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 Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps

A curious society arose in the late 19th century that had stamp collectors all in a tizzy. Some collectors were upset that the price of special stamps (namely commemorative stamps) were hiked to high prices and printed only with collectors in mind, rather than the general public.

It was a somewhat ridiculous complaint. This is the notice that the SSSS put out about the reason for its formation: “The Society, in conjunction with the Special Committee appointed by the London Philatelic Society, having taken into consideration the Stamps mentioned below, are of the opinion that they are not worth the attention of Philatelists, and appeal to all Collectors and Dealers to discountenance collecting or dealing in the same.”

The complaint received recognition, but it did not get anything to pass. Most philatelists dismissed it as hogwash. The SSSS was fairly small in number, and therefore did not have the ability to properly assert itself.

The SSSS’s eagerness to stop the issue of unnecessary stamps was perhaps a bit too eager, and as the Postal Service and most collectors did not see the point of the argument against such stamps, the society only lasted from May 1895 to their break up in 1897.

However, during the SSSS’s short lifetime, the Royal Philatelic Society London and the American Philatelic Society did support its cause.

This shortlived, and somewhat hilarious endeavor by a number of stamp zealots ended up with no other purpose than to keep its members occupied for a couple of years.

The First Postage Stamp: The Penny Black

 The Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp, made to reform the British postal service. A man named Rowland Hill proposed the stamp system in 1837.

Before the issue of postage stamps, people paid for postage upon receiving the package or letter. (Some people, such as W. Reginald Bray, took advantage of this system.) The cost was determined by the distance traveled for delivery and the size of the letter. But Rowland Hill thought the system needed reform.

Hill started a competition to design the first stamp. But the public failed to give a good enough design (sounds familiar, eh?) despite the 2,600 designs. None of the winning entries were used.


A Penny Black shown with red cancel, which is hard to see on the black background.

Instead, the approved stamp design featured a profile of Queen Victoria, the monarch at the time. It came from a sketch by Henry Corbould and went through multiple hands for designing before it became the final product.

The Black Penny stamps did not have perforations and had to be hand cut. They had inscriptions in each corner, which were either stars, letters, or blank spaces.

The UK’s postage stamps are the only stamps that at times don’t name their country of origin; instead they use Queen Victoria’s image to symbolize the UK.

The stamps used a black background, but that soon revealed itself as a problem. The red cancel didn’t show up well on the black stamp. The cancel also rubbed off easily, which led to people reusing the stamps.

The Penny Black only lasted for a year. It was replaced by the Penny Red, and the cancel was given black ink, which showed up much better and didn’t come off as easily.

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

Rowland Hill’s postal reform changed the system for the better. Within seven months of the stamps’ release, the numbers of letters sent doubled to over 160 million.

Penny Black stamps are not actually that rare – over 68 million were produced. The real value comes in finding a Penny Black in mint condition with the original gum.

A stamp dealer sold one for £250,000 in 2009, the highest price paid for a Penny Black so far.

Take a moment to appreciate Rowland Hill for his postage reform. Without it, the Postal Service would not be what it is today.

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

What are Naval Covers?

A special kind of philately takes place on the high seas.



At their most basic, naval covers are letters or postcards from sailors, with postmarks from U.S. Navy ships. Some of these postmarks have designs called cachets, unique designs that each have their own particular aesthetic.

“Naval philately” is its own special kind of collecting, less for the stamps and more for the postmarks and cachets.

The first naval cover collectors were members of the International Postal Marking Society, who sent stamped and addressed envelopes to U.S. Navy ships to receive strikes. Collectors still send envelopes for their collections today.

For the most part, Navy ships have their own postal stations. This is so that sailors have their own means of sending mail while sailing around the world.

Naval cover terminology is pretty basic:

  • There’s the dater circle, called a “dial”.
  • Slots are at the center for the date slugs.
  • These include either the name of a ship or a generic U.S. Navy marking in the dater.
  • The right of the dial has some kind of geometric pattern to prevent the stamp’s reuse (as anyone who has received a letter is familiar with), called the “killer”.

The online Naval Cover Museum at has a phenomenal collection that users can browse through and add to.

Here are just a few samples from their collection:

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A more basic naval cover with the ship's cancel seen over the stamp.

A basic naval cover with the ship’s cancel seen over the stamp.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

Just seeing the beautiful designs of the cachets confirms why naval cover collectors want to own these small pieces of art.

Take a look through the virtual naval cover museum. Do you see any covers you particularly like? Let us know in the comments!

And if you develop an interest in creating your own collection, the U.S. Navy has a list of Navy ship addresses.