U.S. Narcotic Tax Stamps, 1919-1964

Observations of U.S. Narcotic Tax Stamps, 1919-1964, Scott Catalog designs NT1-NT4

Design indicators and catalog numbers are from the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers.  These are copyrighted by Scott Publishing Co., Sidney, Ohio, a division of Amos Press, Inc.


There is a lot of information here.  I have tried to present it as coherently as possible.  As time goes by I will update it and try to make it easier to read.

U.S. Narcotic Tax Stamps were in use from 1919 until April, 1971.  The first Narcotic stamps were overprinted on existing stocks of Documentary stamps.  This allowed time for designs specifically made for the Narcotic Tax to go into production.  The tax took effect just after the end of World War I.  At that time the federal government was trying to reduce printing costs to save money.  Thus an ‘offset’ printing design was produced instead of a more expensive ‘engraved’ design.  These new design also coincide with the issuance of the offset printed Washington Franklin normal postage designs.


Printings were made at various times over the 52 year life of the program.  Earlier printings were made on a soft paper not unlike those seen in the offset issues of the Washington Franklin postage designs.  Some stamps show guidelines at top or bottom.

The earlier softer papers may yellow or mildew with age.  The paper may be manufactured with a small amount of mildew in it or the paper may be sensitive to mildew.  Over time this yellowing or mildewing happens or doesn’t happen depending on the external factors of how the stamp was stored over the years.

Later printings are on a stiffer and whiter paper which shows no mildew effect.

It is my personal opinion that mildewing or yellowing of the stamp paper will not affect the printed color itself.  It is also my opinion the mildewing or yellowing will effect a person’s perception of the color.  Please read that carefully.  Color itself and perception of color are different things.  Of course, others will disagree with my opinion on this.


The major catalog listed color is Violet.  Some catalog entries list purple as a subset.  Over the time the tax was in effect many subtle variations of color existed, but the catalog chooses to list only two.  It would take hundreds, if not thousands of examples of the various denominations and designs with legible dates to gather enough variety to show a progression of the minor differences in color.

Within the philatelic expertising community the basic color defining book has always been Robert Ridgway’s Color Standards and Nomenclature, published in 1912.  Ridgway was an ornithologist or bird specialist.  Philatelists adopted his work.  Today copies of his book with plates in near mint condition bring $1500-1750.

The colors in the book were mixed under the direction of Ridgway and painted onto swatches of paper then pasted onto the plates.  These have been scanned into a computer 100 years after the book was published.

The Ridgway book does not list “Violet” in its charts, but lists many variations of Violet including Spectrum Violet on Plate X.  Spectrum Violet is probably the color we would consider to be violet.  The book also lists Purple (true) found on plate XI.

Violet Plate X Ridgway

part of Plate X

Purples Plate XI Ridgway

part of Plate XI

These last two (below) are swatches of violet and purple not from the Ridgway book, but from some color sites found on the internet.  As such they are entirely digital in origin.  They do not exist on paper in any form or on any material.  These two colors only exist as computer code as shown on your computer screen.

Note that the Spectrum Violet above and the violet immediately below are close, but not identical.  Also, the Purple (True) above and the Purple immediately below are virtually identical.  Purple is a true balance of red and blue.  It will be darker and richer than violet.

Violet & Purple


A few other things have to be noted about color.  First, the Scott Catalog name does not always describe the same color.  This means examples of regularly issued stamps with slightly different colors use the same name in the catalog.

Next, your monitor may not be color balanced.  And some people have color perception problems.


Gum as it appears on the stamps seems to be no different than the gum found on general postage of the same era.

As a general rule the imperf stamps were issued with no gum.  The lack of gum was probably necessitated by the automated machinery owned by larger drug companies.  These machines could gum, separate, apply, and seal each drug package with its own stamp.

However, some imperf stamps may exist as mint in both gummed and ungummed condition.  I don’t maintain that they do, just that the possibility may exist.


Again, it appears that imperforate was for automatic machinery while rouletted was for individual or manual applications.

It is not always apparent if a stamp is imperf or rouletted.  I have examples where a stamp appears to be imperf, but was actually cut from a rouletted sheet.  If a roulette shows on any side it is not an imperf stamp.


The watermark is USIR.  This is the double line watermark variety known from the Scott Catalog known as 191R.

As viewed from the back of the stamp the watermark can exist forward or backward horizontally, or forward or backward vertically.

The earlier softer papers show the watermark better than the later, whiter, stiffer papers.


Depending on the size of the design, the stamps were printed in sheets of 100 (2 wide by 50 tall), sheets of 50 (2 wide by 25 tall), & sheets of 25 (1 x 25).  Complete sheets have made it into the philatelic market.

I have seen mint multiples as large as vertical strips of 10.  I have seen larger used multiples of 14 or 15 stamps in vertical strips.  This is not to say all of the catalog listed stamps will be found in strips or multiples.

Mint multiple pairs and strips would seem to be rare to collectors, but are not.  Many mint multiples, but not all of them, came from the deaccessioned revenue holding of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Mint vs. Used

A stamp with gum is not necessarily mint.  A stamp without gum is not necessarily used.  Some stamps were issued with gum, some were issued without gum.

For a stamp to be mint it should be fresh in appearance.  It should show no sign of use such as creases, wrinkles, stains, discoloration, or other problems.

If it has gum there should be no signs of gum disturbance & no lines demarking wet gum from dry gum.  Hinge marks do not make a stamp used.  Thins from hinges do not make a stamp used, but will reduce the value of the stamp.

If a stamp is no gum as issued (NGAI) then pairs are preferable to singles.  But it is not necessary for a stamp to be in a multiple to be called mint.

Natural gum creases may be expected on mint stamps printed on the soft or softer papers.  These stamps are contemporary with the “Flat Press” era of U.S. postage stamps, but they not engraved.

Natural gum creases on regular postage stamps and Narcotic Tax stamps appear much the same.

Margins on each of the various Narcotic Tax Stamp designs are large.  An imperf stamp with narrow margins or almost no margins at all is a rouletted stamp that has been trimmed to try to pass as an imperf.

Not all used stamps have cancels.

Thins are often large.  They usually indicate the stamp was affixed to the package the narcotic was sold in then torn off of the package.

A perf-in is a privately applied inventory control mark.  Perf-ins will often show the date, & sometimes the initials of the drug company that paid the tax and took the stamp from the government for use on its product.

A stamp with perf-ins can still be mint, but is most often a sign of use.  A perf-in stamp can be mint if it meets the various freshness criteria.  If so this would mean the stamp was somehow removed from a companies’ inventory before it was used on a package of narcotics.

Perf-in cancels tend to be from the late 40’s and 50’s.

A stamp with a date printed on it is used.

A stamp with a control number on it is used.

Some stamps, especially on the small design NT1 will have manuscript cancels.

Some identical Scott numbered stamps may show stamps cancelled as early as the 1920’s & as late as the 1960’s.


Measuring a roulette 7 or 3 ½ is not too difficult to do.  For this I use a Stanley Gibbons’ Instanta Transparent Perforation Gauge.  The Sonic Imagery Labs Precision U.S. Specialty Multi-Gauge will also work.  Other transparent gauges should work well too.  Lay the stamp along the perf 14 guide.  A roulette 7 will show a perforation every other line.  A roulette 3 ½ should show a perforation every 4th line.

Uses & Other Observations

The Narcotic Tax stamp was intended to be pasted to a package holding the narcotic.  Examples exist of a stamp intact, partially lifted from the package, but still otherwise adhering to the package.

Adherence of paper that is foreign to the stamp is common.  This is could be indicative of the remainders of a manufacturing or drug company label affixed over part of the tax stamp.  It can also be part of packaging still adhering to the stamp.  It is also possible it can be album or display paper.

A tax stamp was intended to be used.  From the government’s point of view it is ephemeral.  That means once it was used for its intended purpose it was okay to be disposed of.

That means the interests of collectors were NOT of consideration to the government for the intended use of the stamp.

The rouletting of a long gauge did not allow an easy separation of stamps from the sheet or strip.  Thus stamps are often found with small pieces missing or tears from separation.

The tax stamp was pasted to a package.  Lifting of the stamp often resulted in large thins, tears, or missing pieces.

While on the package the stamp may have been exposed to either the narcotic in the package, other drugs, or external forces of various sorts.  Many used stamps show stains from exposure to something.

Pairs of the 6 cent RJA51b & RJA51bd are uncommon, but not scarce.  They were used to make a 12 cent tax rate.

Tax stamps were supposed to be cancelled or marked in some way.  Early uses show manuscript cancels and printed dates applied.  Uses from the 1930’s to the end of the program show other markings.  These may have been internal inventory marks to help the drug company keep track of their tax paid.

Observed markings are:

Manuscript markings have been seen on the smallest designs.  Manuscript cancels and overprinted control numbers seem to come together on a stamp.  I have not seen a manuscript cancel alone, but that is not to say it doesn’t exist.

Dated markings are seen and are probably applied with a rubber stamp.  These tend to be from the 20’s & 30’s.  Some of these appear to be in turquoise colored ink.

Marking pen or paint brush.  I have seen many of the $1.00 green NT4 design cancelled this way in large strips.  These were probably used on bulk containers.

Overprints are usually found in red, blue, or black.  The overprints include different information.  Some overprints are sharp, distinct, and straight implying they were done to order in large quantities.  This may have been a service offered by the federal government.

Other overprints are smudgy implying they were applied manually, or in small batches after the stamps were acquired from the government.

Machine applied cancels giving company name and date.  These are from the late 50’s to the end of the program.

I cannot offer an explanation for the colors of the cancels or overprints.

I have found dates of 1970 & 1971 to be scarce.  I do not consider them rare.

Watermark Fluid

I use Ronsonol® Lighter Fluid as a watermark fluid.  I’ve used this over 30 years to excellent effect.  It doesn’t smell too bad, dries quickly, shows problems while the stamp is wet or drying, doesn’t harm the stamp, is cheap to buy, and can be found in many stores.

Water is a very good watermark fluid also, but will dissolve any gum on a mint stamp, and dries very slowly.  If I use water it is only to clean a stamp.  The observation for a watermark is a secondary matter when I use water.