This is the first in a monthly series by Charles Epting called "The Letter Opener." Come along for the ride!
I’m not sure there’s a phrase in philately that seems so self-explanatory, yet embodies such complexities, as “postal history.” I used to tell people I collected postal history when in fact all I was doing was chasing down mass-produced commemorative covers. These covers are beautiful and mean a lot to me, but they’re not postal history. Likewise, first day covers and their ilk are not postal history. I think that is the first most important lesson, and one that I often hear people get wrong: postal history is not synonymous with covers.
It is easy to say what postal history is not — but what is postal history? The term itself comes from the great British philatelist Robson Lowe, and is generally meant to include the study of rates, routes, markings, and means of transportation.
I like to think of postal history as the investigative journalism of philately: How did the cover reach its destination? Who carried it along the way? When was it sent and when did it arrive? Where did it transit through? What do the different postmarks indicate? Once we can answer these questions, we can consider ourselves a postal historian.
Figure 1. This cover, mailed by Mark Twain to his publisher, demonstrates the intersection of postal history and social philately. Although the use of a 2-cent stamped envelope and postage due stamp are not remarkable in and of themselves, the fact that the envelope contained a letter severing ties between Twain and Osgood helps to add to its story.
I also want to distinguish between postal history and another blossoming field, social philately. Social philately contextualizes a cover in the larger framework of the non-philatelic world. Take, for example, the Figure 1 cover mailed by Samuel L. Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). From the standpoint of pure postal history, this cover is nothing special. A 2-cent stamped envelope paying the 2-cent first class letter rate is as mundane as can be to the postal historian. But the fact that the envelope contained a letter from Twain severing ties with his publisher after several financial failures, that’s social philately.
Back to postal history. The more obsolete mail becomes in the modern world, the more difficult it is to comprehend practices that were once commonplace. Advertised mail is a perfect example (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Postmasters in the 19th century would place advertisements in local newspapers informing recipients of uncollected mail at the post office. This service typically cost the addressee 1 cent; if the letter remained uncollected it would be forwarded to the Dead Letter Office. Although unheard of today, this practice was commonplace for decades.
Through much of the 19th century, one had to collect their mail at the post office as home delivery was not yet widespread. If a letter was not called for in a certain period of time, the postmaster would place an advertisement in the local newspaper to inform the recipient. In today’s world, where the threat of identity theft is seemingly lurking around every corner, I do not think that publishing such a list of names in the newspaper would be looked upon favorably. But for decades, this was merely standard operating procedure.
Likewise, if someone in America wanted to send a letter to Europe in the mid-19th century, he would have to check the day’s newspaper to see which ships would be departing when. Sometimes, the particular ship that carried your mail determined the postage. Around 1839, it was twice as expensive to send a letter by steamship as it was by sailing vessel. Missing a particular ship might mean that a letter took a completely different route. The amount of planning that went into mailing a single letter is wholly incomprehensible today.
So, why is postal history important, then? Why should we care about the practices of postal clerks centuries ago, or what postmarks they used, or whether a letter was carried by steamboat or railroad? If it’s not directly relatable to our lives today — and if we’re being honest, none of us will ever have to worry about advertised letters or steamship timetables — what is the point?
The answer to that is simple. Postal history IS American history. Whenever people established a new community, one of the first priorities was setting up a post office. How else would once far-flung places such as Chicago and Green Bay and San Francisco have been able to develop if they were not connected to the rest of the nation? A robust postal service allowed America to grow, and in turn, America’s growth fundamentally changed the way the postal service operated.
Early Americans understood the need for efficient communication.
The American postal system was established under Benjamin Franklin on July 26, 1775, nearly an entire year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Post roads created during the colonial days are still in use as highways today. From Robert Fulton’s steamboat Clermont in 1807 to the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 to the Wright Brothers’ Model B biplane, technological advancements developed hand-in-hand with the delivery of the mail. It is impossible to tell the story of America without telling the story of its post office.
Each month I will take one concept from the field of postal history and explain it in a way that is both engaging and useful.
There are many times in my own professional life when I have to turn to decades-old literature to understand what a particular postal marking or term means. I want to change that. I will provide an introduction to the many different directions one can take a postal history collection, while also providing additional resources for those who want to dig deeper. In short, I want to bring postal history to life in a way that is currently lacking.
I invite you to join me on this journey as we explore the depths of postal history from a (mostly) American perspective. I think you’ll be surprised by just how much there is to learn.
Charles Epting is the President of H.R. Harmer Fine Stamp Auctions in New York City. During his time with the firm he has handled a number of significant specialized postal history collections, having conducted the sale of over $25 million worth of stamps and covers before his 30th birthday. Epting has spoken to the Royal Philatelic Society London, the Collectors Club (New York), the Collectors Club of Chicago, and numerous other philatelic organizations, and his articles have appeared in many of the leading journals. As one of the hobby's youngest professionals, Epting is committed to bringing new life to the study of our nation's postal past.
Read Charles' other article here.