This column originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of The American Philatelist, pages 1116-1120. Read Collecting Coast to Coast by Wayne Youngblood every month in The American Philatelist, one of the many benefits of membership with the APS. stamps.org/Join-Now
Saga of the 25-Cent Stamped Envelope
The United States 25-cent Snowflake stamped envelope of 1988 (Scott U613) was a poor idea to begin with.
And for several reasons. In a failed attempt to promote the United States Stamped Envelope Agency and its return-address printing capabilities, as well as its desire to begin working with greeting card producers (an idea that has resurfaced several times over the years), the U.S. Postal Service dreamed up the idea of releasing its first non-standard-sized stamped envelope in more than a quarter of a century for the holiday season of 1988. Previous non-standard envelopes were generally either smaller or longer than a No. 6¾ or No. 10 envelope.
Although there was no first-day ceremony when the envelope was issued September 8, 1988, there was a pictorial first-day cancel in Snowflake, Arizona [Figure 1, above]. Another cover [Figure 2, below] shows an apparent 1986 cancel (almost two years before the envelope was issued), but it was caused by an inverted numeral in the cancellation device.
As a bit of subtext, the USPS has long been trying to find ways to work with Hallmark and other greeting card producers, feeling there were various revenue-generating synergies to be had in conjunction with stamps, stamped envelopes, and other products. In this case, the Snowflake envelope (7½ by 5 inches), did not conform to any industry standard for letter envelopes, because its length was between that of a No. 6¾ and No. 10 envelope, and it was a full inch taller than both.
The original press release stated the Snowflake envelope should be compatible with many sizes of holiday cards. This is all well and fine, but the vast majority of greeting cards are sold with exact-size envelopes, and U.S. stamped envelopes at the time were being sold at a 5-cent premium over face value. There was little incentive to purchase and use a nonstandard- sized envelope for greeting cards when they came free with most purchases and little reason to purchase them for other uses (particularly if they did not fit perfectly), unless one was a collector. Thus, the obvious shortage of proper uses almost 30 years later.
Still, the Postal Service promoted the fact that the U.S. Stamped Envelope Agency (for about an additional halfcent each) would print your personalized return address in black on the envelopes for quantities as small as 50, a service that was a bargain (and the service became even cheaper with larger quantities). Thus, for a cost of about 30.4 cents each, one could have personalized holiday stamped envelopes with postage already affixed (printed) to use for holiday mailings. What the USPS didn’t count on was the fact this information generated little news beyond the philatelic press. Therefore, relatively few people took advantage of the address-printing service.
The bottom line is that relatively few Snowflake envelopes, such as the example shown [Figure 3, above], were purchased and used during the holiday season of 1988. According to information provided by postal stationery specialist Bill Geijsbeek, the Snowflake envelopes were pulled from sale by the USPS shortly after the beginning of 1989 (right after the holiday season).
They were once again placed on sale for the holiday season of 1989, but with a small twist: This time, the return addresses were printed in red, rather than black ink. This brings up another interesting aspect of the production of these envelopes.
The letterpress-applied return addresses on stamped envelopes at the time were provided by computer driven linotype machines. When one ordered envelopes over the phone, the order-taker typed the information into a computer, after which the information was sent to an integrated 1930s-era linotype machine. The linotype found and arranged the type and created a lead plate. This plate was then applied to a small press, which applied the addresses to the envelope and was immediately melted down to create new type. And so on.
Examples of two types of preprinted addresses are shown [Figures 4 and 4b, below]. All are scarce, but the red addresses are far more so.
The printing of the envelopes themselves was done by two-color flexography (a form of letterpress, or raised, printing) on the U.S. Stamped Envelope Agency’s VH machine (named for inventor Vincent Heywood), which begins with blank rolls of paper on one end and delivers finished stamped envelopes at the other. At various times the Stamped Envelope Agency used both rubber and polymer plates, the impressions from rubber being superior, but the plates wore out more quickly.
Determining which type was used on an individual envelope is far more difficult. Either way, as the plates wear, the appearance of the printed image becomes more swollen and distorted, as shown in the comparison images nearby [Figure 5 and 5b, right].
Despite the stark difference of appearance of these envelopes (from opposite ends of the plate-wear spectrum), both are considered to be within the normal realm of production and are not listed in the Scott catalog as varieties. Occasionally, one of the plates was replaced before the other, creating “hybrids” that is: envelopes with worn denomination but fresh snowflake or the reverse. These, too, are considered “normal,” but they are highly collectible varieties.
Another interesting aspect of the Snowflake envelope is the design and typography (lettering). The stylized snowflake design was created by Randall McDougall, who also designed the 1974 ZIP Code and 1984 Crime Prevention stamps. But the typography was custom-created by well-known typographer Bradbury Thompson, who has numerous type styles (both philatelic and non-philatelic) to his credit.
As part of a USPS design, all elements of a stamped envelope are, in theory, covered by USPS copyright. Imagine my surprise when, in 1992 I found the envelope postmarked January 28 [Figure 6, below] in a large batch of incoming company mail. The “Holiday Greetings!” inscription at lower left is a dead ringer for that found on the 25-cent Snowflake stamped envelope.
The difference is that there is no image and no denomination on this cover; a29-cent Flag Over Mount Rushmore stamp was applied. This is not a color omitted error; it is a privately produced envelope. The envelope also has a self-adhesive flap, but is otherwise identical in terms of size and the flexographic printed inscription. I have been unable to determine when the envelope was printed, but I would be willing to bet the “who” was Westvaco (which operated the Stamped Envelope Agency and also produced commercial envelopes). This particular depiction of a typographic representation should have been fully protected under the Postal Service’s copyright. Thompson’s work was created specifically for the Snowflake stamped envelope.
For those interested in collecting the 25-cent Snowflake stamped envelope, thankfully there are no major errors known. However, finding a properly used example — within a contemporaneous time frame of roughly 1988 to 1991 (while they were available and being used) — will set you back $35 to $50, if you can find one.
They are very elusive despite the Scott catalog valuation of $50. Even a used cut square is listed at $20, but would have to display some visual, verifiable evidence of dating. Mint and first day-canceled examples are common and inexpensive. In addition to the previously shown examples here are a few more.
The cover shown in Figure 7 (above) is likely the last of what could be considered a contemporaneous use of the Snowflake envelope. Postmarked October 7, 1991 (that year’s holiday season), the cover bears a 4-cent Make-up Rate stamp (Scott 2521) to cover the rate hike to 29 cents effective February 3, 1991.
Special uses of the Snowflake envelope are particularly scarce and I have found only a few. One of the more unusual of these is shown [Figure 8, above], in which the sender reduced the envelope at left to fit an odd-sized item. By doing so, the sender created a square envelope that is non-machinable. When the cover was mailed May 2, 1989, the non-machinable surcharge was 10 cents, paid in this case with a 10-cent Red Cloud stamp of the Great Americans definitive series.
The cover mailed October 31, 1990 [Figure 9, above], is the only certified use I have seen of the Snowflake envelope. The $1.30 franking reflects a two-ounce piece with the 85-cent certified rate at the time. Finally, although the cover is technically out of period, the last item [Figure 10, below] represents the only registered use I have seen of the Snowflake envelope. Mailed July 22, 1994, the philatelic item bears a total of $5.60; likely $5.30 for material insured up to $4,000, with 29-cent first-class postage. This cover was overpaid by one cent.
Similar to any form of elusive postal history, there are very specific reasons for the scarcity of properly used 25-cent Snowflake stamped envelopes. It is an impractical item that received little use during its period of relevance, even by collectors, and is now (after almost 30 years) becoming the object of philatelic treasure hunts.