Bonus: The Art and Craft of Soaking Off Stamps

IMG_8494Nowadays, I doubt you will be able to find a stamp in your local post office that has gum on the back that you must lick in order to produce a sticky surface so you can affix the stamp to your envelope. (Did I really have to use all those words to explain how one used to put on a stamp?) Instead, today’s stamps are  “self-adhesive,” that is, with sticky gum already part of the stamp. You just peel the stamp off its paper backing and it’s ready to go on the envelope. It’s a rather nifty system — convenient, hygienic, up-to-date. It’s not so great for collectors who want to add “used” (cancelled) stamps to their holdings, since it’s near to impossible to get the stamp off the envelope once it’s been placed there. I’ve taken to collecting used self-adhesive stamps simply by cutting a tight square or rectangle around them and saving them in my stock book as-is. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing, and a bit more bulky, but what can you do? 

Self-adhesive stamps got an early start in Sierra Leone in 1964. The idea was to produce stamps that would not stick together in the humid, tropical climate of West Africa. The die-cut self-adhesives also allowed postal authorities to issue stamps in unusual shapes, such as a map of Sierra Leone. The first U.S. self-adhesive came in 1974. It was a10-cent Christmas stamp, and I bought a sheet of 50, thinking it would become an unusual collector’s item, perhaps even something of a rarity. (Instead, the rubber-based gum proved unstable and ended up staining and discoloring the front of the stamps, and they have not gained value.)  (I could present pictures of all these stamps, but this essay is not about self-adhesives. Maybe I’ll write more about them later. Meanwhile, if you want to see these stamps, look ‘em up on eBay or somewhere.)

By the mid-1990s, the process had improved and self-adhesives were re-introduced and proved popular with the public. Today, I believe all new U.S. stamps are self-adhesive.  People who collect only modern stamps may soon forget what “dry gum” even is, or was. Whether or not this is a loss to civilization is not a matter under consideration at the moment.

For those who collect “vintage” stamps — that is, stamps issued before the pre-gummed era, removing the stamps from the paper they are on is not difficult. Since the gum is water-soluble, you just dunk them in water for a few minutes and they should float right off, or slide easily from their paper backing. When you are working with a lot of stamps, the following tips may be helpful.

IMG_8505A while back I acquired a substantial accumulation of German stamps from my buddy George. They were in three stock books, and more than half of the stamps were “cut squares,” still on their paper backing (see illustration, top). IMG_8510

I assembled them into a big pile, and poured myself about two inches of water in a wide salad bowl. Then I dunked all the stamps in the bowl and went about my business for 15 or 20 minutes. 

It’s important to use enough water to loosen the gum without turning the whole solution cloudy with residue. You also don’t want to leave the stamps in the water too long — I’ve noticed some waterlogged stamps pick up colors from other stamps (or ink from the cancellations or from the backing paper!) if they are allowed to soak and soak.

IMG_8514When it’s time, start picking the backing-free stamps out of the water. But where do you put them to dry? One suggestion is to use paper towels. Place the stamps face-IMG_8517down, since some residual wet gum could stick to the paper towel, thus defeating your purpose. Don’t let any stamps touch each other or they may  dry stuck together. IMG_8518




You will be left with a pile of wet paper that used to hold your stamps. Dispose of the paper mash responsibly — it’s recyclable!

The soaked stamps dry quickly, and can then be assembled into a colorful pile of collectibles, ready for sorting and storing. 

IMG_8546Some collectors prefer special soaking books with porous paper that will dry stamps flat. It strikes me, however, that those books keep out the air, and thus it must take quite a bit longer to dry the stamps than using the en plein air method.  True, stamps that dry on paper towels may not end up as flat as you’d like. Indeed, some of them may curl like tulips. You can easily press them under a book or other weight overnight to iron them out. Feel free to stack them on top of each other — they’re dry, after all, so they won’t stick together. Be careful, though, not to crease or fold the curled stamps when you are pressing them. A damaged stamp is no good to anyone.

Brother Jonathan, who started collecting stamps when I was dimly aware of what a stamp was, has been a stalwart co-philatelist and companion in a lifetime of pursuing the hobby, sharing his indefatigable enthusiasm about philatelic esoterica, exotica, minutiae and aesthetics. During a recent phone conversation on the occasion of his 75th birthday, talk inevitably turned to philatelia. During his professional life, Jonathan served as director of a major office of Rotary International based in Zurich. He said he was the only stamp collector supervising a staff of more than 30, in regular communication with Rotary contacts in more than 20 countries. “Going through the mail for stamps became almost a real job,” he said. Accumulating sizable quantities of stamps cut from envelopes, he devised an efficient technique for removing them from their backing paper: After soaking them in water, he would array them, gum side down, on the flat surface of a plastic screen. With air circulating both above and below the stamps, they would dry extra-quickly — faster than if they are laid out on, say, paper towels, and much faster than sticking them between the pages of a blotter-book, where they would not be exposed to the air. 

Warming to his subject, Jonathan added: “I even thought at one point that I might devise a machine to accomplish this task.” A machine? Sure. The plastic screening would be stretched on a roller that moves very slowly — kind of like those hot dog roasters you see at highway rest stops. Above the roller there might be a light to aid the drying process, and below it a fan to speed up the circulating air and move things along even faster. By the end of the roll, the stamps would be dry, and a flexible arm would “flick” them off the screen nto a container, where they could be stored and recovered for future sorting. 

My own contribution to this Rube Goldberg-like device was to suggest that it might be powered by a solar cell; alternatively, one might rig up a set of pedals and a seat, such that one could power the roller, the light and the fan while getting some healthful exercise. By this time, I had a pretty good idea what this might look like. d

And what would you call it, I asked my brother. “How about Dave?” he proposed. I include an illustration of the device (see below).




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