C.T. Chew

The Power of Perforations by C. T. Chew

The US Postal Service’s complete capitulation to the self-stick postage stamp has not left me amused. The calming act of carefully tearing a stamp from a sheet, and then noticing how the tiny ripped edges between the holes feather with wisps of paper fibers was and is a blissful experience for me. Peeling off self-stick stamps with their die cut edges offers none of that enjoyment. Thank goodness other countries still adhere to using real perforating machines and I look on my correspondents’ envelopes with jealous pleasure. But, I can still relish the experience by making and using my own stamps, perforated by me on my own Monitor Perforator!

At around the age of seven or eight my parents gave me one of my grandfather’s small stamp albums. They schooled me in how to soak stamps off envelopes, dry them between blotting paper, find the country and correct black and white image, and glue them my album with a stamp hinge. (By the way, my grandfather sent $1.75 to Germany some time in the 1920’s for a package of stamp hinges. Inflation was so tremendous in Germany that he received an entire boxcar of stamp hinges back!..or so the family oral history goes. Well, that is neither here nor there in this serious discussion of perforations.) Anyway, I loved the stamp album and the magnificent little stamps. What really made the stamps special to me were their perforations. Tweezers in hand I could sit for long periods carefully looking at individual stamps, pondering how the miracle of tiny perforated edges somehow added a mysterious value to them. The world is chock full of little pictures, everywhere you look, but none of them are worth a spit without perforations.

You could have predicted that by early adulthood I would develop a deep psychological perforation syndrome, by observing the child C. T. Chew hunched over his sister’s child's manual Singer sewing machine, trying to make straight perforation lines around little drawings. Right off the bat I realized that perforations were not made by a sharp needle piercing into paper. Later, during middle school, I began to draw stamps on envelopes, carefully including penciled lines of perforations around each one, and mailing the envelopes to myself. This resulted in a postal inspector's visit to my school, removing me from my 5th period science class. He politely pleaded with me to stop writing “US Postage” on my stamps, and to always include a real stamp on the envelopes.

Three years of high school plus three years of college were a wasteland of character building, as I saw little perforation progress. My last year of college was different though, for I met my life long friend Bill Ritchie, a professor in the University of Washington’s Printmaking Department and also a fervent philatelic artist. His stamps took the form of large etchings. Bill was the one who came up with the first genuine perforator we shared. It was several years after college, and we occupied two spaces at Triangle Studios in Seattle . On the same floor was a tool and die maker, a Mr. Clausen. Bill approached him with a dog flea comb and asked if he could drill a block with holes that the flea comb could fit exactly into. That was no problem for Clausen, and soon Bill demonstrated his perforator invention for me. By carefully tapping the top of the comb with a screwdriver one could perforate two stamps at a time. This dandy perforator lasted a long month or two before Bill sadly announced that it had broken. We were both devastated.

I realized then if I was going to be serious about making stamps I would have to get a real perforating machine. Here is where the universe opened up and smiled on me―something my therapist assures me actually happens everyday! I found the “Used Printing Equipment” section in the Yellow Pages and called the first listing. The fellow on the other end took my number down and said he would look around. Within minutes he called me back—he had located a perforator in a person’s garage for $75. To a hapless artist in 1976 that sounded pretty expensive, but I threw caution to the wind and drove out to buy it. Today, I reflect on the significance this purchase has had on the last 34 years of my life. That is the power of perforations!

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has a wonderful history of the perforator's invention in 1850 and its first uses.1 Needless to say, perforations caught on magnificently and by the end of the 19th Century not only did official postage stamps have perforations, but printers in every little town were churning out perforated “poster stamps” to be given away as prizes, mementos, and awards.  These poster stamps are now known as “Cinderella” stamps.2 Even today, you can easily bid on poster and Cinderella stamps on Ebay. The poster stamp craze is what made finding perforators so easy for artists like myself in the 70’s. Printers everywhere still had them in storage and were willing take almost nothing for them. Even in 2004 I found one outside the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, which I told a friend about, and they graciously gave it to him.

Many times I have been asked, "What is a stamp?" I answer, "It is a tiny picture, no bigger than 3” square, with perforations, and gum on the back." Since you can’t see the gum from the front, that leaves the perforations as the defining characteristic of a stamp. I know many artists attempt to perforate their stamps with needles and roulettes, or use fancy scissors which create faux perforated edges, but I am sorry to say that those are not real perforations and thus their artworks, which may be absolutely glorious, are not real stamps. Luckily for artistamp makers everywhere, mail art continues to wickedly reinvent itself around the world. It has no tried and fast rules about what, or what is not, a stamp. So outside the interior of my own mind just about anything goes.

Perforations, as small as they are, continue functioning to create community and generate income for post offices and artists alike. On and off for 34 years people have been coming to my studio to perforate their own sheets of stamps. Because you can only perforate one row of perforations on three to four sheets at a time, lively conversations pass the time while sheets are lined up, and a foot pedal is thrust down while pins punch out the little holes. I am additionally blessed with a huge collection of perforated artistamps sent to me by artists from all over the world. People in Seattle know I make stamps, but when visiting my studio they see my notebooks of artistamps made by other artists from far away places their eyes expand in wonder. Who would have thought that perforations would tie together so many different people and cultures!

There is one last element of perforations I would have you consider. That is the little pieces of paper which are punched out during perforating. Some artists call them chads or fluff, but I like to call them perfs. Mine collect in a wooden box under my perforator and every six months or so I have to empty the box out. I notice that little larvae of some kind must develop in them because there is always webbing lightly holding the perfs together, much like what tiny moth caterpillars spin in grains. One thing you do not want to do is allow the perfs to get loose into your studio, where they will multiply and stick to everything like the Styrofoam bits in bean bag chairs.

One hot summer evening I was working late in my studio with the door open. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a rat run in. My Jack Russell terrier, Dot, noticed it too and immediately began the chase. For awhile the rat found itself sitting on my bike which was suspended from the ceiling, but eventually it decided to make a dash for the door. Dot blocked the door like a good goalie and the rat disappeared somewhere near my perforator. Then there was a long period of silence. Dot approached the perforator and growled menacingly, but I couldn’t see where the rat was. Like lightening Dot attacked the wooden box where the perfs collected. A huge explosion of perfs filled the room as the box fell to the floor. The rat jumped out, and headed straight for the door and freedom.

You see, apple pie, baseball, and perforations are all synonymous with freedom! My studio? I'm still cleaning up the perfs.

1 Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

2 Lick 'Em, Stick 'Em: The Lost Art of Poster Stamps (May 1989, Recollectables) by H. Thomas Steele is a wonderful little book which tells all.


©2011 C T Chew