My family has a long tradition of letter writing. My mother, gifted with near perfect penmanship, would frequently send friends and relatives notes of encouragement or appreciation – or in my case, when I went away to college, letters with family news and ample advice on life and taking care of myself.
Several years ago, when my son’s career required him to relocate to another state, I found myself mirroring my mother’s habits, but with one twist. Being a long-time stamp collector and devotee of all things philatelic, an interest my son also shares, I realized that each letter I sent him was an opportunity to create an interesting cover. What’s more, having become disillusioned over the economics of the hobby following the experience of selling much of my collection to a prominent dealer, I was looking for a new way to enjoy my cache of remaining unused US stamps. What better way to do that than to use the stamps for their avowed purpose – sending letters!
The author and his family are not only traditional letter writers, but also longtime philatelists — here they are at the 1992 World Columbian Stamp Expo, as seen in the July 1992 issue of The American Philatelist.
Over the ensuing years, I have sent nearly 200 letters to my son using these stamps. I have thoroughly enjoyed designing each cover to be unique, interesting, reflective of history and / or just fun – and he in turn has kept them all in an ever-growing collection. My purpose with this short article is to share with you a few of our favorites.
Since my son lives in Massachusetts, focusing on the pilgrims and the American Revolution was a logical choice of topic. Stamps commemorating the 300-, 350- and 400-year anniversaries of the landing of the Mayflower have all been issued, and as shown in Figure 1, I assembled them all on one envelope. It was enjoyable to see them all used together, since 100 years separated their printing, and the well-centered 2020 cancellation on a 1920 stamp was the icing on the cake.
Figure 1. A cover made with stamps from 1920, 1970 and 2020, (US Scott #s 548, 1420 and 5524) all celebrating the landing of the Pilgrims.
As for patriots and the American Revolution, I grouped a number of related stamps on the cover shown in Figure 2. Here, among others, I used the 25-cent Liberty Series stamp of Paul Revere from 1954, and the one-cent Famous American issue of 1940 showing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – the author of the famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The nice “18th of April” cancellation on the envelope came 247 years to the day after the famous ride.
Figure 2. A patriot-related theme, including US Scott #864 depicting Henry W. Longfellow, cancelled on April 18, 2022 – 247 years after Paul Revere’s famous ride.
The cover shown in Figure 3 began with a conversation about whether any U.S. depicted individuals smoking cigarettes. After searching, I could find only one such U.S. stamp, which was Scott #1950, printed in 1982 and showing President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) smoking with the use of his signature cigarette holder. The cover was rounded out with a variety of other FDR related commemoratives, including US Scott #732 from 1933, in which one individual appears dressed as an FDR look-alike.
Figure 3. A letter mailed using nine different FDR-related issues, including US Scott #1950, showing him smoking a cigarette.
From the outset, I thought it would be interesting to use a stamp from the 19th century on a modern-day cover. The obvious challenge was the value of such stamps versus the amount of postage required to send a letter. After searching for the lowest value unused stamp from the 1800s in my possession, the 2-cent issue from 1895, Scott #267 was the obvious choice. As shown in Figure 4, this was used with others featuring George Washington on a letter which I mailed in 2022. Unfortunately, as is often the case, no dated cancellation was applied by the post office, but the experience of using such an old stamp for its avowed purpose some 127 years after its printing was a memorable moment.
Figure 4. A George Washington-themed cover, mailed in 2022, including US Scott #267, used as postage 127 years after its issue date.
Perhaps our all-time favorite cover is shown in Figure 5. I should point out that my son is extremely bright, so it’s always fun to try to stump him. This cover succeeded! His challenge was to figure out why these particular stamps were chosen. While usually it was the people or images depicted on the stamps that defined the theme, in this case it was the face value of each stamp. The one clue was the small dot drawn in between the first and second stamps (meant to be a decimal point). The sequence of numbers of the stamps, 3.1415… etc., with the last one rounded up, are the first digits of the irrational number pi, which eluded him.
Figure 5. The pi cover, with twelve stamps that show, in order, the initial digits of this irrational number (with the last one rounded up).
Beyond the stamps placed on the letters, the envelope itself can be used to complement a cover theme. Figure 6 shows an envelope made from folded newsprint, to which I applied stamps depicting printing, the press, and education. These were anchored by a stamp with a design I was particularly fond of – Scott #1119, from 1958, commemorating Freedom of the Press. Unfortunately, the letter ended up being cancelled by hand in ink.
Figure 6. Newsprint used as an envelope, bearing stamps relating to newspapers, the press, and education.
Another of my favorite US commemoratives is Scott #1252, the 5-cent issue from 1964, on American Music. This stamp became part of the cover shown in Figure 7. The classic American folk tune Home on the Range was featured in the 1994 Legends Of The West sheet, and along with that stamp, we grouped others showing homes and the range, where “the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play.” The melody line was added to adorn the bottom of the envelope and round the cover out.
Figure 7. A collection of stamps on one envelope showing part of the story of the famous American tune, “Home on the Range.”
In putting these covers together, we were always limited by the amount of “real estate” available on a standard envelope. Figure 8 shows a cover where we were able to place 19 commemorative sized stamps on the face of an envelope – chosen as they all were 3-cent issues of the same or similar violet color. When displayed together, they made the envelope visually striking.
Figure 8. A letter posted with nineteen commemorative stamps, most from the 1930s, all in shades of violet.
I have many more examples, and fortunately, quite a few more stamps to use. There are certainly different ways we can all appreciate and enjoy our postage stamps. Actually using them on letters is one!
Questions? Comments? Pitches? Write to us at [email protected].