By Michael Baadke
The postage stamp was created more than 150 years ago to serve as proof that a fee was paid to deliver the mail.
For many collectors, this function of the postage stamp is its most important feature.
Instead of clipping postage stamps from envelopes, postcards, parcel wrappers and other mailed items, these collectors save such "covers" intact, study them for information about how they carried the mail, and look for other characteristics that reveal information about postal history.
The term "cover" is used to describe any mailed or postmarked item, such as an envelope, but it also can be used to describe any prepared item before it is mailed.
First-day covers, the most popular form of cover collecting, provide the most basic information about the history of an individual postage stamp.
FDCs have been growing in popularity for years. These envelopes or cards are marked with a special cancellation that includes the official issue date for the stamp used. Official first-day covers are marked with a specially designed cancel, such as the example shown in Figure 1, which includes the city where the stamp was issued. Unofficial first-day covers have a conventional postmark indicating the issue date, but they are canceled in a different city.
There are many other types of FDCs, from historic examples that show the earliest-known use (EKU) of a postage stamp, to combination covers that use a variety of stamps with subject themes similar to that of the new stamp issue.
Collectors interested in FDCs should look for two monthly columns in Linn's Stamp News: Collecting FDCs by Allison Cusick, and Modern FDCs by Lloyd de Vries.
For information about the American First Day Cover Society, write to AFDCS, Box 65960, Tucson, AZ 85728.
The postmark or cancellation on a cover often adds special interest to the item. It may indicate a special mailing use, reveal a significant date or mailing location, or feature other historical detail.
The postcard shown in Figure 2 was mailed in 1934 from the Century of Progress international exposition in Chicago, Ill., using the 1¢ Century of Progress stamp issued by the United States to celebrate the show.
Not only is the stamp used on a postcard that celebrates the show, but it is also postmarked with a Chicago slogan machine cancel that reads "A CENTURY OF PROGRESS STATION."
This type of cancel, used with the Century of Progress stamp, is listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps. It is a historical feature that enhances the proper use of this particular 1¢ stamp.
If the stamp were soaked free of the postcard to place it in an album, the historical aspect of its use would be lost.
Modern commemorative postmarks often contain topical elements that are of interest to many collectors. Sometimes the cancel may feature a design that does not specifically relate to the stamp being used.
The cover from Austria pictured in Figure 3 bears a postmark showing a hot-air balloon, though the stamp celebrates the bicentennial of the Linz diocese.
The cover also has a cachet that celebrates the 1,000-year anniversary of the town of Garsten, while other markings on the envelope indicate that the cover was flown by hot-air balloon during delivery.
The United States Postal Service provides commemorative cancels on a regular basis. These are listed and described each week in the Linn's column Postmark Pursuit.
Many collectors look for covers that show the different ways that stamps are used to carry the mail. While examples of covers that traveled by first-class letter mail may be common, other postal services are often harder to find.
The envelope shown in Figure 4 is not a rarity, but it shows a proper use of the U.S. 13¢ blue special delivery stamp of 1944 combined with the 3¢ violet Thomas Jefferson stamp from the 1938 Presidential series. The combined postage paid for special delivery of first-class matter less than 2 pounds in weight when the envelope was mailed March 30, 1948.
It has the additional feature of being mailed from Vonnegut Hardware Co., a family business operated by relatives of novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Indianapolis, Ind.
Though this cover bears no postal service markings other than the machine cancellation, many covers will include hand-stamped indications of special handling.
Collectors will encounter markings or labels requesting airmail service, registration, priority or express handling, or delivery by certified mail, to name but a few.
Other markings may show postage due, attempted delivery, rerouting, military handling, censorship and so on.
The list of special mail features is nearly endless, and it extends to all countries around the world.
How does one choose to collect one type of cover and not another? It depends upon the interests of the collector.
Many specialists concentrate on a single postage stamp or series and then look for covers that properly use those stamps in various ways.
The special delivery cover in Figure 4 may be added to the collection of someone who specializes in the 1938 Presidential series, to show how the 3¢ stamp was used in combination with the Special Delivery stamp.
That same collector may also look for covers using stamps from the same series to request domestic or overseas airmail delivery, fourth-class library parcel delivery, return receipt service, and so on.
Another collector may take the same Figure 4 cover in a very different direction, by adding it to a study of U.S. special delivery services.
Such a collector would use a variety of covers to illustrate the different rates that were imposed for special delivery services from the time the service was first initiated in 1885.
Collectors also look for modern examples that request similar delivery services or feature interesting stamp usage.
Figure 5 shows a cover recently mailed to Linn's Stamp News using a plate number single from the 1997 booklet of 32¢ Statue of Liberty self-adhesive stamps. The plate numbers can be seen along the bottom of the stamp.
Though the stamp on its own would make a nice postally used example of the issue, the cover with the stamp affixed provides the additional information of where and when the stamp was mailed and where it was delivered, information that would be lost if the stamp were soaked off of it.
The collector value of the plate number single is enhanced slightly by the fact that it has not been removed from the cover.
The many aspects of postal history are covered each week in Linn's by Richard B. Graham. His Postal History column this week, describes the handling of U.S. Army mail during the Spanish-American War.
Graham also authored the Linn's book United States Postal History Sampler, which is available from dealers in philatelic literature. It can also be ordered directly from Linn's.