Friday Odds and Ends, August 12



Have you ever thought about the difficulties of sending mail from a POW camp? Now imagine it during the Civil War.



Have archaeologists just uncovered the world’s oldest gold artifact?



An 8-year-old boy in Newport News, Carmine McDaniel, was concerned that his faithful postman would be uncomfortable during a local heat wave, and left a cooler of drinks for him. But the story doesn’t stop there.



Being a librarian may not seem like a tough job, but lifting books, arranging journals, and helping patrons can be a real strain! These librarians decided to show off their skills in the first Library Olympics.

The Invention of Airmail that Swept the Nation

Before airmail was invented, shipping methods were much slower. (Homing pigeons had been used centuries before, but pigeons, to say the least, are not the most sophisticated form of transport.)

But some destinations were inaccessible unless accessed by airplane.

The story of the invention of the airplane is in itself a wonderful tale, but airmail enters the story through the first scheduled airmail service in the UK between North London and Berkshire in 1911. The event was part of the celebration of King George V’s coronation. This first service took 16 flights, carrying 35 bags of mail in total. It stopped only about a month after it started due to bad weather.

But the invention of the airplane was too useful to ignore. While the U.S. government was slow to adopt the incredible invention of the airplane, the U.S. Post Office expressed interest in the airplane early on. They tested a mail flight between Garden City and Mineola, NY. He dropped mail from the plane to the ground where the postmaster picked it up.


The famous Jenny airplane.

The Post Office continued to conduct unofficial flights within different states between 1911 and 1912.

The first regular airmail system in the United States started in May 1918 with a route that ran between Washington, D.C. And New York City.

This is also where the famous Inverted Jenny stamp comes into play. Many of the original planes used to transport mail were Jenny training planes from the Army. The Jenny stamp was issued in 1918 in honor of the first airmail service – but things didn’t quite go as planned. You can read more here.

Airmail postage cost 24 cents.

Airmail continued to expand and grow in the U.S., and planes grew safer as time went on.

Of course, airmail was quite popular with stamp collectors. Philatelists often went out of their way to find the first airmail flights to send letters and collect the cancels from such flights.

The Hidden Language of Stamps


Once upon a time, before text messages and email that could be kept between two people, the art of communicating sometimes required secrecy.

If anyone feared their postcard being intercepted by a family member or friend, all they had to do was pull out their book of secret stamp language and figure out the code of the stamp’s placement.


Of course, such a code had its downsides – the message of the stamp based on its orientation changed from source to source. One code suggests that an upside-down stamp means “I am not free,” while another suggests that the same placement means “I love you truly” or “I am always true to you”. You can imagine what sort of misunderstandings this could cause.

However, the “language of the stamps” still strikes our fancy. If you want to write to a loved one and send them a secret message via stamp placement, here are some codes from the Philatelic Database:


Stamp Placement:

  • Upside down, top left corner: I love you
  • Diagonal on top left corner: My heart is another’s
  • Top center of envelope: Yes
  • Bottom center of envelope: No
  • Right side up: Goodbye sweetheart
  • Upside-down, top right corner: Write no more
  • At a right angle, top right corner: I hate you

…And these are just a few of them!


Some of these are excessively harsh – but at least they saved the recipient their dignity if anyone else were to discover the letter.

It’s possible that stamp language was actually barely used. Vintage novelty postcards tout the language of the stamps and show what certain placements mean, but doesn’t it kind of ruin the purpose if it translates it right there on the card?


But if the card gives no explanation to the placement of the stamp, it’s completely up to the receiver to determine what code was used.

If you used a secret stamp code, who would you send it to and what would it say?

Images from this source.


The Rare Mauritius “Post Office” Stamp

Among the rarest stamps in the world, the Mauritius “Post Office” stamps have some of the most rumor surrounding them.

Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, has made a name for itself in the world of philately. And this name started with the “Post Office” stamp of 1847.

The orange-red one penny stamp.

The orange-red one penny stamp.

It all starts with a stowaway on a ship. At age 22, a man named Joseph Osmond Barnard left his home in England and stowed away on the ship Acasta to Mauritius.

Barnard had luck on his side – he was allowed to disembark and live in the capital. As it so happened, Barnard specialized as an engraver and painter.

Barnard designed the stamps for Mauritius based on the Great Britain stamps at the time that showed the profile of Queen Victoria. They printed the stamps in two colors of one penny red brown and two pence blue. They are characterized by their primitive design.

Postage stamps were still very new at the time.

The printer made five hundred stamps of each value, printed in 1847. The wife of the Governor of Mauritius used many of them on invitations for a ball.

A set of two cancelled Post Office stamps, with the penny red brown and the two pence blue.

A set of two cancelled Post Office stamps, with the orange one penny and the two pence blue.

These stamps had the words “Post Office” printed on the left side. On the next printing, however, “Post Paid” replaced the phrase, making the stamps with “Post Office” rarities.

One particular legend says that using “Post Office” on the stamps had originally been a mistake. The book Les Timbres-Poste de L’Ile Maurice claims the mistake, and rumors surrounding the tale expanded to say that Barnard was a half-blind watchmaker and a forgetful old man who forgot what he was supposed to print on the stamps.

The two pence blue stamp.

The two pence blue stamp.

Anyone who pays attention knows that this can’t be true, since Barnard designed the stamps at 31 years old.

In 1864 the wife of a Bordeaux merchant found some of the stamps in her husband’s collection. She traded them with another collector, starting the ball rolling on the fame of these increasingly sought-after stamps.

In 1904 King George V paid roughly today’s equivalent of $190,000 for an unused two pence Mauritius stamp. And in 1993 a cover with two of the stamps sold for about $4 million, the highest price ever paid for a philatelic item.



Engraved memory


The Inverted Jenny Stamp

The Inverted Jenny was one of the great stamp collecting occurrences in history. The stamp shows a plane called a ‘Jenny’ surrounded by a red border, but that’s not what’s unusual.

The misprint? The plane is upside-down.

The story started when the United States Post Office decided to dedicate a stamp to recent airmail trials via the Jenny planes in 1918.

At the steep price of 24 cents a stamp (your 12 oz. morning latte would cost roughly the same amount today), people weren’t exactly fighting to buy them. Other stamps at the time cost three cents each.

An intuitive and lucky stamp collector named William T. Robey, who kept an eye out for Postal Service misprints, went out the day after the stamps’ release in 1918. When the postal clerk pulled out a sheet of 100 stamps, Robey knew he had hit the jackpot. He bought all 100 despite the hefty price.

Robey sent word to collectors about his find, but when a knock came on his door one day it was not who he expected: postal inspectors had come to buy back the stamps

A rare sheet of "Right Side Up" Inverted Jennys printed last year by the Postal Service to commemorate the famous stamp.

A rare sheet of “Right Side Up” Inverted Jennys printed last year by the Postal Service to commemorate the famous stamp.

Robey politely declined, but the inspectors threatened that the government would come to take back the sheet.

When they left, Robey hid the sheet of stamps under his mattress.

Eager to rid himself of government pressure, Robey sold the sheet for $15,000, not a small amount in 1918. Another collector, Edward H. R. Green, soon snatched up the sheet for $20,000.

Green sold blocks of four and blocks of eight from the sheet, knowing that selling smaller amounts would make the stamps worth more.

Green did not sell all of the stamps. He put one in a locket for his wife, and his wife also accidentally mailed one, which was recovered as the only cancelled Inverted Jenny.

The story goes that one stamp was sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.

Today, these stamps go for anything from $100,000 to $2.9 million for a block of four.

The stamp has been referenced in a number of TV shows, including The Simpsons, thanks to its legend in stamp-collecting circles.

Last year, the Postal Service issued a reprint to commemorate the famous stamp – except this time, an upside-down Jenny was printed. If you’re lucky, you can find one of the 100 sheets printed with a right-side-up Jenny. In this case, the upside-down plane is the norm.


Smithsonian article

The All-Knowing Wikipedia

Worth the Cost of Postage: The Man Who Mailed Everything

Most will not discount the idea that the ultimate prankster in history was W. Reginald Bray (1879-1939), the man who inspired the book The Man Who Posted Himself and who toyed with the Postal Service by mailing whatever he hypothesized was physically possible to send through mail.

"To a Resident nearest to this rock."

“To a Resident nearest to this rock.”

A relevant note: during this time period, the recipient paid the costs for their mail, thus reducing the costs of Bray’s strange hobby and probably annoying the postal workers when Bray’s strange addresses could not reach their destinations.

Who knows what inspired Bray to start his mass pranking of the postal service, but what we do know is that he was the master of this peculiar hobby.

The Postal Service could allegedly send anything from the size of a bee to an elephant, and Bray tested the postal limits, if not in size then in shape. He mailed such peculiar things as a bowler hat, a rabbit skull, a slipper, seaweed, shirt collars, a penny, a turnip (with the address carved in), a postcard crocheted by his mother, and even his own live dog, an Irish Terrier, who arrived at his destination disgruntled but in one piece.

A crocheted envelope with sewed-on stamps.

A crocheted envelope with sewed-on stamps.

Bray also mailed postcards to creative addresses that probably drove the mailmen crazy. These included postcards addressed to empty caves, addresses with only latitude and longitude, and addresses with only a picture of the destination.

But Bray’s crowning achievement was when he successfully mailed himself. He stuck a stamp on his forehead, gave himself an address to be sent to, and showed up at the Post Office. While one might imagine him packing himself up in a box and crouching uncomfortably until he reached his destination, it was probably much simpler than that. Bray lived close to a Postmen’s Office, so he probably walked in and requested that a mailman walk him back home. Still, the stunt got him a radio interview.

Here, Bray is being delivered to his doorstep, where his father patiently receives the receipt for his son's delivery.

Here, Bray is being delivered to his doorstep, where his father patiently receives the receipt for his son’s delivery.

Bray also claimed himself as the “Autograph King,” collecting signatures of famous people by mailing them cards with the request that they sign and return them. He sent over 30,000 requests, half of which did not return, to Bray’s chagrin. This included Adolf Hitler, whose office, after receiving several of these postcards, replied with the request that Bray would “refrain from further letters in this regard”.

Bray’s successful collected signatures included such characters as Gary Cooper, Laurence Olivier, and Charlie Chaplin.

Bray really tested the postal service’s limits, and he got further than most probably even dared to try.

What must have then caused the anger of the Postal Service is today our lighthearted entertainment (sorry, Postal Service).

We’d love to know: If you dared to mail a peculiar object, what would you choose to send?