Steve Duke Represents: Stamp Collecting: Covers


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What we are going to talk about today are what we refer to as covers; no, not for clothing, or covers for furniture, covers for your boat. When we say the word “covers,” as far as stamp collecting goes, what we are doing is referring to an envelope.

And, you’re probably looking at each other going, “What is he even talking about? People are collecting envelopes now?”

Well, belief it or not, they are. Maybe not like they used to, but collecting covers, or envelopes, with the stamp on them has been around for over 100 years, and our first gummed stamps were in 1847. And, before that, they still had covers. They still sent letters, and how did they go about doing that if they didn’t have any stamps? Did they send them on credit? No! They didn’t send them on credit.

What you had to do is go to the post office with your letter inside of an envelope, and sometimes the envelopes were made, sometimes they were manufactured. And what you would do is you would pay the postmaster depending on where that cover was going to go. If it was going to go abroad, then you paid them somewhere around 12¢. If it was going to be domestic mail you would pay them somewhere around a penny to 2-1/2¢.

And what they would do is they would write up in the top-hand corner how much you had paid, and then they would determine what box that was put in, and then it was shipped by boat or by stage coach, or on horseback, or some other way. And these are what we refer to as “stampless covers.”

And usually a month or two would go by and somebody will walk in, and they will have some old envelope. And on there will be this marking up at the top left-hand corner where the stamp would have been or should have been, but it was a stampless cover. So they will say, “I found this in my grandmother’s box of goodies here, and can you tell me what it is?”

And I will look at it and say, “Well, this is a stampless cover.” And I will kind of tell them the same thing that I am telling you now: that this was before stamps were used, and it’s pretty cool. I mean, you think about it.

We sort of get spoiled now. We don’t even use stamps any more half the time; you’re just emailing stuff. But back before they were smart enough to really realize that they should open up a mint and print stamps and bring revenue into the United States. At that particular time, these were all basically individual colonies, and there were postmasters all over, and this is the way they would do it, using these stampless covers.

Now, we find that a lot of times once they started to print stamps it wasn’t the easiest thing for all the postmasters to get their stamps. They had to be distributed across the United States, and a lot of times there was a scarcity of some of these stamps.  So the first stamp was a 5¢ stamp with a picture of Ben Franklin on it because he was the first postmaster, and a 10¢ stamp with a picture of George Washington because he was our first president.

And these stamps didn’t have what we call perforations. They didn’t have all those little pieces that you would rip off and divide so that you could put them on your envelope. These came on a sheet with no perforations, and you would actually have to take a scissors or a knife and cut these things. So to be able to find one that has all four nice margins–and that’s the spacing around the outside of the figure of the picture–and you would put some sort of horse hoof glue on there and stick it right on your envelope.

And a lot of people collect covers, believe it or not, and it’s unusual to find some of these early covers, some of these first postage stamps, on there. And if you do find them, then some of the things that we look at as far as grading them and determining their value was how nice was the stamp.

Well, people weren’t too interested in collecting stamps back in 1847. They were interested in getting the mail done, so when you look at these stamps most of them when they cut them they cut into the design of the stamp or the perforations, the spacing on one side is real close to the picture, and maybe the other three margins were big white margins, things like that. But  the collectors like to find a nice stamp that when it was cancelled they didn’t just put a big blob of black ink on it, and that the margins were nice on it, and it wasn’t all ripped up, and the cover is in really nice condition.

And the more I described this to you, you are thinking to yourself, “What are the chances of finding that?” Well, believe it or not, they are out there. And the fact that stamp collecting, or philately as we call it, has sort of dropped off in popularity or gone by the wayside. You know, people find these things, and they get thrown out, and yes there are less and less of them out there. You know, we’ve had natural disasters. We have floods; we have storms. Paper doesn’t fare real well in floods and storms like that, so, again, it gets damaged a lot easier than if it was an old coin, and it was sitting around.

But there are pieces out there. The problem being there are less and less collectors for these items, so as opposed to them continuing to soar in value, they have actually decreased in value considerably from the 80s and even into the 90s because there are less and less people who collect them. But as I’ve told you before, with any kind of collectible, condition is always important. Rarity is important. But there also has to be a market; there has to be a secondary market for this stuff.

With the advent of the internet, there are less and less people who are fascinated with the history of these stamps and these covers depict, so it’s harder to find outlets for these things and even though they are from the early 1800s, and they are rare, still the value is not as high as it used to be.

Now the fact is that a lot of times these postmasters would have a shortage of stamps to use. Sometimes someone would want to send something abroad and the rate was 12¢, or 12-1/2¢ usually, and what they would have to do as they didn’t want to buy 15¢ worth of postage—they weren’t going to waste 2-1/2¢ because, although it doesn’t sound like a whole lot anymore, but 2-1/2¢ was a lot of money back then–so what they would do is take a 5¢ stamp and cut it diagonally from corner to corner and sell them half of a stamp.

And you’re going “What idiot would buy half of a stamp?” Well, this is what you had to do. A lot of times you will find a 10¢ stamp and you will find half of the other stamp cut in half. I’ve had people bring these in to me and say, “Steve, why would they do something like this on this envelope?” That’s what we refer to as a “bisect.” It has nothing to do with sexual preference; it has to do with stamps.

What they would actually do is they would cut that in half. They would bisect the stamp and use it for half of the face value. So if they cut a 5¢ stamp, it was a 2-1/2¢, if they cut a 10¢ stamp, it was a nickel. Believe it or not, besides the U.S. a lot of countries did this, and it’s kind of neat to see the progression of where the ingenuity of people who didn’t want to spend all that extra money to waste it on a stamp, so what they would do is cut it and that was actually legal to do that and mail your letters with that.

Now another thing that people collect on covers are the cancellations. Way back when, they didn’t have machines to cancel these stamps. The postmaster would actually have to sit there and cancel these stamps by hand. What they would do, which was important, was when they cancelled it they would do what we call “tying the stamp” to the envelope or the cover.

What this means is that the cancellation would not only touch the stamp, but would also touch the cover. The reason being was to show that this was actually a stamp that was used on this particular envelope. Sometimes they would turn around and take a cancelled stamp and put it on an envelope and it wasn’t tied to it, and they could still pass it off as something that had gone through the mail. Sometimes they would just wash the cancellations off the stamps and reuse the stamps.

What a lot of people have done is that sometimes the postmasters had a lot of time on their hands waiting for people to drop their envelopes off to be postmarked, so we find that a lot of postmasters would turn around, and they would take a cork, and they would carve some sort of a fancy cancellation into the cork that they would put into India ink and cancel that stamp with it.

Sometimes we find five-pointed stars; we find different kinds of animals; we find what we refer to as a “running chicken” which happened to be years and years ago an extremely expensive cancellation. We find a bucking donkey which was another high-priced cancellation. And we find the sun or we find the moon. Sometimes we just find a big old round spot; it was just the postmaster was not that great with a knife and he carved this cork into a big circle and just dipped it in ink and smeared it on the stamp and the letter or what we refer to as the cover.

Now these don’t bring as much money. They are not as collectible. Another thing that people collect is, when people look at this thing it could be a bull’s eye. That was a very plentiful cancellation. But the collector’s who are saving cancelled stamps, whether they are tied to the cover or not, are looking for a cancellation that didn’t really destroy the face of the stamp. They like a nice light cancellation that tied it to the cover, or if it wasn’t on a cover, so you could see the features of the stamp; you could see the denomination.

This was something that a lot of times they would soak off a cover and put in their postage album. Now, if it happened to be an unusual cancellation, we find guys that save nothing but the cancellations, like the cancellation so that it was tied to the cover. If they didn’t save covers, then they wanted the cancellation so that it was nice and bright.

A lot of times the color of the ink that the postmaster used was unusual. Usually you would see black India ink, but you would also find cancellations in blue ink, which was unusual. And some of the postmasters used red ink which was really tough to find. And these cancellations are worth more money because they are in these various different colors of ink, and, again, as soon as they started to cancel these things, we noticed that not only were the stamps cancelled, but then they would also put on there where it was cancelled. This came a little bit later, and we find that the postmarks start to become interesting to collectors as well. So we looked for the cancellation, but now we looked at the postmarks. And why did we look at the postmarks? A couple of different reasons:

Number one, we looked to see where that cover came from, and what we are coming to now is a portion of our history when during the Civil War where covers had some historical value; not so much the Union covers, but the covers that came from the southern states. You have to remember that the Union had the larger states; they had a lot of industrialization going on here. There were some mechanized stamping devices that were used to put the different postmarks and cancellations on them. So southern items have always been collectible; it’s more scarce. It’s tougher to find. So people were always looking for that Georgia postmark, or any of the southern states’ postmarks, because these were collectible in their collections because it represents the south as opposed to the Union.

Now, during this time frame, we find that a lot of these covers or envelopes had decorations on them. Forget about the stamp and the cancellation, now, but they had little messages on them. These were referred to as “patriotic” covers. What some of them showed were pictures of the South, the Southern flag. Some of them showed pictures of cotton fields with different notations on them. Some of them showed slavery. Some of them showed pictures of Jefferson Davis, and these were patriotic covers for the South.

The Union usually had the American flag. They had pictures of the White House. They had pictures of the Union troops or the presidents, and these were patriotic covers. Again, they were a message to get it out there; to get behind the boys and fight, whether it was the Union or the South. These were ways of building patriotic feelings for each side.  And these are quite collectible.

A kind of neat cover that you will find during the Civil War was one that, if you looked at the envelope, it is kind of funky looking because when you open it up it has decorations on the inside of the envelope. It could have stripes. It could have flowers. It could have all kinds of little things. These envelopes were actually made from wallpaper because what you have to remember is that supplies were pretty scarce during the Civil War. A lot of the southern states didn’t have a big supply of paper, so they would actually strip the wallpaper off of walls, write their letter, fold the wallpaper up into an envelope, take it to the postmaster, get a stamp, they’d cancel it and then it would be sent to the troops or send it to whatever the address had been. So these were another type of collectible, and these were wallpaper covers. Sounds kind of funky, but that is a collectible.

Now, as we move forward, some of the other cancellations that you are going to encounter were for various events that were going on. I say “various events” such as the 1904 World’s Fair. You could have actually bought the World’s Fair stamp right there at the World’s Fair post office, put it on an envelope, put your address at home or to a friend and mail it from the Columbian World’s Fair. This was in 1904. What was neat is people started collecting what we call “Exposition Cancellations” or different event cancellations. So any time there was an Expo, an exposition, or some sort of a big event, a world’s fair, there were people who would collect the cancellations from that particular fair.

Now along with that, a lot of times when a new stamp would come out, people would collect what we refer to as “first day cancellations.” That refers to the fact that this was the first day that stamp was ever used. Back in the 20s and 30s they started this kind of—actually it was in the 30s—they started to have a special stamp that the post office would use that would say “First Day of Issue.”

A lot of times people would bring in old collections and you would see an envelope with a stamp on it that would say “First Day of Issue.” People would say, “What’s the deal with this thing?” You would explain to them that this was the first day that this stamp was issued, and that there were people who collected that first day of issue. Now, prior to the 1930s when they did this, a lot of times these expo covers would be the first day of issue for a lot of these particular 1¢ and 2¢ stamps. The only way you could really know that would be to sit there and look that first day of issue up to find when it was done.

And you say to yourself, “Well, why would I bother doing that? First of all, I think that it’s stupid that somebody is collecting stamps, and I think it’s really stupid that they are collecting cancelled stamps on an envelope. What would they care if it was the first day of issue or not?”

Well, to give you an idea, some of the earlier first day of issue stuff—I’m talking about stuff in the early 1900s and late 1890s. You know, we find these and these are very, very plentiful. This was a common usage, these one and two cent stamps back then. Then if you find a cancelled stamp on an envelope it might be worth ten cents; it might be worth a quarter if the envelope had some sort of advertising on it where it was something a little bit special. You know, it could be a $5 or $10 cover.

If you happen to find one that was sent out—and it didn’t have to be from the exposition; it could have been just a post office anywhere in the country–on that particular first day of issue instead of a $5 or $10 cover, it could become a $100 to a $2000 cover, so there’s a huge difference on that first day of issue.

Now, as in any collectible, the post office got involved gladly as a revenue producing type of thing, and they realized, “You know what? If we make this first day of issue stamp and people want to collect these first day of issue, well, this is just found revenue because these people are going to buy these stamps, we are going to cancel them, they are not going to do a whole lot of anything, but they are going to come in and buy them strictly because they are the first day of issue.

So what would happen is they sold a lot of these stamps. Sometimes people would actually get that first day of issue and then give them another envelope so they could put that stamp cover into another envelope so it wouldn’t get messed up in the mail. They would address it to themselves and then they would have a first day of issue stamp in their collection.

Now, some of the first day of issue stuff from the 30s have some value to them. Not a great amount of value because, just the way people did with baseball cards after the 70s, the baseball card companies realized, “You know what? We can make these cards en masse and people will collect them and just pump this stuff out and collectors will put them away forever.”

And the same thing with the post office. They realized that just like when the mint first came out with sets of coins that they could charge a premium over the face value because they were mint sets or proof sets and people would put them away, then post office jumped on the band wagon and said, “Hey, we’ll just do this with stamps and first day of issues. The first day of issues are fairly common. When we get to the earlier stuff—stuff from the 20s and before—these are more difficult because they don’t say first day of issue. You have to actually know what you are looking for and look at the post marks.

When I first started in this business years and years ago, I could always go into a shop and these guys did stamps as a side line. They would buy a coin collection; they would get a lot of stamped envelopes or old covers there. I would go through them; if you knew what you were looking for you could go through and find some of these covers for five and ten cents for $100 or $200 covers because of the post mark on it. The coin dealers didn’t really care because this was all found money—they hadn’t paid anything for stamped letters or covers anyway. They had bought the coin collections.

So some of these good things are still out there. They still exist. Lots of times I’ve found collections where people will bring them in with a post mark saying, “This is a first day of issue; it’s from the early 1900s. It’s really valuable.”

Unfortunately, people cut that off of the envelope, so they save the stamp as opposed to what we refer to now as the covers. So it pretty much destroyed the value of it. There aren’t’ that many people who collect the first day of issue without it being on the cover.

Now along with some of the first day of issues there are other types of cancellations that were good. Along with the first day of issues are what we call cachets. Cachets are sort of like the patriotic covers. There were different companies that would actually put pictures on the envelopes. In 1938 they came out with the presidential series. They would put the pictures of the presidents on the envelope, then you would turn around and buy that from the company, then they would put the particular stamp for that first day of issues and you would have the picture of the president along with the first day of issues stamp and they tied it together.

They did that in the 30s for some of the parks—the national park set. You find the cachets for the different parks. And there were certain cachets that were hand done; they weren’t really mass produced, and some of these cachets themselves are extremely rare and valuable. And when they are used on a first day of issues it’s even better. But, again, stamp collecting has sort of fallen out of favor, so the first day of issues along with other parts of stamp collecting have decreased in value as opposed to increasing in value, but they are still a collectible. And as I’ve talked about before: with any kind of collectible, if you look at it and it makes you smile at the end of the day, then by all means collect it.

There are also air mail collectibles that started in 1918. Those were their first air mail stamps. They were quite collectible as stamps as well as finding them on envelopes or covers that were sent by air mail. There were a lot of experimental types of things where a lot of air mail flights. Back in the 1930s, or ’29 really, the first dirigible flew around the world, and it carried mail with it. This was called Zeppelin mail.

You know, we had one in ’27 from Lakehurst—the first that the Hindenburg flew and the Zeppelin flew. These carried mail. And then we find that we started getting into airplanes and said, “Hey, if dirigibles can do it,” because they were taking a really long time; I think it was about 31 days to go around the world by balloon, or 58 days, I think it was.

In 1931 Wiley Post was the first man to actually fly around the world by plane, and he carried air mail with him. There were certain little cachets made for this world wide postage. We find later on there was trans-Pacific cachets made for envelopes. There were experimental types of flights.

There was rocket mail. In my own collection I have a couple of letters that were actually flown by rocket. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out really great because the rocket exploded instead of landing back to earth real well. So we find that a lot of these covers are destroyed. A lot of them have burn marks on them, but what was kind of cool was the post office would take it and they would actually have a cancellation that this letter was damaged in flight because the rocket crashed or the dirigible that it was on blew up and burned up.

These were what we call crash covers, and they are another type of collectible. There is lots of stuff out there that you can collect. You can get into it without spending a lot of money, but, again, like I’ve talked about with any kind of collectible, do a little research; learn about what you are collecting because some are good; some are expensive; some are inexpensive. As long as you enjoy it, by all means collect it.

I’m Steve Duke, the owner of Westchester Gold & Diamonds. We talked a little bit about covers today, or stamped envelopes, and if you have items like this that you want to sell, we’re always happy to buy those over at Westchester Gold & Diamonds. At least we’ll take a look at them for you and give you an idea of what you have.

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