Author: John Deutch

The Language of Stamps

By: John Deutch

Have you ever heard of the “language of stamps?” Sometimes a particular stamp will seem to “speak to me”… This usually occurs at a show or while I am reviewing the latest offers on eBay or Delcampe. But the “language of stamps” is something altogether different.

As some of you may know, besides Vatican City issues, I am also interested in French stamps and postal history. And among my French interests are the sower or semeuse stamps. Last year I was able to purchase a copy of THE SOWER, A COMMON LITTLE FRENCH STAMP by Ashley Lawrence, published by the France and Colonies Society of Great Britain. And it was a few brief paragraphs on page 224 in this book that brought the “language of stamps” to my attention. Lawrence writes that: “Readers of a certain age will recall the practice of endorsing the back of love letters with the secret message, SWALK…and for those in the know, this meant ‘sealed with a loving kiss.’ French lovers had similar means of passing secret messages to their paramours by using the “Language of Stamps”.

Those of us who collect postal history will sometimes come across a letter or a postcard with the stamp affixed in an unusual position or at an odd angle.

This is the “language of stamps”, something that began in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Picture postcards were then coming into their own, but the amount of space available for communicating one’s thoughts and feelings was limited. And there was no privacy, anyone could read whatever was written on the card. And so, the idea of an encrypted “special or hidden message” was very appealing. The position or angle of the stamp on a letter or postcard was supposed to relay a hidden or secret message to the recipient. This was the “language of stamps”. Lawrence writes that “if the stamp was tilted to the left, for example, the writer might be expressing ardent passion; if tilted to the right, he or she might be pleading for forgiveness.” And there were many other positions in which a stamp could be positioned, with each one conveying a different message. The “language of stamps” was so popular that in 1899 an Englishman by the name of George Bury published a little booklet that was titled CUPID’S CODE FOR THE TRANSMISSION OF SECRET MESSAGES BY MEANS OF THE LANGUAGE OF POSTAGE STAMPS.

From England the “language of stamps” spread to other countries. I have seen examples on eBay from Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, as well as those from France and Great Britain. In France there were a large number of sower postcards produced that clearly indicate the popularity of the “language of stamps”. Lawrence wryly observes that those who that those who manufactured these postcards doubtless assumed that French postmen were either illiterate or very discreet.

Karl Hennig Covers

[pdfjs-viewer viewer_width=0 viewer_height=1080 url= download=true print=true fullscreen=false fullscreen_target=false fullscreen_text=”on” zoom=0 search_term=”” ]

The mystery solved, or somewhat solved.

In a “What Is It?” article in last month’s Perf- Dispatch, I raised a question about three Public Herald labels that I discovered in an old stock book.  I was curious about the labels, and I wondered what they might be.

Since then I have spent some time researching Public Herald labels. I sent letters of inquiry to four dealers, people who might be able to tell me about the labels or who might put me in touch with someone who could help me.

I also spent time online—lots of time.  And it was during my online research that I discovered—almost by accident—that there was an article titled The Public Herald “Seals” that appeared in the January – February 2009 (Volume: 88 Number:1) issue of the COLLECTORS CLUB PHILATELIST, a publication that I was unaware of.  I sent an email off to the APRL to see if this was a journal that might be in the library. Marsha Garman found the journal, and emailed me a copy of the article.

Jim Kotanchik

Jim Kotanchik

The five-page article was written by Jim Kotanchik, who I can only describe as a truly eminent philatelist.  His article, The Public Herald “Seals”, answered some but not all of my questions.  I decided to contact Jim Kotanchik, only to learn that he died in 2011.  Kotanchik authored POST OFFICE SEALS OF THE UNITED STATES AND POSSESSIONS (ISBN-10: 0977654907).  This is a massive 350-page book, and it is wickedly expensive, but I hope to find a discounted copy.  Note that I am now referring to the Public Herald labels as “seals”, not “labels”.

It was about this same time that Eric Jackson, one of the dealers I contacted, sent me a copy of an article by Jim Kotanchik that appeared in THE OFFICIAL SEAL NEWSLETTER (date unknown).  Another publication unknown to me. This article, also titled “The Public Herald Seals”, appears to be an earlier version of what was printed in the issue of the COLLECTORS CLUB PHILATELIST.

Kotanchik tells us that the Public Herald seals were the work of Louis Lum Smith, a Philadelphia publisher (the PUBLIC HERALD and the AGENT’S HERALD).  They were, in effect, post office seals that were provided to fourth class post offices as a kind of gimmick to encourage subscriptions to Smith’s two newspapers.

At our September club meeting I’ll have more information and copies of the COLLECTORS CLUB PHILATELIST article.  I will also have the Public Herald seals and some covers/cards to share with you—“show and tell”.  My thanks to Phil Schorr for continuing to encourage me in my effort to uncover the story behind the Public Herald seals, and to Nathan Esbeck who discovered a Public Herald seal on a cover offered on Ebay.

Editor’s Note: One of our surmises at the last meeting, the one concerning bundling, was mostly correct. However, there is more to the story. Don’t miss hearing more at our upcoming meeting.

What Is it?

Some months back I purchased a “used” stockbook through eBay (where else?). I thought I was buying an empty stockbook, but when it arrived I was surprised to discover that it contained a collection of approximately fifty cut squares – some from the 1800s (anybody interested in these?), an old American Philatelic Association Sales Department Control stamp, and three old Philadelphia Public Herald labels (two overprinted POSTMASTER, ROHNERVILLE, Humboldt Co., CAL., and one overprinted POSTMASTER, CHINA FLAT, Humboldt Co., CAL).

Motivated by the basic philatelic principle that “one collector’s junk is another’s treasure”, I brought these labels to our February stamp club meeting. We have some pretty knowledgeable people in our club, but no one who saw them had any idea as to what they might be.

An online search drew a blank.

I have sent an enlarged computer-generated photocopy of the three labels to several dealers with the hope that someone will be able to tell me about them.

Most of us have a “what is it?” somewhere in our collections, and some of us have more than one. I have given this note and a computer-generated photocopy of the three labels to Phil for inclusion in a future newsletter. Let me know if you can answer my “what is it?” question. I will let you know what, if anything, dealers have to say about these three labels.

Article Update – September 15, 2020

Since the original article, John Deutch has completed additional research and found a few answers about these labels. The APRL Library was able to produce and send the 5 page philatelic article about the labels that John was able to locate. John will talk about to what he learned at the September 2020 meeting. There will also be a summary of the article in the September Perf-Dispatch. Anyone that would like a copy of the full article can reach out to John Deutch.

My Philatelic Interests: John Deutch

My stamp collecting interests? Wow, where do I begin? Like so many others of my vintage, I started collecting stamps back in 1950 or 1951 when I was in 4th or 5th grade in north St. Louis. There was no one in my family who collected stamps, but I had several friends in my class at school who did. In those days we all sent our nickels and dimes off in the mail to various stamp companies for those “wonderful offers” (with approvals, of course) that were advertised in the back of comic books and BOYS LIFE. I continued to collect sporadically until marriage and kids, and then I sold my stamps.

Ten or fifteen years ago I got interested in stamps again. I built a pretty good collection of Scouts on stamps, which I sold, Belgium, which I sold, and Denmark, which I also sold. Today my collecting interests are centered around the stamps and postal history of the Pontifical or Roman States, and the stamps and postal history of Vatican City up to the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963. I also have a small U.S. collection of stamps, souvenir sheets, covers and other ephemera from the International Philatelic Exhibitions that were held in this country in 1913, 1926, 1933 and 1947, and the same sort of material from the 1933 APS convention, the 1934 Trans-Mississippi Philatelic Exposition, and the 1937 meeting of the Society of Philatelic Americans. It is enough to keep me occupied, and mostly out of trouble.   (To be continued next month)