Proofs and Essays
After the artwork was either selected by the committee or chosen by the judges, it was turned over to a stamp designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The stamp designer takes the original art and incorporates it into the actual stamp design, including frame lines, lettering and denomination (face value).
Once the stamp has been designed, it is then turned over to the Engraving Department at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Two or more engravers are assigned to produce die proofs. One engraver carves the vignette into a metal plate (copper or steel) and one or more additional engravers carve the frame lines, lettering and numerals to produce a die.
Periodically, the die was inked, the excess wiped clean and the single stamp images were printed or pulled. These images are known as essays or die proofs. In the case of essays, they are submitted for design approval and (sometimes subtle) changes are made in the finished design. In other words, an essay differs in appearance from the issued stamp (see Figure 1).
When the proof was to be submitted to a number of officials for approval, it was often faster and more economical to pull one example and then reproduce it photographically. In such photos, when the design differs from the issued stamp, it is known as a photo essay (see Figure 2).
When the design matches the stamp it is likely a photograph printed for distribution to magazines and newspapers for publicity purposes. The latter, while interesting collateral, have relatively little collector or actual value (see Figure 3).
In the case of die proofs, the design matches the issued stamp and the images are pulled to judge the quality of the die. Die proofs for engraved stamps are usually printed under great pressure onto a thin piece of paper (India) that is about the same size as the engravers die block. If the paper with the stamp image was mounted on a larger piece of card stock, these are known as large die proofs. Since the impressions are printed from the master die, they are normally of very high quality (see Figures 4 and 5).
Alternatively, the paper which was originally the size of the engraver's die block could be trimmed down to a much smaller size. These are known as small die proofs. All of the original small die proofs that I have examined have margins that are 5-6 mm.
The margins are often not uniform in size, rather, somewhat irregular showing they were cut down by hand. Small die proofs for 1934-35 through 1937-38 federal waterfowl stamps were mounted on card stock roughly the same size of the paper (see Figure 6). Those for 1938-39 through 1945-46 were not mounted (see Figure 7).
Small die proofs are known for their intense, vibrant color (see Figures 6, 7 and 8). Often small die proofs were created to mount in presentation albums for important government officials such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector.
Once the die proofs were approved, the die was copied many times to create large printing plates of 112 (prior to 1959) or 120 subjects. At this point, a plate proof would have been made form the entire sheet. I am currently unaware of any plate proofs of early federal waterfowl stamps ever reaching the collector market.
However, a group of imperforate stamps came onto the market a number of years ago and I suspect some or all of the later multicolored pieces may possibly be true plate proofs. The group was removed from a regional USFWS game refuge were they were displayed, framed on a wall, for decades.
It is possible the USFWS may have retrieved imperforate sheets or printer's waste multiples of the earlier federal stamps that were previously archived, then had them cut down before having them framed and distributed to the regional wildlife areas. At one point, at least seven such groups of stamps could be accounted for.
The smaller and more uniform size of their margins along with their muted colors rule out the possibility of them being small die proofs. As plate proofs are pulled from multiple image plates, the sizes of the margins are limited by the spacing between images and cannot exceed 3-4 mm (see Figure 9).
To see a gallery containing images of essays and proofs for federal waterfowl stamps, click here. A quick word about photo essays. On the collector market, reproductions are the norm and it is mandatory they be accompanied by a certificate from a respected expertization service (see the Links page for a list).