Don't pass a cover up just because it's scruffy — it might tell a good story

Jul 23, 2007, 10 AM

By Janet Klug

Sometimes in stamp and cover collecting, scruffy is good.Some collectors seek stamps and covers in perfect, pristine condition. Others assess each item and acquire those that interest them, regardless of condition.

For me, a scruffy cover often means there is a great story awaiting discovery. A good example is the United States postal stationery envelope shown in Figure 1.

I acquired this cover and a dozen or so other covers while on a treasure hunt through some dealer dollar boxes. This one looked like it had been through a battle and needed someone to love it.

I brought the cover home and began to puzzle over it.

The cover bears U.S. Official seals (Scott OX7) over some tears on both the front and back.

Scruffy covers are a great source for Official seals, an interesting collecting speciality in their own right. Official seals, also sometimes called post office seals, have been issued by many postal authorities. They are used to repair or seal mail that is damaged in transit, is received unsealed at the post office, or is opened by mistake or by a dead letter office.

Official Seal Newsletter is a quarterly publication dedicated to the study and collecting of worldwide Official seals. An annual subscription to the newsletter is $20. Write to Jim Drummond, 19335 Pauma Valley Drive, Porter Ranch, CA 913261701 or visit the Officially Sealed Mails of the World web site at

My scruffy envelope is very roughly torn on the right side, perhaps by the recipient to get to the contents. The envelope was opened so roughly that part of the 2¢ red George Washington imprinted stamp is missing.

The whole envelope is stained, and it is burned and scorched at the top left.The cover is postmarked Ivy Depot, Va., Nov. 21, 1899. There is also a receiving backstamp of University Station, Charlottesville, Va., Nov. 21, 1899, 2 p.m.

The cover is addressed to "J. Heath-Lewis."

A notation in French, "J'ai grand appetit" (I have a big appetite), is written in pencil on the back of the cover (not shown).

The front of the envelope has the numbers "464" written on a dottedline return address that bears a partially visible "Ivy Depot, Va." imprint. So how did this poor, scruffy cover get to be so poor and scruffy? Was it in a train wreck? Or maybe a steamboat fire? It is too early for an airplane crash.

Closer inspection shows that the Official seals were also burned, so it is likely that whatever burned this cover happened after whatever tore it — maybe even decades later. Who knows? I could find no reports of a train wreck between Ivy Depot and Charlottesville on Nov. 21, 1899, and a consultation of an area map quickly ruled out steamboats.

I likely would never know how the cover got burned and torn unless there was something in the recipient's history that could help.I started my investigation by doing an Internet search for Ivy Depot, Va. That brought up a web site linked with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. This gave a fair bit of historical data about Ivy Depot.

Ivy Depot is located in Albemarle County, Va., between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Charlottesville, which is the location of Monticello, the famous residence of Thomas Jefferson.

Nearby Ivy Depot is Locust Hill, the home of Meriwether Lewis. He was the Lewis half of the exploring team of Lewis and Clark whose expedition across the American West began in 1804.

Suddenly, the name of the addressee became more interesting. Was J. Heath-Lewis any relation to Meriwether Lewis? That sent me back to my Internet search engine of choice, Google. The search returned more hits than I could reasonably use, and I was getting nowhere fast.I clicked the "more" link next to the search box, which brought a dropdown box offering more options. I clicked the books tab, and Google searched through its increasingly impressive online library of books that are scanned and archived, accessible free to anyone who wants to use them.

Voila! The first offering was a book titled Lewis of Warner Hall: The History of the Family Including the Genealogy, by Merrow Egerton Sorley, published in 1935.

The book had a short biography of one "J. Heath-Lewis," who was born John Heath Lewis on May 16, 1879, at Fairview near Ivy Depot, Va.

He graduated from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1902, specializing in chemical engineering. He worked as an engineer for seven years in the United States, Canada and Mexico before becoming the headmaster at the Rugby Military Academy in New Orleans. He later taught school in Atlanta. He was married in 1912 to Ida Selma Woltz. The couple produced four children.The reference to "Fairview" near Ivy Depot intrigued me. The online book had the answer to that as well. Fairview was built in 1879 by John Lewis's father, James Terrell Lewis.

The father was plagued by allergies and asthma at Fairview. In 1884, he moved the family to Ivy Depot, where he served as postmaster and agent for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was also an inventor and was said to have invented "many useful things." The senior Lewis made a great deal of money. It is recorded that he was generous and gave it all away.

I would speculate that this cover was sent by James Terrell Lewis, postmaster at Ivy Depot, to his son John Heath Lewis, a student at the University of Virginia.

So the remaining question is whether or not these two men named Lewis are descendants of Meriwether Lewis. The genealogical record in the book indicates that they are. There are scores of men and women in the family who bear the name Meriwether as a first, middle or last name, which traces back to the wife of Col. Robert Lewis. Her name was Jane Meriwether.

The Lewis family dates to the earliest days of colonial America, and my scruffy cover represents a tiny part of that history. It is not worth any more than the dollar I paid for it, but look at the entertainment and information that my searching provided.

Another scruffy cover is shown in Figure 2. It was sent May 1, 1953, by a British serviceman from Changi Royal Air Force Base, Singapore, to his family in Southampton, England.

The cover was salvaged from the May 2, 1953, crash of a British Overseas Airways De Havilland DH106 Comet 1 aircraft near Jalalogori, West Bengal, India.

Covers salvaged from plane or train crashes or ship wrecks are known as crash covers or, more discretely, as interrupted mail. Crash covers can be quite valuable, particularly if they are from a famous disaster, such as the crash of the airship Hindenburg.

This crash cover is partially burned at the upperright corner, and it bears a threeline handstamp in purple ink: "Salvaged Mail, 'Comet' Crash Near Calcutta, 2nd. MAY 1953."

The handstamp is an example of an interesting auxiliary marking.

Auxiliary markings are postal markings applied to covers by handstamp, machine cancellation, stickon label, manuscript, or mechanical or electronic methods such as an Addressograph or a computer. Such markings indicate that the covers were given special attention because of some special circumstance.

Crash covers and other interrupted mail offer some of the most interesting auxiliary markings.If you are interested in auxiliary markings, you might consider joining the Auxiliary Markings Club.

Annual membership in the club is $15. Write to Gerald Johnson, 6621 W. Victoria Ave., Kennewick, WA 99336.

The Figure 2 cover was carried on a flight en route from Singapore to London. The aircraft was in its initial climb out of Calcutta, India, when it flew into a heavy tropical storm. Six minutes after taking off from Dum Dum Airport, the plane disintegrated, its wreckage spread over a 15-mile radius.

The crash was caused by bad weather and an overloaded tail section. The mail was salvaged, but all 37 passengers and six crewmen perished in the crash.

The De Havilland Comet was the first commercial passenger jet, but numerous crashes in the first few years of operations caused the aircraft to be a commercial failure.

This scruffy interrupted mail cover is a sad reminder of the early days of jet passenger service. It definitely is worth adding to a collection.

A great resource for aircraft crashes that can relate to covers is

The web site's data base includes the details on all civil and commercial aviation accidents of scheduled and nonscheduled passenger airliners worldwide, which resulted in a fatality since 1908.

There are also interesting sections titled "100 Worst Aviation Disasters," "Famous Deaths" and "Last Words," for those looking for a bit of macabre reading material.