First Day Cover Recollections

Handling a first day cover service for 24 years brings a host of memories to mind, and certainly emphasis that there is a “story behind every cover.” “Just for the ride,” I have personally serviced a lot of these covers. Conveniently for me, a majority of the U.S. stamps issued in these recent years have had “first day of issue” point of sale close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s a far cry from taking a bundle of covers – about the size of a good lunch – those 400 miles to Bennington, Vermont, August 3, 1927, to that of the last journey made to New York in 1949 for the 6-cent airmail booklet connected with the ASDA show in “the big city.” But, looking back, maybe that Bennington trip was an easier one. Anyway, the post office clerk at Bennington didn’t do what the clerk at New York’s huge post office did – cut the order in half because they were running out of stamps but more would be coming on a later plane that day, from Washington – he hoped!

With all due credit to the post office, they didn’t have to service half a million covers “way back when” and maybe the headaches weren’t quite as large. And, today we’re luckier that 15 different cities aren’t given the “first day treatment” as in the case of the Sullivan stamp back in 1929.

Probably the most hectic first day in all history and one we hope may never be repeated was the Bicentennial deluge on January 1, 1932, at Washington. Normally, the post office was closed on that holiday but the huge post office adjoining Union Station was thrown open New Year’s day in 1932. Every stamp collector in the world who had a cousin or uncle in Washington (and who hasn’t) asked his kin to “run down and buy me a set of the new stamps and mail them on these covers.” Local papers reported that 50,000 people stormed the post office for stamps. Since 12 different stamps and 12 different sizes and shapes of postal stationery went on sale at one whack, the post office refused to service covers. You can imagine what happened! It did, too. Standing in line from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to spend less than $100 and taking 28 minutes to have the order filled by the clerk will give you a rough idea.

Maybe one lesson learned there was “get there early.” Even that sage advice isn’t good at all times – we hit St. Mary’s City, Maryland, a little too early on that blustery morning, March 24, 1934. We might as well have been covering the Byrd stamp in the polar extremities – but daylight did come, and several years later we did thaw out.

Ever notice that the post office pendulum sways? First, there’ll be an epidemic of Washington, D.C., “first days.” Then the trend will be towards scattering the stamps from Honolulu to Puerto Rico and way stops between. Of course, it was just as well that the Farley Follies came out at Washington and all at one sitting – all 20 of them. It took a real staff and sizeable hotel suite to get out any kind of a quantity of that stamp. And did you ever try to cut up sheets of Farley? It was like a jeweler trying to wallpaper a forest with a scalpel and a canoe paddle.

A whole chapter alone could be written on how some first day covers happened to bear both the 5-cent Army and 5-cent Navy stamps, on the same envelope, even though they were issued many hundreds of miles apart on the same day. Today’s collectors are taught, and rightly so, that these extra-fancy covers are not of particular value and should be avoided. But, let me tell you, if you think up these freaks yourself, you’ll get a kick out of them anyway.

Ever think what it would be like to be the postmaster of a small town deluged with more than half a million covers to cancel, all with the same day and date, all neatly, clearly and according to whims of some stamp collectors you’d never even known existed? Glad I’m not such a postmaster; glad that all I have to do is to keep an eye peeled that they don’t slip out any more “hurry-up real quickies” like the 3-cent Byrd which did not have a week’s official notice, or the sudden addition of Pittsburgh, Pa., to the Kosciusko first day points after six other towns had already received the nod.

And don’t ask me if blocks of the 50-cent Zeppelins on first day covers will be good – just collect the kind of covers that appeal to you and don’t worry if they’ll ever be “good.” And, look over those first days as they come in. They all tell a story.

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