Recently at the World Stamp Show, a packed room of enthusiasts discussed issues at a Linn’s Stamp News-sponsored workshop on the current state of collecting. Of concern -- the graying of the field, the impact of technologies such as email and eBay, and the lack of diversity among collectors. There was a tone of nostalgia for the Boy Scout stamp collecting merit badge, which has slipped to 127th place in popularity among 133 badges. There was longing for the return of the dedicated philatelic window at the local post office.
There was also a solid expression of frustration with the United States Postal Service (USPS) in general, revealing a bit of the love-hate relationship between collectors and the institutional hand that feeds them. Obviously, without the post office there would be no stamps to collect, and the USPS could, conceivably, get by financially without the millions that collectors spend. But the two sides rely on each other in many ways, even if they don’t always agree on the nature of the relationship.
Inverted Jenny #1
Let’s go back to the issuance of the Inverted Jenny. By the time William Robey bought the famous sheet of 100 stamps on May 14, 1918, the then-titled United States Post Office Department had been responsible for other printing errors that became collectibles. But the revelation that a sheet of inverts had made it into Robey’s hands caused postal officials to close that Washington, D.C., branch as well as branches in New York and Philadelphia for two hours to conduct a frantic search for more mistakes. Robey recounted a visit that same day by two stern postal inspectors attempting to seize his sheet of inverts, but whom he rebuffed by asserting the legitimacy of his purchase.
The reason for such a vigorous pursuit may be that the Post Office Department had a lot riding on the first flights scheduled for the next day. By this point, the agency had spent years trying to get congressional approval and money to launch an airmail service. There was a lot riding on those first flights, and postal officials wanted no embarrassments to blemish events that would be attended by President Woodrow Wilson, other dignitaries, and the press. Turns out, there were plenty, but that’s another story.
Fifteen years later, however, Postmaster General James A. Farley himself unwittingly created rarities. Outraging collectors everywhere, Farley used his authority twenty times in 1934 to buy at face value commemorative sheets which he took off the press before they were perforated or gummed. He and President Roosevelt signed them in the margins, and FDR received one as did other “friends.” Some of these stamps leaked into the market and were rare enough to command high prices, placing Farley in the uncomfortable position of having given away what amounted to very expensive gifts. The threat of congressional investigation and the ire of ordinary collectors was such that Farley ordered reprints (known as Farley’s Follies) to be offered to collectors at face value.
Inverted Jenny #2
Ninety years after printing its most famous error, the USPS tried to capitalize on it by issuing 2.2 million Inverted Jenny souvenir sheets with individual stamps priced at $2. But just for fun, the Postal Service included in the run 100 sheets of intentional errors that they didn’t publicize. Hidden among the millions of sheets of inverts would be a twist on the original error—sheets showing the Jenny flying right side up.
What was supposed to happen was that 70 of these sheets would be distributed and sold in the top 50 U.S. markets, with a plan for the remaining 30 sheets to be randomly distributed out of the Kansas City, Missouri, order fulfillment plant within the first 60 days of release. The whole idea infuriated collectors who dismissed the marketing ploy as a gimmick to sell stamps. That issue was just subsiding when someone noticed that the Missouri plant had failed to distribute many of the sheets, leading collectors to think the whole thing was rigged from the beginning.
Adding insult to injury, the USPS Office of Inspector General found that the agency broke its own rules prohibiting postal officials from intentionally creating a rare stamp. That put the kibosh on any more of the Un-Inverted Jenny sheets going public. The whole episode reinforced feelings among collectors that they don’t want their stamp errors created on purpose by postal officials, even when postal officials are trying to boost the business of collecting.
Collectors mollified (for now)
Still not everything that USPS does displeases collectors. At the World Stamp Show, postal officials announced they were issuing new versions of Forever stamps with classic engraved images from the 1800s with water soluble adhesive. Collectors cheered the move that would dispense with the self-adhesive glues that have made it impossible to easily soak stamps in water to separate them from envelopes.