Stamp collectors don't much care for damaged stamps, and cover collectors aren't very fond of tattered covers.
The word "cover" refers to an envelope, postal card or other item that has been mailed or received postal markings.
Many collectors seek out covers to show how a stamp was properly used or how a specific postal rate was fulfilled.
In many cases, a postage stamp has more value if it is kept on a cover than if it is soaked off and placed into an album.
Many cover collectors research postal history, learning about how specific stamps were used to mail letters at different rates and during different periods.
First-day covers (FDCs) bearing postmarks that indicate when (and often, where) a stamp is issued are also popular collectibles.
As with postage stamps, the condition of a cover plays an important role in the value of the collectible item. Though two similar covers may show the same rate fulfillment, postal marking or stamp usage, a difference in the condition of the covers may make one more desirable than the other.
Condition is just one factor that can affect the value or cost of a cover in a dealer's inventory. The relative scarcity of the cover is another important element.
There are times when rarity makes a cover desirable despite serious faults.
When given a choice between similar covers, though, collectors should always take the time to examine the available items, to determine which would be the best example to add to a collection.
Here are a few of the characteristics that collectors can examine when looking though covers.
Paper. The condition of envelope paper varies from one extreme to another with covers, and the collector has a lot to look for when inspecting a cover.
Paper from decades ago is prone to signs of aging that range from yellowing to actual deterioration.
Older covers that have been exposed to extremes of humidity, heat or light may have become the home for microorganisms that can cause spots and damage to the paper.
Any cover of any age can have detracting wrinkles or folds. Some folds may be a natural part of the cover, as with folded letters or parcel wrappers, but envelopes that have been inadvertently creased are another matter.
Stains, including fingerprints, grease and food remnants, are another form of damage to the paper of a cover.
Overall, collectors should look for examples that have been carefully handled and do not have obvious areas of damage to the paper.
Edges. Postcards and envelopes are both vulnerable to damage along their edges. For postcards this often includes edges that are worn soft (instead of being crisp and fairly sharp).
Envelopes may have tears that come from mishandling or from deterioration of the paper.
Sealed envelopes that were opened come in all sorts of conditions. Some are opened so cleanly that it's hard to tell it was ever sealed, while others are carelessly torn by hand and show shredded envelope paper across the length of one side.
The corners of envelopes and postcards can also suffer blunt edges and creases from striking hard surfaces.
Notations. Some collectors and dealers have made pencil notations on covers, a practice that actually causes damage to the collectible item. The notation might be a price for the cover or some identifying information.
In some cases pencil marks can be removed with a soft gum eraser, but the indentation of the writing often remains. Erasing can cause damage to the paper as well, or leave an unnaturally lightened area on the paper of the cover.
Address. Many collectors of modern first-day covers prefer to find examples that are unaddressed, while earlier FDCs 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, though covers addressed to celebrities or well-known personalities may add interest.
One important aspect of the address is the location, for often the destination helps to determine the postage needed to mail the cover. An envelope mailed in the United States, for instance, would have a different rate for delivery within the United States as it would for delivery to a destination overseas.
Auxiliary postal markings. Postal authorities worldwide have applied 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 address. Others help to clarify the class of mailing or properly direct the item.
Often these markings are applied to the cover in a hurry, so the best find is one that is clear and legible.
Learning about such markings involves research and study. Because some markings are rare or hard to find, the study may pay off with some exciting discoveries.
Backstamp. Most backstamps are another form of auxiliary postal marking, often a receiving mark to indicate the date and location of delivery for a cover. Although this is usually applied when an item is mailed using a special service, a cover can also 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 marking on the reverse.
Franking. A significant element in the study of covers is the franking.
Franking is the postage that is applied to pay for delivery of the mail piece. This can take the form of postage stamps, postage meter stamps, or even the word "free" written on some U.S. military mail.
Collectors who study postal rates try to find examples that are properly franked to meet a specific rate: that is, bearing the exact value in stamps or metered postage to fulfill the rate.
Stamps used on mail may suffer damage while in the mailstream, and a collector can watch out for scuffs, tears, folded stamps and other forms of damage. Sometimes stamps are damaged by the mailer or postal clerk before they are applied to the 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 and date of mailing.
The term cancellation is also used in this sense.
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 very quickly and some element is illegible. Collectors seek out the clearest examples possible.
Information in the postmark can be used to research the cover. Given a specific date of mailing, the collector can then find out the prevailing rates for postage and special services. The location where the item was mailed may also play a part in the study of the cover.
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 on an item with an illegible or mute postmark (one that intentionally has no location information), but generally this cannot be the only source for the information.
A cover, after all, may have one city named in the return address but can be transported to another location for mailing.
A preprinted return address is called a corner card. These may include advertising messages or other interesting details about the mailer.
Return addresses are sometimes found on the reverse of envelopes, on the back flap.
As with postage stamps, it is difficult to find a cover that has appealing characteristics in every area. Often the collector has to determine which features are most important for the type of collection that is being assembled, and use that information to decide which cover is the best choice.