A Brief Philatelic History of Victoria

Chapter 3. The First Stamps and Lithography

Stamp production in Victoria commenced in January 1850, a full 18 months before the colony officially became independent. While it was a nearly universally accepted practice among the colonies of the British Empire to have their postage stamps designed and printed in England and shipped to them ready for use, that was not the case in Victoria. Stamp design and production was developed within the colony, and with only isolated exceptions, that practice remained until 1912.

In those days, Victoria was a fledgling colony in the most remote part of the Empire. There was no paper manufacture in the colony, nor was there any available supply from any nearby sources. There were no sophisticated manufacturing capabilities to produce printing presses or other equipment. Ingenuity, improvisation and dogged determination were the engines that drove stamp production in the early days. A study of the stamp production in Victoria in those early days provides a fascinating window to a different time and a different world.

When confronted with the challenge of producing those first issues in the 1850s in Victoria, the printers reviewed the available options and decided to utilize a printing method called lithography. To understand fully and to appreciate many of the philatelic issues that arise from those fascinating early printings, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of lithography.

Five different stamps were printed with lithography during the 1850’s in Victoria. They were the 1d, 2d, and 3d Half Lengths, the 2d Queen-on-Throne, and the one shilling octagon.


Lithography was discovered by a German inventor in the early 1800s. It is based on the simple principal that oil and water do not mix. To produce a lithographic printing, the following steps were followed:

First, an engraver was required, to engrave an image of the object that is to be printed onto a die. In most cases, the die was made from a block of steel, milled on one side to be a flat surface. The engraver would etch lines into the surface of the die where the lines of ink would ultimately appear in the printing. The etching was done in exactly the same dimensions as the final printing, and all of the printing lines needed to generate the desired image had to be etched, without error, into the die - the only difference being that the die was etched as a mirror image of the design that was to appear in the final printing.

Once completed, the die would consist of the original flat surface on which no inking was to take place, and the many small hollowed etching lines that comprised the design of the stamp. The die was smeared with a special greasy ink that was prepared specially for lithographic printing. Once the die had been inked, the flat surface of the die was wiped clean, so that the etching lines had ink in them, and the flat surface had none. A dampened piece of specially prepared paper was then placed onto the die, and a scraper was drawn across the surface of the paper. This would have the effect of forcing the paper into the crevices of the die and absorbing the ink from the etching lines onto the paper. When removed, the lithographic paper would now hold the image of the final stamp image.

Once the image was impressed onto a piece of lithographic paper, the paper with the inked image was placed face down in position onto the limestone printing stone. The printer would then draw a scraper across the lithographic paper, thereby “transferring” a mirror image of the design onto the limestone surface.

Making a Print

Once the image was impressed onto the limestone surface, the printers could use the principle that oil and water do not mix, to print the image. Once the greased ink image was transferred onto the printing stone, the limestone could be dampened with water, and then inked with printing ink in the colour specified for the stamp issue. The ink would be repelled by the water and cling only to the portions of the printing stone that had been inked previously. With the ink sitting only on the engraving lines as they appeared on the original die (being a mirror image of the final design), it was then possible to put a sheet of printing paper on the stone and apply some mild pressure – thereby transferring the ink on the stone to the sheet of printing paper. The result was a printed sheet containing an image of the stamp in the desired colour.

This process of printing directly from the die would reproduce a single image of the die. To complete the process of printing an entire sheet of stamps, it was necessary to transfer a number of lithographic images to a printing plate. The printing plates used were blocks of limestone that had a milled surface large enough to accommodate the sheet of stamps that was to be printed. There were two choices:

Direct Transfers

The first option was to ink the die as many times as there were stamps on the final sheet, using the procedure described above, positioning and impressing each separate image onto the printing stone, one by one, until the required sheet size was achieved. As you can imagine, this was a slow and tedious process. To create a small sheet of 5 rows of 6, it would require 30 separate processes to create the printing plate – for larger sheets it would be even more tedious!

Intermediate Transfers

The second option was to undertake an intermediate step, using a transfer stone. In this case, the printer would ink the die and transfer, say, 10 or 25 individual images onto a printing stone that was significantly smaller than the final printing stone. The images would be applied to the transfer stone one at a time, - such that the completed transfer stone could be used as a `multiple die’. From the transfer stone, multiple images could be made onto lithographic paper and applied to the final printing stone. A printing stone designed to print a sheet of 100 stamps could be created with 10 lithographic transfers from the transfer stone, instead of 100 individual images taken from the original die. This saved a lot of time, but the final quality suffered, because the printer was using an image of an image to get the final product. This would be the same as taking a scan of an object, printing it on your printer and rescanning the printout, creating a second generation image. A loss of resolution was inevitable.

It is worth noting that the earliest printings of the Half Length issues were printed using the more laborious technique of transferring images directly from the die to the printing stone. These were proven by Purves to have been printed in small sheets of 30 stamps. As the demand for stamps increased, however, there was a need to produce larger sheets, and the printers resorted to the use of transfer stones. The result is that the later issues have less detail and more flaws in the printed images.

The stamp in the left scan was printed using a direct transfer from the die to the printing plate, whereas the stamp in the right scan was printed using an intermediate transfer stone. Note how detailed and vibrant the print on the left is, when compared to the later printing

It is also important to understand that lithography was a great method of printing, provided that the printers did not want to make unlimited numbers of prints. With each successive print lifted from the printing stone, the quality of the lithographic stone deteriorated, and after a few hundred or, at most, a few thousand prints, it became necessary to mill the surface of the limestone to remove the old printing surface, and start over again. Thus, in the course of printing Victoria’s Half Lengths, a number of printing stones were used, as old ones wore out and new ones were needed to meet the increasing demand for postage stamps.

There are other aspects of lithography that made life difficult for the printers, but these difficulties and the methods used by the printers to resolve them, have been the source of fascination for philatelists for 150 years.

The Lithography Printing Procedure

Using lithography, the steps required to print a sheet of stamps (including use of a transfer stone), are as follows:

  • An engraver made a die by etching individual lines into a small block of steel to create a mirror image of a stamp design .
  • he printer inked the die with lithographic ink and transferred the image to a piece of lithographic paper, resulting in a printed image of the stamp design on the lithographic paper.
  • The lithographic paper was placed face down onto a transfer stone and the image was `transferred’ to the stone by drawing a scraper across the lithographic paper. This deposited a mirror image of a single stamp design onto the transfer stone
  • This process was repeated until there was the desired number of stamp images on the transfer stone.
  • The transfer stone was wetted, and then inked. The added ink adhered to the previously inked areas and avoided the wet areas of the transfer stone.
  • A piece of dampened lithographic paper was placed faced down onto the transfer stone and the image on the transfer stone was `transferred’ to the lithographic paper by drawing a scraper across the paper.
  • Next, the lithographic paper with the transfer group image on it was laid face down into position on the printing stone and the image was transferred to the stone by drawing a scraper across the lithographic paper. This deposited a mirror image of the transfer stone onto the printing stone.
  • This process of depositing the transfer group image onto the printing stone was repeated until the printing stone had the desired number of images for a full sheet of stamps.
  • Once the printing stone was completed, stamp production could begin. The printing stone was wetted and inked with the desired color of printer’ s ink. The ink would adhere to the previously inked areas and would avoid the wet areas of the printing stone.
  • A sheet of paper was placed onto the printing stone and put through a printing press that pressed the paper onto the printing stone, thereby transferring the inked image on the printing stone to the surface of the paper.
  • The newly printed sheet of stamps was hung to dry for a few minutes and then stacked and placed into inventory.
  • To produce further sheets of stamps, the printers would consecutively (i) prepare the printing stone by wetting and inking it, (ii) place a sheet of paper onto the printing stone and (iii) draw it through the printing press.

Plating Lithographic Issues

Even though the best limestone was carefully selected, it remained a fact of life that no limestone was perfect. Innate flaws in the limestone meant that tiny spots on the limestone might not absorb any of the greasy inks used in the making the printing images. In such cases, the printing ink would not stick, and there would be a constant “ white spot” at that position on the sheet. In other cases, the limestone might not absorb water, making the printing ink cling, resulting in constant “color spots” at a particular position on the sheet. The result of these tiny anomalies means that each stamp on the sheet contains tiny differences that act like a signature. With the use of blocks and other multiples, it has become possible to “map” the locations of each stamp to its’ original position on the printing stone. Identifying and positioning the stamps in the proper positions is known as Plating,, and a collection of stamps so organized is known as a Plate Reconstruction.

Where transfer stones were used, the situation is even more complex and interesting. Since the image was first impressed onto a transfer stone which would have its own characteristic flaws, and then onto the printing stone, the stamps that were so printed, contain two sets of constant flaws, called primary flaws (from the transfer stone), and secondary flaws (from the final printing stone). This makes it possible to reconstruct the transfer stone, called a transfer group reconstruction. As the transfer group would have been repeated a number of times on a single sheet, it is also possible to reconstruct the complete sheet (an arduous task where larger sheets are involved)

Shown, is a reconstruction of the transfer group of 24, used in the last Campbell & Fergusson printing of the 1d Half-Length. Each stamp in the group has tiny flaws, which are uniquely characteristic to its position in the grouping, the result of corresponding flaws in the limestone plate on which the transfer group was originally constructed. Identifying the individual characteristics can be challenging, even when the descriptions of the faults are known. Specialized philatelic journals can provide the information required to reconstruct such a grouping

Lithographic Varieties and Flaws

Finally, there are some interesting varieties and flaws which resulted from an occasional error made by the printers while they were preparing the printing stones. On occasion, during the process of transferring the image to the final printing stone, the lithographic paper with the greasy ink would crease, causing a Creased Transfer. (The most famous creased transfer variety from Victoria is the TVO variety found in the 2d Queen on Throne issue). Creased transfers normally appear on only one transfer group in the entire sheet, making them scarce. On other occasions the transfer paper was cut too small, creating a Cut Transfer. Sometimes the dampened transfer paper shrank unevenly, causing some distortion in the transferred image, called a Squeezed Transfer. Other varieties and flaws occurred when the transfer paper was being applied to the printing stone. If the transfer paper inadvertently touched the surface, but was immediately lifted and adjusted into place, it could cause a Kiss Print. On occasion, the transfer paper would be damaged, and part of it was cut away, and replaced with a new partial transfer image. Since the new partial transfer would have different primary characteristics, the stamps in those transfer groups are known as Substituted Transfers. There are also a few stamps which have Thumbprint Varieties, created when the printer’s fingers had some lithographic ink on them when handling the transfer paper. All of these form a fascinating study for the specialist!

Illustrated is an example of a Kiss Print, where the printer touched the surface of the printing stone with the lithographic paper carrying the image of the transfer group, then, shifted it into position, leaving the appearance of a double print on the stamp, where parts of the image was laid down.

An example of a Squeezed Transfer, which occurred when the dampened lithographic paper shrank before it was laid down, causing the image of the stamp to be slightly distorted. In this example, the top edge of the stamp has a convex curve along the top edge, and the top of the stamp partly shown below is even more dramatically convex shaped.

Retouches

Finally, there is the issue of Retouches. Because of the nature of lithographic printing, there were often major flaws, where the image on the transfer stone, or on the printing stone were damaged. Whenever these became known to the printer, he would often resort to retouching the image. To do this, he would usually remove any of the remaining ink on the printing stone with an acid brush then redraw the removed portion of the image by hand, with a stylus and the greasy lithographic ink. Often the results were crude and usually they were worse than the original flaw they were designed to replace. Retouches are a delight for the philatelist, however, and many of them are exceedingly rare. If the retouch occurred on the transfer stone, it would appear a number of times on the printed sheet of stamps, but when the retouch occurred directly on the printing stone, it would appear only once in a sheet. In many cases, this meant that only a few hundred copies were originally printed, and, in most such cases, only a handful of copies remain known to collectors today.

One of the more spectacular of all retouches found in Victoria’s stamps, is this copy from Ham’s third printing of the 3d Half-Lengths. The entire top right corner has been crudely redrawn. Only 500 copies of this retouch could have been issued, (once per sheet), and only a handful of copies remain known today.

Another of the rare retouches found in the Half-Lengths. Look carefully at the lower half of the right border. It has been crudely redrawn with a couple of wavy lines in an effort to fill in the very apparent white space where the original border is missing. The retouch was done with a stylus and acid, and all retouches were not nearly as finely etched as the original detail.

The early stamps of Victoria were all printed using lithography and many collectors have dedicated a lifetime to collecting and studying them. It is a fascinating area, and the more you understand the processes involved, the more intriguing they become!

REFERENCES: The Stamps of Victoria, Geoff Kellow
The Half Lengths of Victoria, J. Purves
Various Public Sources on Lithography, on the internet

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