Navophilately Before the USCS, 1930-32
by John P. Young (USCS 8219)
Naval post offices have been in existence since the cruise of the Great White Fleet, 1907-09, when they were authorized by Congress (Act of May 27, 1908). The Navy Department implemented the Congressional Act with General Order#14, dated June 17, 1908 and the first post office was established aboard the battleship, USS ILLINOIS (BB-7) July 8,1908. Naval post offices were branches of the New York Post Office, and mail clerks were approved by the Navy Department, but appointed by the Post Office Department.
Duringthe round-the-world cruise, sailors sent penny postcards from foreign ports which were posted aboard the ships. Letters to family and friends were saved, along with the envelopes that bore the ship’s cancellations. The actual collecting of naval postmarks probably began after the return of the battleships from the cruise.
In 1912, the International Postmark Society (IPS) was founded by postmark collectors who were interested in the collecting of postmarks. Among the specialists of the time were collectors of stampless covers, rare cancellations and other material more difficult to acquire than ordinary modern postmarks. In the latter category were ship, censored, air mail and naval covers.
The IPS was reorganized in October, 1930 and became the International Postal Marking Society (IPMS). It’s purpose was to promote, research and encourage the study and collection of postal impressions placed on all mail matter by authorized government employees. In the days before stamped or printed cachets, naval cancellation collectors cut the comer of the envelope (2×4 inch rectangles) that bore the stamp and postmark of the ship. One collector, James Merritt, in November 1932 offered for sale 50 naval postmarks for 50 cents.
In November 1930, there were nearly 30 naval cover collector among the chartered members of the IPMS. Included were collectors and dealers such as George Rorabeck, Albert Gorham, Howard Egolf, Edward Ceska, LCDR Francis Lacy, James Merritt, Martin Neuser and William Hornbeck. By the Spring of 1931, the Society would include M.M. Grey, C. Nagle Miller, Walt Crosby, Harold Faust, William Evans and Chester Knowlson.
The IPMS started a “Naval Postmark Unit”, similar to a study group with the purpose of exchanging information among the naval collectors. George Rorabeck was named director and set up an exchange department to trade covers. Collectors listed their duplicate covers or naval postmark cuts by ship, year of cancel, color of cancel and whether the postmark was obsolete or current. (Remember, this was during the depression, money was tight and it only cost two cents to mail a letter – the three cents rate became effective July 6, 1932). The list was sent to a collector, who would cross off the covers or cuts he desired and forward it to the cover owner. No money was exchanged and covers were traded between collectors on an even basis, that is, cover for cover, year for year, and postmarks type for type. All naval postmarks were expected to be clean and readable.
During the first 20 years of naval post offices, the ships used a variety of postmarks and, thanks to the research and study by LCDR. Francis Locy, we have a system of postmark type classification. A serious naval postmark and cover collector of the 1920s, Locy defined nine major postmark types and other variations in naval postmarks. His research was first published in the APS Journal American Philatelists in February, 1929 and later, after his death, in the Naval Postmarks Unit newsletter Naval Postmarks as a tribute to his research.
In Locy’s study of 495 type 3 naval postmarks, he found 272 regular type 3 hand cancel and 175 of the type 3 with serifs letters. These variations led him to break down the classification system further by using 22 letters of the alphabet to identify the many other small variations that he had cataloged in his survey.
Locy further found that some killer bars were spaced a little further apart or turned in or out in later usage. These variations were thought to be the result of distortion or loosening of the killer bars. The distortions may have been caused by conditions aboard the ship, such as extremes of heat, moisture and rough handling or repeated wear and tear on the canceling device. Distortions were also noted in the shape of the circle in the type 3 or 5 hand cancels. Locy’s theory on postmark distortions can be seen in studying a collection of covers from USS BROOKS (DD-232). From the destroyer’s recommissioning on April 1, 1932 through mid 1934, the mail clerk, Charles Olasky, cancelled many covers with the type 5 stamp. The hand stamp first lost two killer bars and, before the summer was over, the lower half of circle was cut away.
The IPMS Naval Postmark Unit began to publish a newsletter, called Naval Postmarks as a supplement to the IPMS Postal Markings. The three issues, October and November 1932 and February 1933, included information on Locy’s naval postmark classification chart, the East Coast Cruise of USF CONSTITUTION (Old Ironsides) and a check-list of naval vessels (A to S) and their known postmarks, complied by George Rorabeck.
One issue reported that the mail clerk aboard Old Ironsides, Harry Moore, posted upwards of 400,000 envelopes on the East Coast cruise from September 10,1931 through April 16, 1932. One stamp, the 2ft Yorktown issue of 1931 received some first day of issue (FDOI) cancels aboard on October 19th, while the ship was docked in Yorktown, V A. A special cachet was made for the CONSTITUTION to commemorated the George Washington Bicentennial and Navy Day, 1932 and the mail clerk applied 33,165 impressions of that cachet and the same number of postmarks.
Other information in these newsletters included the recommissioning of 15 four-piper destroyers to the Rotating Reserve Squadron 20 in Philadelphia (by Chester Knowlson). An ad, by William Evans of Norfolk. offered the sale of a collection of 350 different naval covers. 40 of the covers posted before 1920. In another issue, the names of 102 destroyers and their mail clerks was published along with another ad for the sale of decommissioning covers from the battleship USS FLORIDA (BB-30) by L. Eugene Klotzback of Buffalo, NY. These covers were sold for $1.00 each and came with colored postmarks of red, purple, green, and blue.
In November, 1932, the North Bay Stamp Club, Vallejo, CA had several naval collectors and attempted to merge with the Naval Postmark Unit of the IPMS to provide a mailer near Mare Island to handle a cover service for West Coast ships. The North Bay Stamp Club was Chapter #95 of the American Philatelic Society and, according to it’s October, 1932 Monthly Bulletin, had 210 Associate members. The club’s Secretary, Roy H. Sherman and Assistant Secretary, Harold H. Conner, both of Vallejo, CA issued a three page newsletter with more than half of it devoted to naval cancels, their 1932 Navy Day cachet to be used at Mare Island and the club’s naval cancellation cover service. More than a third of a page was devoted to an obituary of LCDR. Locy. In this copy, there was mention of a society whose scope was the collection of all marine postmarks, both naval and merchant, being formed in Florida. Anyone interested in this group was to send a stamp-ad- dressed envelope to York Briddell, PO Box 668, St. Petersburg, Florida.
By the third supplement to the IPMS newsletter in February, 1933, the IPMS Naval Postmark unit had it’s third Director, Allan Schmahl of Buffalo, New York. In his first letter to members, Schmal stated that the hobby of collecting naval cancels was headed for disaster. The spectacular over-inflation caused by ready made, hand picked covers and unofficial cover cachets was spreading like a cancerous growth and navy mail clerks were becoming disgusted with the requests of collectors and dealers. In that issue, the second Director, Harold Faust, of Greensboro, North Carolina resigned for business reasons. This was the same Harold Faust who started the Universal Ship Cancellation Society with York Briddell, Alfred E. Neuman, P.J. Ickeringill, Marshall R. Hall and 49 charter members of the new society by December 15, 1932. The Naval Postmark Unit was short-lived after the formation of the USCS, as there were no more IPMS newsletter supplements.
Thanks to the early naval cover collectors and the mail clerks who used the type 3 hand stamp, we can find a truly amazing assortment of event cancels. Especially popular were holiday cancels such as Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday, Independence, Memorial and Flag Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Navy Day, celebrated on October 27th each year, was a special day to celebrate the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, considered the Father of the “American Steel Navy.” This day was particularly popular with cachet makers and cover sponsors.
The United States began to rebuild the Navy in the 1930s, and naval covers recorded the main events in a ship’s life, such as keel laying, launching, commissioning, First Day of Postal Service and Shakedown Cruise port visits.
At times, the ship did not receive her postmark before her commissioning date; this was especially true of the heavy cruisers built in the early 1930s. For example, USS HOUSTON (CA-30), commissioned June 17,1930 used a straight-line cancel on September 21, 1930; her first day of postal service on February 6, 1931 noted ENROUTE/ASIATIC STA between the killer bars. USS CHICAGO (CA-29) was commissioned on March 9, 1931 and cacheted covers bore a fancy type hand stamp to commemorate the event. The cachet was provided by the North Bay Stamp Club of Vallejo, California. The cruiser’s first day of postal service with her type 5 hand stamp was March 14, 1931.
USCS membership grew quickly and created the naval covers from battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and auxiliaries which are still plentiful today. Thanks to people like LCDR Locy and other early naval cancellation collectors, we have an interested and active body of naval cover lovers today.