One Thousand Stamps, All Different

NOT long ago I read in the newspaper that a man in New York had sold an unused one-cent United States postage stamp for $1975. This stamp, said the article, appeared to the ordinary observer to be exactly similar to the one-cent adhesives we have all been using since 1922. Wherein, then, lay the reason for the extraordinary price it had fetched? I looked up the subject in the catalogue and found that whereas Franklin’s portrait, uncanceled, was worth only one cent if it had ten perforations, the same stamp with eleven perforations was virtually priceless; or, in other words, that the last-named stamp, though known to exist, was so exceedingly scarce that the cataloguer could put no market value on it. How surprising that the Post Office Department had happened to issue a few copies with eleven perforations! How much more amazing that anyone should have detected the magic number of eleven among the millions of ten-notched one-cent stamps in daily use!

Such philatelic romances are not uncommon. There is the case of the Philadelphia junkman who for a few dollars bought several barrels of discarded papers from a banking house. Sorting them over, he found a score of envelopes with strangelooking stamps, which proved to be the rare St. Louis Postmaster issues of 18451847, and these he later sold for more than $5000. Another delightful experience was that of the Washington man who purchased at his local post office some sheets of the first United States air-mail stamps on the day they were placed on sale, May 13, 1918. The face value of each of these stamps was twenty-four cents, and the design showed a blue airplane in a carmine-rose frame. As he walked from the window the purchaser saw to his astonishment that on one sheet of one hundred stamps the airplane had been printed upside down. Showing this sheet to the clerk, he said he would like to buy some more of similar design. There were no more; the printing was an error, and the postal authorities declared the purchaser must surrender his odd sheet. This he refused to do, and when, shortly afterwards, the Department discovered three more incorrectly printed sheets and destroyed them the lucky owner was able to dispose of his unique treasures for $15,000. There’s romance for you!

One more adventure. A neighbor of mine came upon a St. Louis Postmaster stamp of 1847 affixed to an envelope among some old letters in a trunk. This stamp was originally issued in two denominations, five and ten cents. My neighbor’s find was of the latter value; but when he moistened a corner of the stamp and curled it from the envelope he saw on the reverse side a printing of the same stamp of the five-cent denomination. That St. Louis postmaster must have been a thrifty soul. Apparently a customer had asked for a ten-cent stamp. The postmaster had picked up a slip of paper and printed it with the five-cent die; then, noticing his mistake, he had simply turned the slip over and printed the tencent stamp on the other face. So far as is known, he never did this in any other case, with the result that my neighbor acquired a philatelic prize of the first magnitude.

The woods are full of collectors these days, and one wonders wherein lies the fascination for those who do not pursue the business for financial gain. Most boys ride the hobby; in my schooldays I had a stamp collection, which was relegated to the attic when I left home for college. Years passed; I had an attic of my own, as well as a wife and children. Then one rainy Saturday afternoon I happened to stop before the window of a stamp dealer. My eye lighted on a bulky envelope with the legend: ‘1000; All Different.’ I gazed, walked on; then turned back, went into the shop, and bought that bulging packet .

Somehow I had recaptured an ancient thrill. At home I dumped my treasures on my study table and started to sort them. My wife called to me that dinner was ready, called several times. That evening I continued sorting and arranging until long after the rest of the household were in bed.

I dug out my schoolboy collection; I bought loose-leaf albums, a catalogue, a watermark detector, all the paraphernalia. That winter was a red-letter one for me. Of course I could n’t keep my new hobby a secret from my wife, but she was very nice about it; if it amused me, she had no objection — it would n’t be any more expensive than bridge at the club.

Then we moved to the country, and there were new occupations for spare hours, the garden, the garage, the tool shed. No stamp dealers’ windows cajoled me, and my collection — the second vintage — was left unopened on its shelf. Perhaps it would still be gathering dust had not my ten-year-old son said to me, ‘Father, I wish you’d help me collect stamps.’

I grinned. The primitive male instinct! On my next trip to town I bought the latest type of album, the newest catalogue. Homework finished, David and I nowadays put in an hour of pure satisfaction with our stamps. Recently a neighbor dropped in while we were thus engaged. ‘I used to collect them when I was a boy,’ he said, and, sitting down, helped us sort and classify.

A week later I met him on the street. ‘I’ve bought one of those stamp packets,’ he confided. ‘ You know — one thousand, all different. I guess my wife thinks I’m crazy, but she’s going to give me an album at Christmas.’ I felt a new kinship with my neighbor. Then, shortly afterwards, he and I went one evening to a meeting of our Reading Club at the house of a retired colonel. We were the first to arrive, and our host greeted us with ‘Well, what knotty problem have you two been debating?’

‘We were talking of early United States stamps,’ I confessed. ‘I don’t suppose they’re in your line.’

The Colonel grinned. ‘Sit down. You know I like to go to auctions. Well, last year I went to one and the auctioneer held up a slop jar. “What am I offered for this jar and its contents?” he invited. “What are the contents?” I asked. “A lot of old papers,” he said. For sport I bid a dollar, and was finally stuck with the jar at four. I brought it home, feeling pretty sheepish, and my wife said, “What in the world have you got there? ” To put up a front I retorted, “Something very valuable,” and, dumping the contents on the rug, I got down on my knees and made sounds of joy. “They’re postage stamps tied up in little bundles,” I declared, pretending delight. “You can’t do anything with them,” my wife scoffed. “Oh yes, I can,” I said. “There’s the making here of a fine United States collection.” And there was. There were scores of duplicates in that jar, and I’ll give you fellows any you want.’

I think my neighbor and I liked the Colonel even better than we had before.

The gentle hobby is unfortunately being exploited, commercialized. The Philatelic Agency, a branch of the Post Office Department, sold nearly a million dollars’ worth of stamps to collectors last year. There is a craze for first-day covers, envelopes bearing a stamp postmarked with the date on which that particular adhesive was originally issued. The government sent an official to postmark stamps at ‘the world’s most southerly post office,’ Admiral Byrd’s Little America. If the craze continues at its present pace, warehouses rather than albums will be needed by collectors — not by such simple souls, however, as my friends and myself, who seek and find in our hobby escape into a world free from cares.

Mrs. Battle loved ‘a clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigor of the game.’ For her whist table I would substitute a table with an album, a pile of newly acquired stamps, an envelope of hinges. Her card players I would replace by David, our neighbor from across the way, or the Colonel who bid in the slop jar. Then let the wind howl or the snow fall or business be what it will; serenity will enwrap us and no one rise a loser from our game.