About Collecting Naval Covers
by Steve Shay (USCS 10,821)
In 1908, Congress authorized post offices aboard ships and stations of the U.S. Navy. These post offices offer the same service as do post offices in cities and towns, and have identifiable postmarks. Around 1930, collectors began sending their own covers to U.S. Navy ships to be cancelled and returned. These envelopes or postcards that have been postmarked on and mailed from a navy ship are commonly referred to as naval covers. Also around this time, printed, stamped or hand drawn designs were added to naval covers. These designs, known as cachets, became popular. The cachet may be specific to a ship, an event, or may be generic in design. Collectors today continue to send covers to ships for servicing. Covers commemorating keel layings, launchings or ship commissionings are popular with collectors.
For the most part, naval covers are modestly priced and large collections can be formed with a relatively small monetary investment. Collectors who send envelopes to Navy ships for cancellation add to their collection for little more than the cost of a stamp for the cover and a stamp to mail it to the ship. Naval covers can be found for sale by some stamp dealers, dealers specializing in covers or postal history, and from online auction sites such as eBay. Some postmarks are more difficult to find, as are some ships or certain cachet designs, resulting in moderately to high priced covers.
Collectors often specialize in order to narrow their collecting range, while others will collect any and all naval covers. One popular way to build a collection is to collect covers with cachets, often specializing in cachets by a specific designer. Among the popular designers is Walter Crosby who serviced covers in the 1930s andl940s. His covers usually include a small photograph glued to the cover and a thermograph, raised design, cachet. Another popular designer, Morris Beck, produced over 1000 covers. Most often the covers commemorate launchings or commissionings but they also include space related events such as spacecraft recoveries. Today, cover cachets are often prepared using a home PC with an ink jet printer and are designed by numerous collectors. Modem covers without a cachet are collectible, but not as desirable, particularly from the period 1946 to present.
Naval cover enthusiasts often collect covers from a specific ship or a group of ships. Many become interested in collecting covers from the group of ships that were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Pre-1941 covers from most of these ships are plentiful and relatively low priced; however, covers from any of the ships postmarked near December 7 can be very expensive and are quite rare.
Another way to arrange a collection of naval covers is to collect by manufacturers or shipyards, such as Mare Island Shipyard, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, or Electric Boat.
Collecting a group of ships sometimes leads to specialized collecting of only a specific ship or a small number of specific ships. Popular topics for naval collectors include all battleships, aircraft carriers or submarines. USS Arizona covers is a popular topic. Collecting covers from “less glamorous” ships, such as transports, auxiliary ships or Coast Guard ships can be interesting. These ships are not so popular as warships and with demand less, prices are moderate. Collections of covers from these ships often result from some personal attachment with the ship or service. One advantage of any of these collections is that it provides a narrower field of search.
Many collectors search for “real mail” or covers mailed to or from sailors on ships. These covers rarely have cachets, can be plain, and are more historical in nature. Records such as Ships’ Logs have been kept over the years and with a little research, it is often possible to determine a ship’s location from the postmark. A real mail cover postmark on or near the date of an historical event can be quite desirable. Although this subject usually appeals more to military historians, other collectors also find these covers fascinating. These covers also tend to be interesting from a human-interest point of view.
Some collectors specialize in those covers from the period 1908-1928, the “Classic” period. Amazingly, some of the material from this period is fairly common. Postmarks from 1908 are rare and command high prices.
Some collectors learn the Locy system of classifying different postmarks and then will look for specific postmarks from a ship or a group of ships that fall into a specific classification. The Locy system is explained in detail in the Catalogue of United States Naval Postmarks available from the society for a moderate price. A “flag” machine cancel, known as a Locy Type 8 cancel, was used by approximately 15 ships and is a popular collection item. Many postmark types are quite rare and there are even some postmarks known to exist for which there is no known example. Looking for these postmarks adds to the enjoyment of the hunt. Other collectors pay little attention to postmark types or classification and concerned only in having postmarks containing the ship’s name in the postmark.
One of the best things about naval cover collecting is that naval covers are readily available and there are many ways to organize the covers to keep the hobby interesting. If you grow tired of one interest or are finding it hard to add to that collection, you can pick a new area of interest.
The Universal Ship Cancellation Society (USCS) can help a collector learn about the hobby, learn how and where to send for ship cancellations, provide reference materials for learning about the hobby and provides a well written monthly magazine (the USCS Log), devoted to the hobby. Included in the magazine are monthly cover auctions, articles about the current fleet, and historical articles. Members can also join sales circuits where other members send items they are offering for sale. Another outstanding feature of the Society is the many local chapters where members meet and exchange covers, thoughts and ideas. The Society, founded in 1932, has approximately 1400 members, located in the United States as well as in 15 different countries.
Web Sites of Interest to the Naval Cover Collector