A History of the USCS

Attempting to develop a history of the USCS is certainly a difficult task. Although people have been appointed as official Society historians over the years, there has been little continuity between historians and few if any records have been passed down. The only official records maintained by the Society are the original ledger books where each new member is recorded. These, at least, go back to the beginning of the organization.

One document that can be used to construct a history is the pages of the Society’s official publication, now called the USCS LOG. Although these pages contain much of interest and historical value, it is certain that much else that occurred behind the scenes in the organization never saw print, and there are also few people who have the opportunity to amass a complete collection of this publication, which is now approaching its 1045th issue, or read through all of them.

It is obvious that the history of the Society and its publication go hand in hand. The USCS has always been a nation-wide, and now a world-wide society. The publication is the one thing that can bring together members from throughout the world. For many members, the publication is the only evidence they ever see that there is an organization. The history of the two is very closely entwined. When the publication failed, so did the Society.

We know there were collectors of Naval ship postmarks before the USCS began. Articles on the subject appeared in philatelic publications, and collectors were sending for covers from ships. The national cruise of the U. S. Frigate CONSTITUTION, which began in the summer of 1931, brought the matter to a head. Collectors needed a source of information on the activities of this ship, and others for their collection.

Work on a Society to unite these collectors began in the summer of 1932. Prime movers in the establishment of the new society were York Briddell, a highway engineer from St. Petersburg, Fla., and Alfred E. Newman, a newspaper advertising man from near-by Tampa. Other early officers were Marshall Hall, who worked for a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, and Harold P. Faust of Greensboro, North Carolina. While no exact date has ever been assigned as the founding date of the society, the official ledger book lists Alfred Newman as member number 2 with a date of September 15, 1932. York Briddell issued his first bulletin under the date of October 15, 1932. A simple newsletter, it had no title, merely the insignia that Briddell has designed for the organization, and a heading that read “Bulletin No.1.” The bulletin contained information on the new society, ship movements, and, true to its need, news of a cachet available from the CONSTITUTION.

Briddell titled his new organization the “Universal Ship Cancellation,” with the idea that it would unite all collectors of ship mail. Early bulletins contained as much news of merchant ship movements and covers to send for as it did on Navy ships. Although this continued for a time, and even today there is still occasional merchant ship news in the publication, the emphasis has been on Naval vessels since the mid-1930’s. A chapter of the USCS, the SS SAVANNAH Chapter #54, was formed in 1939 to assist collectors interested in merchant ship and paquebot covers. After World War II, the chapter separated from the USCS and became the Maritime Postmark Society, which operates very successfully today.

Briddell’s mimeographed newsletter served the Society well for a time. In mid-1935, for some reason, there was a drastic change in the Society. Briddell dropped out of the group, and the presidency was assumed by D. C. Bartley, the well-known philatelist and cover sponsor from Seattle, Washington. Bartley appointed H. S. Groat, also of Seattle, as editor, and the publication took on a new look, printed illustrations, and also gained something that it still has to this day-the title “USCS LOG.” Briddell essentially vanished from the Society at this time, although he continued to be listed as “Honorary President” for several years after that, without an address.

The drastic change that occurred at that time is reflected by another serious event that was to affect the Society very much in the next few years. Marshall Hall, one of the founders of the USCS, resigned from the Society to found a new organization, which he called the “American Naval Cancellation Society.” After getting past its initial founding difficulties, the ANCS became the stronger of the two organizations for a few years, essentially until after World War II, and greatly affected USCS recruiting, which fell from the high points it had reached in the mid-1930’s.

Strong political administrations characterize the Society at this point. Paid political advertisements appeared in the LOG at election time. When a new administration took over, virtually all appointive officers changed, including the editorship of the LOG. This resulted in a variety of sizes and shapes for the publication over the years. In the 1940-41 period, it was a 6″ by 9″ booklet (similar, interestingly enough, to the publication of the rival ANCS), printed on glossy paper.

World War II nearly sank the USCS for a time. Almost all of the national officers were called to duty in the military, and practically dropped the Society, leaving it without an administration, publication or treasury. After several months of struggle, Joseph M. Hale of Boston, one of the strengths of the Old Ironsides Chapter, acceded to the presidency, and began publishing the LOG again, as a simple mimeographed bulletin. With war-time shortages, and few funds to operate with, the publication remained in this form through the war. Recruiting understandably fell to an all-time low, with only 19 new members in all of 1942.

The war did bring one pleasant point for the Society-its first woman president. Miss Bertha Thompson, who had assisted Hale in the publication, was elected president in 1942 to succeed Hale. She held the post for two years.

In the immediate post-war years, the strength of the Society seemed to reside in a group of members in southern Connecticut, led by Winfred Grandy in New Haven, who became president in 1945, and Robert Thompson of Wallingford, Conn., who edited the LOG for several years. Although the original copy for the LOG was typewritten, it was commercially printed, which permitted the inclusion of illustrations, very useful for postmark collectors.

In 1948, Robert Matthews of Chicago became president. During his administration, Society dues were increased for the first time in its history, from $1.00 a year to $1.50. The relatively small size of the organization, in the post-war years when many men wanted to forget the military, led to the decision. Matthews also introduced a uniform fiscal year for the Society, beginning on April first, and adopted a standard membership period, rather than having memberships expire continuously throughout the year. Active membership of the Society at this time was about 350.

The late 1940’s also saw the demise of the ANCS, primarily because of personality conflicts in the organization. Its publication ceased, and it was no longer a threat to the USCS. This did not solve all of the Society’s problems, however. Membership and recruiting remained low. Many blame the loss of the old Type 3 and 5 postmarks that were used prior to the war but eliminated afterward. The lack of the killer bar wording certainly made Naval covers less interesting than before.

In 1952, Thompson resigned as editor of the LOG, citing pressures of work. President Herbert F. Rommel, just relieved of command of the destroyer HAYNSWORTH and re-assigned to the Washington D.C. area, assumed the editorship temporarily until a new permanent editor could be found. When Tazewell Nicholson of Norfolk was elected president in the spring of 1952, he finally found Alfred H. Dowle of Downers Grove, III. for editor. Dowle kept most of the techniques of his predecessors, but introduced one thing for the LOG that was to remain with it for nearly 30 years-the “banner.” The banner is the heading on the front page that identifies the publication. After experimenting with other styles during the 1980’s, the banner was returned to the classic Old English lettering in 1991, with the USCS logo replacing the ship from the 1950’s.

Financial figures from this period prove interesting. The total annual budget for 1952 was less than $850, and the cost of one issue of the LOG was $19.00. Today, the USCS will spend over $32,000 per year just to print the magazine. The total Society budget now stands at close to $50,000 a year.

Changes in the Society’s constitution in 1953 introduced further changes in the Society. From the beginning, officers had been elected for one year. Starting with the 1953 elections, officer’s terms were changed to two years. The positions of first and second vice president were also combined into a single vice president position. In 1997, the position of Secretary-Treasurer was split into two positions in recognition of the duties required of these offices.

Things remained quiet through the 1950’s, but the 1960’s saw many changes. One of those that affected the USCS was the development of the American space program. All of the early space missions returned to earth by landing in the oceans, and the Navy assisted in the programs by supplying ships to pick up the astronauts and their space capsules. This in turn resulted in the hobby of collecting covers postmarked aboard the recovery ships. Membership in the USCS grew at a rate not seen since the 1930’s when collectors of these popular covers joined the Society to gain more information on the covers themselves, and the ships they represented. The loss of these members when the space program ended in the mid-1970’s left a void from which the Society still has not fully recovered.

A crisis nearly occurred in the Society in 1963. Calvin Seabold was elected to the critical post of Secretary-Treasurer, but died unexpectedly before he could take office. President Frank Boylan bemoaned his fate at a local chapter meeting in Chicago, and a relatively new member, Howard Koeppen, a private school administrator from Wisconsin, offered to take the job. Koeppen was able to assist the Society in more ways than this. Boylan was then editor of the LOG, still preparing copy by typewriter for printing by a photographic process. Koeppen made arrangements for commercial printing of the LOG with full typesetting and illustration preparation, at a very reasonable cost. Thus the LOG was able to return to commercial printing for the first time since 1941.

When Boylan retired as LOG editor in 1965, Koeppen, by then the president, appointed Jim Klinger of Oak Park, III. as editor. This split editorship-publication process continued for three years more, until President Ray Costa appointed Koeppen editor to simplify publication problems. Koeppen remained as editor and publisher of the LOG until shortly before his death in the summer of 1976.

The 1970’s saw many changes for the USCS. Social, political and economic upheavals in the country affected the organization in a number of ways. Koeppen managed to retain the financially favorable publication arrangement for the LOG in Wisconsin, and the Society was able to continue to operate with very low dues into the mid-1970’s, when other societies were constantly increasing theirs because of increased costs of printing. USCS membership therefore remained high. When the favorable publication arrangement ended shortly after Koeppen’s death, the inevitable increases in dues did not seem to deter members, and the Society’s membership remained near the 1,500 level for almost forty years. This permited the publication high quality, professionally printed magazine which undoubtedly accounts for the faithfulness of the membership.

Editorship of the USCS LOG was taken over by LaRita and Martin Longseth, friends and co-chapter members of Koeppen’s, on his death. They eventually moved publication to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin where it remained until the beginning of 1981 when they resigned as editors, and Stanton Honeyman of New Britain, Conn., a Society past president, became editor. Jim Klinger became editor in 1984 followed by Bob Rawlins in 1989. Under Bob’s editorship, the LOG expanded from 16 pages to the current 32 page issue, taking on a very professional look and content. Richard D. Jones became editor in January 2000 and continues in this position. During this period, the Log was printed now printed in color in Dallas, Texas, Leesburg, Florida  and is currently being printed in Toledo, Ohio.

Those serving as President in the 80’s: LaRita Longseth, Dave Kent, Frank Hoak III, James Myerson, Richard Hoffner and Jackson Bosley. In 1988 Bob Rawlins compiled and edited the Naval Cover Cachet Makers Catalog. This catalog was the first effort to list all individuals and organizations that sponsored, designed or produced naval covers.

Those serving as President in the 1990’s were: Jackson Bosley, James Smith, Paul Huber, Richard Hoffner and C.B.Hall. In 1997 the Catalog of United States Naval Postmarks, Fifth Edition was printed. Dave Kent worked with a group of members as Editor in Chief to bring this work to completion. This represented a complete updating of the Postmark Catalog and marked the first time since 1939 that the entire fleet was covered in a single edition. The initial printing sold out in 2001 and is now available as a photocopied reprint or on a Flash drive.

For the new millennium, USCS Presidents have been Richard Morain, Paul Helman, Steve Henderson, Jim Dobbins, Don Tjossem and Richard D. Jones. A new century and new technology has brought changes in publications, the Cachet Maker Catalog became available on DVD and now on Flash drive and the Postmark Catalog and other USCS research publications are now available on Flash drive. Additionally, during this period, Log editor Richard Jones introduced the eLOG an electronic version of the Log sent as a pdf file via email to members requesting that format.

In September 2017, USCS negotiated the assignment of copyright to the Naval Cover Museum from the creator Paul Bunter. The Universal Ship Cancellation Society Naval Cover Museum is a virtual museum that exists only on the Internet. The Museum collection consists of thousands of scanned images of Naval Covers or parts of Naval Covers and is accessed via several indexes.

The Society’s present membership has slowly declined as many early members have aged out. Although the membership is concentrated mostly among those who have joined in the last 20 years, the Society is proud that it has many members who joined the Society more than 25 years ago. We even have over 70 members who joined more than 50 years ago as of late 2020.

The USCS has members in all 50 states. The states with the highest membership are California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. 14 foreign countries boast members of the Society, with the bulk of them in Germany, Belgium and United Kingdom, with a smattering in other countries.

The Society has held a total of 63 conventions, the last held in San Francisco in 2019, marking a continuous string of annual conventions going back to 1964. The first convention was held in 1940. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the proposed 64th convention was cancelled and the annual board of directors meeting was held using internet access through ZOOM.

The Universal Ship Cancellation Society is widely respected throughout the philatelic community as the only organization devoted to the study and collecting of postmarks from Naval ships. It is also most likely the oldest specialized postal history organization in the country. Over 12,600 people have joined the Society since its founding in 1932. Perhaps it’s the connection with the romance of the sea, or the quality of membership benefits. Maybe it’s the fellowship of the members, who are widely known as the friendliest of people. Whatever, the Society is now at the strongest point in its history, at the age of eighty-seven.