Easy Identification - US 1870-1890 Large Banknote Issues

By Bill Weiss and Number Payton

The 1870-1890 Issues present many challenges to correct identification because there were multiple different issues by three different Banknote companies, using different paper types, and involving design and color changes. This article will attempt to simplify this subject by presenting the stamps in the order, by denomination, that collectors are most likely to encounter them, from most common, to scarcest (based on Number Specialized Catalog USED prices).

We will include every stamp issued between 1870-1889 in the text discussion of each stamp denomination, as well as in an individual matrix following each. Between these two and with the visual aid of the 1873 Issue secret marks and the 1882 Re-engraved designs, the positive identification of all of the large Banknote stamps should be easy. The 1873 Issue stamps (and the 1875 2c and 5c) exist with a “J” grill (1c-30c are reported) which is considered to be experimental in nature, therefore it is not included in our text article. For the purpose of this document, all numbers refer to Number Specialized catalog number. The three Banknote printing companies produced the following Post Office Contract issues and their product is identified by certain unique characteristics as follows;

NATIONAL BANKNOTE COMPANY – 1870 Issue with Grill 134-144, 134A-144A and without grill 145-155.
Characteristics are; grilled or ungrilled, both on hard paper.

Tip – The ability to identify hard and soft paper is important, so a few words on that subject;

HARD PAPER – Stiff, whiter than soft paper, not translucent when held to light (the paper weave appears more “solid” than soft, which has a distinct mesh), appears whiter under UV long wave light (because it is less dense than soft paper), perf tips appear more solid when viewed with good magnification (recommend 10-15X) than soft paper (which will display more paper fibers on the perf tips). Detect hard paper by observing the traits already noted. Some people can also ID hard paper by “flicking” the edges and feeling the stiffness of the paper versus the softness of soft paper.

SOFT PAPER – A looser-weave paper than hard, so feels softer, displays a weave when held to light, looks grayer under UV light than hard, and shows lots of perf tip fibers with good magnification.

Tip – Learn to identify the differences between hard and soft paper by studying them both using reference copies of stamps that MUST be on one of the papers. For hard, any stamp of the 1861-67 series is good (a 3c used 65 cost is under $2.00) and for soft use any 1883-1889 Issue stamp or even an 1893 Columbian stamp.

CONTINENTAL BANKNOTE COMPANY – 1873-1875 Issues. 156-166, 167-177 Special Printings, 178-179, 180-181 Special Printings.
Characteristics are hard paper (except later printings which were on an “intermediate” weave paper) and secret marks added to the plates (except the 24c, 30c and 90c). Most values also exist with a “J” grill, which students have concluded is experimental, thus they are not assigned major catalog numbers by Number. A color change 178 and a design change 179.

SPECIAL PRINTINGS – Were issued to be sold to collectors and, in the case of the 1875 printings, because the Post Office wanted a display of every stamp issue prior to 1875 for display at the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia, PA. Most of them are so rare that the chances of ever encountering one is minute, but they are included, for accuracy, as part of the matrix additions to the text. In a few cases, we will make special notes as “Tips” after the main text to explain an important fact about a stamp you may (if you are very lucky!) actually encounter.

AMERICAN BANKNOTE COMPANY – 1879-1889 Issues 182-191, 192-204 Special Printings, 205, 205C Special Printing, 206-218, 211B and 211D Special Printings.
Characteristics – Soft paper, design changes, re-engraved issues.

Tips – Design of 182-191 are the same as the earlier 1c-90c sets. Design or color changes include 206-209 (which are re-engraved designs with rather easy differences from the earlier similar-design issues which we will describe in the text for those denominations) and 210-218.

LISTINGS BY DENOMINATION (Most common to scarcest)

1c Values
     1. 1881 Re-engraved Issue 206; is identified by the strengthening of the background lines in the upper part of the design such that the area appears nearly solid;
     2. 1887 Issue 212; new design on soft, porous paper;
     3. 1879 Issue 182; on soft porous paper;
     4. 1873 Issue 156; on hard paper with secret mark (In the first pearl to the left of the numeral “1” there is a tiny crescent-shaped line);
     5. 1870 Issue without grill 145; on hard paper;
     6. 1870 Issue with “H” grill 134; on hard paper;
     7. 1870 Issue with “I” grill 134A;
          Tip – “I” grill is smaller than “H” grill, usually consisting of 10-11 vertical rows and 10-13 horizontal rows, while “H” grills are usually larger 11-13 X 14-16 rows.
     8. Special Printings (see matrix).

2c Values
     1. 1883 Issue 210; soft paper, new design;
     2. 1889 Issue 213; same design as 210 in new color (green);
     3. 1879 Issue 183; soft paper, same design as 1870-73 Issues but new color (vermilion);
     4. 1875 Issue 178; hard paper, same color and design as 183;
     5. 1870 Issue without grill 146; hard paper, color is light or reddish brown;
    6. 1873 Issue 157; hard paper, sometimes shows a secret mark (under the scroll to the left of “US” there is a small diagonal line. It seldom shows clearly, if at all, and Number assigns a different value to it if it is without the secret mark). When the secret mark is not present, it can only be differentiated from the 1870 ungrilled issue by the color, which is always darker brown;

    Tip – This stamp is found on ribbed paper and actually is the value of the 1873 Issue that is most often seen with this paper variety. Ribbed paper is considered unique to the 1873-75 Issues produced by Continental Banknote Company, even though a few copies have been reported on the 2c 1870 ungrilled stamp as well. Ribbed paper is difficult for many collectors/dealers to see as it is only really visible by viewing the stamp across reflected light so that the light is directed downward at the stamp which is held at a slight diagonal angle between your eyes and the light. All of the values which exist on ribbed paper are a premium in Number, which is why it pays to be able to identify it. And the “grand prize” is the fact that the only reported copy of the 24c 1873 Issue 164 is on ribbed paper (see further discussion under 24c values).

     7. 1870 Issue with “H” Grill 135; on hard paper;
     8. 1870 Issue with “I” Grill 135A; hard paper;
     9. Special Printings.

     Tip – The Special Printing of the 1883 2c (211B, issued in 1885) may be encountered. It can be identified by a printing difference which is not noted by catalogs, but is well-known to students. The cross-hatched designs located between the bottom of the bust at the left and the left oval vignette line extend all the way to the bottom of that area, whereas on the 1883 2c, the tiny crosshatch lines stop well up from the bottom of that area.
     Tip – the 2c 1880 Special Printing on soft paper 193 is easy to identify as it is the same design as the 2c 1870-73 Issues but is on soft paper and the color is black brown. It is very rare, with only 416 copies reportedly issued. It is remotely possible that you might find one if you can easily identify soft paper

3c Values
    1. 1882 Re-engraved Issue 207; soft paper, design is identified by the addition of a small horizontal dash below the right ribbon at bottom right and by the shading that projects from the oval around the center design being greatly reduced in size from previous issues;
    2. 1873 Issue 158; identified by hard paper and addition of secret mark (shading in bottom left ribbon greatly darkened);
    3. 1879 Issue 184; soft paper, same design as 1873 issue;
    4. 1870 Issue without grill 147; hard paper, no secret mark, color generally a lighter shade of green than 1873 issue which is usually found bluish green;
    5. 1870 Issue with “H” Grill 136;
    6. 1887 Issue (Number 214); change of color ( vermilion);
    7. 1870 Issue with “I” Grill 136A;
    8. Special Printings (See Matrix).

4c Values
    1. 1883 Issue 211; soft paper, blue green;
    2. 1887 Issue 215; color change, carmine;
    3. Special Printing 211D.

5c Values
    1. 1882 Issue 205; New Design, Garfield, Yellow Brown;
    2. 1888 Issue 216; same, blue;
    3. 1879 Issue 185; same as 1875 new design, Taylor, soft paper;
    4. 1875 Issue 179; new design, Taylor, hard paper;
    5. 1882 Special Printing 205C.

6c Values
    1. 1873 Issue 159; hard paper, secret mark (in bottom left ribbon design the first four vertical shading lines are strengthened);

Tip – This stamp can also, aside from the presence of the secret mark, usually be ID by the color, which is a lighter shade than the 1870 issues.

    2. 1870 Issue Without Grill 148; hard paper, carmine, no secret mark;
    3. 1879 Issue 186; soft paper;
    4. 1882 Re-engraved Issue 208; soft paper; on the earlier 6c there are four vertical lines at the left outer design whereas on the re-engraved there are three;
    5. 1870 Issue with “H” Grill 137;
    6. 1870 Issue with “I” Grill 137A;
    7. Special Printings (See matrix).

7c Values
    1. 1873 Issue 160; hard paper, secret mark (Two small semi-circles added at the indented lines at lower right corner);
    2. 1870 Issue Without Grill 149; hard paper, no secret mark;
    3. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 138;
    4. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 138A;
    5. Special Printings; Note that the 1880 7c Special Printing 196 is easy to identify because there is no other corresponding 7c on soft paper.

10c Values
    1. 1882 Re-engraved Issue 209; soft paper, differs from the earlier 10c values by having only four vertical lines between the left side of the oval and the shield. There is also a layout dot located in the white oval directly across from Jefferson’s nose;
    2. 1873 Issue 161; hard paper, secret mark (tiny semi-circle added to the scroll at the right end of the upper label);
    3. 1870 Issue Without Grill 150; hard paper, no secret mark;
    4. 1879 Issue With Secret Mark 188; soft paper;
    5. 1879 Issue Without Secret Mark 187; soft paper;
    6. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 139;
    7. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 139A;
    8. Special Printings (see matrix).

12c Values
    1. 1873 Issue 162; hard paper, secret mark (the left balls of the figure “2” are crescent shaped;
    2. 1870 Issue Without Grill 151; hard paper, no secret mark;
    3. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 140;
    4. Special Printings; Note that 12c 1875 SP is easy to identify because there is no other corresponding 12c value on soft paper;
    5. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 140A.

15c Values
    1. 1879 Issue 189; soft paper;
    2. 1873 Issue 163; hard paper, secret mark (note that the 15c secret mark is contentious, but catalogers describe it as the lower part of the upper left triangle “V” is strengthened. It is our opinion that this stamp is best defined by the color shade, which is a darker orange than usually found on the 1870 Issues, and darker still if on ribbed paper);
    3. 1870 Issue Without Grill 152; hard paper, no secret mark, color is a lighter orange than the 1873 Issue;
    4. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 141;
    5. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 141A;
    6. Special Printings (see matrix).

24c Values
    1. 1870 Issue Without Grill 153; hard paper;
    2. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 142;
    3. Special Printings; note that the 1890 24c SP is easy to identify because there is no other corresponding 24c value on soft paper;
    4. 1873 Issue 164; only one copy of this stamp is certified. It can only be identified because it is on vertically ribbed paper which is considered to be unique to the Continental BNCo. While students believe Continental printed more 24c stamps, as of now, there is no other way to differentiate them from National stamps except if on ribbed paper.

30c Values
    1. 1879 Issue 190; soft paper;
    2. 1887 Issue 217; new color (orange brown);
    3. 1873 Issue 165; hard paper (Note that since Continental BNCo did not make new plates for the 30c or 90c stamps, the only way to differentiate the 1873 stamps from the 1870 is by color shade, which is usually gray black, greenish black, or light black);
    4. 1870 Issue Without Grill 154; hard paper, usually dark black color shade;
    5. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 143;
    6. Special Printings (see matrix);
    7. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 143A.

90c Values
    1. 1888 Issue 218; soft paper, new color (purple);
    2. 1873 Issue 166; hard paper, can only be differentiated from the 1870 issues by color, which is lighter;
    3. 1870 Issue Without Grill 155; hard paper, dark carmine color;
    4. 1879 Issue 191; soft paper;
    5. 1870 Issue With “H” Grill 144;
    6. 1870 Issue With “I” Grill 144A;
    7. Special Printings (see matrix).