Using a Microscope to Identify Austria’s National Costume Series

Wow…3 months have flown by.  No articles for 3 months…I’ve been busy.  Part of the delay however was that I discovered after beginning this article that it was going to be a completely different article than I had originally intended…you’ll see why below.

The National Costume series was issued in 1948 — and then reprinted in 1958.  I’ve always struggled with this set…the same designs were printed both times (with just a few exceptions, certain denominations were part of one set but not the other), and they are very hard to tell apart.  At least the first set (from what I can tell based on reading) was printed in two resolutions — with a 70 line per cm raster and a 100 line per cm raster.  The difference between the earlier and later printings will have to wait for me until I can get my hands on a micrometer as there is a slight difference in paper thickness between the two.  Scott, as usual, isn’t very helpful:

Designs of the 1958–59 printing are clearer and on most values appear sharper than on the 1948–52 printings.

Awfully subjective, isn’t it?  Reminds me of the debate about the “fine” and “coarse” printing on the 1867 Franz Josef issues.  In practice, the two aren’t binary — there’s a scale between them.  You can take two stamps, and say “clearly this one is finer than the other, which is a coarser print,” but when you introduce a third you’ll quickly see why this is problematic.  If you had 300 of them (especially if they’re used!) you could arrange them in a line from coarsest to finest.  Where do you draw the line?

Looking at these costumes stamps are very similar.  Sure, you can hold two up under a light and say “well obviously the stamp in my right hand is finer and clearer than the one on the left, it must be from the second printing.”  Then you bring in a third.  Then you realize the stamps you’re looking at are used.  Is one faded?  Has it been handled more and potentially rubbed off some of the ink?  Was it an unusually light run across the printing plate?  Is it darker and less sharp because they had just added the ink as opposed to a method that might have the design be ever so slightly lighter toward the end of the run?

I’m not an expert in printing — this is all conjecture — but my point is that there must be a ton of other variables that can affect something like “clearer and sharper.”  For several years I had resigned these to going in glassines marked “1948 or 1958, sort later” for each denomination.  A few months ago I finally decided to take the plunge and find some concrete information.

First, I looked at the ANK.  It features the two printings as separate sections in the catalog (1948 vs 1958) as well as going into a bit more detail surrounding paper types, gum types, plate flaws, etc.  That’s a little more than I’m looking for right now — I just want to have these sorted under the appropriate catalog number.

Remember when I said I messed up and thought I was writing a different article?  Here’s my big mistake…  Initially I misinterpreted what I was reading online from several sources (see here as well as here) as the two types being the 1948 and the 1958 printings…but that’s not the case.  I think it was my brain trying to make this easier than it really is.  From what I can understand, at the very least the first issue has a type I and type II printing.

Because of this misunderstanding on my part — my stamps across this series are sorted and labeled incorrectly.  I had decided I was going to write this article months ago, and got the microscope out and started sorting (more on this below, which is the main purpose of the article).  Having misunderstood the information, I currently have the earlier set sorted as being “less clear” (the lower-resolution 70 lines/cm rasterization) and the later set as being the “more clear” 100 lines/cm rasterization.  Inadvertently, I’ve conflated type I printings with the earlier set, and type II printings with the later set.  I didn’t figure this out until I actually started sitting down to write this article a few weeks ago, so I’ll have to go back with a micrometer and redo these — at least they are sorted by raster type so far, even though mislabeled.

Just to re-emphasize in case anyone is quickly scanning this because a search result brought them here — it was incorrect to equate the 1948 printing with the 70 lines/cm rasterization and the 1958 printing with the 100 lines/cm rasterization.  Rasterization and “clarity” described in the catalogs between the two time periods are not equivalent.

For the first set, the ANK mentions the rasterization, denotes the paper thickness as being 0.09mm, and lays out sub-types primarily divided by differences in gum application.  Paper is described as “grayish to yellow-gray paper.”  The second set doesn’t mention the rasterization, and is listed as having white paper.  Paper thickness is listed as 0.08mm.  There are no size or perforation differences between the two issues or any of the sub-types.

Enter the Microscope

Here is my inexpensive microscope looking at two different stamps.

You can spend thousands of dollars when it comes to microscopes, but for what I needed this USB microscope with an LCD panel is more than sufficient.  I could have even gone a little cheaper and gotten one that doesn’t have a screen, and I would use a computer along with it — but I wanted this one because I could keep it near my stamp desk and it is sort of an all-in-one solution.  Here is a link to the one that I bought, but I’m not endorsing any particular microscope, I use this as an example.  It’s cheaply made, the stand isn’t quite 100% straight, but it does just fine for me.  There are plenty of similar models online that I’m sure are quite comparable.

I quickly learned that not only was the silvery metal background hard to see things against, but it was also a pain to hold two or more stamps under the lens with my tweezers, while also looking at the screen and using my other hand to adjust the focus.  I needed some kind of helper device.

As I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of my collection is housed in long boxes filled with 102 dealer cards, so I have tons of 102 cards I can mess with…and that’s what I did.  I couldn’t just slide the stamps into a card and put that under the microscope…the glare from the plastic, combined with the microscope’s lighting being directly overhead, resulted in a glare that obscured what I was looking at.  I peeled back the clear plastic, and I cut the top half of it off.  Then I taped the sides back down, so I had sort of a half of a sleeve.  This allowed the top half of the stamps to peek out above the plastic (meaning no glare) but still allowed them to be held down by the plastic, resulting in my being able to not have to have a hand holding them down.  Then I taped the card down to the microscope’s base so that I didn’t have to move it around and reposition it constantly, or have to reposition it after bumping into it.

Here’s my custom card device with two stamps in it.

I started by looking at two easily-identifiable mint copies under the microscope.  Once I found those, I placed them both in the sleeve overlapping each other, so that I can view them side by side on the same screen under the microscope.  See the image below:

On the left is the lower resolution 70 lines/cm rasterization, on the right is the higher resolution 100 lines/cm rasterization.

The difference is pretty stark when you view it in this context.  Now that I had a baseline, it was much easier to take the rest of the stamps — mint and used — and sort them into piles.  You can see in the below image that the rasterization is going to put this stamp in the pile of 70 lines/cm stamps.

Lower resolution stamp held against the comparison — this made sorting much easier.

It only took a few hours to go through all of the denominations this way.  Each denomination is now in 4 cards/glassines (depending on how many there were), containing both used and mint for each type.  As I mentioned above, these are technically mislabeled by year due to my earlier confusion, but at least they’re separated and ready and waiting for the micrometer.

The biggest question I have at this point (aside from “Can anyone recommend me an inexpensive but sufficiently accurate micrometer?”) is what is the raster resolution of the second issue from 1958?  That entry in the ANK doesn’t mention rasterization, only paper thickness:

1958, ab 14.8. Freimarkenausgabe. “Volkstrachten.” Papier und gummi gelblichweiss bis weiss, Kammzahnung regelmassige ecken 13 3/4 — papierstarke 0.08mm.

[English:] 1958, from 14.8. postal stamp issue. “Folk costumes.” Paper and gum yellowish white to white, comb teeth regular corners 13 3/4 — paper thickness 0.08mm.

If I knew, for instance, that all of the 1958 printings were of the 100 lines/cm variety, then that would cut the number of stamps I have to eventually measure with a micrometer in half.

I’ve also never used a micrometer, so that will be a learning experience if and when I eventually get one.  My biggest concern would be if the paper has the ability to compress at all — can 0.09mm be squeezed down to 0.08mm thus making it harder to tell which is which?  I won’t know until I commit to purchasing a micrometer if there will be a clean delineation between the two.  What I’m hoping to avoid the most is a spectrum of stamps from 0.079 to 0.092mm or similar, because that would negate the only objective difference between the two series that I can find.  Paper color is unhelpful on used material, and “[the 1958 printing is] clearer and on most values appear sharper” is so subjective to be unhelpful for someone who isn’t an expert in this issue.

As always, if you have any additional information that would be helpful, or there is something I’ve gotten wrong, overlooked or misunderstood in the above — please reach out.  This is very much a “learn-as-you-go” exercise for me, so I’m ready and willing to absorb anything thrown at me and have no problem making updates and edits.