Sunday, March 21, 2021

For What Ails You - Postal History Sunday

Once more you find yourself visiting the GFF Postal History blog to read the most recent edition of Postal History Sunday.   If you are new here, you are most welcome!  If you are returning, you know what to do!  Please grab a snack and a beverage and pull up your favorite chair to join the rest of us.  Maybe we'll learn something new?

Oh - and before we get started, we need to take those worries and troubles and spread them on the bottoms of your shoes.  Put those shoes on and walk around outside for a few minutes until you've successfully wiped them off and you can't recognize them anymore.

There - now we're ready!


The 1893 Columbian Issue

Like so many collectors of United States stamps, I always held the 1893 issue that commemorated the landing of Columbus as something I would love to obtain a complete set of someday.  This is a tall order because there are sixteen different stamps in the group and the last five have denominations of $1 through $5.  That translates to a significant chunk of change if you want to collect a whole set.  Why?  Well, they don't cost a couple of dollars anymore - they can cost a lot of dollars!

The most common denomination is the 2 cent stamp.  There were lots and LOTS of these printed and you can find pretty much as many of them as you would like if you wish without spending much money at all.  And, if you would like to collect postal history with that stamp, you can do just fine on a shoestring budget.

For example, here is a fairly common piece of mail from Stoughton, Wisconsin to Madison mailed in the 1890s.  I like it because we used to live in Madison and we had friends living in Stoughton.  There's a personal connection which makes it a little more interesting for me.

I have a long-standing goal to see if I can find a piece of postal history showing each of the Columbian stamps that have a denomination UNDER the $1 value.  I suspect I won't allow myself to spend what it would take to get those with $1 and up denominations - and I am okay with that.  And, the majority of the items with dollar values fail to show payment of an actual postage rate.  They were often mailed to a collector and overpaid the postage needed.  That typically doesn't interest me either.

After all, there is enough of a challenge (and reward) finding the lower value stamps properly paying a postage rate as it is!

Along Comes the Otis Clapp & Son Correspondence

If you are a postal historian, you recognize that we owe a debt to those who kept all of their old envelopes and wrappers and we owe an equal debt to the subsequent caretakers of this material who eventually allowed someone else to take them for collecting purposes rather than burning them!

Recently, there have been a fair number of items coming out that were addressed to or sent from Otis Clapp & Son.  Most of the material appears to be the address and postage portions of packages that were wrapped in the typical brown paper used for parcels at that time.

Above is a package front addressed to Otis Clapp & Son of Providence, Rhode Island.  Total postage is 45 cents, including a 30 cent and 6 cent Columbian issue stamp.

Unfortunately, the mute cancels are smudged and unreadable if they had any words on them in the first place.  And, since there is no return address on this package piece we cannot ascertain where it was mailed from, nor can we be absolutely certain as to the year it was mailed.  However, it is a fairly safe bet that this item was mailed in 1893 simply because the 1 cent and 2 cent issues are from the stamp series that was commonly found at post offices from 1890 to 1893.  A new series of these with slightly different designs was issued in 1894.  The stamps with most common use (such as these low value stamps) tend to make their appearance on postal history items closer to their dates of issue.  If this package were mailed in 1895, for example, we would expect the designs of the 1 and 2 cent stamps to match that new series.

Wait!  You want to know what I mean by a "mute cancel?"  

Let me remind you of this stamp:

The oval cancel has city name "Boston" across the top.  If you look at the oval cancels on the package wrapper, you will see no indication as to the town and there doesn't appear to be a date either.  They have nothing to say - hence they are mute.  It's not my term, but it is the one used in the hobby to indicate that no city or date is included in the postal marking.

Internal Fourth-Class Mail 1879-1912

Since these are package fronts, we cannot be certain, but it is a good, educated guess, that the contents fit the definition of fourth-class mail.  Essentially, anything that was not classified as first, second or third class mail fell into this final class of items that could be sent via the postal service.  This included various merchandise, including the types of materials Otis Clapp and Son might ship out or receive. 

The rate was very simple - 1 cent for every ounce up to 4 pounds and was effective from May 1, 1879 to December 31, 1912.  Thus, the item above would have weighed 45 ounces (2 lbs 13 oz)

A similar, third-class mail rate was 1 cent for every 2 ounces and was applied to all types of printed matter packages, such as books, circulars and newspapers.  It too, had a 4 pound limit, which eliminates it as a possibility for the package front shown above (at this rate, it would have weighed over five pounds).

The item shown above is franked only by a 15 cent Columbian stamp and is likely an example of a 15 ounce package mailed at the fourth-class rate.  However, we cannot rule out the possibility that this was printed matter carried in a wrapper - and it could have been a third-class rate.  We'll never know for certain, and that's just the way things are sometimes!

There are two options to describe this one:

  1. It was a catalog or some such printed item that weighed 30 ounces and was mailed as a third-class mail item.
  2. It was merchandise of some sort that weighed 15 ounces and was mailed at the fourth-class rate.

Thirty ounces is a pretty hefty catalog for a specialized company like J. Ellwood Lee and Co, so my guess is that this was also a fourth-class mail item.

Unlike the first item, we have no other other clues to help us determine a likely year of mailing and just like the first item, we have no postmarks that will help us.  However, a quick history of the J. Ellwood Lee Company gives us an idea that, perhaps, we should not be surprised if it was used somewhere in the 1893-1894 period.

J. Ellwood Lee Co

The J Ellwood Lee Company of Conshohockem, Pennsylvannia (say that town name three times fast!) was a well-known supplier of medical supplies, such as rubber gloves, ligatures, rubber tubing, as well as other medical equipment.  

John Ellwood Lee was born in 1860 and started the business in the attic of his parents' home in 1883.  By the time the Columbian Exposition came around (the time when the Columbian stamps were issued) in 1893 his company was quite well established.  J Ellwood Lee Company won five gold medals against international competition at the fair.  The company's involvement in the exposition doesn't make it hard to see why Columbian issue stamps might be on some of their mailings.

This article on the Pennsylvania Heritage site can provide more detail on J Ellwood Lee if you find that interesting. 

Oddly enough, Johnson & Johnson (yes, that Johnson & Johnson) purchased J. Ellwood Lee Company in 1905, placing Ellwood Lee onto its board of directors. 

Supposing this package held rubber tubing (not a bad guess giving Otis Clapp & Son's activities), 15 ounces could have held a decent bit of tubing.  Below is an invoice (that I do not own) that was on an online auction site.

The invoice shows an 1894 purchase of reels of silk - presumably used for stitches.  Given Otis Clapp & Son's focus as a pharmaceutical business and the advertising on the front, I think it more likely that the second package front carried some sort of rubber tubing.

Antikamnia Chemical Company

Above is an item that bears 51 cents in postage to carry a package that must have weighed three pounds and three ounces of weight.  Unlike the other two, this one was sent from Otis Clapp & Son to a customer in St Louis, Missouri - the Antikamnia Chemical Company.

Once again, we have a 1 cent stamp from the 1890-93 definitive issue that encourages me to believe that this, too, is an 1893-94 mailing.

The Antikamnia Chemical Company (established 1890) was known for its powder and tablet products to reduce pain.  The main ingredient, acetanilid, was sometimes mixed by this company with other active ingredients such as codeine, heroin and quinine.  The initial efficacy of acetanilid rested on a single German study of 24 patients, but the company is known for prolific advertising to maintain sales even after running afoul of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  

More may be read if you locate the second resource in the "Resource Section" at the end of this blog.

The bookmark shown above is not in my possession and was found as an offering on Etsy.  A person could also find advertising covers for this firm if there was interest.

Otis Clapp & Son

Otis Clapp first opened his retail homeopathic pharmacy in 1840 and the company Otis Clapp & Son was still operating until it was purchased in 2008.  Oddly enough, you can find the company advertising various homeopathic remedies over a long span of time AND you can find it listed as a publishing company.

By all accounts, Otis was a remarkable individual, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, is listed as a founder for M.I.T., the Boston Female Medical College and an orphanage. 

Otis' son was also quite remarkable.  Dr. J. Wilkinson Clapp was as professor of pharmacy at the Boston University Medical School and put emphasis on research.  A decent outline of their history can be found at the Sue Young Histories site.  Sadly, the old Otis Clapp company site with the company history has been taken down, so I can no longer reference it.

Apparently, Otis Clapp bottles are a fairly popular collectors item.  These bottles were found on the Antiques Navigator site. 

What I find interesting in all of this is the connections these three pieces of postal history make within the medical and pharmaceuticals fields.  Clearly, Otis Clapp & Company was populated by exceptional people and the early stories surrounding that company are generally positive.  Similarly, J Ellwood Lee was seen in a good light - even by employees well after he could have been excused from personal interaction with the workers.  In both cases, the primary players saw significant success while being regarded as good and honorable individuals.

On the other hand, the founders of the Antikamnia Chemical Company could be said to have found financial success, but there is some question about the ethics and quality that went along with it all.  It could be interesting to uncover how Clapp and Lee might have felt about Antikamnia. 

But, perhaps we should get back to the postal history stuff now?

Why the Ugly Cancellations?

The postal markings available to us on these parcel fronts are far from helpful to the postal historian.  However, they did the job they were intended to do - deface the postage stamps so they could not be re-used.  

Most third and fourth class mail items were struck with cancellation devices that did not include a date and sometimes did not even indicate a city/town of origin.  In the fine book by Beecher and Wawrukiewicz (see resources), they suggest that these 'mute' cancels purposefully eliminated the date to not call attention to the speed of delivery of this type of mail.  

We need to remember that all sorts of things were being mailed in fourth-class.  Sometimes an item would simply have a mailing tag tied to it.  With all of the different sizes and shapes, shipping could provide some interesting puzzles for the postal service.  It is no wonder that it might take longer and it is understandable that they did not want to give customers any additional ammunition to complain about the speed of delivery.

Not all of these cancels were perfectly mute - often giving a town name.  It is possible these markings had such text, but I can't make it out if they did.

As far as the quality of the strikes are concerned, we can also surmise that the package surface was rarely as stable as a flat letter on a solid surface would be.  It does not take much of an experience with a stamping device to figure out exactly how hard it is to get a clean strike on an unevenly supported surface.


Thank you so much for joining me for this edition of Postal History Sunday!  

Some of you might take note that a prior version of this post appeared in the GFF Postal History Blog in November of 2020.   I took the time to add to the introduction and edit to make it more accessible to a wider audience - hopefully so anyone could read this and enjoy!

Have a great remainder of the weekend and I hope your upcoming week goes well!


H. Beecher and T. Wawrukiewicz, US Domestic Postal Rates, 1872-1999, 2nd ed.  ( a newer, third edition to 2011 is now available) 

Fiedler, William C. (1979). "Antikamnia: The Story of a Pseudo-ethical Pharmaceutical". Pharmacy in History. 21 (2): 59–72

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