Commentaries on Items in the Gross Collection

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October 6, 2020 — Scott R. Trepel

1228 - The William H. Gross Collection: United States 1847 First Issue

The power of the postage stamp

The post office was the only entity with the organizational capability to circulate the information of public significance that was essential to sustain America’s bold experiment with democracy

With debates raging over the role of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election, the postage stamp has suddenly stepped forward from its place in the dark recesses of the digital age. Will stamps be required on ballot envelopes, and does that disenfranchise a part of the populace with what is effectively a poll tax? Will one stamp suffice, or will additional stamps be necessary if weighty proof of identity is enclosed? Will the USPS deliver a ballot if the envelope has insufficient postage or none at all?

Adams, Jefferson and Madison would have embraced this debate. They believed that the broad dissemination of information to the fledgling nation’s citizens was an essential role of government. Hamilton probably would have weighed in with concerns about the cost to the treasury. Franklin, the duty-bound postmaster general, would have insisted on making sure the ballots were expedited through the mails, with or without the right number of postage stamps—and Franklin certainly would have enjoyed seeing his face on a stamp.

In times of crisis, our democratic institutions have offered solid oak support to withstand malevolent maelstroms that threaten to undermine the system our Founding Fathers created, our representatives nurtured through legislation, our citizens commanded through votes, and our soldiers protected with their blood and lives.

The power of the stamp might sound hyperbolic, but as a tool for democracy, it has been the equal of the pen and the sword. Make it easy for people to communicate, or vote, and they will. The stamp’s original purpose—to pay postage simply, cheaply and conveniently—has not changed.

When Congress passed legislation to reform the postal system in 1845, they forgot to include postage stamps. That oversight was corrected with the the Act of March 3, 1847, which authorized the Postmaster General to issue stamps that “when attached to any letter or packet, shall be evidence of the payment of the postage chargeable on such letter.”

The first general issue stamps, the 5¢ Franklin and 10¢ Washington 1847 Issue, demonstrated the public’s acceptance of adhesive stamps on a national scale. They also helped to encourage the prepayment of postage, a practice that brought greater efficiency and economy to the postal system. Even now, 173 years after the 1847 Issue was placed on sale, affixing a stamp to an envelope is the most convenient and practical way to send a letter by mail. Whether it will be necessary to use one, two, or any, to mail a 2020 election ballot remains to be seen.

The 1847 Issue’s role in U.S. philately has always been a dominant one, much the same as the Penny Black and Two-Pence Blue are British collectors’ great first love. Forming a collection of 1847s invites a stamp collector to become a philatelist. Going beyond the technicalities of engraving and manufacture, to focus on the covers that demonstrate how the 1847s were used, a philatelist can become a postal historian.

The opportunity to study the Gross 1847 collection has inspired me to develop an even greater appreciation of these stamps and the period of postal history in which they helped America become more American.

This catalogue, devoted exclusively to the layered and nuanced fabric of the Gross 1847s, contains a number of conceptual innovations (see pages 58-59) and revelations (see page 27). It features some of the greatest 1847 items in existence, notably the Rush cover to France, one of the top icons of United States philately and postal history. For those with something less than a six-figure per item spending allowance, there are hundreds of lots that will bring limitless collecting joy for the price of a new cellphone.

As for our democracy, I have no doubt that the stamp will play the role of superhero, once again.