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Vignettes

Commentaries on Items in the Gross Collection

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September 27, 2019 — Scott R. Trepel

1211 — The William H. Gross Collection: United States Postal History

The Humanity of Philately

More than kisses, letters mingle souls.
JOHN DONNE

Art serves to convey the emotions and imagination of the artist, to brighten dull spaces and lives, to inspire and influence, to inform and enlighten, and to record events for future generations. Indeed, letter writing does the same, does it not?

For every letter there must be a sender and a recipient, and a means to deliver the letter from one to the other— the mail. The study of mail is called postal history. When we speak of collecting postal history, it seems like such an odd expression. No one collects art history, or furniture history, or car history. Nonetheless, that is the term collectors use. Ask them what they collect, and they will tell you “postal history.” If they are serious about it, they will tell you they are “postal historians.” And never call a postal historian a stamp collector—that’s like calling a building maintenance engineer a janitor. You risk getting punched out.

Robson Lowe once said that stamp collectors were students of science, but postal historians were students of humanity. The things that interest postal historians go far beyond stamps, which were introduced by Great Britain in 1840 as a practical instrument to prepay postage. Stamps, or adhesives, as postal historians call them, served a function, but the pieces of mail, with or without stamps, are the significant artifacts in the study of letter communication. Understanding the processes by which words and materials have been conveyed throughout history is the goal of the postal historian. Behind the artifacts is a corpus of postal documents, census data, genealogical records, and scholarly analysis and debate.

The postal history of the world is a vast subject, both chronologically and geographically. The timeline is shortened to about 350 years if the subject is the United States and its colonial origins. Geographically, the U.S. postal system still encompasses the world, because mail was sent around the globe. A perusal of this catalogue will give anyone who is unfamiliar with the dimensions of collecting postal history a taste of the diversity of items and subjects. As a field guide to what lies within, the general terms and broad categories will be described here.

At the heart of postal history is the cover, a generic term used to describe the message container. When postage rates were based on the number of sheets of paper, the letter itself was used as the container to avoid an extra charge. By folding a letter, sealing the back folds, and addressing the front panel, there was no need for an envelope, which would count as an additional sheet. A folded letter has its content intact. A folded cover is the outer sheet with the address, with or without any written content on the inside. Envelopes were uncommon until the public grew accustomed to the new U.S. 1845 rates based on weight, not sheets of paper. For this reason, 1847 stamps are usually found on folded covers or letters, not envelopes. By the 1850s the use of envelopes became more widespread.

The address is also an essential element of covers. At a time when the norm was general delivery—that is, you went to the post office to pick up your mail—the typical address was a name, city and state. People today marvel at a cover addressed to “John Smith, New York, N.Y.,” but for much of the 19th century you did not need more than that. Senders sometimes wrote instructions specifying an intended route or ship. Since letters were usually retained for recordkeeping purposes, recipients often docketed covers with the date of receipt, reply date, and sender’s name.

If the cover went through the post office, typically there was a marking indicating the town of origin. If stamped, the stamp would be cancelled; if not, a marking would be used to indicate the postage paid or due. The earliest U.S. stamps were local affairs—the first was the 3¢ City Despatch Post stamp issued in New York City in 1842. From 1845 to 1847 a few postmasters issued their own stamps for patrons’ use. The first federal postage stamps were issued in July 1847. From a collecting viewpoint, assembling all of the different stamps on covers is the most basic approach.

Beyond stamps, collectors can focus on a virtually limitless number of specialized areas. A geographic collection can encompass one region, one state or even one city or town. Collections can be built around modes of transportation, such as trains or steamboats. Wars are always ripe collecting subjects, since postal systems “under stress” (as Steven Walske calls them) often relied on special means to carry the mail. International mail, with its complex system of rates and accounting based on competing nations’ interests, produced many of the most sensational classic covers. The whimsical artistry of postmasters is reflected in handcrafted fancy cancellations. And, as we move into the late 19th and early 20th century, the growth of stamp collecting inspired the creation of high-denomination commemorative issues and an appreciation of rare stamp varieties, which are even more challenging to find on covers.

The William H. Gross collection of postal history boggles the mind. Whereas many collectors focus on one narrow area, Bill Gross focused on many areas. He went far beyond gathering a few representative examples, and instead acquired the best. In the imperforate stamp period, from 1847 through 1856, he went deep—very deep—assembling a breathtaking group of covers and what is unquestionably the greatest collection of 1847s ever put together.

As a person who loves both stamps and covers, I confess feeling gobsmacked by this offering. It makes me wish I could switch roles, from auctioneer to acquirer, from living vicariously to living indulgently. It is, quite simply, the most spectacular auction of U.S. postal history ever held.

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