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MMD > Archives > January 1997 > 1997.01.05 > 03Prev  Next

Stamps On Pianos and Rolls
By Frank Himpsl

Bob Conant's recent question about the stamps on piano sound boards hit a note with me since I'm a lifelong stamp collector, particularly in the area of revenue stamps. So, this is a rare instance of an area where hobbies "cross over," so to speak, and I thought I'd throw in my 2c worth!

Over the past 200+ years in our country just about everything imaginable has been taxed at one time or another, be it by state or federal government, or both at the same time. And in many of these cases the tax was paid via the use of an adhesive revenue stamp of some kind.

But it's kind of difficult to justify a tax on music, or a musical instru- ment, unless you rule that this is a luxury item. However, it apparently WAS possible to levy a tax on proceeds from musical entertainment (i.e. in addition to standard income taxes), and here I'm referring to the "gin mills" in the 1920s which had coin-op nickelodeons.

The restaurant/coffee shop/ice cream parlor/gin mill owners who had these instruments had to shell out anywhere from $10 to $25 for an annual "Special Tax Stamp," which was purchased from the district Collector of Internal Revenue. The stamps were rectangular in shape, roughly 4 x 6 inches, sometimes in different paper colors for different years, and were inscribed "for coin-operated amusement devices."

The tax also covered pinball machines and all the various boardwalk nickel and penny grabbers of the past. These stamps were (by law) signed by the proprietor and district collector, and displayed on the wall of the estab- lishment all year long. I know for a fact that these stamps were used at least until the late 1940s. They may still be in use in video arcades!

Other types of Special Tax Stamps are still being used today, for cigarette retailers, liquor dealers, pharmacists dispensing narcotics and other areas. This is just background, as the only instance I know of where the government put down a tax on coin-op music entertainment.

It's not likely that the stamps Bob found on the sound board are any- thing like the above Special Tax Stamps, although I suppose there were instances when a STS might have been shellacked to the side of a nickel- odeon in service (anybody ever see evidence of this?). The sound board stamps could very well be what we call license, royalty, or patent stamps. These were widely issued by private manufacturers, from the 1860s through modern times.

The idea was this: if you have a patent on an exclusive design or manu- facturing process, (or own the rights to it), you can sell these rights on a "per unit" basis to a second-party manufacturer by selling him adhesive stamps, each of which denotes payment of a single royalty. On every "item" manufactured using the exclusive process, etc., a stamp is affixed, thereby denoting payment of the royalty.

There were dozens and dozens of different royalty stamps issued, on things ranging from paper shirt collars, to hats, to leather boots, to sewing machines, and so forth. With the extremely intense competition between piano parts manufacturers back then, it stands to reason that license/ royalty stamps could have been affixed to sound boards, to denote the use of a particular drying or sealing process thereon, or whatever. I've never seen any examples of these sound board stamps, but at least that's a theory to consider.

The place where you really see these royalty stamps is on piano rolls. For a very short time in the US, (roughly 1918-19 time frame), stamps were used to denote payment of royalty on a "per-roll" basis. The stamps don't vary widely in appearance, being lithographed in light green and perforated vertically as coils (usually). They're inscribed with the publisher's last name (usually in black type) and have numerals in the corners, i.e.. "3" or "6" to denote the royalty payment, in cents.

Frequently there is an additional printed or hand stamped inscription on the roll leader which says something like "you'll die and go to Hell if the license stamp denoting payment of royalty affixed hereto is removed from the roll." Sometimes a really juicy royalty payment was demanded, and you can see this from multiple copies of the stamp being used. I think the Lieutenant Gitz-Rice Ampico roll of "Dear Old Pal Of Mine" (Geez!) has about 12 cents worth of royalty stamps affixed! It was a hit song, and the publishers wanted to make a killing.

I'm not sure of the complete history on the piano roll royalty stamps. It might have only been done by a select group of music publishers, who wanted to be absolutely sure they got a cut of each and every piano roll sold. Other publishers might still have been happy to just keep it on the books at the time. In any event, it was a very short-lived affair in the US. In England, however, I believe this method of royalty payment has always been used (on records as well). I know that the old English Duo- Arts and Meloto rolls typically carry a royalty stamp, and the same was necessary on John Farrell's Ragmaster and Jazzmaster rolls during the last 20 years.

Frank Himpsl

[ I sure wish we could show illustrations of your stamps here, Frank.
[ Do you have a web page to display them?!
[ -- Robbie

(Message sent Sun 5 Jan 1997, 17:58:55 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Pianos, Rolls, Stamps

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