In this April American Philatelist, Notes from the Bottom Drawer
The bottom drawer – figuratively and literally – is where ideas go to mature and develop, or sometimes to wither and die. Either way, there’s a lot of fun stuff there.
Often, when I purchase material, whether it’s a large auction lot, a collection or a small, individual item, I find things I intend to use specifically for the purpose of writing something about at some point. When enough items of a similar nature reach “critical mass,” then they become an area of active acquisition to flesh out into a full-blown feature that is written about here or elsewhere. But what about those items that continue to languish in the bottom drawer, never amassing enough material for a full feature? Some of their stories need to be told as well. This month we’ll feature a few of those items. In many cases, specialists in these areas know far more than me, but these are things I find interesting and unusual.
Figure 1. A neck label from a 12-ounce bottle of Becker’s beer, with a revenue stamp integrated within the label design.
While I don’t consider myself a true revenue stamp specialist, I find a number of state revenue items from time to time that tickle my fancy. Have you ever considered collecting beer bottle labels? The state of Utah has created many revenue stamps that have taken the form of beer bottle labels, but they are very much revenue stamps. Pennsylvania and Kansas also have a few, but the largest number is from Utah, which relied on this system of taxation from 1935-53. There were also a few liquor-label stamps, but these are much scarcer.
Fgure 2. A full-color commercial Olympus beer label, with a tax stamp integrated into the design at lower right.
Oddly, within this area, one must differentiate between neck labels and primary bottle labels. Shown in Figure 1 is a neck label from a 12-ounce bottle of Becker’s beer. When these stamps were first developed, it was the intent to use only neck-label stamps. However, with the variety of different types of bottles (as well as sizes), it was finally decided in 1937 that front labels would be more functional and practical, such as the body label shown in Figure 2, from a 12-ounce bottle of Olympus beer. All of these stamps (nearly 100 face-different types) were privately designed, but had to bear the official state tax stamp, which was applied by the printer, under bond. Because the basic beer bottle label is a commercial product, normal changes of logos, type font, lettering size, bottle size and other adjustments result in easily recognizable varieties to the collector, swelling the number of possibilities considerably. There are also (from several different states) bottle-cap stamps and even cans with the revenue stamp printed on them. I prefer to have a few representative label stamps, however.
While we’re on the subject of alcohol, let’s take a quick look at the long-running television show Cheers, which featured (among many other characters) John Ratzenberger as the know-it-all mailman “Cliff Claven.” Shown in Figure 3 is a still from the show that has been seen by very few collectors or fans of the show.
Figure 3. Letter carrier Cliff Claven, from the television show Cheers, accepts a special award from PMG Anthony Frank in a dream sequence that was never shown.
In early 1990, Postmaster General Anthony Frank (best known for committing USPS to produce an Elvis Presley stamp, against the will of his Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee) was filmed in a cameo scene for the show’s opener. His scene was to be a dream sequence in which he presented Cliff with the “Golden Mailbag” award (visible on the table) as “Postman of the Year,” subsequently setting Claven off on a monologue about bronze. Much to the disappointment of those of us who were notified of the original airdate, the scene was cut at the last minute for unknown reasons and -- to the best of my knowledge -- has never aired, leaving this photo as the sole artifact of Frank’s TV career. Maybe it was just a dream.
Speaking of Cliff Claven, many stamp clubs are known for having created interesting and collectible favors for shows and club meetings, and the Park Forest Stamp Club (Park Forest, Ill.) is no exception. Shown in Figure 4 is an item picturing a caricature of the Cheers Claven character to announce the club’s speaker for March 19, 1991, well-known collector, dealer, auctioneer, exhibitor, judge and APS board member Richard Drews, who was speaking on the U.S. 1861 Issue, one of his many areas of expertise and his longtime passion. Drews autographed the item.
Figure 4. Letter carrier Claven appears on this 1991 meeting notification from the Park Forest Stamp Club of Illinois.
While we’re (slightly) on the subject of letter carriers, take a look at the card shown in Figure 5. It is a rural carrier’s privately printed card, which would have been left in the mail box of a troublesome patron.
Figure 5. Letter carrier M.C. Finley left this notice in the mailbox of a patron who had serious ruts near the mailbox, preventing timely delivery of the mail.
From the late 1800s through the 1920s or so, it was not unusual for rural route carriers to leave cards in mailboxes for Christmas, New Year’s Day and other occasions, or when there was a problem. Although delivered by a mailman, these cards bore no franking, nor official penalty imprint. I suspect they were merely tolerated by postal management. This type of card (a request) is much scarcer than holiday greetings.
In this case, the card points up a large problem with early rural roads (a big enough problem to have a number of cards printed, anyway). “Will you please repair the ruts at your mail box,” the card begins, “The bad condition of many of the boxes makes the prompt delivery of the mail pretty hard on me. Thanking you for helping me in this, I am, your carrier, M.C. Finley.” It is unknown where or exactly when this card was delivered, but judging from the printing, I’d say 1910-15 or so.
Of course, problems with the mail frequently leave interesting artifacts for those of us who collect. Shown in Figure 6 is an unusual cover. Mailed Jan. 1, 1975, from Clinton, Iowa (with a much lighter secondary cancel), the lightly water-damaged cover bears the simple auxiliary marking, “Damaged in an air, rail, truck or ship accident. Beyond the control of the U.S. Postal Service.” The destination was the Smith Oil Corporation of Rockford, Ill.
Figure 6. Although not easily apparent from the cover or its non-specific auxiliary marking, this cover is a survivor of a 1975 plane crash near Rockford, Ill.
A quick bit of research revealed that, on Jan. 2, 1975, a Model E-18 twin-engine Beechcraft, as it was preparing to land, lost altitude rapidly and crashed into a building near the Greater Rockford Airport, setting off the building’s sprinkler system. The craft, which had left Moline, Ill., about a half-hour earlier, was carrying about 45,000 pieces of mail (900 pounds or so) on a regular mail run. One person was killed and two were injured in the crash.
According to one report, the vast majority of the mail was destined for delivery in Rockford. A much smaller amount represented the “rest of the world.” Because the crash mail was wet rather than burned, salvage attempts centered on trying to get it dried out as quickly as possible.
“It’s an awful lot of work,” said one postal official. “We simply spread them [45,000 pieces of mail] out on any free surfaces we can find and let the elements dry them.”
While this cover predates the ubiquitous USPS plastic “body bags” that now carry damaged mail (rarely without any form of explanation), the description of what happened does little more than pique one’s interest. Gone, unfortunately, are the days of very specific auxiliary markings that let us know at a glance what happened, and often where and how. The American Air Mail Society’s American Air Mail Catalogue (Volume 1), lists this cover as No. 750102.
Finally, although there was no apparent delay, the commercial cover shown in Figure 7 must have certainly turned some heads. Addressed to Carol Wright Gifts in 1994, the cover is properly franked with a 29¢ postage stamp (from the 1994 Locomotives booklet issue), but has a die-cut sticker of a skiing pink elephant affixed over the stamp, tying it with the machine cancellation. Although there is enough of the stamp showing to trigger the automatic facer-canceler machines via phosphorescent tagging, enough of the stamp is covered (overlapped) to render this as an illegal use.
Figure 7. The sender of this cover placed a sticker of a skiing pink elephant over the actual postage stamp. The result is an amusing illegal use.
But the real question is, when was the last time you saw a pink elephant skiing – on a cover?
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