The Penny Red stamp is one of the most collectible stamps in existence. While not rare (more than a billion of them were printed), their value can vary depending on when they were printed and on what plate. Finding the plate number on a Penny Red is not difficult, but you must know where to look.
The plate number on a Penny Red is embedded in the lattice pattern on the stamp’s perimeter. Where it was embedded can vary, but a Penny Red’s plate number was always printed in a centered position. To see the plate number, you may need to use a magnifier as it can be hard to spot.
The key to determining a Penny Red stamp’s value is to figure out where the plate number is placed on the stamp. Additionally, where the stamp was separated from its sheet is important as well. Below, we cover how to find the plate number and how to use it to determine the value of the stamp.
Penny Red Stamp History
Few stamps served a more significant role in postal history than the first two: The Penny Black and then the Penny Red. Without either, it is unlikely postage would have been affordable for the common man in England and then in the USA for several years after their issuance.
To understand the history of the Penny Red stamp, however, you must understand the history of the Penny Black stamp first.
Penny Black Stamp
The Penny Black was the first stamp ever issued, back in 1840. It altered the face of communications as much as television and the internet have in modern times. As a reformer, the Penny Black accomplished two things. It revamped how postage was calculated, and it made it affordable for commoners to send parcels through the post office.
There were, however, some flaws:
- The black background was easily altered to obscure postage cancellation marks, leading to reuse of the stamps
- The black background made it difficult to see the red cancellation ink, which sometimes led to confusion over whether or not a parcel was paid for
- Postage cancellation mark ink was water soluble, which let those using the post office to “wash” the cancellation marks off the stamp
You might be wondering why anyone would go through the trouble to reuse a stamp. The reason for this was that, back then, postage was expensive when compared with the wages of a commoner. Before the Penny Black, for what we would call a blue collar worker today, mailing a letter would cost about a day’s wages.
Even with the new postage rates, the meager income for most of Britain at the time meant that stamps were still costly for most people. Reusing a stamp was a way to save much needed money. These problems demanded a solution.
Penny Red Stamp
The Penny Red stamp was that solution. Rather than going through another arduous design process (the selection process for the artwork was extremely convoluted and created a minor scandal itself), it was decided that the best thing to do was to keep the design but change the ink.
Red was chosen as the new ink and most postage cancellation systems adopted black ink. The black ink from a cancellation on a Penny Red was unmistakable. It was almost impossible to alter the background or wash the ink off the stamp. Additionally, the black on red was easy to see by postal employees, which sped up processing.
Penny Reds had their first run in February of 1841. Approximately 21 billion Penny Red stamps were printed. The stamp was printed from 1841 through 1879. Eventually, a watermark was used on Penny Red stamps as an additional protection against fraud.
Where Is The Plate Number On A Penny Red Stamp?
Finding the plate number on a Penny Red is not difficult, but you must know what you are looking for. It helps to first understand the role a plate plays in the printing process.
What Is A Postage Plate?
Postage stamps have been printed in a variety of ways, starting with the Penny Black through to the present day. Part of that printing process involves printing plates, which are sheets of metal in which a design has been imprinted. Ink is introduced into the imprint, which is then transferred to paper via pressure and heat.
The transfer leaves an imprint on the paper. With stamps, the imprint covered an entire sheet. When the Penny Red stamp was printed, it numbered 12 columns by 20 rows of stamps, for 240 stamps in total.
Three Versions Of The Penny Red
Penny Red stamps were printed in three distinct phases. These are important because each one had a different make-up. Only the third version of the Penny Red stamp had plate numbers included on the stamp.
Imperforates were produced between 1841 and 1854. They were actually Penny Black plates, just infused with red ink. Initially, 7 of the 11 Penny Black stamp plates were used and they were followed by 164 more plates as each one wore out.
Imperforate stamps had no perforations. They had to be cut by hand. They also had no plate numbers. For identification purposes, the lower corners had modified alphabetic letters printed on them.
As time passed and stamps became more popular, printers began to experiment with perforation. This was done to speed up the process of issuing stamps at the post office as clerks would not have to hand cut each stamp. Starting in 1850, a 16-gauge perforation was used and in 1854 the Post Office adopted perforations.
Eventually, the 16-gauge perforation was shrunk to 14-gauge to give a sheet of stamps more structural integrity. There was also a watermark added to a sheet, which was either a small or large crown. This was done as a further effort to thwart counterfeiting of stamps. Of the two, a 16-gauge perforation with a large crown is the rarest.
The Penny Red stamp was then redesigned in 1858. The new design used letters in the upper corners as an additional identifier. Furthermore, the plate number was engraved in the plate and hidden in the interlocking lines of the stamp.
In 1864, the plate number was engraved in the plate in the lace work on the left and right side. Another change (and additional identifier) is that the top corner stars were replaced to show the lower corner check letters, but in the reverse order.
How To Date Your Penny Red Stamp
The easiest way to tell if your stamp will have a plate number is to date it. Follow this process of elimination:
- Identify if your stamp has perforations. If not, you know it has no plate numbers and was printed between 1841 and 1854.
- If it has perforations, you can try and determine if they are 16 or 14 gauge. These stamps will also have a large or small crown watermark. Each stamp will also have letters at the lower corners and stars at the upper corners.
- If your stamp has perforations and letters in the upper corner, then you know that somewhere on the perimeter of the stamp there is a plate number inscribed.
- If the letters in the upper corners of the stamp are the reverse of the letters in the lower corner, then you know to look for the plate number in the lattice work of the right and left sides of the stamp.
How To Use The Plate Number On A Penny Red
The Penny Red stamp used over 400 different plates during its entire run. Many of those plates were repaired or refurbished so that they could be used again. Over 21 billion Penny Reds were produced over the span of its run.
Because of that, there are a lot of Penny Red stamps in existence that were produced on a wide array of plates. Finding one is not that difficult. What is difficult is finding a Penny Red that is worth a lot of money.
Apart from a few unique plates, most Penny Reds that are used go for around $7. A key factor apart from the specific stamp is the condition of the stamp. Mint stamps go for more than regular circulation used stamps. A used stamp in bad condition is not worth much money.
Plate Number 77
Certain plate numbers are worth more than others. Stamps from plate 77 in 1863 are worth a lot of money because 77 was the rarest plate to be used. It is believed that only one sheet of stamps was printed, and they were supposed to be destroyed. Over time, however, some examples of stamps from plate 77 have shown up.
When they have, they have stirred up a lot of attention. Additionally, they have been sold for a lot of money. The most expensive stamp from plate 77, combined with a 4 cent stamp, sold to a collector in the UK for just over $700,000. Another recent large figure sale happened in 2016 when a collector paid more than $650,000 for one.
Other Penny Red Values
Penny Red stamps that are worth more than the average Penny Red include:
- Penny Reds canceled with the Maltese Cross
- Penny Red Stars in good condition with a watermark and perforation
- Non circulation Penny Reds
- Penny Reds in mint condition
The plate number on a Penny Red stamp can be found in various locations depending on when the stamp was printed. A Penny Red’s plate number is usually found in the lattice pattern on the stamp’s perimeter, but the earliest Penny Red stamps were printed without any plate numbers.