Refresher Course

Do you know the important parts of a cover?

By Michael Schreiber

The word "cover" refers to an envelope, postal card or similar item that has been mailed or that bears a postal marking or postal imprint. Stamp collectors and cover collectors have much in common, including a desire to collect attractive objects that are in good condition.

The characteristics of a cover may vary greatly in condition. Collectors generally seek out the best examples of each. Click on image to enlarge.

Stamp collectors don't much care for damaged stamps, and cover collectors aren't very fond of tattered covers, although there are exceptions for both stamps and covers. Many collectors have fun seeking covers that show how a stamp was properly used or how a specific postal rate was fulfilled. In many cases, a postage stamp, even a common one, has more value if it is kept on a cover than if it is soaked off and placed into an album.

Many cover collectors learn all they can about postal history, finding out about how specific stamps were used to mail letters at different rates and during different periods. Other collectors look for covers that relate to social history, including covers picturing advertising or covers that were sent from a war zone or by foreign occupation forces.

First-day covers (FDCs) bear a postmark stating the day a stamp was issued and usually where it was issued. FDCs are popular collectibles. As with a postage stamp, condition plays an important role in the desirability or value of a cover.

Two similar covers may show the same postage rate, postal marking or stamp use, but a difference in condition may make one more desirable (and probably more valuable) than the other. Condition is just one factor that can affect what a cover is worth. The relative scarcity of a cover is another important element. At times, rarity may make a cover very desirable despite its having serious faults.

When given a choice between similar covers, however, most collectors take the time to examine the available items (via approvals through the mail, looking at shows or looking on the World Wide Web) to determine which would be the best example to add to a collection.

Here are a few of the characteristics that collectors examine when looking though covers for possible purchase.

Paper. The condition of envelope paper or card stock may vary from one extreme to another. Paper from decades ago may show signs of aging. Paper may yellow or even deteriorate to the point of crumbling.

Covers may have been exposed to extremes of humidity, heat or light, or they may have become the home for microorganisms that caused spots or damage to the paper. A cover could include an insert (or stuffer) that is ruining it. A cover of any age can have detracting wrinkles or folds. Some folds may be natural, as with folded letters or parcel wrappers, but an inadvertent crease or tear on an envelope may affect value.

Stains, including fingerprints, grease and foreign matter, are usually considered to be forms of damage to the paper of a cover. Most collectors look for covers that have been carefully handled and that have no obvious paper damage.

Edges and corners. Postcards, postal cards and envelopes are all vulnerable to edge damage. For cards, this may include edges that are worn soft or rounded instead of being crisp and sharp. Envelopes may have edge tears that come from mishandling or from deterioration of the paper.

Sealed envelopes that were opened come in various conditions. Some are opened so cleanly that it's hard to tell they ever were sealed. Others are so carelessly opened by hand that the opened edge is badly and unevenly torn. The corners of envelopes and postcards also may be blunted or creased if they strike a hard surface.

Notations. Some collectors and dealers add pencil notations to covers, a practice that if done with too much pressure will damage them. The notation might be a price for the cover or some identifying information. Many pencil marks can be removed cleanly and completely with a white, plastic art eraser, but some markings should be left alone, such as notations that are part of the history of the item. Erasing with the wrong kind of eraser can damage paper, mark it or leave an unnatural, light area.

Address. Many collectors of modern FDCs prefer to have examples that are unaddressed. FDCs from earlier decades and most other mailed covers are naturally found with a mailing address. In most cases, the address does not affect the desirability of the cover, but covers addressed to celebrities or well-known personalities may add some interest.

Some collectors believe that covers addressed to stamp collectors or sent by them are contrived, and often that is the case. Such covers are called "philatelic covers." For example, a cover bearing an unusual combination of stamps and addressed to a collector may have been created specifically for collecting, rather than for the everyday carriage of mail. Each collector decides if collector-made or collector-influenced covers will be in a collection. Sometimes the only used examples of an on-cover stamp or a postal stationery item may be collector-made.

Many collectors save both collector-influenced covers and normal commercial covers, but, to others, a philatelic cover is less worthy than a more conventional cover not addressed to a collector. Some collectors seek out philatelic covers as examples of collector activity from years past. They consider such covers to be important relics of the early days of collecting.

An important aspect of a cover's address is the destination location, for often the destination helps to determine the postage needed to mail the cover. An envelope mailed in the United States, for example, would have one rate for delivery within the United States but another rate for delivery to a destination to another country.

Auxiliary postal markings. Postal authorities worldwide apply many different auxiliary markings to mailed items. These markings can take the form of handstamps, labels or written notations. Some indicate a problem with the mailed item, such as insufficient postage or an insufficient address. Others help to clarify the class of mailing or properly direct the mailed item. Often the markings are handstamped on a cover in a hurry, so the better find is a cover bearing a clear, legible marking.

Some collectors seek out all varieties of auxiliary postal markings, such as the pointing-hand "Return to Sender" marking. The kind of marking struck on a cover, or a variation in the marking, may make a cover more desirable. Learning about auxiliary markings means reading the relevant literature and looking at a lot of covers. Some markings are rare, so learning what is common and what isn't may pay off with exciting discoveries.

Backstamp. Most backstamps are another form of auxiliary postal marking. Often a backstamp is a receiving mark that indicates the date and location of delivery for a cover or a date it transited a given post office.

Modern backstamps usually are applied when an item is mailed using a special service, such as registration, but a cover also might receive a backstamp if it is accidentally missent to a location other than its intended destination. It's a good idea to check every cover for a marking on the reverse.

Franking. The franking of a cover is the postage that is applied to pay for its delivery. Usually this is a postage stamp, stamps or a postage meter stamp imprint or meter strip, but even the word "free" written on some U.S. military mail can serve as a franking. If the franking is an adhesive, its centering and freshness are important.

Collectors of postal rates try to find examples of covers that are properly franked to meet a specific rate: that is, ones bearing the exact value in stamps or metered postage to fulfill a rate. Finding scarce, single-stamp frankings that do this is part of the fun.

The stamps used on mail may suffer damage in the mailstream, and collectors watch for scuffs, tears, folded stamps and other damage. Sometimes a stamp is damaged by the mailer or by a postal clerk before it is applied to a cover.

Postmark. The word "postmark" is a general term for any postal marking, but it is often used to describe the marking that cancels the stamp and gives information about the location, date and time of mailing. The word "cancellation" refers to the marking that obliterates the stamp, such as wavy lines or a "Mail Early in the Day" slogan.

A clear strike of a postmark provides the greatest amount of information. Many times, information in a postmark cannot be read because it was applied quickly and some element is illegible. Collectors seek the clearest examples possible. Information in the postmark can be used to understand a cover. Knowing the specific date of mailing, a collector can look up postage rates and special-service fees.

The location where the item was mailed also may play a part in understanding a cover. Postmarks constitute a major part of postal history.

Return address. Usually found in the upper-left corner of the front of the envelope, the return address gives information about the mailer. Sometimes it can be used to guess at a point of mailing for an item bearing an illegible or mute postmark (one that intentionally has no location information), but generally the return address cannot be the only source used to determine mailing origin. A cover, after all, may have one city named in the return address, but it could have been transported to another location for mailing.

A preprinted return address is called a "corner card." Corner cards may include advertising messages or other useful details about the mailer. Return addresses are sometimes found on the reverse of envelopes, on a back flap.

As with postage stamps, it is often difficult to find a cover that appeals in every way. Knowing the features most important for the type of collection being assembled will help any collector decide which cover is the best choice. In some cases, however, collectors buy on instinct or gut feeling, without any specific knowledge of a cover. This usually occurs after years of experience. It's not the same as buying on impulse.