As a collector who loves paper and ephemera, like Collin I’ve gravitated to a job that lets me touch the stuff on a daily basis. I work for a document imaging service, a 21st Century, Paper 2.0 business that takes paper & microfilmed documents from recent centuries and digitizes them in anticipation of a microficheless future. The aficionado of rarity that the collector in me brings to the office loves the fact that from time to time my desk is covered in hand-written, leather-bound mid-19th century County Recorder books (…that we slice at the spine and feed into a scanner, but I digress). While this isn’t my topic today, is shows how I can overlook something every day before realizing its collectability.
While proofreading a chunk of mortgages we’d scanned, I happened to notice dark rectangles on the pages, something that the microfilm barely picked up and our scanners did no better. Out of curiosity, I pulled the film and put it in a viewer — to find George Washington’s dour visage peering out at me, reversed and in negative.
Rather than just a key question on a 6th grade US History test about the Revolutionary War, tax stamps were something more than cause for revolt. They, in fact, are almost indistinguishable from postage stamps in scale and purpose. When you mail a letter, you purchase a stamp in the amount required for delivery, and affix it to the envelope proving that the delivery fee has been paid. Revenue stamps work the same way: a document or object requires taxes paid upon it, so revenue stamps are purchased in the appropriate amount, and affixed to the item requiring proof of payment. These tax stamps I’ve found on property documents are IRS stamps to prove that the “documentary” taxes were paid on the transfer of property. Rather than requiring the IRS at the time to keep complex, detailed payment records (just as how the Post Office doesn’t keep track of what you’ve paid to mail), the owning of the stamp proves that taxes were paid.
So, like postage stamps, tax revenue stamps are valuable to a collector of little pieces of paper. They even are graded much the same way, come in used “cancelled” and mint unused forms, and are still associated with the American Philatelic Society when it comes to collecting. A difference, however, is the wide variety of revenue stamps available.
While the practice has mostly fallen into disuse, in the past most of the taxable transactions governed by US law had a stamp issued to accompany it. Imports, oil, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes, document filings and registrations all came in stamp-form at some point in time. That sticker you put on your license plate each year is a young relative of the revenue stamp. Because of their necessity in doing business, uncancelled copies of revenue stamps are quite rare. Hoping to steam off a stamp and add it to a collection was made quite difficult to prevent people from re-using the stamps, too: devices were made to puncture stamps put on a paper document, and the stamps were also designed to double as a ‘seal’ on boxes and containers, forcing the stamp to be destroyed by opening it. The stamps I’ve seen on legal documents are also initialed by an official to indicate they’ve been used. Their purpose to prevent tax evasion was etched into permanence, so encountering these stamps in a useful form can be difficult.
Do not fret, however: these stamps were produced in such enormous numbers, from nearly every country, that many did survive their cruise through commerce waters. The prime place to check for these stamps are on the bottoms, backs, or lids of “restricted” products like tobacco or alcohol, or on paper related to a financial transaction.
Revenue stamps can also add additional depth to an existing collection. Consider a bottle collector — there’s a point where common bottles are of little use…unless you start weighing at the stamp on the bottle’s neck. License plate collectors can add vehicle tax stamps, which were often inside the car rather than on the bumper. Scripophilists (collectors of stock certificates and the like) can add documentary stamps to their collectible target. The revenue stamp’s ancillary value to a collection can add a bit of color, and a degree of context, to an otherwise simple or small collection.