By Rick Miller
In most countries, when a first-class mailpiece is undeliverable as addressed, it is returned or forwarded. If there is no return address on the outside of the mailpiece or the return address is invalid, the mailpiece is forwarded to the dead letter office.
It is then the job of the dead letter office to open the mailpiece and look for clues to aid in delivering the mailpiece or in returning it to sender.
The dead letter office predates the use of adhesive postage stamps.
In the United States, the second Continental Congress created the position of inspector of dead letters to open and examine undeliverable mail. Ebenezer Hazard was the first to hold the office. In 1825, the U.S. Post Office Department established its dead letter office in Washington, D.C. By 1893, the dead letter office was handling more than 20,000 items daily.
In much of the rest of the English-speaking world, the dead letter office is known as the returned letter office.
Today the U.S. Postal Service maintains mail recovery centers in St. Paul, Minn., Atlanta, Ga., and San Francisco, Calif. More than 200 clerks work in the three facilities. The centers annually process more than 98 million letters and 1.2 million packages. Undeliverable letters are shredded and recycled. Undeliverable bulk mail is recycled by local post offices.
Canada Post maintains national undeliverable mail offices in Scarborough, Ontario, and North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Undeliverable items mailed to Canada from other countries are returned to the country of origin. Undeliverable domestic mail is destroyed.
In Great Britain, all undeliverable mail is directed to the National Return Letter Centre housed in a warehouse in Belfast, Northern Ireland. More than 300 postal workers there sort through about 60 million items a year, forwarding them to the correct address or returning them to sender. Letters that still cannot be delivered are usually held for three months before being recycled.
In the past, undeliverable envelopes or cards were often sold as scrap, or they found their way into dealer or collector hands through the backdoor of the dead letter office.
An undeliverable Australian letter mailed June 30, 1949, from Hobart, Tasmania, to Broken Hill, New South Wales, is shown in Figure 1.
A Broken Hill receiving postmark and directory stamp were applied to the envelope to the right of the address. The Broken Hill post office forwarded the undeliverable letter to the Sydney, New South Wales, dead letter office. The handstamp of the Sydney dead letter office examiner was applied just below the Hobart meter stamp.
The opening of undeliverable mail by the dead letter office gave rise to a need to a way to reseal the envelope that showed that it had been officially opened and resealed.
Post office seals are labels without postal value. They have been used to officially seal registered mail, mail received at the post office in unsealed condition, mail damaged in transit, mail opened by the dead letter office and mail opened by mistake.
In addition to post office seals produced by national postal authorities, some post office seals were locally produced.
World post office seals were listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue until the 1897 edition, when most of them were dropped.
U.S. official seals are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, with catalog numbers prefixed with the letters "OX."
Post office seals of Canada and Newfoundland are listed in the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940.
The earliest recorded on-cover use of an official seal is on a letter mailed Sept. 29, 1864, from Gravesend, England, to Naples, Italy. The front and back of the cover, which belongs to post office seal expert Jim Kotanchik, is shown in Figure 2.
The back of the cover was torn in transit. The tear was sealed using the upper half of an earliest type of Italian official seal. The seal is inscribed "REGIE POSTE ITALIANE" (Royal Italian Post) between the concentric circles of the frame. The blank circle inside the frame provided space for the application of a postmark, although one was not applied in this case.
Other early producers of official seals were Denmark in 1878; Canada in 1879; Chile, Japan, and Mexico in 1885; El Salvador and New Zealand in 1890; Hong Kong in 1894; and Siam in 1895. Postal seals have been produced and used by more than 100 countries.
Representative post office seals from Cuba, Japan, China and Manchoukuo are shown in Figure 3.
Post office seal designs range from utilitarian typeset labels to those with elaborate engraved designs that are arguably as beautiful as any postage stamp.
A relatively plain Peruvian official seal is shown in Figure 4. The seal's utilitarian design makes do with a plain frame, the Peruvian coat of arms and the inscription "Correos del Peru, Cierre Oficial, Adherido por haberse recibido en mal estado" (Peruvian Post Official Seal Applied after having been received in a bad state).
The design of the Chilean red official seal shown in Figure 5 is quite a bit more elaborate. A postmark could be applied in the blank area at the center of the seal's design.
Two of the most elaborate and beautiful post office seals are shown in Figure 6. The Newfoundland black on blue King Edward VII post office seal (Scott OX1) issued in 1905 is shown at left. The Canadian black Queen Victoria post office seal (OX3) issued in 1907 is shown at right. Both of these post office seals were for use by the dead letter office and are so inscribed.
The first U.S. post office seal was issued in 1872. This green registry seal (Scott OXFl), shown in Figure 7, was used to prevent tampering with registered letters while they were in transit. The seal was affixed over the flaps of the large official envelopes in which registered mail letters were enclosed.
In 1877, the U.S. Post Office Department developed an official seal for use on letters opened by the dead letter office. The brown Liberty post office seal (Scott OX1), shown in Figure 8, has the Latin phrase "Post Obitum&quto; (after death) repeated endlessly in the background behind the frame and inscriptions. In practice, very few of these seals were used by the dead letter office, with most being used as general seals.
In 1879, a general-use official seal was produced using the same design but with the "Post Obitum" background omitted.
The standard work on U.S. official seals is The Post Office Seals of the United States by Adam Perkal and Seymour Kazman.
The Official Seal Newsletter is a quarterly publication for collectors of worldwide post office seals and tapes, dead letter labels, currency control seals, telegram seals, registration seals, and explanatory labels. An annual subscription to the newsletter is $20. Write to Jim Drummond, 19335 Pauma Valley Drive, Porter Ranch, CA 91326.
Officially Sealed Mails of the World, an interesting and informative website by Todd Hirn, is located at www.poseal.com.
August 01, 2015 07:37 PMIt didn’t take long for the doom-and-gloomers to weigh in with their prognostications following the July 24 announcement from the American Philatelic Society that it hired former political aide Scott English to be the next executive director of the nation’s largest stamp club. Read More ›
July 30, 2015 08:04 PMIn the Editor’s Insights columns in the July 20 Linn’s Stamp News monthly and the Aug. 10 weekly Linn’s, I mentioned Linn’s Editorial Advisory Board without giving too much detail. Linn’s goal is to engage its audience both in print and online and to grow this audience. The role of the newly formed Linn’s Editorial Advisory Board is to assist us achieving these goals by keeping us focused on the needs of our audience and helping us adapt to today’s market. Read More ›
July 30, 2015 09:01 AMAs in previous years, Rarities Week, the series of sales conducted June 22-26 by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries in New York, included several name sales as well as an assortment of notable items from around the world. The week kicked off with something of a do-over: a sizable assortment of better United States stamps and covers that had appeared in four previous sales, but whose winning bidder then failed to pay for them. Read More ›
July 23, 2015 04:35 PMThe Tieton, Wash., post office is a simple 1935 cement block building with a slat wood facade. Townsfolk in the agricultural community of 1,200 in central Washington believe the post office could become a landmark, if only the United States Postal Service would allow them to cover the front with a stamp-like mosaic. Read More ›
Watch as Scott catalog senior editor Marty Frankevicz discusses the largest souvenir card produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The card is one of three issued to honor the centenary of San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News associate editor Michael Baadke discusses Canada’s recently recalled $1.20 Dinosaur Provincial Park stamps featuring inaccurately described Hoodoo rock formations.
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News editorial director Donna Houseman discusses the discovery of another pane of the intentionally created upright variety of the $2 Jenny Invert stamp.
Chad Snee discusses the recent sale of the glass locket containing the famed 1918 Jenny Invert airmail error stamp.
It is always a treat to get to see stamp dealers’ own collections.
In the recently concluded Linn’s United States Stamp Popularity Poll, the Circus Posters set of eight stamps was chosen as the overall favorite issue of 2014.
Dispersal of the splendid Daniel B. Curtis collection continued March 25, with Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries gaveling items from United States back-of-the-book and possessions.
The 175th anniversary of the first postage stamp, Great Britain's Penny Black, is May 6, but the stamp was placed on sale May 1, 1840, for mailers to use beginning on May 6, the designated issue date.