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Collecting Illustrated Mail

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Collecting Illustrated Postal History

The collecting of illustrated envelopes is one of the most exciting opportunities in philately today. Although somewhat unappreciated until recently, more and more collectors are now recognizing the potential of these artifacts and they are building fascinating and visually appealing illustrated cover collections. (A cover is just a stamp collecting term for an envelope). The broad heading of “illustrated covers” actually refers to a host of types from early advertising and patriotic art, to more modern philatelic creations commemorating everything from Ground Hog Day to the launching of Navy vessels. Some collectors even specialize in mail flown by rocket. Although by no means common, there are more examples of rocket mail available than you might imagine!

Antique Junk Mail

One of my favorite areas in this field, and a fine place to begin a survey, is the early advertising cover. The history of advertising mail tracks closely with rise of advertising in general. Between about 1840 and 1890 commercial printing saw many technological advances which made printed products much more affordable. Most notable of these advances and inventions were the rotary printing press, wood pulp based papers, and lithographic techniques for etching metal plates. As a result of these trends the modern newspaper and magazine industry emerged, and with it came the art of the printed advertisement.

Less expensive printing also led businesses large and small to begin to use letterhead and illustrated stationary to promote themselves. Illustrations covering the entire left side of an envelope are not uncommon, and neither are envelopes that are illustrated on both the front and back.

In addition to the use of illustrated stationary for everyday business correspondence, we see at this time the beginnings of direct mail advertising. This “antique junk mail” is ephemera in its truest form. It was mass produced, never intended to last, and virtually all of it was thrown away as quickly as it was received. Advertising covers are a great window into the past. The products and services being sold, the portrayal of women and ethnic groups, and even the fashions of the day all help us to understand a world which is now long gone.

The collecting possibilities are endless. Nice and affordable advertising mail is available from the about the 1870s until modern times. Some collectors will focus on a particular industry such as music publishers, food products, railroad companies, or hotels. Personally, I’m always on the lookout for old letterhead and advertising for companies and brands which survive in some form until today. The 1917 “Dutch Boy” cover from the National Lead Company pictured here, is a great example. I think I’m particularly fond of it because I remember the icon from my own childhood!

Patriotic Covers

Another commonly collected type of illustrated mail with a very long history is the patriotic cover. Throughout history, and especially in times of war, people have felt the urge to express their patriotism on their mail. Soldier and civilians during the United States Civil War produced a brilliant variety of original patriotic artwork for their correspondence. Later, during the Spanish American War and the two world wars, commercial printers and one-of-a-kind artists both generated quite a wealth material. Stamp dealer Jacques Minkus produced an entire series of envelopes, one of which is pictured here. I like this one in particular because you’ll notice that it is also free mail delivered for soldiers during wartime – a double collectible!

Philatelic Contrivances

I suppose in one way or another all the remaining cover types that I’ll talk about here fall under the heading of philatelic covers. When a stamp collector talks about a philatelic cover they mean an envelope that was intended to be a collectible. I’ve often heard the term “philatelic contrivance” to mean the same thing.

First day covers are the most common of philatelic covers, and they are almost always the collector’s first experience with illustrated covers. Although technically, a first day cover is simply any envelope cancelled on the first day that the stamp used was on sale, most such covers feature a special cancel commemorating the event, and an illustration (called a cache) relating to the theme of the stamp. Over the years a great number of commercial entities have produced first day covers, and collectors will often subscribe to a service that supplies them with covers automatically when stamps are issued. This history of cachet makers has left collectors with a huge variety of covers to pursue – some much more scarce than others.

Most other philatelic covers commemorate a special event. They are often, but not always, coordinated with a special cancel authorized by the Postal Service. Commonly commemorated events include world’s fairs and expos, first flights, and ship launchings. The list is endless of course and includes all manner of commissionings and significant anniversaries. Every major stamp collecting event, and even some of the not-so-major events, will feature a special show cover. Sometimes the historical significance of a cover will not become clear until later. When the Hindenburg cover pictured here was created, nobody could have guessed at the dramatic and tragic events which were to follow – but those events certainly add to the collectible value of the cover.

Storing Your Covers

As with all paper collectibles one of your most important considerations will be creating an acid neutral environment. Unless they are specifically manufactured to be non-acidic, many paper and plastic items will have acids in them that will burn your collectibles slowly over time. It is acid which makes old newspaper clippings and paperback books turn brown and brittle. These paper items have a high acid content and are quite literally self-destructing. For this reason, and others, I recommend only using storage systems that have been specially designed for stamp and paper collectors.

To protect my own covers I use 10mil Prolar holders sized for “European First Day Covers.” These holders are a heavy weight crystal clear plastic that have a slight lip to make it easy to get your covers in and out of the holder. I’ve found that this Euro FDC size, 5 3/8” x 8”, will hold nearly all of the covers I collect. This system is by no means the cheapest storage method, but I feel good that my covers are well protected and they are easily viewed front and back. There are less expensive, yet perfectly safe, holders available. One drawback to using these holders is that the covers are not easily viewed as a collection. There are special albums available just for cover collectors. Again, these albums are not inexpensive, but in the long run good protection for your collectibles is worth the investment.

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