“Some Thoughts on Original Gum” by Herman Herst Jr.

What follows is an interesting article written by noted philatelic writer Herman (Pat) Herst Jr.  In it, he reflects on the history of original stamp gum (“OG”) and the author’s own philosophy on the subject.  The article was written in the 1970s, so any stamp prices and percentages quoted here reflect the stamp market of the time. And just a note: Mystic’s stamp experts are well-trained in identifying re-gummed stamps.

“Many people do not want to hear the truth. This is especially so if it contradicts something they want to believe. The one who tells the truth is not always the most popular kid on the block. Our ancient ancestors used to kill the messenger who brought the bad news. We have progressed a bit today. We do not kill him. Instead, we often just ignore the truth and continue to make the same mistakes we did before.

The purpose of the gum on the back of a postage stamp is to help it adhere to a letter. In the early days of philately, its presence or its absence did not worry the owner of the stamp too much. The stamp was the important thing.

In the very early days, stamps were pasted into their places in the book with ordinary library paste, or if the stamp had gum, it was simply dampened and put into place. The disadvantage of that system soon became obvious. Album affairs, rather than looseleaf, and each year, collectors would move their stamps into a new album, with pages for the newest stamps. It was not a big job. Even in the 1890s, the entire world issued but a few hundred stamps each year.

Someone invented a stamp hinge. At first, collectors used the selvage from along the sheet of stamps. It was gummed, and one could simply lift the stamp, tear it at the hinge, and mount it with the new hinge in another book. Sometimes stamps had three or four layers of paper on them.

Then someone invented the transparent hinge, and that was soon improved upon by using a special type of mucilage, which when dry, permitted the hinge to be removed without tearing the stamp, as occurred whenever an old-time paper hinge was removed. The important thing was still the stamp. Was it well-centered? Was it undamaged? And was it thin under the hinge? (With the old-fashioned hinges, one could not tell if it was damaged or not; with the removable transparent hinges, one could.)

Then in the early 1930’s another development occurred. Plastics had come into common use, and manufacturers began to cater to the philatelic market by preparing various types of mounts. The mounts themselves were gummed, so that it was never necessary to mount the stamp itself.

The number of stamps ruined by the early mounts can never be known. However, there were so many permanently ruined that it is doubtful whether floods, fires, and vermin destroyed more than the early mounts. Some of the plastic gathered humidity, and the gum on the back of the stamps was lost. Other mounts sealed stamps, creating a gas in the space occupied by the stamp, breaking down the fine lines of the engraving, and leaving the stamp a colorful glob of paper. The gum on the mounts on others seeped through the plastic, binding the stamp to the plastic, forever uniting them as one.

Mount manufacturers changed their products, and by the 1940s, there was a consistency in the substance used that would at least not damage a stamp. Today, virtually every mount on the market has been tested to make certain it does not destroy the very thing it is intended to preserve. Not all on the market today are safe to use, and it is downright dangerous to make one’s own mounts out of transparent material intended to protect cigarettes, fresh vegetables, or fruit.

But since mounts were relatively unknown before 1930, where is the seemingly inexhaustible source for all of the “unhinged” stamps that are on the market? The question becomes one difficult to answer when we consider so many stamps prior to the 1920s.

There is one source, although the stamps flowing from it are more and more difficult to find. One is sheets that were put away at the time of issues, and which are not being broken up for profitable resale. There is no shortage of sheets from the 1930s and 1940s, for this is a period when tens of thousands of persons were speculating in stamps. There are even sheets available from earlier in this century, and very rarely, some from the last century. But does anyone think that an owner would be foolish enough to break up such sheets, which have a tremendous premium value in sheet form, just to obtain a few unhinged singles?

The other source is blocks of four or larger. People did collect books, and they did preserve blocks of early issues. And to mount a block in their collections, they would hinge the top stamps. Sometimes they hinged all of them. Sometimes it would be a large block, and only a portion of the stamps would be hinged. And if, in the ravages of time, the block separated, as it often does, no matter how carefully handled, the owner will find himself with several singles or pairs that once were in block form — some hinged, some not.

We know of no other sources for the unhinged stamps so popular today. And because of the consequent rarity of unhinged stamps, especially the earlier ones, it is not all difficult to see why an unhinged stamp may bring as much as three of four times what a stamp of equal appearance would bring when hinged.

The manufacture of the gum used on our stamps is not a secret formula. Any gum manufacturer contemplating submitting a bid to Uncle Sam is welcome to write and get the formula. It does vary. Sometimes potato starch is used; another time tapioca starch. If one compares the gum as used in 1893 to what was used in 1920, there will be a difference. One can buy on the market today a white powder which when mixed with water and spread on the back of a stamp will closely resemble the gum that was originally applied to it.

Informed philatelists have publicly stated that they believe from 75% to 90% of the stamps currently offered on the market as “unhinged original gum” from nineteenth-century issues are stamps that have lost their original gum, for one reason or another, and have been regummed.

On early 20th century issues, the percentage is not nearly as large, since the original supply of those stamps, unhinged, did exist until recent years, and in many cases, still does exist. On stamps between 1900 and 1920, perhaps only 50% have been regummed. No one can tell. But anyone who wants to believe that the vast supply of unhinged early stamps available on the market are as virginal as they are claimed to be must believe in the Good Fairy, Werewolves, and politicians’ promises.

The ultimate in philately is having the opportunity to exhibit a top International Exhibition. As a rule, the prize winners in these annual exhibits are millionaires, showing collections which are often worth in the millions of dollars. These men – and sometimes ladies – are not beginners. They know philately inside and out. The judges of these exhibitions are themselves the outstanding, more knowledgeable philatelists in the world. And it is interesting to note that one of the rules of exhibiting, as enunciated by the Federation Internationale de Philatelie, which is the overall body which makes the rules for international competition, hinges must be used on every exhibit. Plastic mounts are forbidden.

This is of course a shock to many newcomers who have been told by pseudo-experts that a stamp that has been hinged, no matter how light the trace of the hinge on the back is, is the same as damaged, and fit only to be discarded. They seem to be unaware of the fact that virtually every great rarity in philately, right up to the stamps that have brought in the hundreds of thousands have been hinged, almost without exception.

If you are still with us, you are wondering if you are reading what we are telling you. Could it be that uninformed collectors are spending tens of thousands of dollars each year, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, for stamps that they believe have never been hinged, but actually, they are stamps that had their original gum removed for one reason or another, and new gum applied?

Can this be?

The answer is that it can be. Eustace B. Power, a long-deceased dealer from the early years of this century, saw this situation developing even then, and he called attention to the fact that gum was the most expensive liquid commodity in the world.

He put a price on it then of $10,000.00 per pint. But that was before original gum became as desired as it is today. We dare say that a pint of the stuff is today worth closer to a million dollars when we consider how many stamps it can “help.”

The sad fact is that today the art of regumming has developed to such a stage that an excellent job of it can fool even the experts. There are ways to tell a poor job. We do not want to go into them here, lest the regum artists mend their ways and take steps to improve their product. But take our word for it. Regumming is an art. The regum artists are making a very good living, taking stamps without gum, or stamps that have been previously hinged, and turning out the “never hinged” for which collectors fight to pay a 500% margin.

For our collection, we would much rather have a stamp with what is original gum, lightly hinged, and attractive in all respects, than the stamp without a sign of hinge, that can always be questioned by a prospective buyer. But this is not the only advantage. Not every collector is endowed with infinite funds for stamp pur-chases. Not all of us can afford to pay $2,300.00 for a 30¢ Columbian (catalog $175.) but this is what an auction buyer did actually pay for an unhinged one. But one can still buy the same stamp, as attractively centered and sound in all respects, but with a light hinge mark, for perhaps $200.00. In our mind, there is no doubt which is the more advantageous purchase, though we surely would not argue with the gentleman who happily paid $2,300.00 for his stamp.

But for his sake, we do hope that he got a truly unhinged specimen for his money, and that when the time comes for him to sell, that the experts will agree on what he has.”

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