Wartime brings out deep emotions, as well as a desire to have some artifact of loved ones before they march off to battle; or, for that matter, for a soldier to have a tangible keepsake of loved ones they may never see again.
From a philatelic standpoint, this was first made abundantly clear during the Civil War, using the then-new medium of commercial photography to capture the images of loved ones.
Millions of cartes de visites (CDVs; small photograph) were created both for soldiers (with images of loved ones back home), and of the soldiers themselves for their families.
During the brief time of the so-called “sun photo tax” (September 1, 1864 to August 1, 1866), these images bear First Issue revenue stamps, with fees based on the size of photo. CDVs, slightly smaller than modern playing cards, were easy to carry and were the most popular. Since the tax came about well after the introduction of the series of revenues, there was no need to create a stamp for photographic images, as all revenue stamps were by then being used for various types of surcharges.
As an example, Figure 1 shows both sides of an 1865 CDV of a formally dressed small child. On the reverse is a 2-cent Proprietary stamp.
Figure 1. A Civil War-era CDV of a small child, possible a keepsake for a father going off to war. The CDV has a 2-cent orange First Issue Proprietary stamp (Scott R14c) affixed to pay the “sun photo tax.”
With that background, let’s fast-forward about 75 years to World War II, when portable recording booths, similar to the example that accompanies this article, were just beginning to appear. Departing servicemen at various locations (such as the New York City Pepsi-Cola Service Center or some USO clubs) could create a sound recording (record) that could then be mailed back home. We’ll focus on a few this month.
Although not rare, nice examples of mailed records (with the mailing envelope complete) are not easily found, but illustrate these particular keepsakes of the war very nicely.
The most common WWII mailed records, in my experience, are Pepsi-Cola-produced records, such as the example shown in Figure 2 and, yes, there are several different collectible varieties.
Figure 2. A World War II keepsake in the form of a mailed record. Although many types exist, those mailed from Pepsi-Cola Service Centers appear to be the most common. Of those recorded by the author, this is Type I.
During the war, Pepsi-Cola ran several canteens in New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, California; they provided meals, showers and other services to active military. One of these services was providing recording booths set up to allow (mostly) men the opportunity to send a recorded message home before shipping out. Traveling recording booths were also sent to other military camps.
In addition to the previously mentioned cities, I’ve found examples of Pepsi records from Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and a fleet post office. The mailing dates I’ve noted (for those that can be established) fall between early 1943 and mid-1945. Although I’ve seen only a photo (not the real thing), there’s a Canadian version of these, too.
As printed on the mailer, the records were to be treated as 3rd Class Matter (merchandise), for which the prevailing rate was 1½ cents, although I’ve seen examples mailed by airmail, special delivery and first class.
It is my understanding that the cost of producing the record and the basic postage were borne by Pepsi, with military personnel paying any additional postage beyond 3rd Class. Each came with a “Notice of Receipt” postcard that could be mailed by families receiving the records. An example is shown in Figure 3; they are uncommon and I’ve never seen a postally used example.
Figure 3. Pepsi records contained “receipt” postcards, such as this one, to be mailed back to Pepsi, likely to build a mailing list for the “free” service.
There are two primary types of the records themselves, shown in Figures 4 and 5. The earliest (and most common) is a plain black disc (78 rpm), with a red, white and blue label. The blanks were provided by RecorDisc Corp., of New York, a now-defunct company that produced blank records for home recording use during the 1940s and ’50s.
Figure 4. The earliest form of Pepsi record had a one-line inscription just above the solid blue area. Later versions either had the line obliterated or (in later printings) eliminated entirely.
Figure 5. This version of the Pepsi record appeared in 1945; it is a two-sided picture disc.
Of these, I’ve noted three types. The first, as shown (Figure 4), bears the inscription “Recorded by the Record Guild of America, New York City, N.Y.,” just above the solid blue area; the second type has this inscription blacked out; the third has it eliminated entirely. This record type exists for those mailed in 1943-45.
Figure 5 shows both sides of the slightly scarcer picture disc type, known from 1945. One side bears photos of the three previously mentioned Pepsi-Cola Centers; the other side features a red, white and blue target design with a note from Pepsi.
Of the mailers, I’ve noted three printing types on thick card and manila paper (several shades of each).
Type I, as shown in Figure 2, is a thick card stock. The red “This is a recorded message from your Man in Service” is printed in large, red lettering. The negative “Do Not Fold” is in a small box below. So far, I’ve found this only on thick card stock.
A Type II mailer (Figure 6) maintains the larger red lettering, but now has a very large “Do Not Fold” tablet at bottom. So far I’ve found this only on thick card stock.
Figure 6. Type II Pepsi record mailer, with large lettering and large blue box.
Type III, shown in Figure 7, features both the smaller lettering and small “Do Not Fold” box at bottom. So far, I’ve found this only on heavy manila paper.
Figure 7. Type III Pepsi mailer, with smaller lettering and small blue tablet at bottom.
A May 27, 1948, postwar example (Figure 8) was postmarked with a U.S. Navy device. It contains the Type II picture disc, but comes from a USO “Home Away From Home.” The envelope is manila, and despite the “Fourth Class” admonition, it is franked with three 5-cent airmail stamps.
Figure 8. This postwar use of a Pepsi picture disc utilized a different type of mailer. While the basic service was the same for service personnel, the USO was likely using up old record blanks.
Of those Pepsi records I’ve encountered, most are franked with a single 1½-cent sheet stamp, but coils are occasionally encountered, as are other interesting uses. The piece shown (Figure 9) was not only somehow censored (the only one I’ve seen to date), but also bears a “Happy Easter” Fleet Post Office (FPO) marking tying a 2-cent Defense issue stamp.
Figure 9. The only example of a censored record known to the author. It also bears a “Happy Easter” Fleet Post Office (FPO) cancellation.
A heavily reinforced example shown (Figure 10) contains five records and bears a single-stamp franking of the 15-cent Prexie, mailed February 19, 1944, which paid the first-class rate for a 5-ounce letter.
Figure 10. A single-franking 15-cent James Buchanan Prexie (Scott 820) pays the 5-ounce first-class postage on this mailer containing five records.
But Pepsi wasn’t the only one in the business of mailing records for service folk during the war.
The American Red Cross also offered service personnel the opportunity to send a record back home.
Figure 11 shows a nurse helping a serviceman record a message from his hospital bed. Figure 12 shows a 1942 example from Denver (Dec. 16), franked with a pair of 2-cent Defense stamps. The record itself is white, with a label matching the cachet on the cover.
Figure 11. A nurse helps a serviceman create a Red Cross recording from his hospital bed in this undated photo.
Figure 12. This Red Cross mailer contains a white record with a label matching the cachet.
Another item (Figure 13) is a bit more of a mystery. It was mailed March 13, 1944 airmail special delivery from Tucson, Arizona. The cover contains a Red Cross record, but was mailed from a “Military Camps Show” sponsored by Shell Oil Co. as the back of the cover shows.
Figure 13. This mailer, also containing a Red Cross record, was sent airmail special delivery March 13, 1944 from Tucson, Arizona. The reverse of the cover identifies it as having been created and mailed from the Shell Oil Co. “Military Camps Show.”
The other large promoter of WWII recordings was the American Safety Razor Corp., producer of Gem razor blades. From what little I’ve been able to divine, Gem set up at several USO clubs with portable recording booths, much like Pepsi did, and mailed out records free of charge for the service personnel.
Most Gem examples I’ve seen, such as the one shown (Figure 14), bear Bureau-precanceled coil stamps from Los Angeles. A couple have hand-stamped coils with indistinguishable postmarks. In each case, the record is a photodisc, both sides of which are shown (Figure 15), along with a paper slip letting the recipient know the record is a unique master recording and should be handled with care.
Figure 14. The American Safety Razor Corp. used its Gem Razor imprint as a wartime promotion for creating and mailing records for service personnel.
Figure 15. The Gem Razor photodiscs, like those created by Pepsi-Cola, feature two-sided images.
Given the poor condition of the vast majority of these wartime keepsakes, they were greatly treasured and played over and over by loved ones who received them and were no doubt even more treasured by the families of those who didn’t return.
There are likely other types of WWII mailed sound recordings out there, as well as other varieties of the types outlined here. A detailed study is ripe for the picking!
The story of mailed sound recordings continues on through the 1970s – at least – but many of these were much more commercial in nature and would be the subject of another story.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
Detroit Edison Philatelic Society. “A Study of V-Mail Envelopes” (Detroit Edison Philatelic Society, n.d.). [G3701 .C873 D483s]
Hotchner, John M. “U.S. Stamp Notes – A Marine Wrote Home by Voice in 1947,” Linn's Stamp News, July 12, 2021.
Hudson, James W. Victory Mail of World War II: V-Mail, The Funny Mail (Philadelphia, PA: Ingram, Baker & Taylor, 2007). [G3701 .M644 H885v]
Kugel, Alfred F. “The US Army and Its Postal Service Abroad During World War II” ([Hinsdale, IL: A.F. Kugel, 2000). [G3701 .M644 K95u 2000 EXHIBIT]
“U.S. Post Office Department under the direction of the Postmaster General. A Wartime History of the Post Office Department: World War II, 1939-1945” (Washington, DC: Post Office Dept., 1951). [G3701 .P859 U58w 1951]