John Lennon, Amateur Philatelist


He’s known for creating some of the greatest music of the 20th century, and changing the face of rock and pop forever. He was also a kid who avidly collected stamps.


1.JPGLennon had a difficult beginning in life; his father was a merchant seaman who was away for months at a time. He went missing without leave when John was 4, and though he returned later that year and offered to fulfill his financial duties to the family, John’s mother (who had found another partner) refused. John’s aunt Mimi took him in, and though his father once tried to take John and emigrate to New Zealand, the child ultimately stayed with his aunt in Liverpool. His cousin Stanley, who was 7 years older, lived nearby, and often took John to the movies.



2.JPGWhen John was about 10, Stanley gave him a partially-filled stamp album that he had been working on. John studiously erased Stanley’s name and began filling the empty spaces in the album. (In true boyish nature, he also drew facial hair on the images of Queen Victoria and King George VI on the cover of the album.) John removed the stamps from letters that came in from New Zealand, America, and other countries, adding them to the appropriate pages.



4.JPGWhile the stamp album is still incomplete, it’s not hard to picture the future musician as an isolated child, sitting with his stamp album and dreaming of visiting the countries the stamps came from. None of the stamps in the album are particularly valuable in themselves. Former National Postal Museum curator Wilson Hulme commented to Smithsonian Magazine, “Typically, young boys aren’t interested in rarity,” he said. “They tend to concentrate on geography and colors. If they come back to collecting when they have more time and money, that’s when collections become exceptional.” Of course, as a Beatle, John Lennon did tour the world, and not only visited the countries represented in his album, but was himself eventually featured on stamps around the world as well.


(All images from Smithsonian Magazine, used by fair use.)

The Strange Short-Lived Fad of Leather Postcards


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Postcards became extremely popular around the beginning of the 20th century, and manufacturers frequently added features to attract buyers. Postcards were embossed, gilded, embroidered, and made of different materials. For a brief time, leather postcards were all the rage.


While not rare enough to be particularly valuable, most people have never seen one of these leather postcards. Many were comedic or intended to convey romantic sentiments. Like most postcards, they were pre-printed with a spot for the address and a stamp.


s-l1600 (16)Leather postcards were only popular for a few years between 1905 and 1910 before falling out of favor. For one thing, the post office hated the postcards, due to their thickness, which caused problems with the mail sorting machines. (There was also some confusion as to the cost of mailing early postcards, and leather postcards only added to the confusion.) The cards were usually made of deer hide, and the design added by burning the leather (occasionally, the design was inked on.) Some even came with pre-cut holes so the postcards could be sewn together for pillow covers or other mementos. A trade magazine noted in 1906 that the demand for leather postcards had boosted the leather market.


However, the fad was short-lived, and paper postcards reigned supreme again for the rest of the 20th century, due to the ease and cheapness of production and mailing.

When Mail Delivery Was A Series of Tubes


The line associated with the United States Postal Service is well known: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But what happens when those legendary couriers are replaced by a vast interconnected system of tubes?


Pneumatic-tube-mail.pngIt’s mostly been forgotten, but mail was delivered via pneumatic tubes in some urban areas beginning in the 1890’s. Congestion in city streets, with the mixing of cars and horse-drawn carriages, often delayed mail delivery; underground tubes could deliver letters quickly and efficiently. The pneumatic tube canisters, similar to the ones still used in modern banks, could hold up to 600 letters, and sped under city streets at about 35 miles per hour. In 1893, these mail tubes were installed in Philadelphia, with Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and New York City following soon after, with over 56 miles of pneumatic tubing in total.


This service was put on hold during World War I, and only restored in New York and Boston after the war. By the middle of the 20th century, the increase in mail volume as well as the explosive growth of urban areas had made the pneumatic delivery system impractical as well as expensive, and it was phased out.



Several European cities used pneumatic mail delivery systems as well; such a system was in limited use in Prague until 2002, and was only closed at that time due to flooding. Berlin, Munich, and Paris all had pneumatic mail delivery, and Italy actually issued stamps specifically for the service; 23 pneumatic mail stamps were issued in Italy between the years of 1913 and 1966. (You can see excellent pictures of the stamps here.)




The most definitive pneumatic mail system in the United States was, unsurprisingly, the one in New York City. The pipes were buried about 6 feet below the city streets, and the workers who operated the tubes were known as “Rocketeers.” In its heyday, the system handled 30% of New York City mail, about 95,000 letters daily.


Pneumatic-tube-mail-apparatus.pngHowever, the temptation to send non-traditional items through the tubes proved too much for some. When the tube mail system had its grand opening in 1897, the Rocketeers sent a Bible wrapped in a flag, as well as a copy of the Constitution. They also sent a cat. Yes, that’s right, a live cat (the cat was fine, if a little disorientated.) In one documented instance, a sick cat was sent via pneumatic tube to a veterinarian. Kenneth Stuart, in an article titled “Pneumatic Mail Tubes and Operation of Automatic Railroads,” writes that “other animals that were reportedly shot through the underground tubes included dogs, mice, roosters, guinea pigs, and monkeys. And also: fish. At a 1908 demonstration convened to celebrate the opening of a new tube line from New York’s Broad Street Station, postal workers loaded a tube canister with ‘a glass globe containing water and live goldfish.’ To prove, basically, that they could. And they could. The makeshift tank, luckily for its inhabitants, was sent through the tubes without incidence.”


11237633933_8c65cc51e0_h.jpgMichelle Young, writing for the Untapped Cities blog, notes that “In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).”


Today, very few remnants of any of these systems can be seen, save for the pneumatic tubes in parts of Prague and the series of Italian pneumatic mail stamps. The reliability and flexibility of automobiles and human mail carriers won out over the shiny new pneumatic technology.


The 1895 Chicago Counterfeit Stamps

One of the few scandals the U.S. Post Office encountered in history was the “Chicago Counterfeits” scandal. It all started in 1895 when a man named Edward Lowry responded to a Canadian newspaper ad that stated, “We have $115 U.S. two cent stamps which we cannot use here, will send them by express C.O.D. Privilege of examination for $100.”

Does something about that sound illegal to you? You wouldn’t be wrong.

Mr. Lowry contacted the Postal Inspector James Stuart with an inquiry about buying the current 2c stamps at less than their 2c value, the possibility as suggested by the advertisement.

Of course, Stuart found this suspicious and investigated the issue. A Secret Service agent named Captain Thomas Porter joined Stuart’s investigation. As it turns out, many other people had also seen the ad and ordered the stamps – which Porter and Stuart had to confiscate as a consequence.

A rogue printing operation was in the works. Porter discovered a woman named Mrs. Lacy and her daughter Tinsa McMillan who had a printing production set up in their apartment.

Guess what they found? Stacks of gummed paper, a perforation machine, a copying camera, and all the other possible tools you could need for producing (fake) stamps.

Finally they arrested Tinsa McMillan – the brains behind the whole operation. She had set up the stamp-copying production illegally to make a profit. Ms. McMillan was sentenced to 1.5 years in a reformatory.

This whole scandal was why the Post Office added watermarks to stamps, a story we will continue in another article.

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 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


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?