Stamp collecting can be whatever you want it to be. There’s discovery and beauty, humanity and history—pretty much everything. Share the journey with me and stay in touch.
It’s been almost two months since my last post. With the Corona Virus pandemic necessitating staying at home as much as possible, you’d think I’d be posting more. No excuses.
For me, being outside is a good antidote to the claustrophobic feelings that so easily take hold these days. Fortunately, across the street from my home are the playing fields for two schools located side-by-side on a large tract of land that was once an “estate.” The trees there always lift my spirits. There are many beautiful mature species. And I’m fascinated by so many differing characteristics.
My brother occasionally joins me for a walk through these fields, identifing the trees. The one shown here captivated me recently for its sheer grandeur. I wondered what it was. Its leaves looked like those on another tree my brother had identified as a Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), however the tree in the photograph had leaves in clusters of seven. The Horse Chestnut my brother had pointed out had clusters of five leaves. Researching Horse Chestnut trees I discovered that they come in both clusters of five and seven leaves, so I believe I’ve now identified this tree.
The spikey outer shell of the horse chestnut looks foreboding. However, the inner brown nut is quite beautiful, but I learned that it’s not for consumption.
I wondered too if the Horse Chestnut was featured on any stamps. It had, and images of some of those stamps are shown here. Monaco issued four stamps, each showing a tree detail in one of the four seasons. I can only conclude that others have found this tree as uplifting as I have. Your thoughts?
On July 6, 1932 the cost to mail a first-class letter increased from 2 to 3 cents. To meet the need for 3-cent stamps the U.S. Post Office issued a purple stamp reproduced from the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. It’s incredible to me to think how many copies of this stamp were eventually printed in panes of 100 (25,270,435,500) and as vending booklet panes of 6 (1,301,359,560). That’s over 26 billion—a number I find hard to fathom. 295,730,000 of those stamps were precancels.*
The design was derived from the red 2-cent stamp of the Washington Bicentennial Issue of 12 stamps that were issued on January 1. It was established policy to have our first president appear on stamps paying the first class letter postal rate, which on July 6 changed from 2 to 3 cents.
Shown above are three used copies of the 3-cent Washington that drew my attention because of the essential differences between them. The first stamp (left) bears the traditional wavy cancellation in common use at the time. I suspect there were billions cancelled this way. The second stamp (middle) is precanceled with CHICAGO ILL appearing on two lines with a horizontal black rule above and below the words. Precancels were issued to speed mail processing. The third stamp (right) has the same precancel marking but is also a perfin, a stamp with holes punched through it in a unique design by private business and governmental agencies to discourage theft and misuse. In this case the CC perfin design indicates use by the City of Chicago.
So there you have it, a very, very common stamp but here are three varieties that illustrate unique sides of its personality.
* Griffith, Gary, United States Stamps 1927-32, Linn’s Stamp News, 2001 (Thank you to the American Philatelic Research Library for providing print quantities noted above.)
On August 3, 2018 I wrote about “Beautiful British Bicolors!” These stamps were favorites of mine as a young collector in the 1950s because of their beauty, availability and inexpensive cost. They’re still favorites, but recently sorting through a box of U.S. stamps I came across some damaged, but still beautiful, U.S. bicolors from the Pan-American Exposition set of 1901.
As a boy, most of the U.S. bicolors were beyond my means, and by the time I had some “means,” U.S. stamps were no longer a main collecting focus. But I still appreciate some of the early bicolors like the higher values of 1869 and especially the commemorative series of 1901 promoting the Pan-American Exposition. This set of six stamps featured both exquisite decorative frames and classic black engravings of period transportation.
A ride on the “Empire State” Express (2¢ stamp), a flagship of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, would have been a thrill—engine smoke and all. It initially ran between New York City and Buffalo, and later its route lengthened to Cleveland. In its early days it was the first train with a schedule speed of over 52mph.
I’d love to hop up on the raised driver’s bench of the electric car (4¢ stamp). I wonder how fast it could travel—probably not fast at all, especially considering the roads of the time. This particular car was passing in front of the Capitol, and I think it would be fantastic to experience Washington at that time.
The 10¢ Fast Ocean Navigation stamp features the steamship St. Paul, a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, with smoke billowing from its twin funnels. The cloud-like cancel at the top center of the stamp seems like even more billowing smoke, but not so. The ship was launched in 1895, but was chartered for U.S. Navy service in 1898, and it again saw military service during World War I. But I wonder what it would have been like to cross the Atlantic in one of its initial voyages as a luxury liner.
To be clear, I collect predominantly cancelled stamps. Since my first “stamp” experience: my Mom giving me at age 4 or 5 the envelopes from incoming mail and letting me cut the stamps off (primarly 3¢Jeffersons) and paste them in rows on cardboard (think “busy work”), I’ve been attracted to used stamps vs. mint. To each his own, of course, but that extra cancel layer for me can add immeasurabley to the visual appeal of a stamp, not to mention the fact that stamps were made to be used. (Call me a purist…or crazy.)
Rooting through a box of used U.S. stamps, the cancellations on the three stamps shown here called out to me. The purple Iowa Territory Centennial issue of 1938 is cancelled with the classic numbered shoe-print killer. One look makes it clear why this cancel is called a killer. The barred elliptical mark cancel was invented by John Goldsborough of Philadelphia, and his device, first used in 1875, became the most widely used in the U.S. It’s actually one part of a duplex cancel with part of the circle defining the other portion of the cancel seen on the left side of the stamp. That circle contained the name of the post office where the stamp was cancelled as well as the date. The information is too light to see clearly here, but for me the visual appeal is the powerful black shoe-print killer overlaying the deep purple stamp.
The second stamp that drew may attention was the green 1951 Centennial of the Settlement of Nevada stamp. The cancel doesn’t have the visual appeal of the Iowa Centennial stamp, but the slogan is spot-on appropriate for the scene that includes forested mountains in a rugged western landscape: “Remember Only you can PREVENT FOREST FIRES.” That slogan was adopted by the Smokey Bear campaign in 1947 and continued more than five decades.
Finally, there’s the 2¢postage due stamp from the 1984-95 Bureau of Engraving and Printing series. The strong PHILADELPHIA PA precancel overlaying the rich intricate claret design is for me a thing of beauty. Though the stamp is nicked along the top edge, it’s the visual power of the stamp/cancel combination I find so satisfying.
Your thoughts about cancellations and philatley?
The Corona Virus is affecting us all: the crushing loss of death, the agony of illness, the anguish of unemployment, the frustrations of confinement, the fear of the unknown.
It would seem ludicrous that postage stamps could be the antidote, but I’ve written previously about their uplifting power (February 5, 2019, December 13, 2018).
The prescription I’m benefiting from now is a regimen of children’s art on stamps. Children are far less tethered to cares of life than those of us who have lived the years. Children live their dreams–in color, in joy, in exuberance, in faith and belief, and in knowing.
There’s no dosage that comes with my prescription. Today I’m sharing five portions from China (five from a set of eight stamps). They’re from 2000 and have no effectiveness expiration date. They are, however, “Best used today…and regularly in the future.” The children were charged with imaging the coming millennium. Their visions are awash in color and vitality.
So, try this medication and report on effectiveness.
From early in 1921 to late in 1923 Germany experienced one of the worst periods of inflation in history. For example, to mail a postcard locally at the beginning of 1921 the postage required was 30 pfennig. In December of 1923 the cost to mail that same postcard was 16 billion marks.
During this period of inflation, rates often changed more quickly than stamps could be produced to meet the new requirements. Confusion was rampant, and stamps whose face value had become too low to be of any practical use became waste (or later were included in inexpensive packets sold to new collectors worldwide).
I “rescued” the stamps shown above from the trash at my local stamp club. Years of neglect enabled changes in humidity to curl these stamps into worthless rods, but I found them visually striking. Their most unusual state reminded me of those inexpensive stamp packets from my youth, and more importantly of a period of extreme hardship in Germany.
The graphic variety of large numerals on stamps has also always fascinated me. The combination of the repeated numeral “5” and the column numerals (9, 2, 3, 4) from the stamp sheets shown in the close-up creates a striking visual for me.
Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) invented the lithography printing process which today accounts for most of the world’s printing output. Senefelder was a German playwright and actor who could not afford to have a play he had written published, and so he conducted experiments in the hope of finding an inexpensive printing process that would enable him to self-publish. His experiments led to his using smooth limestone and an acid-resistant greasy marker that allowed him to etch an image into the flat stone surface. The stone could then be inked, and paper pressed against the stone would receive the printed image. He refined his discovery and eventually started a publishing firm.
With most of the world’s postage stamps now being printed using the lithographic process, it’s surprising Senefelder only appears on three. Compare that with Gutenberg who has been honored by numerous stamps.
My favorite Senefelder stamp was issued by Austria in 1998 to commemorate the bicentennial of the discovery of lithography. The stamp features a litho stone on which Senefelder’s likeness has been etched, and the stone is being hand-inked with a roller. This reminds me of my days as an art student when I was fortunate to have been able to experience the stone lithography process.
The other two Senefelder stamps honor him with reference to the press he developed to utilize the lithography process. In 1991, Czechoslovakia issued a stamp with Senefelder’s portrait accompanied by a label showing Senefelder’s schematic for his press. In 1972, Germany issued a stamp featuring the Senefelder press to mark the 175th anniversary of the invention of the lithography process.
In the past few years, I’ve found Senefelder in two interesting places, my hometown of Baltimore and in Mexico City. While walking in the old part of Mexico City I noticed two busts high on the façade of a building. Even from afar I could identify Gutenberg, and with the help of my camera’s zoom I saw that the other bust was that of Senefelder. Obviously this building at one time had been occupied by a lithographic printer.
Back in Baltimore, the buildings once occupied by the lithographic printing firm of A. Hoen & Company are being repurposed into a multi-use complex composed of social entrepreneurs, non-profits, service providers and researchers. I recall decades ago visiting the Hoen firm and seeing numerous old broken litho stones at the edges of the parking lot. The firm had long since converted to printing with metal litho plates.
The firm, founded in 1835, occupied the site from 1902-1981 and was one of the world’s most prolific lithographic printers. It specialized in high-quality sophisticated work, including maps influential in settling the west and establishing national boundaries, e.g., maps for the joint commission determining the boundary between the United States and Canada. Above the entrance to the main Hoen building are symbols relating to Senefelder and the lithography process as well as the Latin words, “Saxa Loquuntur.” (The Stones Speak).
Sometimes a cover with no unusual philatelic worth attracts me simply because of its visual appeal. This “green” airmail cover is a good example. The six-cent airmail rate is paid with six one-cent stamps from the 1941 National Defense Issue. Normally the carmine 6-cent airmail stamp from the Transport Plane Series would have been used for this kind of letter, but other stamps or combinations were regularly used as well.
What struck me about this cover was its beautiful overall green appearance. Did the mailer intentionally choose to use the six green one-cent stamps to compliment the green envelope, or were these stamps simple at hand? I tend to think the former, though we’ll probably never know. In any event, this green-on-green cover caught my eye when I was examining a box of miscellaneous U.S. covers. So, almost 80 years after this cover flew from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, it’s landed in my collection of visually pleasing covers.
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, the USPS issued a sheet of 16 stamps, each associated with a particular NPS location—parks, seashores, and even an aquatic garden. I confess, my preconceived notion of another series of park photographs caused me to give the sheet just a cursory look. Big mistake!
This year, ordering stamps for my mailing needs, I included the NPS sheet in my order. Examining the stamps, three years after issue, I was struck by the Bandelier National Monument stamp. “What an unusual photograph,” I thought, “such unusual colors.” Then, looking closer and reading the back of the sheet, I discovered the image wasn’t a photo at all, but a pastel-on-paper by Helmuth Naumer, Sr. (1907-1990). (This is a humiliating confession by a supposed “serious” philatelist.) And there were two paintings among the stamps as well. “Why,” I thought, “would a sheet of scenic stamps include three rendered as art and 13 as photographs?”
Back to the Naumer pastel, Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon (1935-1936), which I originally thought a highly unusual photograph. Naumer used pastels so as not to lose time mixing oil paint, because of “the fleeting effects of sky and water and our own New Mexico landscapes with fast changing colors sweeping rapidly across it…” And Naumer has captured, at least for me, the sensations of those changing colors and the movement of light and clouds across the landscape.
He was born in Germany and 1907, and in 1926 moved to the U.S. motivated by stories of cowboy life he had read about in novels. In 1932 he settled in Santa Fe and began working with pastels. Naumer said that, “…coming to the Southwest was like coming home.“ He was commissioned by the National Park Service to create artwork for newly built visitor centers constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 and 1936 he created fourteen pastels for Bandelier National Monument, which remain in the museum’s collection.
So, having failed to initially notice the artwork content of the NPS centennial sheet, Naumer’s pastel introduced me not only to a unique artist but to the fact that the National Park Service is not just parks. In fact, of the 419 park sites spread across the U.S., 385 have museum collections—from fossils to fine art—all specific to the mission of the individual park. That museum system is the largest in the world, with individual park collections ranging in size from less than 100 objects to over six million—all focused on the natural and cultural heritage of the U.S.
And to answer my earlier question of why three artworks and 13 photographs: the National Park Service is parks…and much more!
In the late 19th century, stamp use was often indicated with a manuscript cancel, especially on revenue stamps. The cancel was applied with a nibbed pen and ink. Today, the script cancel is making a comeback. We’ve all received mail cancelled by the hand of zealous postal workers. The nibbed pen is gone, often replaced with a broad-tipped black permanent marker. These cancels have been the subject of numerous complaints in the philatelic press, because they deface beautiful stamps and at times are even an insult to properly cancelled mail items. More than once, however, I’ve considered starting a specialized collection of these cancels. But then I think, “To what end?”
A favorite of mine is the First Day Cover displayed here, thoughtfully prepared by a philatelic friend using the “World of Literature” stamp from Great Britain’s Millennium Collection set of 1999–The Artists’ Tale. You can guess my reaction when I found this letter in the mailbox: “!#..!*#” But the cover also intrigues me. This could be the centerpiece of my contemporary manuscript cancel exhibit. This particular script cancellation is well-considered and undoubtedly from a practiced hand. Note how many of the lines mimic the angles of the book illustrated on the stamp. Also note how many lines crisscross. (Crosshatched cancels were common in ‘old’ days.) The energy and overall positioning of the script on the stamp is also appealing. Finally, what a marvelous sequence of juxtapositions: delicately articulated postal cancel and frenetic script cancel; quill pen from days of yore and ballpoint pen scribbling today; postal cancel ‘kissing’ the stamp’s bottom edge, and script cancel smothering entire stamp; two postal workers displaying quite different approaches to the same task.
I love this cover.