Refresher Course

Post office visit yields more than just stamps

By Michael Baadke

A trip to the post office is like a trip to the candy store for some collectors: a lot of goodies are offered, and sometimes it's hard to make a decision.

Figure 1. Airmail labels are free for the asking at the local post office. You can collect them, but not many do.
 
Figure 2. International Reply Coupons are used by post offices around the world. The coupon can be redeemed for postage at the prevailing local airmail rate.
 
Figure 3. Prepaid cash cards are sold at selected post offices in the United States and can be used to purchase most USPS products, including stamps. The cards often feature stamp images as a prominent part of their design.

Of course, collectors can buy stamps at the post office. The best way to do this is to visit a larger office with a philatelic window.

The philatelic clerk at the post office takes care to stock as many new issues as possible, and handles stamps carefully so that they are undamaged when purchased by collectors.

The same is true for postal stationery items, like stamped envelopes, postal cards and aerograms.

These items are also sold by the United States Postal Service at the regular post office windows, but it is likely that there will be less to choose from.

Stamps and stationery are not the only items sold at post offices, however, and collectors often have an interest in the other objects that can be found at the post office.

Visitors to U.S. post offices in recent years have encountered a lot of merchandise with stamp themes, including greeting cards, neckties, pins, caps and much more.

A collector might enjoy wearing a baseball cap with an embroidered replica of the Bugs Bunny stamp on it, but collecting baseball caps is another hobby altogether.

What about all the labels, stickers, forms and unstamped envelopes that are made available for postal customers?

Collectors usually have some interest in these items, for they often provide clues about new or upgraded services from the Postal Service.

For example, many collectors learned of the existence of Global Priority Mail — an expedited overseas mail delivery service from the Postal Service — when envelopes designed for use with that service first appeared in the lobbies of test post offices in selected areas.

Philatelists (those who enjoy the stamp hobby or who study postal history) usually prefer to collect such items once they have been postally used. Many will hold onto an unused example, however, and watch for changes in designs or offered services.

As an example, Global Priority Mail actually began life as WorldPost Priority Letter. The name changed after the initial testing period ended.

Post office lobbies also provide labels for certified and registered mail, domestic priority mail stickers, customs forms and similar items.

Most items like these are usually not saved in unused condition, although there are certain to be collectors who enjoy doing so.

A similar example is the airmail label shown in Figure 1. There are several varieties of these labels that have been manufactured over the years, and they are provided by the Postal Service for the convenience of customers who mail items overseas.

Many other countries create similar stickers for the same reason.

The labels have no postal value, and are only used to indicate that an item is intended to travel by airmail. Postage is still required for mailing.

Are the airmail labels collectible? If a baseball cap is collectible, there's no reason why an airmail label can't be collectible as well. Considering that they are printed by the millions and are free for the asking, however, the future value of such labels will likely remain unchanged.

At most post offices, mailers must ask the window clerk for the airmail label.

Like the airmail label, the official seal is another label created by the Postal Service, though it is intended for use by postal employees rather than customers.

Collectors most often find these seals postally used on damaged or opened mail. Unused copies find their way into collector hands from time to time, but they are harder to come by than airmail labels or similar items created for customer use.

Because of collector interest in official seals, they are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps.

The Scott specialized catalog also provides a listing for International Reply Coupons (IRC), an example of which is shown in Figure 2.

The IRC is actually used by countries all over the world. Its purpose is to provide return postage for an overseas correspondent.

Let's say you write to someone in another country, like Belgium, and you would like to provide postage for the other person to answer your letter.

Sending United States stamps to Belgium will do no good, because the U.S. stamps can't be used on mail leaving Belgium.

If you purchase an IRC at your post office and enclose it in your letter, the person in Belgium can redeem the IRC at his Belgian post office for Belgian stamps that pay the prevailing airmail rate.

As the illustration in Figure 2 shows, the current cost of an IRC in the United States is $1.05.

About 30 major varieties of coupons have been issued for the United States over the past 90 years. Some collectors have an interest in coupons from other countries as well.

Over the past few years the Postal Service has developed a prepaid cash replacement card program known as LibertyCash cards.

Customers may use the cards to pay for purchases at post office windows. It is believed that in the future the cards also will be accepted by machines in post office lobbies.

The program is currently being tested in selected locations in several metropolitan areas, including Indianapolis, Ind.; Lake Tahoe, Sacramento and San Jose, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; and Denver, Colo.

Cards can be purchased at post offices in these locations, or through USPS Stamp Fulfillment Services.

Many of the LibertyCash cards feature stamp images, including recent cards that depict the 1997 Kwanzaa and Supersonic Flight stamps.

An early $5 LibertyCash card showing the Flag Over Porch stamp is pictured in Figure 3. The cards are available in several denominations.

Prepaid card collecting is popular in many countries, and has been growing in popularity in the United States. Amos Press, the publisher of Linn's Stamp News, also offers a monthly journal about prepaid cards for collectors. For more information about Moneycard Collector, write to Box 783, Sidney, OH 45365 or for a sample copy e-mail tsmith@amospress.com.

For stamp collectors, prepaid cards can make an interesting addition to a specialized or topical collection of United States stamps.

Other products and materials offered by the Postal Service may also be of interest to collectors, as a sideline hobby or to augment a specialized collection.

Though there are many interesting items available from the Postal Service, the focus remains on stamps and covers for most collectors.