Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Images made through a microscope. All subject types.

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Iainp
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Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

After many years of neglect, I had cause this week to dust off my microscope, power up Zerene Stacker, and have a go at something I don't think has been done before. I posted the result on a Stamp Forum, and then thought you might like to see it here too.

For this to make any sense you'll need a bit of historical context, if not already familiar with revenue (duty) stamps:

Stamp Duty on all legal documents was introduced by royal decree in Britain in 1694 by King William III and Queen Mary II. Originally the stamp was embossed directly onto the documents but it was quickly realised that the contraction and expansion of vellum or parchment caused the impression to disappear, so this method was replaced by a (usually) blue base paper glued onto the surface. These semi-adhesive stamps invited fraud, as they could be removed relatively easily, and moved to another document.

In 1701 a solution was found: the stamp was glued onto the document as before, then a thin strip of metal, the escutcheon, was passed through 2 slits cut into the document and the stamp, and secured at the back using a further stamp, the cypher label, which was then fixed in place over the ends of the strip using hot fish glue. The stamp, and the exposed section of the metal strip, was then embossed using a die, and fraud became virtually impossible. This highly effective security device was used continuously from 1701 to 1922.
(Paraphrased from the introduction of the book by William A. Barber "The Royal Cypher Labels of Great Britain, Ireland & the Colonies" 1988

Many people collect the embossed duty (revenue) stamps and also the cypher labels found on the back of the documents, but as far as I'm aware, nobody (else) collects the embossed escutcheons which are used to secure the stamps to the documents. It's not surprising that they are mostly overlooked, as they are extremely small, just a few millimetres across, but when you get in close they reveal a wealth of detail and beauty.

As well as the aesthetic value of many of the escutcheons, another reason to take a closer look at them is that they carry within them information which can't be found anywhere else. The original dies used to make the stamps are mostly lost or destroyed; the stamp retains a lot of the impression from the embossing process but much of it is lost, as the soft paper doesn't have the "resolution" to faithfully record the mark of the metal die. However, the escutcheon does. The tin and lead alloy records the impression of the die in extreme detail, so they are like tiny "time machines" preserving the art on the particular part of the die which made the impression.

This £1 15 Shillings stamp - die E - was introduced in 1817. The cypher label on the back restricts the possible date range for the stamp to between 1819 and 1828.

£1 15 Shillings stamp - die E
£1 15 Shillings stamp - die E

This escutcheon measures 7.3mm x 6.3mm. A 1:1 Macro lens on my Nikon DSLR 3100 shows a fair amount of the detail:

£1 15 Shillings stamp - die E, detail
£1 15 Shillings stamp - die E, detail

However to show escutcheons in all their glory you need more....
I tried a 2X converter on the lens but it was still not good enough, so I attached the camera directly to the microscope, after removing the camera lens and adding a 4X Objective:

Camera microscope set up
Camera microscope set up

The resulting narrow FOV meant I had to take 3 sets of images and stitch them together using the software ICE.
The embossed surface of the escutcheon is less than a millimetre thick but I took around 30 or 40 images for each set for the stacking in Zerene, just to be on the safe side, so the final image is a composite of over 100 images.
There's room for improvement, and I was only using natural light, but it certainly takes things to the next level:

Escutcheon, flower detail.
Escutcheon, flower detail.

The image is upside down because I wanted to see how the original die might have looked. As you probably know, when we see an object illuminated at the top, we interpret the object as being convex, as that's how the sun illuminates a convex object. If you turn the image the correct way up, so that the illumination appears at the bottom, the brain interprets the object as concave. Here is the image rotated 180 degrees, with no other tricks or manipulations. The impression appears concave, as the original die was, although it's exactly the same image! Even after knowing what's happening here, I find it impossible to see it as the convex object it really is. Can you?

Escutcheon, flower detail rotated 180 degrees
Escutcheon, flower detail rotated 180 degrees

And here's a close crop of the 6 berries, 3 in the paper and 3 in the escutcheon. These berries are each 1mm in diameter. It's clear that a lot of the detail has been lost in the embossed paper, but is retained in the metal.

Berry detail in escutcheon
Berry detail in escutcheon

There are huge numbers of different dies, with a wide variety of images on them, including plants, flowers, unicorns, lions, crowns, shields and much more. Since the escutcheon is fixed in place before the embossing process, there is a fair degree of randomness as to which part of the die is recorded, which leads to a huge variety of different images, and partial images, appearing on these escutcheons. More to come!

rjlittlefield
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by rjlittlefield »

For me this is both totally lovely and completely unique! I have never heard of this use of escutcheons.
I find it impossible to see it as the convex object it really is. Can you?
I can!!

But the double-exclamation marks are because success came only after what seemed like a minute or more of struggling.

First I couldn't get it at all, then I could get only the simplest isolated parts like the ends of the sepals (in the V's between the petals), then all of a sudden the whole thing snapped in. That persisted without effort for as long as I looked at that one image, but it disappeared when I looked elsewhere and then looked back. The process of returning to the correct interpretation -- illuminated from the bottom -- came faster with repeated tries. After a while I got so that it took only a couple of seconds to return to the correct perception when I switched between the top- and bottom-illuminated versions.

Perhaps relevant is that I have some practice in dealing with this issue in another context. In the northern hemisphere, terrain is usually illuminated from the south, which of course is the bottom of the image when an aerial photograph is oriented north-up so as to match a map. As a result, interpreting aerial photographs poses exactly the same problem as with this stamp. Many years ago, I got tired of physically rotating photos and maps to be south-up, so I trained myself to perceive the proper terrain even with north-up images, illuminated from the bottom. I have just now checked to see that I'm still fine with terrain, at least as long as the light is coming from the same direction everywhere in the image, which it often is not in Google mosaics. But this stamp is still a bit of struggle. Clearly the training does not freely cross domains!

--Rik

Iainp
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

Thanks for that Rik, it's good to be back here. Suitably encouraged, I'll add further examples soon.
I knew you, of all people, would take the challenge seriously! :) I just tried again, with limited success. Looking at the image on a large monitor, I stood up, climbed onto the chair and turned my head 180 degrees round (I do hope it's clear what I mean here...) so that the image appeared convex again, then slowly turned my head the right way up again as I watched. It stayed convex all the way, then after a moment "popped" concave again. I tried a couple more times, and it appeared convex until I moved or tried to look at another part of the image. It's very surprising just how persistent this illusion is.
Iain

Lou Jost
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Lou Jost »

A very interesting post and an important psychological point. Botanical illustrators also take this effect into account, and use a convention of always rendering shadows as if the light came from the upper left side of the illustration. Having a standard convention about this trains viewers how to read them properly.

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

Lou Jost wrote:
Tue Feb 02, 2021 5:25 am
A very interesting post and an important psychological point. Botanical illustrators also take this effect into account, and use a convention of always rendering shadows as if the light came from the upper left side of the illustration. Having a standard convention about this trains viewers how to read them properly.
Thanks very much Lou. I didn't know that about illustrators, but will look out for it now.
Iain

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by iconoclastica »

I find it impossible to see it as the convex object it really is. Can you?
Not only I can, but I fail to see it impressed. Only when scrolling over it, there's a fleeting moment when it seems indented, but then it immediately pops out again.
--- felix filicis ---

micro_pix
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by micro_pix »

Fascinating stuff, both the history and the shadow effect. I could only see the second image as concave, in fact I found it hard to reconcile that it was just the first image turned through 180 until I rotated my ipad through 180! When I rotated my ipad back it stayed convex until I looked away, as soon as I looked back it was concave again.

Dave

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by iconoclastica »

Guess what: it has flipped now! This reminds of that famous golden/blue dress. I saw blue dresses in the morning and white ones in the evening. I hypothesized that the environmental light determined my perception. I am behind another computer now in aother room than two hours ago.
--- felix filicis ---

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by rjlittlefield »

So, a day later, I am now stuck in the "correct" perception.

Try as I might, I cannot consciously flip between convex/concave by imagining different illumination. Instead my perception remains stuck in convex, with the inferred angle for illumination forced to either top or bottom to match the subject.

I'm guessing the problem is that I now "know too much" about the subject to see it wrong.

The part about this being a very cool subject has not changed, however.

--Rik

Iainp
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

micro_pix wrote:
Tue Feb 02, 2021 1:34 pm
Fascinating stuff, both the history and the shadow effect. I could only see the second image as concave, in fact I found it hard to reconcile that it was just the first image turned through 180 until I rotated my ipad through 180! When I rotated my ipad back it stayed convex until I looked away, as soon as I looked back it was concave again.

Dave
I have a Tablet too. Why was I climbing onto chairs to rotate myself 180 degrees, risking life and limb, when I could have done it your way?? Oh the shame :oops:

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

Today's stamp is a One pound Five Shillings, Die D, first produced in November 1830.
It can be hard to narrow down the date ranges for these stamps but luckily this one is stamped 17th October 1839.
Notice there is very little to see when viewed in direct light:

One pound Five Shillings Die D stamp. Type #2, Style 11
One pound Five Shillings Die D stamp. Type #2, Style 11

In fact the design can be all but invisible until viewed in oblique light:

One pound Five Shillings Die D stamp. Type #2, Style 11
One pound Five Shillings Die D stamp. Type #2, Style 11

Now to the escutcheon. The dimensions are 5.4mm x 7.7mm and it's in very good condition. Some of these are tarnished and dull and others shine like new silver.
There's quite a lot to see on this one too: the jewels in the crown, the fleur-de-lis, the detail in the ermine (fur) as well as the clasp around the stalks of the plants.

Escutcheon 1839
Escutcheon 1839

It's clear in the closer crop that the artist added even finer detail into the surface of the jewels and into the upper stalk. The central jewel is just 0.76mm square.

Escutcheon close crop
Escutcheon close crop

The most unusual feature of this escutcheon though, is at the top. The metal strips were cut from square sheets, and this piece was cut twice. The shard of metal has twisted at a point on the right side, so we can see it edge on, and see how the sheet was created through ( I presume) hammering and multiple folds to create a laminate of at least 8 layers, probably many more.

Escutcheon laminated layers
Escutcheon laminated layers

And finally, here's the escutcheon rotated 180 degrees.

Something even more bizarre happens with this one than the last, for me at least. When looking at the whole piece, the rotation inverts the appearance of the image as before, and the object appears concave, but the long shard at the bottom does not appear inverted, presumably because there is no clear "top" or "bottom" to the areas lit up within the shard . This somehow "resets" the brain to interpret the whole image as convex again! After the "reset" I can't see the whole object as concave for quite some time, then it pops back to appearing concave. This cycle can be repeated until headaches set in. How about you?

[Edit: OK, now nothing happens. Whatever I do, the rotated one remains inverted...]

Escutcheon inverted
Escutcheon inverted
Last edited by Iainp on Thu Feb 04, 2021 2:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.

rjlittlefield
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by rjlittlefield »

What a rich subject!

For me, the inverted one appeared concave for a moment, then it snapped to convex and now stubbornly stays there.

--Rik

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

I'm finding yet further oddities:

1) When I look at the rotated "concave" image and then rotate the laptop clockwise, at a point clearly before a 90 degree rotation, it snaps back to convex. When I repeat this but rotate the laptop anti-clockwise I have to go well beyond 90 degrees to make the image snap to convex. This is a consistent result over multiple tries.

2) After slowly returning the laptop to its normal position while looking at the image, it continues to appear convex. If I close my eyes for a few seconds and look again, the convex image persists, but if I scroll the screen down until the image disappears then scroll up again, the image is always "reset" to the concave appearance.

3) For all of the above experiments, my wife looks at me like I'm odd.

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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by Iainp »

This stamp contains an escutcheon with something of a surprise. The stamp carries a duty of £50, which equates to a purchasing power of around £2,400 at the time it was used, which was somewhere between 1804 and around 1813.
The escutcheon is split and mostly destroyed but there is a sliver of detail to be found on the right hand section. It doesn't show up well with a simple macro lens:

£50 duty stamp
£50 duty stamp

but with a 50+ stack in Zerene, taken through the microscope, all is revealed:

escutcheon close up
escutcheon close up

The distance between the tips of the front and back paws of the lions in the upper quarter is just 1.7mm

lions
lions

The lower quarter contains the harp, which represents the arms of Ireland. I read on Wikipedia that: "During the 17th century, it became common to depict the harp with a woman's head and breasts, like a ship's figurehead, as the pillar."

The width of the head at the widest point is a mere 1.1mm.


Harp
Harp

And now rotated 180 degrees. Will the figure be inverted from convex to concave again? Yes! Well for me, anyway.

inverted
inverted

MarkSturtevant
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Re: Embossed escutcheons on revenue stamps from the 18th and 19th Century

Post by MarkSturtevant »

Just fascinating. I really enjoyed that.
Mark Sturtevant
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