The Almighty One Cent Franklin: A Philatelic Legend

As a lifelong stamp collector and self-professed philatelic fanatic, I‘ve had the privilege of handling some of the world‘s rarest and most valuable stamps. But few issues capture my imagination quite like the humble 1 cent Benjamin Franklin.

What is it about this unassuming little rectangle of paper that has captivated collectors for over 150 years? Is it the timeless elegance of the design? The rich history behind each printing variety? Or perhaps the tantalizing possibility that an undiscovered rarity might be hiding in a box of old family letters?

Whatever the reason, the 1 cent Franklin has earned its place as a pillar of American philately. And for those lucky (and wealthy) enough to own one of the true gems of the series, it represents the ultimate prize.

The Man Behind the Stamp

Before we dive into the intricacies of collecting 1 cent Franklins, let‘s take a moment to appreciate the man whose face adorns these stamps. Benjamin Franklin was a true Renaissance man – a printer, postmaster, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat.

As America‘s first Postmaster General, Franklin was instrumental in establishing the postal system we know today. He introduced home delivery, standardized rates based on weight and distance, and even designed a precursor to the modern odometer to measure postal routes.

So it‘s only fitting that Franklin was among the first Americans honored on a postage stamp. When the U.S. Post Office issued its first stamps in 1847, Franklin‘s portrait graced the 5 cent issue, while George Washington appeared on the 10 cent stamp.

Evolution of the 1 Cent Franklin

The first 1 cent stamp featuring Franklin debuted in 1851 as part of a new series with reduced postal rates. The design, engraved by James Smillie, was based on a bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Over 1 billion stamps were printed from 1851 to 1857 in shades ranging from deep blue to gray blue.

In 1857, perforations were introduced to make separating stamps easier. This innovation ushered in a new era of stamp production and collecting. For the next decade, 1 cent Franklins were issued in a range of colors and perforation types.

But the most notable (and collectible) varieties emerged in the late 1860s with the debut of the "grills". These embossed patterns were pressed into the paper to absorb cancellation inks and prevent reuse. Several grill types exist, identified by a letter code based on their size and shape.

The rarest and most valuable of these is undoubtedly the Z Grill, produced briefly in 1868. Only two examples are known to exist, making it one of the most elusive stamps in all of philately. In 1998, one of the Z Grills sold at auction for $935,000 – then a record price for a single U.S. stamp.

Other collectible grills include the A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I and Z types. Prices for these varieties can range from a few hundred dollars for a common type to tens of thousands for a scarce or well-centered example.

Grill Type Scott # Rarity Avg. Price (used)
A 134 Common $20
B 135 Extremely Rare $10,000+
C 136 Very Rare $2,000+
D 137 Rare $1,500+
Z 85A Unique (2 known) $1 million+

The 1 cent Franklin saw several more design tweaks over the next few decades. In 1869, the "Pictorial Issue" featured a stylized Franklin portrait surrounded by ornate scrollwork. While visually striking, this series was short-lived due to production difficulties.

Later versions reverted to the classic profile bust, with subtle variations in frame shape, lettering and color. Some key varieties to look for include:

  • 1882 Re-engravings (#206-209) – New die types with slightly altered designs
  • 1887 American Bank Note Co. Printings (#212-218) – Private printings on soft porous paper
  • 1908 Double-Line Watermark (#331) – Printed on experimental watermarked paper

In the 20th century, the Franklin design remained a staple of U.S. stamps. But two varieties in particular stand out for their rarity and value:

The 1910 "Orangeburg Coil" (#389) is a horizontally perforated coil stamp with an unusual backstory. These stamps were produced for the exclusive use of Bell Pharmaceutical Co. in Orangeburg, New York. Only 4 unused pairs are known to exist, with single copies selling for upwards of $200,000.

But the crème de la crème of 1 cent Franklins is undoubtedly #596 – the 1923 rotary press coil waste issue. To understand what makes this stamp so special, we need to dive into some postal history.

The Mystery of #596

In the early 1920s, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began experimenting with rotary presses as a faster alternative to flatbed printing. Rotary coil waste refers to the excess sheet stamp paper left over after trimming coils to their proper size.

Initially, this waste was destroyed. But in 1923, a few enterprising BEP employees had the idea to salvage and sell the waste as imperforate sheets. Collectors went wild for these unintended rarities, which were soon dubbed "coil waste" stamps.

Several rotary waste issues were produced, but the rarest of all is #596 – a 1 cent green Franklin stamp perforated gauge 11. For decades, the existence of this variety was doubted. No examples appeared on the philatelic market until 1957.

In fact, noted stamp expert Gary Griffith once declared:

"The #596 simply doesn‘t exist. End of story, period, case closed."

Oh how wrong he was! Since that first discovery, a total of 95 copies of #596 have been documented. The vast majority are used, with only 15 mint examples recorded. In 2007, a single mint #596 sold at auction for a staggering $400,000.

What makes #596 so elusive? It all comes down to a perfect storm of production quirks. The stamp was printed from a single rotary plate (#14164) with a miniscule print run of around 695,000 copies.

Most of these were used for bulk mailings and ended up in the trash. Couple that with the fact that #596 is visually indistinguishable from the common flat plate version (#552), and it‘s easy to see how it flew under the radar for so long.

Identifying & Valuing 1 Cent Franklins

So how can you tell if that dusty old 1 cent Franklin in grandpa‘s collection is a hidden gem? The key is knowing what to look for. Here are some tips:

  1. Check the watermark. The 1908 double-line watermark is one of the most distinctive varieties. Hold the stamp up to a light source and look for two clear vertical lines running through Franklin‘s portrait. No watermark? It‘s likely a common flat plate printing.

  2. Measure the perforations. Rare coil waste stamps like #596 will have perforations that match a specific gauge (in this case, 11). Use a perforation gauge or ruler to count the number of holes per 2 centimeter span.

  3. Look at the grill. If your Franklin is from the 1860s, check the back for an embossed grill pattern. Some grill types like the Z Grill are incredibly rare, while others like the A Grill are more common. Refer to a specialized catalogue to identify the type.

  4. Examine the shade and impression. Color varieties can mean the difference between a $2 stamp and a $200 one. For example, the 1851 1¢ blue comes in shades ranging from milky blue to deep indigo. Likewise, a crisp, heavily inked impression is more desirable than a faded or blurry one.

  5. Consider condition. As with any collectible, condition is king when it comes to stamps. Damage like tears, creases, thins or missing perforations can drastically reduce value. Centering is also key – a perfectly centered stamp with balanced margins is worth a premium.

Once you‘ve identified your 1 cent Franklin variety, how do you determine its value? Thankfully, there are some excellent pricing resources available.

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers is considered the bible of U.S. stamp values. Published annually, it provides detailed descriptions and retail pricing for virtually every U.S. stamp from 1847 to the present.

For ultra-rarities like the Z Grill and #596, you‘ll want to consult specialized census data and auction results. The Philatelic Foundation maintains a searchable database of stamps they‘ve expertized, along with images, grade and provenance information.

Professional Stamp Experts (PSE) is another reputable third-party grading service that offers free access to their population reports and price guide. Here‘s a snapshot of recent #596 sales from their database:

Grade Condition Price Realized Sale Date
Fine – 70 Mint $389,000 2007
Fine – 70 Used $170,000 1992
VF – 80 Used $149,500 2016
XF-90 Used $115,000 2004

Of course, these are extraordinarily high prices realized for the rarest of the rare. More common 1 cent Franklins can often be acquired for a few dollars to a few hundred, depending on type and condition. Half the fun is in the hunt!

Advice for Collectors

As you can probably tell by now, I‘m unabashedly passionate about 1 cent Franklins. But I also recognize that diving into this niche can be daunting, especially for beginners. Here‘s my advice:

  1. Educate yourself. Knowledge is power in this hobby. Before you start buying, read as much as you can about the history, varieties and grading of 1 cent Franklins. Some great resources include the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, Siegel Encyclopedia, and Linn‘s Stamp News.

  2. Focus your collection. Trying to collect every 1 cent Franklin ever made would be a monumental (and expensive) task. Consider focusing on a specific time period, printing method, or even a single issue like the 1908 double-line watermark. Having a clear goal will make the hunt more enjoyable.

  3. Buy the best you can afford. When it comes to rare stamps, quality trumps quantity every time. It‘s better to have one superb example than a dozen inferior copies. That said, don‘t overextend your budget – there are beautiful stamps to be found at every price point.

  4. Use protective mounts. Proper storage is essential for preserving your stamps‘ condition and value. Invest in acid-free stockbooks and mounts to keep your collection safe from dust, moisture and handling. Never hinge a mint stamp!

  5. Find a mentor. The stamp collecting community is full of knowledgeable and generous folks who are happy to share their expertise. Attend shows and club meetings to connect with other collectors. Most will be thrilled to take you under their wing.

  6. Enjoy the journey. At the end of the day, stamp collecting is a labor of love. Don‘t get too caught up in the monetary aspect. Take pleasure in the artistry, the history, and the thrill of discovery. That‘s what makes this hobby so special.

I‘ve been collecting 1 cent Franklins for over 40 years now, and I still get a rush of excitement every time I find a new variety or make an upgrade. These little scraps of paper connect us to a bygone era and one of our nation‘s greatest statesmen.

Sure, coming across a Z Grill or #596 in the wild may be a philatelic pipe dream. But that‘s what makes finally adding one to your collection so incredibly sweet. As stamp dealer extraordinaire Charles Phillips once told me:

"Owning a great rarity is like reaching the top of Mount Everest. It‘s something few will ever experience, but once you‘re there, the view is spectacular."

Happy hunting, fellow Franklin fanatics! May your tongs be steady and your dream stamps plentiful.

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