Refresher Course

Myriad possibilities to postmark collecting

By Janet Klug

In October 2003, I had the pleasure of attending the grand opening of the new Margie Pfund Postmark Museum in Bellevue, Ohio. The museum, the crown jewel of the Post Mark Collectors Club, is an incomparable resource for anyone involved with state or hometown postal history.

Figure 1. A Feb. 4, 1898, hometown postmark from Pleasant Plain, Ohio. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. A commemorative postmark issued for the sesquicentennial of the village of Pleasant Plain, Ohio, in 2002. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 3. This postmark from Hell, Grand Cayman Island, is a souvenir from the vacation of a naval aviator. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 4. A postmark of Army Post Office 950, Fort Armstrong, Hawaii. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 5. A British cover with a censored postmark in which all of the date and place information has been obliterated. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 6. Tongan stamp bearing an error postmark that misspells the name of the Haapai island group as "Haapia." At bottom is a tracing of the marking. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 7. This cover bears a commemorative postmark used on the dedication day of the Margie Pfund Postmark Museum. Click on image to enlarge.

Collectors who limit themselves to mint stamps miss out on the significance of postmarks.

Postmarks establish the place, date and often time of mailing. They provide postal historians valuable clues needed to unravel how letters traveled from sender to recipient.

A clear strike of a scarce postmark can add value — sometimes significant value — to a stamp.

Postmarks are important even today, in a world where communications zap electronically around the globe in a heartbeat.

Just ask the procrastinators who stand in line at the post office on April 15 to get their tax returns postmarked before the deadline.

Forming a hometown postmark collection can be a great way to immerse yourself in local history, to get to know the elders in your town and to find new treasures in unexpected places.

I live in a small village in southwestern Ohio. That can be both a help and a hindrance in collecting its postmarks.

It is helpful because there aren't a lot of other collectors clamoring to acquire material from Pleasant Plain, Ohio. Conversely, it is tough to find material from a sparsely populated village.

Still, with diligence I have been able to form a representative collection of 19th-century and 20th-century postmarks from my little corner of the world. Figure 1 shows a Feb. 4, 1898, postmark from Pleasant Plain.

Because of my interest in local history, especially local postal history, I was asked to design a postmark to commemorate the 150th birthday of Pleasant Plain in September 2002. The postmark is shown in Figure 2.

The Post Mark Collectors Club has many services available to those who are researching their own or someone else's hometown postal history.

The massive Willett-Thompson postmark collection is available at the museum along with a number of other collections.

These can be accessed in person at the museum, but if you can't travel to Bellevue, the collection is also available on compact disk.

The club published the very useful Post Office Directory that contains far more detailed data than the U.S. Postal Service's own post office directory.

If you are interested in collecting postmarks from post offices that no longer exist, then the DPO Book of discontinued post offices is for you.

Contact the club through Robert J. Milligan, 7014 Woodland Oaks Drive, Magnolia TX 77354-4898. Or, better still, visit the very informative web site at

www.postmarks.org.

While you are there, check out the collection of photographs of post offices. The collection is by no means complete, but it is great fun to click on towns you visited or that you hope to visit one day and see what the post office looks like.

My nephew, a U.S. Navy aviator, recently returned from Iraq and took his wife on a scuba vacation to the Cayman Islands. While they were there, they sent me a postcard because they knew that I would enjoy the postmark from Hell, Grand Cayman Island. The card with the postmark is shown cropped in Figure 3. I thought it quite ironic that an officer would return home from a battle zone and then go to Hell for a vacation.

Some postmarks can be tricky to figure out. For example, military postmarks generally have a post office number instead of a place name. This can make it difficult to figure out the origination of a letter. But once again, a specialist society came to the rescue with a publication to help.

Take a look at the postmark shown in Figure 4. Note that it reads "U.S. Army Postal Service A.P.O." along the rim of the circle. In the center it reads "950/JUN/2/1945."

This means that the letter was mailed on June 2, 1945, from Army Post Office 950. After consulting Geographic Locations of U.S. APOs 1941-1984, published by the Military Postal History Society, I was able to quickly determine that APO 950 was located at Fort Armstrong in Honolulu, Hawaii.

To contact the society, write to Robert T. Kinsley, 5410 Fern Loop, West Richland, WA 99359 or visit the web site at www.militaryphs.org.

Of course, in time of war postmarks can become sources of information to the enemy should mail become intercepted.

Mail is often censored during times of war, but only in extreme cases are postmarks occasionally censored. Figure 5 shows one such cover, with a censored postmark with all the date and place information obliterated.

You might wonder why. Postmarks can give clues to the movements of ships, to air schedules or to the location of businesses vital to the war efforts.

That makes you realize just how important the lowly postmark really is.

Postmarks can also be collected on the basis of errors and varieties. Observant collectors can pick out inverted or incorrect dates or misspelled place names.

Figure 6 shows a postmark on a stamp from Tonga, top, with a tracing of the postmark, bottom.

The postmark is from one of the islands in the Haapai group, but the postmark is incorrectly spelled "Haapia." This error postmark was used for less than a year in 1897 and 1898.

Another interesting branch of postmark collecting is pictorial and commemorative postmarks. Figure 7 shows a commemorative postmark that was used on the dedication day of the Margie Pfund Postmark Museum.

Because it features an outline map of Ohio, the postmark might be of interest to topical collectors who collect maps on stamps.

Virtually all topics can be pursued with pictorial or commemorative postmarks. Linn's regular Postmark Pursuit column alerts collectors to new postmarks.

Take a look at this feature to see if there is a postmark there that catches your eye. It is easy and inexpensive to send a stamped, addressed envelope to the proper post office to get a strike of the pictorial postmark.

As postal operations became more complex, the world's postal authorities looked for ways to mechanize the process of sorting and canceling the mail.

Machines that applied cancels were manufactured by a number of companies, each of which had different characteristics. For information about the Machine Cancel Society, contact Gary Carlson, 3097 Frobisher Ave., Dublin, OH 43017-1652 or visit the web site at

www.machinecancel.org.

Another inexpensive yet surprisingly challenging way to collect postmarks is by forming a calendar collection.

The objective is to collect a stamp that has a nice clear postmark for each day of the year. This sounds easy, but it is quite difficult to accomplish.

Finding clear, readable postmarks on stamps is difficult enough in itself, but finding one for each day of each month requires patiently sorting through tens of thousands of stamps.

If the idea intrigues you, write to the Bullseye Cancel Collectors Club, in care of Stan Vinson, 2749 Pine Knoll Drive, No. 4, Walnut Creek, CA 94595-2044.

Special postmarks have been used to mark mail that was postmarked at post offices on board trains, street cars and trucks. A Chanute & Madison RPO postmark is shown in Figure 8.

Write to the Mobile Post Office Society, in care of Douglas Clark, Box 427, Marston Mills, MA 02648 or visit the web site at

www.eskimo.com/~rkunz/mposhome.html.

The Universal Ship Cancellation Society specializes in postmarks struck on board ships and boats.

This is a challenging field of specialization with nuances peculiar to the study of ship cancels. Write to Steve Shay, 747 Shard Court, Fremont, CA 94539-7419 or visit the web site at www.uscs.org.

Postmark collecting can be as broad or as narrow as your interests. It is fortunate that there are so many specialty societies available for those who wish to delve deeper.

This is what sets the stamp hobby apart from so many others. If you need help, all you have to do is ask.

Someone somewhere will have an answer or be able to set you on the right path to pursue your own answers.