Refresher Course

Servicing your own cacheted first-day covers is fun and easy

By Janet Klug

For most of the United States stamps issued each year, a first-day-of-issue postmark is used in a designated city or cities where the stamps are officially issued.

Figure 1. A cacheted first-day cover produced by Elizabeth Ward Carter for the United States 42¢ Sunflower stamp (Scott 4347) issued in 2008. Click on image to enlarge.

The first-day-of-issue postmark, applied to a cover (an envelope or card) on which the new stamp or stamps have been affixed, becomes a wonderful birth announcement for the new issue and an important part of that stamp's history.

Most collectors like to decorate their first-day covers with designs that relate in some way to the stamp. This decoration is called a cachet (pronounced ka-SHAY). Cachets may be hand-drawn or hand-painted, applied with a computer printer, photocopied, created using photographs or a collage of colored papers, printed by some other process or assembled by any creative method the maker can imagine.

Elizabeth Ward Carter, a botanical artist, was working on a sunflower series at the time the 42¢ sunflower definitive stamp (Scott 4347) was issued Aug. 15, 2008. Carter was inspired to make her first cachets using a couple of her exquisite sunflower drawings, one of which is pictured here.

I was surprised when I turned the page of my 2008 wall calendar and discovered that the design for August reproduced one of Vincent van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers.

I scanned the page, printed it on paper and cut and folded the paper into envelope size for an all-over cachet. I serviced the cover on the issue date at the American Philatelic Society Stampshow in Hartford, Conn., where the Sunflower stamp ceremony was held.

Some collectors service FDCs for every new stamp. Others service only those that are of topical interest to them. Making FDCs is a relaxing, creative and fairly inexpensive way to enjoy stamp collecting. It is also a wonderful family activity in which everyone can participate regardless of age or artistic ability.

Teachers, including homeschoolers, find that making FDCs in the classroom is a great way to wed art and history and make both subjects exciting for their students.

The most enjoyable way to get the postmarks on the covers is to attend the first-day ceremony in person. These events are not held for every new stamp, but many are held throughout the year.

A first-day ceremony usually includes speakers and an official who unveils the stamp. Most, but not all, are free and open to the public. A ceremony program that has the stamp and first-day postmark is usually distributed. These, too, are eagerly collected.

When the ceremony is over, there might be an opportunity to get your covers or ceremony programs autographed by those who participated in the event. The lines for autographs can be very long, but it is fun using the time to chat with other collectors.

The Postal Service will have a booth set up to sell the new stamps and apply the first-day postmarks to covers presented to the clerks. This is done on a hand back basis. You are expected to wait your turn in line and then wait while your covers are being postmarked.

If you can't attend the ceremony, you can buy the stamps when they are issued, either at your local post office; through the Stamp Fulfillment Services, Box 419424, Kansas City, MO 64179-0997; or online at www.usps.com/shop.

Affix the stamps to the envelopes you have prepared and send them to the postmaster in the city where the stamps are to be issued. The Postal Service allows customers a grace period of 60 days after the date of issue for submitting covers for servicing.

The steps for preparing a FDC are fairly simple. The most common and preferred size is a No. 6¾ envelope that measures 6¾ inches by 3½ inches. Envelopes of good archival quality paper are difficult to find in this size, but can be ordered through stationery or office supply outlets.

Instead of using envelopes, some cachetmakers cut an 8½-inch by 11-inch piece of archival paper and fold it into the proper size. Templates for making envelopes are available online, or you can just carefully unfold a standard No. 6¾ envelope and use it as a template.

Trace around the opened-out envelope on a piece of paper. Cut around the tracing and then fold the envelope to shape.

Apply the cachet artwork as desired. Some cachetmakers prefer applying their artwork to the covers after the cover has been serviced. That way, if the covers are damaged or lost in transit, hours of work are not lost as well.

Others place their trust in the Postal Service and send their covers complete with cachet. This is necessary if the artwork covers all or most of the envelope and the cachetmaker wants to have the postmark on the top of the design and not beneath it.

Insert a thin cardboard stiffener, called a stuffer, cut slightly smaller than the envelope. The stuffer should be about as thick as a postcard. Many cachetmakers use the space on stuffers to describe the stamps or provide some historical background. The stuffers keep the covers flat and safe.

Place the stamp or stamps on your covers in the upper right corner, leaving a margin of about ¼ inch to ½ inch from the top and right edges of the cover. Each envelope must bear enough postage to pay the first-class letter rate.

FDCs are generally collected unaddressed and there is little or no collector interest in modern addressed FDCs. If you want your FDC to actually pass through the mail, use a peelable label for your address. Most collectors who service more than one cover for a given issue include a stamped, addressed carrier envelope for their return.

The U.S. Stamp Program feature in each issue of Linn's lists the stamps that will be issued in the current year. For stamps not yet issued, Linn's reports the official first-day city including state and ZIP code. Linn's news coverage for each new issue also includes the mailing address for servicing FDCs in the technical details box.

Let's say you have produced cacheted envelopes for the Early Television Memories stamps to be issued Aug. 6.

Purchase the stamps you need when they become available and affix them to your covers. Insert stuffers in the covers and address them if you are not using a carrier envelope for their return. Place your covers into a sturdy mailer. Look in Linn's for the place of issue. In this instance it is North Hollywood, Calif., so you would address the mailer containing your covers as follows: "Early Television Memories Stamps, Postmaster, North Hollywood, CA 91605."

Because the stamps will be issued Aug. 6, you have 60 days from that date to submit your covers for servicing.

If your covers are lost or damaged, you can submit a claim for replacements to Stamp Fulfillment Services. Your claim must describe the damage and include the name of the stamp issue, a description of your cover, quantity, and other identifying features. The Postal Service will replace damaged or lost covers with uncacheted FDCs bearing the stamp and first-day cancel.

Unofficial city FDCs are covers serviced on the first day of issue in cities other than the official first-day city. Now that all U.S. stamps go on sale nationwide on the first day of issue, it is much easier to service unofficial city FDCs. Some post offices have special first-day-of-sale cancellations for servicing unofficial city FDCs.

For more information about making or collecting FDCs, contact the American First Day Cover Society, Box 16277, Tucson, AZ 85732-6277; or visit www.afdcs.org.