Author - Richard Lehmann | Friday, 29 May 2015

The history of the foreign mail stamps of Mexico is not well known, but it has led to the creation of one of the largest collection of rarities in philately. It's a fact known to Mexico collectors, but only recently documented sufficiently to allow a proper valuation of individual items. When I say rarity, I mean stamps for which as few as 50 stamps were even printed and for which printing errors of as few as 1 are known to exist. More on this later, but first a little history.

From 1856, the beginning of postage stamps in Mexico, all stamps were sent from the main post office in the Mexico City capital to the 54 postal districts using a unique control system. Starting in 1868 this system printed a district number and the last two digits of the year on each stamp. Upon delivery to the district its name was to be hand stamped on each stamp before they were used. The practice was followed because theft and highway robbery were a problem in Mexico at that time. Hence, by numbering stamps before they were sent out, stolen stamps could be identified. The Foreign Mail Issues and were the last stamps issued in this manner. Prior to 1878 foreign mail from Mexico involved a variety of arrangements in which a portion of the postage was paid by the sender and a portion by the recipient with cost varied by destination. Mexico joined the Universal Postal Union (UPU) June 1, 1878 which led to a reform in postal rates to conform to the UPU rules. Initially, the postal rate was set at 5 centavos for a single weight letter which was significantly less than the rates for domestic mail which were set by weight and the distance a letter had to travel. In order to preserve existing accounting for foreign mail and to serve this postal need a dedicated set of stamps was authorized exclusively for use on foreign destination mail bearing a portrait of former President Benito Juarez. The first issues were dated with the year '79' in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 85, and 100 cents. Issuing stamps exclusively for foreign mail use, something no other country had done up to that time, accounts for why so few were printed and why they have become such rarities.

Districts with heavy foreign mail usage needed additional stamps, so issues showing the years '80' and '81' were also created for them. All stocks on hand were recalled in 1882, to be replaced with a complete resupply of all denominations to most districts, also with the addition of 12, 18 and 24 cent denominations to accommodate rate changes. Also, certain districts received 2, 25, 50 and 100 cent issues in new colors. Again, the stamps were overprinted with the district number and the year '82'. The Juarez issue was initially printed in 1879 on hard thick wove paper. A soft medium thick wove paper was also used for some printings in 1881 and some of the 1882 issues. The printing of the new designs in 1882 and 1883 was on a noticeably thinner paper. Perforations of the fragile thin wove paper issues were poorly formed and subject to easy tearing. Hence, many stamps have straight edges due to postal clerks using scissors to separate them.

Standard practice for security in returning unused stamps was to invalidate them by a pen stroke over the face of the stamps. This procedure means that for some districts, many values are not available in mint condition, however, the procedure was not followed in many districts. Note few mint stamps existed outside the post office as it was standard practice at the time to take a letter to the post office where the postage stamp was placed on the letter by the clerk, i.e. you did not buy stamps in advance since they were not valid for domestic use and letters had to be delivered to the post office anyway for mailing. When the need arose, through delays in production of the new issues, it was necessary to supplement the new issue first: by resorting to redirecting overprinted stocks at the GPO for districts which did not need them and by redirecting unmarked returns. These stamps can be identified by the fact that the hand stamped district name does not correspond to the district number on the stamp. This procedure last only a short time and was replace by overprinting returns with the new district number and year, (now called Habilitados) in red or black. This was done for the 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c and 100c denominations. In 1882/3 a new series of stamps called the small numerals in 2c, 3c, and 6c denominations were issued to accommodate the rate changes of May 12, 1882. In all 25 different stamps were used as Foreign Mail Issues, however there are over 1900 district/year combinations, almost 400 errors and varieties and 200 reissued varieties (the Habilitados). Added to this is that districts were supposed to apply by hand their district name to stamps prior to sale. This was done on a hit or miss basis and using different type fonts and colors. Add to this the fact that stamps exist mint, pen invalidated, used and used with bogus cancels and one can see that this is a specialized collection area vast in scope and yet, very small in individual as well as total supply.

If one looked only at the printed quantities and the usage, returns and remainders data, one can already see that these stamps are in short supply for a country as populated (115 million people) and popular with stamp collectors as Mexico. When one factors in a number of other variables, this rarity element becomes quite compelling. Note that for many of the smaller districts only 100 or 200 stamps over the 1879 to 1881 time period (some as few as 50) were printed. Any surviving stamps from such a small printing are rarities no matter if they are mint, used or pen cancelled. But even districts with apparent large printings are rarities for other reasons. There are good post office records for these stamps which allows us to differentiate the degree of scarcity for each issue. To illustrate just how rare these stamps are, let's look at the 5 cent Juarez issue of 1879. Some 614,000 stamps were printed and 589,791 were overprinted with district names and dates. Of these, 526,812 were reported as used and the remaining 62,979 were purportedly unused. But, the unused are reduced by an estimated 21,585 which were returned with pen cancels, 18,050 were used for Habilitado issuance and an unknown quantity of the remainders cancelled by dealers to meet demand for used stamps. Hence we are left with less than 22,344 stamps overprinted with 54 different districts with up to 3 different years. Assuming a generous 75% survival rate over the last 150 years, this leaves an average of less than 310 mint stamps per district.

For this same stamp, the used picture starts with 526,812, but surprisingly, availability is not much better after you factor out all the stamps used by the three biggest districts (Mexico, Mazatlan and Vera Cruz). The used quantity is thereby reduced to 259,681 which can be further reduced to 5% as an estimated survival rate for used stamps of this vintage. This leaves a total of 12,984 stamps for the remaining 51 districts or an average of 255 per district.

Average quantities can further be parsed by the fact that a district will have up to three different year overprints (79, 80, 81), can come with or without the district name imprint, which also comes in different colors and font sizes. As if that is not enough, Scott recognizes only two paper types (thick wove paper, some showing vertical ribbing(1879) and thin wove paper(1882)), the 1879 issues comes in both thick (1879) and medium soft wove paper (1881). The 5 cent stamp also comes in a variety of color shades from red orange to yellow to yellow orange, but no major catalog recognizes such color varieties. And did I mention, Mexican collectors pay large premiums for the various town cancels from each state. The use of specific stamps for foreign mail was discontinued effective January 1, 1884 and remaining stamps were used for domestic as well as foreign mail. In 1889 all remainders of unused stamps were sold to dealers many of whom cancelled mint stamps in order to accommodate collectors of that day who preferred used to mint stamps. As a result of this as well as the pen invalidation of mint stocks, many district/date combinations no longer exist in mint condition.

Prior to the 2014 publication of the "StampFinder Mexico Catalog of Foreign Mail Stamps 1879 to 1883," dealer pricing was largely ignorant of the relative rarity of specific items. The only readily available source for any information was published in 2007 by Nicholas Follansbee in "A Catalogue Of The Stamps Of Mexico 1856 - 1910". However, its scope was limited and dedicated only 8 pages to the subject. The pricing used in the StampFinder catalog is based on post office records of stamp shipments and returns by district along with assumptions as to survival rates. As to how we know that only one stamp exists for a certain district, it is known that when the 1882 issues were printed, the stamps in position 30 and position 70 were erroneously dated of '28' instead of '82'. Since only 50 stamps were printed for seven district, only one such error stamp is known to us - so far. Since this error type is believed to exist for all the districts and we know how many sheets were printed, many similar errors in quantities of 10 or less remain to be found!


StampFinder published a catalog of Mexico foreign mail stamps in 2014, thereby opening up a universe of over 1900 different stamps many of which had previously not been identified. In addition to adding many new varieties of regular printings to those previously known, the catalog has identified a large number of errors, color and printing varieties and will try to assign values to these once the catalog has surveyed how many of each are actually in the hands of collectors. In this regard, there is one error variety which seems to exist in many if not all districts, especially in the higher value stamps. This error is where the year of issue is printed as '28' instead of '82' along with the various district numbers. This error appears in position 30 and 70 in the sheets of 100, hence there are 2 errors for each sheet printed. The error seems to have been made in the master plates used to print the various district overprints and it is not known when the error was detected and corrected. Since few complete sheets exist, it is not even known how many different stamps show this error. So far, we have identified only 1c, 2c, 5c, 6c, 10c, 50c, 85c, and 100c issues with this error. The table below shows all the errors identified by us and by Raymond Billings, Dean Carter and Richard Daffner in their 2000 publication titled "Foreign Mail Issues of Mexico 1879 - 1883". We list 61varieties in the table below, but there is reason to believe that a number of additional varieties may exist. Also, 33 of the varieties were reported, but have not been verified by inspection.

Since a number of districts received only 50 or 100 of mainly high denomination stamps, the number of errors will only be 1 or 2 stamps. Others were printed in sufficient quantity that as many as 220 error stamps would have been printed. Then, however, they were mostly used, so that, probably fewer than a dozen would likely have survived. In any case, it is unlikely that more than 10 copies of any one variety still exists, so we can expect the price for these stamps will quickly rise into the hundreds of dollars. The table below is the first time the printed quantities for these stamps has been published so few dealers or collectors have had reason to seek out these issues.

We ask the readers of this article to survey their collections and advise us if they have one of these stamps or a variety not listed. In this way we will be able to assign a value that reflects their rarity. We in turn will advise you of how many copies of any one you hold were reported in this survey. Please email me at

128 129 85c 2

All Articles