‘Banknote Issue’ Stamps

Another classic US example this week: a 12-cent black stamp featuring a portrait of Henry Clay, an American statesman who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This stamp is part of a series issued during the 19th century, specifically around the 1870s, which are known among collectors as the “Banknote Issues” due to their intricate, banknote-like engravings.

These stamps are highly valued for several reasons: their historical significance, the craftsmanship of the engraving, and their age. The Banknote Issues were printed by private banknote companies, which were contracted by the U.S. government before the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over stamp production in 1894. The companies—National Bank Note Company, Continental Bank Note Company, and American Bank Note Company—printed these stamps, often with slight variations that make each issue unique and of particular interest to philatelists.

For the general stamp collector, owning a piece from the Banknote Issues is like holding a piece of history. Each stamp tells a story not just of postal history but also of the printing arts and American politics in the 19th century. Collectors seek out variations in color, perforation, and watermark, which can significantly affect a stamp’s value. Additionally, the condition of the stamp is paramount, with well-preserved examples demanding higher prices.

Other examples shown here include a 1/2-cent deep blue Benjamin Franklin issue, a classic late 19th to early 20th-century U.S. stamp, recognizable by its detailed engraving and color. To the top right is a 1-cent blue Benjamin Franklin, commonly used for postcards or additional postage, from the same era as its half-cent counterpart. On the bottom right, the 2-cent brown George Washington stamp reflects the workhorse of everyday mail during its time, facilitating standard letter postage while the bottom left stamp also presents a 2-cent brown George Washington issue, similar to its neighbor, and it stands as a testament to the era’s intricate print craftsmanship and widespread postal use.