Grills on U.S. Stamps

Although grills were used on U.S. stamps for only a very short time, from about 1867 to 1874, they constitute an important phase of American philately. A “grill” is an embossed impression that creates waffle-like ridges on the surface of the stamp, allowing the cancellation ink to soak more easily through the stamp paper and/or to weaken the paper so that the stamp would tear when removed from the envelope, thereby thwarting re-use of the stamp. There were many experimental grill designs, including shields, stars, ovals and the like. Most of these are regarded as essays.

Grill Size (mm) U.S. Stamps with this Grill No. of Points Points Up/Down
A all of stamp 79,80,81 all of stamp Up / vertical ridges
B 18 x 15 82 22 x 18 Up / vertical ridges
C 13 x 16 83 16-17 x 18-21 Up / vertical ridges
D 12 x 14 84,85 15 x 17-18 Down / vertical ridges
E 11 x 13 86,87,88,89,90,91 14 x 15-17 Down / vertical ridges
Z 11 x 14 85A,85B,85C,85D,85E,77Z 13-14 x 17-18 Down/horizontal ridges
F 9 x 13 92,93,94,95,96,97,98,99,100,101 11-12 x 15-17 Down / vertical ridges
G 9.5 x 9.5 112-122 (all 1869 Issues) 12 x 11-12 Down / vertical ridges
H 10 x 12 134-144 (grilled Nationals) 11-13 x 14-16 Down / vertical ridges
I 8.5 x 10 134,135,136,137,138 10-11 x 10-13 Down / vertical ridges
J 7 x 9.5 "Continental Grill"
found on the 1¢-30¢ stamps (US 156-165) and the 2¢ vermilion & 5¢ Taylor (US 178 & 179)
9-10 x 12 Down / vertical ridges

The first design given actual catalog status was the “A” grill covering the entire stamp, and found on only three denominations of the 1861-1867 issue, the 3¢, 5¢ and 30¢ issues, US 79, 80, and 81 respectively. The “A grill” was a series of “biscuit-like” impressions that depressed the edges of each grill point, but left the center untouched. This “all over grill” proved to weaken the stamp too much.

It is thought that the cylinder used to make the “A grill” simply had the outer ridges planed down to the level of the “pits” thereby forming the smaller and less-damaging “B” and “C” grilling devices. The “B” and “C” grills are only known on the 3¢ stamp of 1867, US 82 and 83, respectively, for it was soon decided that a grilling device with protrusions, what we refer to as the “male” grill, would be more effective than one with the indentations of the female grill.

Several incarnations of these “male” grilling devices were employed, resulting in the “D”, “E”, “F”, “G”, “H”, “I”, “J” and “Z” varieties. All of the varieties and the Cat. # numbers in which they appear are listed in the chart below.

As it turned out, re-use of postage stamps was not as large a problem as had been thought, and the grilling concept was dropped sometime around 1874, well into the period in which the Continental Bank Note Company was printing U.S. stamps. All of the Continental Bank Notes except the 90¢ are known with grill.

A theory, proposed by J. B. Leavy and H. L. Wiley among others, argues that the National and Continental Bank Note Companies had contracts specifying grills on all regularly issued stamps during this time frame, and goes so far as to say that US 145-155 are merely varieties of US 134-144, in which the bottom sheets of multiple sheets fed through the grilling apparatus showed little or no grill at all! On the other hand, there are many authorities that argue that the sheets of paper were always fed singly through the grilling apparatus. We feel that the truth is somewhere in between, the point being that there probably exist some “grilled” National Bank Notes that show no sign of grill whatsoever, and those that do often show very weak grills at that.

Since most of the grilled stamps carry a premium over their non-grilled counterparts, it is not surprising that unscrupulous “craftsmen” have added their own grills to make the more expensive stamp. The first “grilled” fakes were made more than one hundred years ago, but there is evidence that fake grills are still being added to this day.

Is that to say that one should avoid the grilled stamps entirely? We answer an emphatic “No”! Just as with the Washington Franklin coils, a certified copy of any of the grills is very collectible. As noted above, nearly half the US numbers for regularly issued U.S. Classic stamps are devoted to grilled issues! Any serious collection of U.S. Classics will be well represented in the “grilled” issues.

But what about the rest of us with rather limited philatelic budgets. Can we afford any of the “grills”? To which we answer an emphatic “Yes”! US 88, 94, all of the 1869 issues, and 134-136 are quite affordable. And what of the famous and elusive “Z” grill? As it turns out, about the time National was discontinuing the use of grills on U.S. stamps, it was providing some of the stamps for Peru. The long Postage Due stamps of Peru from 1874-1879, J2-J5, have what must be termed a “Z” grill, not identical to the U.S. “Z” grill which measures 11 by 14 mm, the Peru grill measures only 9 by 14, but very similar in the way the impressions run horizontally.

Bibliography and suggested additional reading:

The Postage Stamps of the 19th Century – Volume 1, by Lester Brookman (1966)
United States Grills, Handbook #16, by Wm. L. Stevenson (Severn, Wylie, Jewett)
Introductory Overview to U.S. Grilled Stamps, by Rolin Lewis (2007?)
The 1-cent Z Grill Mystery, by Ken Lawrence (1995 American Philatelic Congress Book, pp. 1-25)
The Recognition of Two Major Types of The Z Grill, Jerome S. Wagshal (Opinions 4, pp. 87-97)