Trains and stamps are natural partners

Feb 22, 1999, 6 AM

By Michael Baadke

The romance of the railroads is appreciated by many stamp collectors, and trains consistently rank high among the most popular stamp topics. The connection runs even deeper, though, as the railroads in many countries have played an important role in the history of mail delivery.

The United States Postal Service has announced plans to issue a set of five 33¢ stamps depicting sleek American trains of the 20th century. The designs are shown in Figure 1. The stamps will be released Aug. 26 at the opening of the American Philatelic Society's Stampshow 99 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Stampshow is one of the largest annual stamp collecting events in the United States. The show will gather together at one location all of the grand-award winning exhibits from the previous year's circuit of major national stamp shows.

There they will compete for the highest national honor in philatelic exhibiting, the Champion of Champions award.

Collectors attending the show will have a remarkable opportunity to view some of the finest philatelic exhibits in the country.

Besides hosting the first-day ceremony for the five new train stamps, Stampshow will also offer programs and seminars on different stamp collecting subjects, as well as a large dealer bourse, where collectors can shop for stamps, covers and supplies from some of the country's top dealers.

Anyone who enjoys the hobby of stamp collecting or would like to learn more about it should make plans to attend Stampshow 99, or any of the many stamp shows taking place each weekend across the country.

For information about a stamp show near you, check Linn's Stamp Events Calendar.

The very first set of United States stamps to include values showing pictorial elements (that is, something other than a portrait of a deceased U.S. statesman) was a set of 10 different stamps issued in 1869.

The 3¢ stamp in that early series shows a chugging locomotive printed in ultramarine (a vivid shade of blue).

A postally used copy of that first U.S. train stamp, Scott 114, has a catalog value of $15. It's not the least expensive stamp on the market, but it would make a wonderful start to a topical collection of trains on stamps.

Many other train and locomotive stamps have been issued by the United States since 1869, including a 2¢ Locomotive coil stamp from 1987 (Scott 2226) and a 20¢ Cog Railway coil stamp from 1995 (Scott 2463), both of which are still available at face value from the Postal Service.

Of course, many other nations have also portrayed railways, trains and locomotives on their postage stamps, creating a nearly endless number of opportunities for the collector to assemble a selection of train stamps that appeals to his specific interests.

Collecting all of the world's train stamps would be nearly impossible, so collectors may choose to create specialized collections that feature specific trains or represent a limited era of railway history.

For at least one nation, stamps with a railway theme also serve a specific function of mail delivery.

Over the past 120 years, the country of Belgium in western Europe has issued nearly 500 stamps specially designated for parcel delivery by rail.

Most of these issues, like Scott Q326 from 1949 (shown in Figure 2), feature some representation of the railway system. Many include the words "Chemins de Fer," which simply means "Railway" in French.

Even countries that haven't issued postage stamps designated for railway mail delivery might produce collectible stamplike labels and receipts called "cinderellas" that are related to the theme of trains.

Often such items are privately printed by the railway companies or baggage handlers to show payment has been made for some type of railway-related service.

Three examples of such labels are shown in Figure 3.

At left in the illustration is a fantasy issue for Baldwin's Railroad Postage that was printed in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.

The center label, with a denomination of 100 pfennigs, appears to come from the German state of Bavaria, in connection with a statewide train system.

At right is a label from the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. of the United States. The 5¢ package stamp is a receipt for a fee paid for the transport of a package weighing less than 10 pounds.

A great variety of other topical material exists for the railway fan, including postal stationery (such as postal cards and stamped envelopes), commemorative pictorial postmarks depicting trains and locomotives, pictorial postage meter stamps with train-related elements, and much more.

Collectors of train material may develop an interest in the many ways that trains have been used to carry mail in the United States and in other countries around the world.

A simple starting point for stamp collectors is a study of the postal markings on letters that were sorted by clerks of the Postal Transportation Service in moving railway post offices (also known as RPOs) from the Civil War era to about the middle of the 20th century.

Often such mail can be identified by the initials "RPO" or "PTS" within the postal markings, as shown by the two cancellations illustrated in Figure 4.

At the top of the illustration is a handstamped marking from the Philadelphia & Atlantic City rail line dating back to 1898. The "R.P.O." initials appear at the bottom of the circular marking.

The 1897 postmark shown at the bottom of Figure 4 was applied by machine to a letter sorted on a streetcar line in Philadelphia. The killer bars that cancel the postage stamp intentionally resemble a U.S. flag, with the name of the streetcar line and the initials "R.P.O." in the field where stars would normally appear.

As collectors learn more about the markings characteristic of specific railway lines and routes, they often narrow their collections to specialty areas, such as certain parts of the country or particular railway lines.

Most often, these collectors seek out intact covers that show not only the distinctive RPO postmark but also the final destination for the mailpiece, and often, the identity and location of the sender.

Collectors with an interest in any transit mail markings, from the United States or other countries should consider membership in the Mobile Post Office Society.

The MPOS publishes a fact-filled journal six times per year and offers valuable reference texts for collectors interested in transit markings and related topics.

Membership details for the Mobile Post Office Society can be found below.