Sunday, August 22, 2021

Second Childhood - Postal History Sunday

Here we are, at the seventh day of the week (or the first depending on when you start your week), which means it is time for Postal History Sunday on the Genuine Faux Farm blog.  You are currently reading on the GFF Postal History blog, where I cross post all of the Postal History Sundays and sometimes work on other things that might be a bit heavier on the postal history.

It is our tradition - as part of the opening to a PHS post - that we find a creative way to push our troubles and our worries aside for at least a little while so we can all enjoy something postal history related that I share here.  The idea is that if we do that, we might all learn something new and perhaps find a positive to balance out the weight those troubles and worries add to our lives.

Today's plan?  Put those troubles onto that key ring that most people have.  You know the one!  The key ring where you put the keys you will rarely, if ever, use.  IF you can find that key ring again, when you do, you will probably forget exactly what those worries were for - just like the keys that are sitting there with them!


Like many philatelists or postal historians, I started in the hobby when I was quite young.  I can still recall clearly my perceptions of the hobby, including the feeling that much of the things that I knew existed would always be unattainable.  Always a dream, never a reality.

This is not exactly a new topic for Postal History Sunday as I explored that a bit with the Independent Mail blog back in January of this year.  The difference between that situation and this situation is that I probably figured I would never acquire an example of that Hale and Company letter, even as an adult.  The things I will be sharing today DID become attainable over time and it was just a matter of deciding to pursue it.

Shown above is a letter mailed from Detroit, Michigan to Riga Latvia in September of 1935.  This was sent as a registered letter via surface mail to a foreign country and two 10-cent stamps were used to pay for the postage and the registered mail fee.  

What is surface mail?  Its counterpart would be air mail, which was beginning to get a foothold in the 1930s.  Surface mail was less expensive and could use various modes of transportation via ground and water to get to where it was going.

In the case of the letter above, it likely took a train to a port city, such as New York or Boston, and boarded a ship to Europe.  By the time we get to 1935 there were many options for mail to be carried over the Atlantic and the lack of markings do nothing to help us figure out the route this might have taken.

In 1934, a series of ten stamps were issued to honor the National Parks of the United States.  Each of the ten stamps had a different denomination, from 1 cent (Yosemite) to 10 cents (Great Smokey Mountains).  The stamps on this cover were the denomination that was issued last (put on sale October 8, 1934).  If you have interest in reading more about the background of these stamps, there is an article with large pictures of each denomination offered by the White House Historical Association.

This series of stamps was one that caught my attention early in my collecting endeavors.  As a kid, with a kid's budget, I was pretty much able to acquire things with minimum value, often given to me by relatives.  The National Parks issue of 1934 had a few values that fell under that category, but the 10 cent Great Smokey Mountains stamp was not one of those.  If I recall correctly, it had a catalog value in the neighborhood of  $1.70, which was a relative fortune.  In fact, a nice copy of this stamp was probably my first targeted purchase for my collection.

I think we all have things that trigger early memories and many of us are fortunate to have pleasant memories we don't mind recalling.  This stamp issue does that for me.  And, the ten-cent value has a personal significance.  So, when I came across this particular item from Detroit to Riga at the Great American Stamp Show last weekend, I did not have to think too hard about adding it to my personal collection.

Foreign Letter Mail

Many of the envelopes and mail pieces that feature 1934 National Parks issue stamps are what I would identify as souvenir items or philatelic covers.  In other words, they were placed on a cover to commemorate a particular event (many to commemorate National Parks events - of course) or to feature the first day of issue for the stamp (First Day Covers or FDCs).  The focus of the cover was to create a keepsake rather than to carry something through the mails to someone else. 

I prefer items that had the postage paid by these stamps with the purpose to carry the contents in the mail.  In addition to my desire to find examples of regular letter mail using these stamps, I prefer items that went to another country other than the United States, such as the item shown above that was sent to Winterthur, Switzerland from Jackson, Michigan.

The United States was among those countries that joined the General Postal Union at its inception.  The letter rate for surface mail to other participating nations was set at 5 cents per 15 grams on July 1, 1875.  The General Postal Union became the Universal Postal Union, and the UPU continued to refine the postal agreement, resulting in some changes in those rates.  As of October 1, 1907, the cost was now 5 cents for a letter weighing no more than 20 grams.  

An item that qualifies for the first weight level for a postal rate is often referred to as a "simple letter."  The rate for a simple letter would not change again until November 1, 1953.

The letter shown above was postmarked in 1935, so it must have qualified as a simple letter.

You might notice that the postage stamp, featuring Old Faithful at Yellowstone, includes a bit of the selvage (the border around a sheet of stamps) and the printing plate number.  This tells me that it is likely that either the sender or the recipient (or both) were interested in or had some knowledge of philately (stamp collecting).  There are collectors who collect items that include the selvage with a plate number intact

That, in and of itself, does not make this a philatelic cover because it does properly pay the rate and there are no further markings that attempt to turn the cover into a souvenir item.  But, it is fairly safe to say that most uses of this series were probably the result of a person being aware of someone who collected stamps.

The general public would be more likely to use postage stamps that might look more like this one.

The National Parks issue is typically classified as commemorative stamps.  Their counterpart would be definitives, just like the 5 cent Washington stamp shown above.  Definitive stamps were often issued as a series with multiple denominations and a single design was typically maintained for many years.  Commemoratives, on the other hand were printed over a much shorter period of time and, frankly, were intended to attract stamp collectors - especially those who wanted to keep copies of each design without using them on mail. 

How Heavier Letters Were Handled

The other interesting feature about the new surface mail postage rates to foreign countries in 1907 was that the amount for each additional unit of weight after the first was actually LESS than the first unit of weight.  Prior to this point, the cost was 5 cents for every 20 grams in weight.

As of the 1907 rate change, an item weighing no more than 20 grams (a simple letter) would still cost five cents.  But, each additional 20 grams of weight only added 3 more cents to the postage.

This piece of letter mail sent from Woonsocket, Rhode Island to Yonne, France must have weighed more than 20 grams, but no more than 40 grams.  The cost?  Five cents for the first 20 grams and three more cents for the next 20 grams for eight cents in total.  This postage was paid by four of the 2 cent stamps from the National Parks issue.

The two-cent National Parks issue features the Grand Canyon.  Once again, I would not be surprised if the sender or receiver was a stamp collector.  There is selvage at the bottom of the stamps that was not removed.  And, the choice of a block of four 2-cent stamps to a person that is likely related to you implies (at least to me) that the individual was hopeful the envelope would come back to them at some point in the future after it had done its job carrying a letter overseas.  Or perhaps, the selection of stamps was because the recipient was known to collect.  Either way, the letter carried mail properly and the envelope does not carry additional adornments, so it interests me as a postal artifact.

Please note, I am not denigrating anyone who enjoys collecting philatelically inspired postal items such as FDCs or event covers.  There is plenty in that area to explore and enjoy.  The difference is merely that they don't interest me as much as the items in this post do.  We all have to set our boundaries and priorities.  In fact, you will find that I even make exceptions for this self-imposed guideline as can be seen in the PHS post titled Visiting the Arctic Circle and this one titled Personal Connections!

For me, a good story or a personal connection can change my mind about a particular item quickly enough.

Registered Mail

Persons who wanted to send items of value in letter mail had the option of using Registered Mail to pay for additional tracking by postal agencies as the item traveled through the various mail services.  The first such rate established by the Universal Postal Union was 10 cents on April 1, 1879.  This was increased to 15 cents on December 1, 1925, which is where it stayed until 1945 (it then increased to 20 cents).

The letter shown above was mailed in 1936 from New York City to Whitstable, England.  Five copies of the four-cent stamp were used to pay a total of 20 cents in postage (just like the first cover I shared in this post).  These stamps paid five cents for the price of a simple letter using surface mail because the letter weighed no more than 20 grams.  Fifteen cents were charged for the Registered Mail services.

As a side note, the registration fee did not change based on the weight of the item, even while the letter weight did.  So, if the previous letter had been registered, it would have required 8 cents for letter mail postage and 15 cents for registration (23 cents total).

If you look at the center left of the cover shown above, there is a purple handstamp that says "REGISTERED" and a registry number is placed just below that marking (226057).  In addition to those markings, a blue cross was placed on the front to give mail handlers another visual clue that this item was to be given registered mail services.  This cross is prevalent in mail that was carried at some point by the British mails, but it not necessarily seen on US mail items - so we can conclude it was likely added by a clerk in the British mail system.

The same can be said for the blue marking on the back of the cover shown below.  Yes, that is also supposed to be a "cross," but I think the clerk had more than one of these to process and wasn't feeling particularly interested in precision at that moment.

Since registered mail often carried items of value, registry markings were often placed over the area where the flap adheres to the rest of the envelope.  The idea was that if someone tried to open the envelope one would notice disturbance in the markings.  This is akin to the old wax seals that were applied in earlier mail.  Of course, this letter was not opened by tearing open the flap.  Instead, an end of the envelope was slit with a knife or letter opener - so this security feature was a bit of a moot point in that regard.

The four-cent stamp features Mesa Verde in Colorado.  

This cover adds a level of interest with the docket that reads "via S/S Lafayette" at the lower left side of the envelope.  The Lafayette was the first diesel powered ship in the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique's (CGT) fleet.  It was placed into service in 1929 or 1930, The Great Ocean Liner site reads unclear as to which year that would be and I did not feel compelled to dig further at the current time.  If someone else feels that they want to know more and they figure it out, feel free to share with me and I can add it in.

images taken from the Great Ocean Liner site linked in the paragraph above on 8/18/21

The typical sailing routes for CGT were to leave New York, stop in Plymouth or Southampton in the UK and then terminate the sailing at Le Havre in France.  So, it makes sense that mail destined for the British mails would offload at either Plymouth or Southampton rather than continuing on to France.  Unlike mail in the 1860s, there are no exchange markings for the arrival of the mail, so we would have to find evidence in the newspapers for the arrival of the Lafayette in either Plymouth or Southampton to figure out how this letter got to the United Kingdom.

All four of the envelopes shown today were acquired just last weekend, so my motivation for sharing them now is fairly high.  Perhaps I will follow this post up at some time in the future and show other National Parks issue items that have come my way over the years.  It is not a very big collection, but it is one that makes me feel like a kid again.  That, in itself, is enough reason to justify the time spent on them.


Thank you again for joining me for this week's Postal History Sunday.  I suspect I will find myself back in the 1860s (or something around that time) in next week's blog, but I can certainly be convinced to take things in other directions. Feel free to contact me in comments or via email if you have thoughts, suggestions and, as always, corrections.

Additional Resources

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum created a series of media items under the title Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks.  These media items highlight things shown in their 2016 exhibit on this topic.

The National Postal Museum also provides large photos and decent descriptions of postage stamps issued by the United States.  This link will take you to the National Parks issue descriptions and photos.

This article by Paul Lee for the Rocky Mountain Philatelic Library in 2015 gives an overview of what a person could look for if they wanted to collect stamps and postal history based on a National Park theme.

This thread on the Stamp Community discussion board features one collector's focus on stamp essays and First Day Covers.  There isn't much on postal history there, but it is still a fine example of how collectors often share their knowledge with other collectors.

Addendum - the Demise of the Lafayette

The Great Ocean Liner site referenced above gives a more complete story of this diesel-powered ship.  However, it was pointed out to me that the Lafayette met its demise on May 4 of 1938 while it was receiving repairs in drydock at Le Havre, France.  The site includes the picture above of the ship while it was aflame.  Since I often include details like this in my posts, I agree that I should have included it here!

Have a great remainder of the day and an excellent week to come.

And here's to forgetting where you put that key chain!

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