the top of the plate over stamp positions 2-4 and 9-11; at the left next to 13-27 and 73-97 reading up; at the right next to 24-48 and 84-108 reading down; and at the bottom below 110-112 and 117-119. There was no inscription on the 10d.
The Cents Issues 1859-64
Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edison merged with a number of other printers to become the American Bank Note Company in 1858. In 1859 the Canada colony converted the currency to dollars and cents and contracted the American Bank Note Company to print the required cents series of stamps. This series consisted of 7 values ranging from 1ȼ to 17ȼ issued at different times from 1859 through 1868. There are various perforations and colour shadings of these issues. The plates were used for numerous printings with the consequence that they were repaired several times resulting in several re-entries.
Again, as was the case with the Pence issues, the initial printings did not have imprints or inscriptions until several years later. In 1864 “American Bank Note Co. New York” was imprinted on the plate margins. All stamps perforated 12 are from plates with inscriptions or imprints, except for the 5ȼ which was perforated 12 from its initial printing.
Large Queens 1867-76
These were printed in both Ottawa and Montreal in plates of 100 (10x10). The imprints consisted of the value of the issue written out in shaded serifed capitals and the name of the printer centered on each margin. These were printed by the British American Bank Note Company with three different versions of the name of the company. A total of 63 plates were used to print the various values.
Small Queen 1870-93
These were printed in Ottawa and Montreal mostly in plates of 200 (10x10) separated by a vertical gutter. The 10ȼ consisted of 100 stamps while the 1892 printings of the 1ȼ, 2ȼ and 3ȼ were in a single plate of 200. The imprints were centered in each margin for most of the issues except for the 1892 printing of the 1ȼ, 2ȼ and 3ȼ which were located over stamps 10-11 and under 185-186 and 195-196. The British American Bank Note Company used five different versions of the company name. The number of plates varied according to the value of the stamp and the first Montreal plate of the 5ȼ issue was not imprinted. The value of the stamp was written out is shaded serifed capitals in the top margin above the first three and last three stamps. This inscription is referred to as the “counter”. For the 10ȼ value, the counter was the numeral above the 2nd stamp and written out above the 9th stamp.
Diamond Jubilee 1897
The lower values up to the 8ȼ were printed in plates of 100 while the higher values has 50 stamps to a plate with the imprint “Ottawa No …” followed by the numeral on each sheet. There were 29 plates in total.
The Maple Leaf (1897-98) and the Numeral (1898-1902) Issues
These issues were printed in plates of 200 divided into panes of 100 with “Ottawa No. …” usually imprinted on the top margin. They were centred for the Maple Leaf issue and on the top left and/or right on the Numeral issues.
This general pattern continued for the subsequent issues with a few variations such as the word “top” added to the King Edward VII issues as some of the values were printed in plates of 400. With the Quebec Tercentenary issues, the imprint was also added to the bottom margin of some of the issues. This bottom imprint was normal for some of the plates and inverted for others.
The Admiral issues had “Ottawa” and a plate number sometimes followed by one or two letters in the top margin. For the plates with 400 stamps, the imprint was also printed on the bottom margin. Some of the plates of the Admiral issues from 1917 – 26 had “lathework” which was an engraved engine-turned pattern on the bottom margin. With these issues the bottom imprint was moved to be above, below, beside or inside the lathework.
There does not appear to be any particular reason for having this lathework but it is speculated that it may have helped the printers to spot early wear of the plate. In 1915 guide arrows were introduced to help ensure proper perforation of the panes. Subsequently other guide lines, dots and in 1923 the phrase “R-GAUGE” was added in the margins. In some cases the printer’s order numbers were also placed in the top margins.
The 60th anniversary of Confederation issues had the plate numbers identified as “A- ….” followed by a number and the serial number 943 followed by a letter imprinted in the top and bottom margins.
Subsequent issues had the plate numbers on the four corners of each pane.
The 1935 King George V Jubilee issues had the name of the printer, Canadian Bank Note Company, Ottawa and the plate number imprinted in each corner of the plate with the order number being added in the lower left corner.
In the 1938 Pictorial Issues the name of the design in English and French was added to the imprint. The 1939 Royal Visit issues were printed in two colours resulting in the plate number being a number such as 1-1 with the first number in the colour of the frame and the second number in black which was the colour of the portraits. There are apparently 176 combinations possible but only 165 have been reported. The imprints are normally in the colour of the frames but some upper left corners are imprinted only in black. Subsequent to these issues the imprints are consistent in that they include the name of the printer and the plate number in each corner of the plate, often with the order number in the lower left corner.
In addition to the content of the imprint and the location of it, there are a number of other things to consider when collecting plate blocks such as whether to collect mint never hinged, mint hinged or used or to collect a single corner or matched sets (all four corners) or to collect all plate numbers of an issue, or to collect the various varieties and engraver’s slips and errors, or to collect the various paper types and fluorescences or the tagging differences. These are items for further discussion at another time.
Collecting plate blocks is relatively inexpensive for those printed in the last half of the 20th century. It is progressively more expensive as one moves backward to the beginning of the 20th century and almost prohibitive for those printed in the 19thcentury. However collecting should be done for the enjoyment it provides and not as an investment. With that in mind, one can decide to limit the collection to a particular period such as after WWII to date, or to include only one corner, etc. There are lots of choices and a great deal of enjoyment in searching and finding the plate blocks to complete your collection.
Winthrop Boggs; The Postage Stamps and Postal History of Canada, Second Printing, 1975
Robson Lowe; The Encyclopaedia of the British Empire Postage Stamps, Volume 5, 1973