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The 20p Machin welcomes you to the Machin FAQ

All About Machins – The Machin FAQ
Part 3

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16. There are many Machins that do not have a denomination. Some are inscribed “1st,” “2nd” and “E.” Others have text such as “Worldwide” and “postcard.” How do these work?
17. Speaking of denominations, why do some Machins have large, rounded numbers and others have smaller, thin ones?
18. Why do some Machins have underprints, that is, images printed on the gum side of the stamp?

16. There are many Machins that do not have a denomination. Some are inscribed “1st,” “2nd” and “E.” Others have text such as “Worldwide” and “postcard.” How do these work?

These are non-denominated stamps — stamps that do not have a numeric value on them but indicate payment of a specific amount of money or payment for a specific postal service. Many countries issue non-denominated stamps today, but the way that they are used differs from country to country.

In the United Kingdom, these stamps are called “non-value indicators” or “NVI’s.” The first NVI’s were issued in 1989. At that time, Royal Mail was beginning to use private retailers, such as drug stores and supermarkets, to sell stamps to the public. The NVI’s were created to avoid problems at the time of postal rate changes.

With normal denominated stamps, sellers can be left with obsolete inventory when a postal rate changes. This inventory would have to be returned to Royal Mail and replaced by stamps at the new rates. At the same time, customers holding stamps of the obsolete value might try to exchange them for new ones or would need to purchase small-value stamps to make up the difference. For example, a customer with 19p stamps might want to purchase 1p stamps when the rate increased to 20p. This requires extra postal staff to handle the demand and costs the postal service money to print and distribute the make-up rate stamps.

Customers not wishing to go to the trouble of getting make-up rate stamps sometimes simply ignore the increase and run the risk of having their letters marked “Postage Due” and become subject to a steep fee (£1 at the time of this writing). Alternatively, they sometimes use two of the old stamps — good for postal revenue, bad for customer satisfaction.

1st and E non-denominated Machins 2nd non-denominated Machin One-stop stamp for postcards PiP stamp for large letters
The different types of non-value indicators (NVI’s) are shown here. Machins with indicators for first-class service (“1st”) and service to Europe (“E”) are shown on the left in a se-tenant pair. The Machin for second-class service (“2nd”) is shown in the middle. The first-class and second-class stamps were introduced in 1989; the “E” stamp followed in 1999. One-stop stamps (originally called universal stamps) for international airmail services were introduced in 2003; the stamp for postcards sent to any destination worldwide is shown here. With the introduction of Pricing in Proportion in 2006, letters were divided into two sizes, standard and large. First-class and second-class service remained the same, but the NVI’s were redesigned. The second-class NVI for large letters is shown on the right.

NVI stamps were introduced to avoid these problems. Each stamp indicates payment for a particular service, not payment of a specific monetary amount. For example, stamps inscribed “1st” can be used to mail a letter weighing 60g or less (the first weight step) with first-class service. The stamps are sold at the current price for the inscribed service and remain valid for that service indefinitely. (The first weight step increased to 100g with the introduction of Pricing in Proportion on August 21, 2006. Existing NVI’s remained valid for letters within the new weight limit.)

When NVI’s were first introduced, stamps inscribed “1st” sold for 19p. They can still be used today for that service, although the rate for first-class mail as this is written in 2004 is 28p. They can also be used to pay the equivalent to the current rate for other services, so today a “1st” stamp can be used to pay 28p worth of postage on a heavier letter, an overseas letter, a parcel or anything else for which a postage stamp is valid. In other words, British NVI’s are inflation-proof!

NVI’s are beneficial for everyone. Mailers like the fact that they don’t have to get new stamps when rates change. Private retailers like having inventory that does not become obsolete. And Royal Mail avoids the cost of printing and distributing at least some of the stamps that a rate increase would otherwise require.

The original NVI’s were for first and second-class service. At first they were only valid for mail within the United Kingdom, but in 1995 the Universal Postal Union approved their use on international mail.

non-denominated 1st commemorative E non-denominated commemorative
These two stamps from the 2004 Pub Signs issue show the use of non-value indicators on commemorative (special) stamps.

In 1998, a third NVI was introduced, the “E” stamp for letters to Europe weighing up to 20g (the first weight step).

After the success of non-denominated definitives, Royal Mail added the non-value indicators to other issues including commemoratives, greetings stamps and occasions stamps. Non-value indicators were also used for pictorial regionals.

In 2003, a new type of NVI was issued. These were originally called “universal” stamps and were later renamed “international one-stop” stamps. Two international one-stop stamps were issued in 2003 — one for airmail letters weighing up to 40g and destined for Europe and the other for airmail letters up to 40g and destined elsewhere in the world. A third stamp issued in 2004 (pictured above) was for airmail postcards to any destination outside the UK. All three of these stamps can be seen in the Virtual Machin Album.

Royal Mail discontinued the use of the “E” indicator in 2004. According to Royal Mail, customers thought the stamps had something to do with the euro, the European currency that has not been adopted in the United Kingdom. Denominated Machins and regionals were issued to replace the “E” stamps. It is possible that there were other, unstated, reasons for discontinuing the “E” stamps.

In 2006, Royal Mail introduced Pricing in Proportion, a new pricing method that divides letters into two categories, standard and large. The existing first-class and second-class services remained the same, but now there were separate rates for standard letters and large letters. Royal Mail redesigned the NVI’s. Stamps that simply inscribed “1st” or “2nd” were for use on standard letters, and stamps with the addition of the word “Large” were for use on large letters. One of these stamps is pictured above.

Today, NVI’s are widely used. “1st” and “2nd” NVI Machins are available in sheet, booklet and coil format. The international one-stop stamps are sold in booklets of four. Commemoratives to pay the first and second-class rates are issued as NVI’s. In fact, with very rare exceptions, Royal Mail does not issue any denominated stamps at all for the basic first and second-class rates. (The current postal rates — and therefore the prices for NVI stamps — can be viewed on the Great Britain Collectors Club web site.)

Other countries that issue non-denominated stamps have different rules than the U.K. For example, non-denominated stamps in the United States retain their original monetary value. A non-denominated stamp that was sold for 37 cents remains worth 37 cents forever, regardless of current postal rates. So even though a U.S. non-denominated stamp is inscribed “first class mail,” it is only useful for that service until the next rate increase changes the price of that service.

US Forever stamp

Update: The suggestion that the United States Postal Service issue a non-denominated stamp that works the same way as British NVI’s, indefinitely retaining their validity for the inscribed service, was first made in 2002 by Shelley Dreifuss, at that time the consumer advocate at the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC). She indicated that Royal Mail’s success with such stamps was a good reason for the USPS to adopt them. Another Commission member, Ruth Goldway, followed up on the idea in 2005 and pressed the USPS to issue such a stamp. In July, 2006, the USPS applied for permission to issue it, and the PRC approved it. The USPS issued its “forever” stamp, picturing the liberty bell, in April, 2007, just prior to a rate increase. (Last revised September 2, 2007.) top

17. Speaking of denominations, why do some Machins have large, rounded numbers and others have smaller, thin ones?

26p Machins with type 1 and type 2 fonts
When the necessary denominations of Machins became too big for the font in use, Jeffery Matthews designed a new, narrower font. On the left is the 26p in the old font, known as Type I. The 26p was subsequently issued with the new font, known as Type II, shown on the right.

The answer in a word — inflation! When the first Machins were issued in 1967, and when the first decimal Machins were issued in 1971, the denominations were small, like 4d and 6 1/2p.

The rapid inflation of the 1970s and 1980s caused increases in postal rates, and soon there was a need for denominations that would not fit in the allotted space.

Look at the 26p Machin on the left. That denomination barely fits. It was possible that a Machin with denomination 20 1/2p would be needed, and that denomination would not fit at all.

Royal Mail’s solution was to create a new font (technically, a new typeface) with narrower numerals. Royal Mail assigned graphic artist Jeffery Matthews to accomplish that task. Matthews designed a new, thinner font that was introduced beginning on March 30, 1983 with the 3 1/2p and the 20 1/2p. The new font was used for all new Machins, and the conversion was completed in 1988.

When a new version of the 26p was needed for a booklet pane, the new font was used and the resulting stamp is shown to the right of the older one.

Another good example is shown on the page with the Jeffery Matthews interview. On that page is the 19 1/2p with the old font and the 20 1/2p that was needed and was done with the new font.

The new font quickly became known as the “Jeffery Matthews font.” The stamps with the old, large font are known as “Type 1” and the stamps with the new, thinner font are known as “Type 2.” The new font is sometimes called “redrawn.” The new font was introduced as new printings of Machins were required, and the whole series was converted over a few years.

There’s one other font change to know about. Before being asked to create a complete new font, Matthews was asked to create a new, thinner zero for the small 10p. He did so, then designed an even thinner zero for his new font. The story of the zeroes is illustrated in the interview here.

18. Some Machins have images printed on the gum side of the stamp. Why was that done?

In the early 1980s, Royal Mail decided to encourage patrons to buy stamps and send letters by offering stamp booklets at a discount from the full value of the stamps. This practice started with the 1982 Christmas issue and continued sporadically for about five years.

Cover of 1982 Christmas booklet
Pane from 1982 Christmas booklet showing underprints
This booklet, issued on November 10, 1982, was the first in a group that was sold for less than the face value of the stamps inside. As noted on the cover, this booklet sold for £2.50, a discount of 30p. The booklet contains ten 15 1/2p stamps for first-class letters and ten 12 1/2p stamps for second-class letters. Each stamp is underprinted on the back with two overlapping stars to prevent anyone from removing the stamps from the booklet and reselling them at full face value. In this image, the pane is folded over so that the back of the three right-hand columns of stamps can be seen. The booklet was sold with the pane folded in this manner.

A total of five booklets containing Machins were sold at a discount. Three were Christmas booklets and two were the standard counter booklets (booklets sold at post offices) that were being sold at that time. These are listed in the table below.

The double-line D underprint The double-line star underprint
These are the other two underprints in addition to the one shown above. On the left is the double-outline letter “D” in the centered pattern used in the discount booklets. On the right is the double-outline star in the wallpaper pattern used for stamps sold at full price.

To prevent anyone from buying the discounted stamps and reselling them at full face value, an image was underprinted on the gum side of the stamp using blue ink. The blue ink was edible, ensuring that postal customers would not have any adverse effects from licking the stamps.

Five denominations of Machins appeared in those five booklets. These were the 12 1/2p pastel green, 13p light brown, 15 1/2p light violet, 16p light mushroom, and 17p greyish blue. There were three different underprints — the two overlapping stars shown above, a single star with double outline, and the letter “D” with double outline. The underprinted image appeared centered on the back of the stamp. The 12 1/2p Machin appeared with two different underprints, making a total of six different underprinted stamps issued during the discount period.

Towards the end of the discount period, Royal Mail had a surplus of the paper with the underprinted double-outline star. This paper was used for 12p emerald green Machins issued in sheet format and 17p greyish blue Machins issued in 50p booklets in panes of three plus a label. These stamps were not sold at a discount. (Though the three 17p stamps sold for 50p is actually a small discount of 1p, Royal Mail didn’t consider this enough of a discount to be concerned about.)

In order to distinguish these non-discounted Machins from the discounted ones, the underprints were offset so that they appeared unevenly on the back of the stamps. This is sometimes called a wallpaper pattern. The double-outline star shown in the illustration is the wallpaper pattern on the back of the 17p stamp.

The addition of these two non-discounted Machins made a total of eight different underprinted stamps in total. These are listed in the table below. (There were also five commemorative stamps, issued in booklets or packets, that were underprinted. They are not discussed in this FAQ.)

Underprinted Machins
Denomination and Color Phosphor Image Arrangement Source
12p emerald green CB Double-outline star Wallpaper Sheets (see note)
12 1/2p pastel green 2B Overlapping stars Centered Christmas 1982 booklet
12 1/2p pastel green 2B Double-outline star Centered Christmas 1983 booklet
13p light brown CB Double-outline star Centered Christmas 1986 booklet
15 1/2p light violet 2B Overlapping stars Centered Christmas 1982 booklet
16p light mushroom PCP Double-outline “D” Centered Lyme Regis booklet
17p greyish blue PCP Double-outline “D” Centered Letters Abroad booklet
17p greyish blue 2B Double-outline star Wallpaper 50p booklets

Booklets Containing Underprinted Machins
Booklet Issue Date Contents Image Arrangement Selling Price Discount Amount
Christmas 1982 Nov 10, 1982 ten 12 1/2p CB and
ten 15 1/2p 2B
(see note)
Overlapping stars Centered £2.50 30p
Britain’s Countryside
Lyme Regis
Aug 10, 1983 ten 16p PCP Double-outline “D” Centered £1.45 15p
Christmas 1983 Nov 9, 1983 twenty 12 1/2p CB Double-outline star Centered £2.20 30p
Social Letter Writing
Letters Abroad
Mar 5, 1985 ten 17p PCP Double-outline “D” Centered £1.55 15p
Christmas 1986 Dec 2, 1986 ten 13p CB Double-outline star Centered £1.20 10p
50p Pillar Box Nov 4, 1985 three 17p 2B plus label Double-outline star Wallpaper 50p
50p Pond Life #1
May 20, 1986 three 17p 2B plus label Double-outline star Wallpaper 50p
50p Pond Life #2
Common Frog
Jul 29, 1986 three 17p 2B plus label Double-outline star Wallpaper 50p


Abbreviations used in describing the Machins —

The 12p Machin with underprint in sheet format was issued on Ocober 29, 1985.

The 50p Pond Life #2 booklet was reissued without the underprint on August 12, 1986.

At the end of 1986, the era of underprinted Machins came to an end.

Underprinted Machins are listed in intermediate catalogs such as the Stanley Gibbons Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalogue and the Stonehame Great Britain Stamp Catalogue. They are noted, but not pictured or listed separately, in the Scott Catalogue.

All of the underprints are pictured here on Roy Simpson’s Machins Made Easy site.

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