The Philatelic Agency: Seeing Collectors as Consumers

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The rising popularity of stamp collecting internationally combined with increased numbers of stamp issues, motivated the USPOD to create a separate office to handle stamp requests from domestic and international collectors. Prior to the establishment of the Philatelic Agency, anyone could purchase ordinary stamps and limited-issue commemoratives stamps at their local post offices. In 1900, the Department operated over 76,000 post offices, a total that dropped to over 52,000 by 1920. Still, some collectors and dealers wrote to the USPOD directly to acquire limited-issue or rare stamps. Assessing the actual amounts received is difficult since all revenue sent directly to the Department for philatelic purposes was included in the “miscellaneous funds” column in the Annual Reports. Those funds totaled monies collected from dead letters, from auctioning unclaimed items at post offices, and other sources. ((Most of the Annual Reports bury this in their “miscellaneous fund” tables, such as shown in this report: United States Post Office Department, Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1912 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1912), 267; “Publication 100 – The United States Postal Service – An American History 1775 – 2006,” 100, available, http://www.usps.com/cpim/ftp/pubs/pub100/welcome.htm.)) By providing the infrastructure through a new office, the Department could easily expand its commemorative stamp program and track those sales. Proposed first in 1917 by a Congressman collector, the Philatelic Agency in Washington opened in 1921.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Postal officials and legislators understood that the revenue collected from sales for philatelic purposes could provide steady income for the USPOD, while also supporting collecting. According to the Postmaster General’s Annual Report, the Philately Agency (PA) gave formal recognition to “the growing importance of stamp collecting” and the agency provided a better way to handle the needs of collectors and dealers. That there was a means to buy directly and easily from Washington, where stamps were printed, delighted collectors and the philatelic press. Convinced that that the Agency’s establishment was a direct result of their requests, editors of Mekeel’s Weekly declared that Postmaster General Will Hays was truly “humanizing the department.” ((“A U.S. Service for Philatelists,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 31, no. 6 (February 10, 1917): 51; Editorial, “Celebrate,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 35, no. 52 (December 24, 1921): 718.; “Philatelic Stamp Agency,” Collectors Club Philatelist 1, no. 1 (January 1922): 17–18.; Guy U. Hardy, “Confessions of a Stamp Collector,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 36, no. 6 (February 11, 1922): 73. and United States Post Office Department, Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1922 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922), 10. Hays soon left the Harding administration to become the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, where he established the first set of self-regulatory guidelines for the motion picture industry in an effort to fight censorship that morphed into the Production Code in the 1930s.)) This was a giant leap forward for collectors in the eyes of Mekeel’s who, twenty years earlier, believed that the USPOD looked upon all collectors with suspicion.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 To encourage use of the PA, the philatelic press helped the Agency and their readers by instructing them on the new agency’s policies and procedures. Stamp requests had to include cash or a money order (another postal product) to pay for stamps, and enough return postage for it to be mailed back to the collector. Unlike individuals or dealers, the Agency would not trade in stamps, accept payment in stamps, or issue stamps “on approval”—meaning that the buyer had to accept the stamps mailed to her or him and did not have the option to change her or his mind upon seeing the stamps in person. Additionally, no discrimination would be permitted to “any class of collector or dealer,” perhaps to distinguish government service as distinct from an exclusive philatelic society or dealer. Most philatelists wanted this new system to succeed and were delighted to learn that the person in charge of overseeing the new Agency had a connection to philately, as Third Assistant Postmaster General W. Irving Glover’s wife collected stamps. ((“Philatelic Stamp Agency,” 18. This is an example of what appeared in many philatelic publications. “Philatelic Agency Reports a Profit,” New York Times, December 17, 1922, 29.))

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The United States was not alone in focusing attention and resources on philatelists. By the mid-1930s, over one hundred postal agencies worldwide served the needs of collectors. Colonial governments such as France and Portugal offered collectors the opportunity to purchase stamps from any of their territories in one centralized office. Philatelic publications provided contact information for these agencies, making it easier for casual collectors to broaden their holdings without traveling abroad or negotiating with a dealer. ((One example of such a publication is Frank L Wilson, The Philatelic Almanac: The Stamp Collector’s Handbook (New York: H.L. Lindquist, 1936).)) Collectors could create global collections by contacting a postal agency directly. This practice of sending away for postage was well established in the club philatelic culture, where publications facilitated exchanges among fellow members and dealers advertised in those pages. These exchanges occurred among private citizens and did not involve government officials.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 That the Agency sold all stamps at face value was highlighted in the public and philatelic press when describing the activities of this new office. Knowing that older and sometimes rare issues remained in smaller post offices across the US, the Philatelic Agency asked local postmasters to return that postage so that those stamps could be available for collectors through one main distribution center. ((“Stamp Collectors Buy Now from U.S.,” Philatelic West and Collectors World 79, no. 2 (September 1922): np; Hardy, “Confessions of a Stamp Collector,” 73.; “Stamp Collectors Now Making Big Purchases,” The Washington Post, May 8, 1922, 4; “Philatelic Agency Reports a Profit,” 29.)) Acting as official dealers, the postal service would only sell stamps at the printed value regardless of any alternative value assessed the stamp market. In the spirit of the civil service system in the government, the Agency would not favor some collectors over others nor dealers over casual collectors. Everyone had an equal opportunity to buy stamps, new and old, from the original producer. Regular issues of stamps and some commemoratives would still be available through local post offices, but by making all commemoratives available through the Agency, local postmasters and their clerks focused on selling postage for the purpose of mail delivery and fulfilling other needs of their customers.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Not all philatelists, however, were pleased with the opening of the PA. Editors of American Philatelist disagreed with the benefits associated with the U.S. and other national governments operating philatelic bureaus to handle collectors’ requests. They believed that the challenge of pursuing an elusive stamp was eliminated. For instance, writing to the French postal agency gave one access to all of the stamps of its colonial territories, making the practice of collecting stamps too easy. ((“Editor’s Column,” American Philatelist 37, no. 5 (February 1924): 271–2.)) By only needing enough money to cover the printed value of a stamp, plus the air mail stamp and envelope to send the request, any collector could fill an album with contemporary stamps from around the world. Some philatelists, however, struggled with the growing popularity of their pursuit as they clung to a romanticized and elitist notion that limited collecting to those few with means to travel abroad or shop regularly with dealers. The PA was doing its part to democratize stamp collecting for those who enjoyed stamps. As some had objected to the USPOD’s insistence on issuing commemorative stamps series for World’s Fairs in the 1890s, others still did not appreciate the growing involvement of the USPOD in their hobby in the 1920s.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 During its early years, the PA struggled with efficiency as it juggled a high volume of stamp requests. Some collectors demanded prompt service and were impatient when their requests were not filled quickly. Collectors were reminded that all orders were numbered upon receipt and then filled in order. They were asked to understand that some patrons requested large numbers of stamps and philatelic information that required considerable labor from the staff clerks. Clerks at the Agency were overwhelmed with work, and officials reorganized and expanded it to handle the demand for stamps in 1924. ((Philip H. Ward, Jr, “The Philatelic Stamp Agency,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 4 (October 4, 1926).))

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This work did not go unnoticed, as Congressman Ernest R. Ackerman, a devoted and award-winning philatelist, became one of the Agency’s most ardent supporters and defenders. He remarked that governments could do no better than to support and assist those who wanted to collect stamps. According to Ackerman, philately had “no deleterious effects” and was democratic in practice because it was pursued by people of all ages, classes, and gender. Ackerman optimistically opined that stamps sales might be so high as to finance ventures far outside of the purview of regular postal activities. ((Ackerman’s comments and a letter from the USPOD are found in Congressional Record, House, 68th Congress, 1st session, LXV, part 6, (April 3, 1924) 5530-31; and Ernest R. Ackerman, “In Defense of the Agency,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 38, no. 8 (May 5, 1924): 251–52. Ackerman wrote that sales could be so high as to fund commercial attaches to promote international trade.)) The idea that stamp sales could produce enough revenue, not only to finance the stamp program but for additional federal programs came from Ackerman’s zealous enthusiasm for philately.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Within the first seven months of operation, Department officials seemed pleased that the Agency took in more than $20,000 in stamp sales and those revenues continued to increase substantially. By the following year the annual receipts increased to over $105,000. Sales continued to climb nearly every year so that by the mid-1930s, the receipts were counted in millions rather than thousands of dollars, which is astounding considering the most remarkable growth occurred in 1935 deep amidst the Great Depression. ((The Annual Reports are useful for gathering numbers of stamp sales conducted through the Philatelic Agency. See The United States Post Office Department, Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), annual reports from 1922-1940; and “Philatelic Agency Reports a Profit,” 29.)) Revenues from all stamped matter consistently brought in a majority of the USPOD’s revenue, receipts which continued to rise along with overall Department expenses. The PA’s success, however, was less about stamp sales and more about fostering good relationships with collectors and promoted stamp collecting. For instance, in fiscal year 1924, revenues from all stamped matter totaled over 483 million dollars, representing eighty-eight percent of the total departmental income, while PA collected $129,646 in sales. ((United States Post Office Department, Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1924 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1924)., 6-9. Interestingly, sales from the Philatelic Agency are reported together with “other funds” deposited to the Treasury and not included in the totals of stamp revenues. Other stamped matter included stamped envelopes, postal cards, and newspaper wrappers.)) Increased popularity of collecting U.S. stamps kept the PA busy filling orders, even if the agency did not erase departmental deficits. By establishing the Agency, the USPOD gave itself a central office to handle the forthcoming expansion of the commemorative stamp program in the early 1920s.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Centralizing stamp sales for the purpose of serving collectors is another turning point in the relationship between the USPOD and stamp collectors, and is in keeping with how the federal government began supporting consumer capitalism following World War I. While it took a retailer to point the Department in this direction, the USPOD would take thirty-seven more years before officially sanctioning and encouraging collecting in such a direct way through the PA. Following World War I, the government expanded and decisively promoted a consumer-based economy by supporting business industry, not only through Herbert Hoover’s Department of Commerce, but also with subsidies coming at the hands of the postal service. ((William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of A New American Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 351.; and Carroll Hill Wooddy, The Growth of the Federal Government, 1915-1932, Recent Social Trends in the United States (New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1934), 261-76, 549.))

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Capitalizing on the success of the PA, the USPOD opened a stamp exhibition room across the hall from the Agency in 1935. Having transferred a majority of its collection to the Smithsonian more than twenty years earlier, the USPOD did not completely relinquish its desire to maintain its own postal museum. Again asking for assistance from local postmasters and requesting foreign stamps to be donated by international governments, the USPOD went about crafting their own museum. Although not meant to compete with the philatelic collection at the Smithsonian, the opening of this “postal museum” seemed a bit odd, if not repetitive, of efforts at the National Museum. Within their own space, the USPOD highlighted collections of US and foreign stamps and exhibited other philatelic matter (including postcards, covers, commemorative envelopes) and stamp production machinery. According to Postmaster General Farley, this exhibit room served as an “important research center for collectors.” ((“Postal Museum Work Is Pushed By Officials,” The Washington Post, May 26, 1935, 11; “Postal Officials Guests at Banquet of Collectors Club,” The Washington Post, June 9, 1935, 11; “New Postal Museum Opened for Shriners,” The Washington Post, June 16, 1935, 11; “A Place in the Sun (Editorial),” Marconi’s Monthly Stamp News, June 1935, 8.; and United States Post Office Department, Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1937 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), 56.))

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 By establishing a museum outside the doors of the PA, the USPOD made visiting the PA more than just a trip to buy stamps by offering an opportunity to learn more about stamps and stamp production. Certainly not a museum store as we understand the development and trend in the late twentieth century, the PA may have appeared to play a similar role as the retail outlet that supported the museum. The genesis of this particular exhibit hall reflected the Agency’s success. Many collectors and visitors planned a trip to the Agency while visiting Washington and visited the USPOD museum as well. Both entities worked together in promoting philately and provided the means for easily purchasing American stamps. That the Department opened this exhibit hall in the mid-1930s is not surprising since the PA was pulling in record dollar amounts and the Department was producing large varieties of commemorative stamps. Stamp collecting was extremely popular, and having the President of the United States as a philatelic role model did not hurt, either.

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