Whats' a Freak

What's a Freak?
By Al Mignery

Virtually since the very first U.S. stamps were issued in 1847 printers have been making mistakes in the production of postage stamps. The printers, themselves, hate these mistakes and dislike it even more when, inadvertently, these little blunders end up being among the stamps sold at post offices.

But for the philatelist, these printing goofs are the stuff from which dreams are made. Every collector has, at once time or another, wished that he/she would one day walk into a post office and make a lucky purchase of some spectacular error that ends up becoming a major philatelic classic...and worth lots of money.

Such was the case when William T. Robey strolled into a Washington, D.C. post office in May of 1918. After actually “wishing” his impending purchase of a full pane of the brand new 24-cent bicolor airmail stamp would end up being one on which the stamp might be inverted, that’s exactly what happened! He walked out of the post office with his full pane of “Inverted Jennys” and into philatelic history. He managed to sell the entire pane several days later for close to five times his annual salary!

Stamp collectors needn’t wait to become another Robey. What a boring hobby it would be if every collector waited for years, hoping to make such a discovery. Today, America’s postal service continually (and inadvertently) turns out printing freaks that are, in effect, just as colorful and often as amazing as the inverted Jenny. And best of all, these freaks are often within the financial reach of practically every philatelist.

Assembling a collection of U.S. freak stamps not only produces for you a collection that will be a terrific “conversation piece” whenever you show your album to philatelist and non-philatelist alike, but an enduring study of how stamps are produced. Not only that, but such stamps have a tradition of nicely rising in value over the years. This is one of the essential reasons why collecting freaks has become quite popular in recent years.

What are freak stamps?

As opposed to what are known as “Errors” (which is the classification under which the inverted Jenny falls) that are blatant mistakes on the part of individual pressmen, designers, and/or platemakers, a “freak” is a “production variety”. Such a variety occurs with the printing presses, perforation machines and other mechanical devices go awry during the printing process—often due to a printing employee not checking what’s going on and what is coming off the presses and perforating machines.

Because the printers who produce America’s stamps are manufacturing literally billions of stamps a month, many of these freaks end up getting into the post office distribution stream. And because quite often a sizable number of them end up “going public”, the retail prices for them can be especially low.

What are some of the ways a stamp can end up being a freak? Most of the time, a freak occurs in either the printing of the color(s) on a stamp or in the perforating process.

The 50 cents Postage Due stamp (Scott No. J98) has a rather dramatic shift in the black denomination plate which, though somewhat common in these issues, is quite striking here.

The two cent Jefferson coil stamp of the 1954 Liberty Series (Scott No. 1055) has a wonderful perforation shift—a freak that is unusual, but common enough on countless issues from the 1800s to date that they can be reasonably priced.

Nearly 150 Years of Freaks

These kinds of weird and much-talked-about stamps have been with us all through the history of stamp production and, of course, the philatelic hobby. One can even find them on our first postage stamps from 1847. Obviously, some of our classic 19th century stamps (like the 1847s) can be expensive (and in this regard, we’re referring mostly to the stamps with a face value of only two or three cents) whether you find them as freaks or not. However, remember that most of the common 19th century stamps used to pay the simple letter rate (two or three cents) are still quite inexpensive in any condition.

Freaks on our earlier issues command higher values than their “normal” counterparts, but their prices are not generally outside the scope of the average collector’s budget. And as a matter of fact, because many people who offer classic freaks for sale don’t really know what they are (they are generally not listed in Scott), you can often find them at particularly attractive prices.

No matter how you collect freaks, they are part of the rich history of stamp printing and production. And by collecting them over the range of 150 years of production, one ends up with a collection full of important philatelic history.

Need more info? Go to the Errors, Freaks and Oddities Collectors Club. Dues are just $16 per year for this worldwide organization. They publish a wonderful journal, The EFO Collector, and have a useful website: www.efoers.org. You may also write to them at: EFOCC, 3561 Country Court North, Mobile, AL 36619-5335.