By Michael Baadke
Whenever a new postage stamp is issued by the United States Postal Service, collectors have an opportunity to obtain a souvenir of the event known as a first-day cover.
The first-day cover is a plain or decorated envelope or postcard with a stamp affixed to it. The cover shows the issue date of the stamp with an appropriately dated postmark.
Collectors can buy recent FDCs from the Postal Service or from a dealer or stamp club, or they can create their own covers to send in for a special "first day of issue" cancel.
Collectors are normally allowed 30 days after a stamp is issued to buy a stamp, prepare a cover and send it in for the cancel.
Even though the cover is mailed in after the official first day, it is returned by the Postal Service with a postmark that reads "First Day of Issue" and shows the issue date for the stamp.
A first-day cover from the early years of U.S. postage stamps is simply an envelope used for correspondence that is postmarked on the issue date of the stamp affixed upon it.
For many older stamps, the precise first day is not known, or a cover has never been found postmarked on the issue date. In such cases, a record is made of the earliest-known use, or EKU of a stamp.
During the 1920s the U.S. Post Office Department began assigning official issue dates for its new stamps, which allowed collectors to plan in advance to obtain a postmark on the first day of issue.
Starting with the 1937 3¢ Northwest Territory issue (Scott 795), the Post Office Department began offering a special postmark that included the words "First Day of Issue."
Figures given in the 1999 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers reveal that about 150,000 to 200,000 FDCs are made for the typical recent U.S. stamp issue.
These numbers range quite a bit, from more than 700,000 covers for the 1995 32¢ Marilyn Monroe stamp to fewer than 25,000 for the 1995 60¢ Eddie Rickenbacker stamp.
Many of those covers are prepared by the Postal Service or by first-day cover dealers. The rest are requested by individual collectors who mail their stamped covers to a designated address.
Figure 1 shows a cover prepared and sold by the United States Postal Service. It is simply a blank envelope with a single stamp and the first day of issue cancel.
In this case, the stamp is Scott 2915, the 32¢ Flag Over Porch coil stamp issued April 18, 1995.
That date is clearly marked in the circular portion of the postmark, along with the location where the stamp was officially released, Washington, D.C.
Notice that the postmark includes the phrase, "First Day of Issue."
Since 1993 the Postal Service has sold first-day covers for most of its new issues. The price is generally 21¢ more than the face value of the affixed stamp.
The Postal Service covers are available by mail order from Stamp Fulfillment Services in Kansas City, Mo.
Many FDC collectors prefer a cacheted cover, which is an envelope or postcard with a printed design.
The cachet (pronounced "ka-SHAY") is the design, which usually relates in some way to the subject on the postage stamp.
Collectors may purchase cacheted first-day covers from dealers, many of whom advertise in the pages of Linn's Stamp News.
It's also great fun to create your own cacheted covers using a postage stamp and your imagination.
There are several ways to go about putting together your own first-day cover.
Some commercial cover dealers sell preprinted cacheted envelopes that the collector can service.
"Servicing" a cover means affixing the stamp and sending it in to the designated address.
A collector can buy an envelope that he thinks is suitable for a first-day cover, or he can create his own.
Figure 2 shows a collector preparing a first-day cover using a decorated greeting card envelope.
The envelope and matching greeting card feature characters from the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat.
The collector created an FDC using the decorated envelope and the 33¢ The Cat in the Hat stamp from the 1950s Celebrate the Century stamp set issued May 26.
The illustrations in Figure 2 show how the cover is prepared.
First, the envelope needs a filler card, which can be a folded piece of sturdy paper or a thin cardboard just a little smaller than the envelope.
Slipped inside the envelope, the filler card helps keep the envelope rigid and provides a firm base for the application of the first-day cancel.
Second, the postage stamp must be placed on the envelope.
Most frequently the stamp is placed in the upper-right corner, as shown in the center photo in Figure 2.
Some cover-makers create fanciful allover cachets that include the stamp design as part of the artwork. In such cases, the stamp may be placed just about anywhere on the envelope.
It's a good idea to leave at least a little space between the stamp and the top and side edges of the envelope to avoid damage to the edge of the stamp.
Third, you have to address your cover.
Postal regulations require that covers mailed in for first-day cancels be addressed, but most collectors prefer to save unaddressed covers.
The way they get around this problem is to use address labels that will peel off after the cover is returned.
Blank peelable labels are available at most office supply stores and can be used for this purpose. The collector's name and address is written or typed on the label and then affixed to the front of the cover.
The address label should be small and placed near the bottom of the envelope, so it doesn't get in the way of the first-day cancel. You don't want part of the cancel struck on the label because that part will be missing from your cover when you peel the label off.
Collectors usually tuck in the envelope flap on the reverse side, rather than licking and sealing it.
Once the cover is ready to send in, the collector has to find out where to send it.
Whenever a new U.S. stamp is issued, Linn's publishes a special address where collectors can send covers for first-day cancels.
This address is not the same for every stamp. Stamps are often issued in a city or town that somehow relates to the subject of the stamp.
The Cat in the Hat stamp, for instance, was issued in Springfield, Mass., the hometown of Theodore Geisel, who wrote children's books (including The Cat in the Hat) using the pen name "Dr. Seuss."
To obtain the first-day cancel, collectors had to send their covers for this issue to an address in Springfield.
In Linn's stories about U.S. new-issue stamps, the address can be found in a box listing technical details for the stamp. This week you can find the first-day address for the 33¢ All Aboard! train stamps in a box at the bottom of the story.
Mailing information also appears each week in Linn's 1999 U.S. Stamp Program.
The first-day cover must be placed inside a stamped envelope and mailed to the location specified by the Postal Service and published in Linn's.
Some collectors also include a stamped return envelope addressed to themselves, to make sure the cover arrives with no extra postal markings upon it.
Once the cover is mailed, it may take several weeks before it is returned.
Most collectors remove the peelable address label and the filler card before adding the cover to their collection.
It took one month for The Cat in the Hat FDC in Figure 3 to be returned.
Collectors have lots of fun preparing first-day covers. Many look for appropriate envelopes, like The Cat in the Hatgreeting card envelope, to use for FDCs.
Collectors may also draw or print their own designs for first-day covers, or use decorative paper such as calendar pictures, placemats, wallpaper, coloring book pages and so on to create envelopes.
In recent years the U.S. Postal Service has often issued stamps honoring subjects whose names or images may be copyrighted or registered as trademarks.
A collector creating cachets for FDCs should be cautious about respecting copyrighted or trademarked subjects, particularly if the collector plans to sell his covers.
This also applies to the reproduction of U.S. stamp images within the cachet. Since 1978 the Postal Service has copyrighted the designs of the postage stamps it issues.
Linn's Stamp News has two enjoyable monthly columns on the subject of first-day covers: Collecting FDCs by Allison Cusick and Modern FDCs by Lloyd de Vries.
Another great resource for collectors interested in FDCs is the American First Day Cover Society. For information contact AFDCS, Box 65960, Tucson, AZ 85728.