Witnessing history

I’m about to share a curious little artefact that recently crossed my radar, but first, let’s talk a bit about a current development in postal history.

Postal history looks beyond mere ‘stamp collecting’ to how the mail system works, now or in the past. It centres on whole items of mail (mainly what normal people might call ‘envelopes’). The materials used, and the postal markings applied, become clues to unlocking the wider story of how the mail system operates, the rates in force, the innovations that unfold along the way, and the challenges that lie in its path. Where stamp collectors snorkel happily along on the surface and look at the fish, postal historians strap on aqualungs and deep-dive into history, poking their fingers into sea urchins and grasping other strange wobbly creatures lying on the ocean floor.

My analogy might have gotten out of hand.

Crash course

Some postal history can be dry (but if that’s your thing, that’s OK by me). Entire collections have been built around the development of mail in a certain location, or along a certain railway line. Shipping routes, air mail, the opening and closing of specific post offices… all this is fair game.

Some of the more engaging corners of postal history aren’t about things going right, but things going wrong. Through hastily applied postmarks, you can re-live sinkings, derailments, mail theft, postal strikes, and delays caused by war or natural disasters. Postmarks or advisory notices can record official procedures like fumigation or wartime inspection by censors. In the case of an item I saw that both troubled and delighted me, a damaged letter arrived at its destination with an apology from New Zealand Post explaining that somebody had slipped an eel into a post box. (Probably a postal historian taking my analogy too literally.)

This is one of the rare corners of philately where damaged goods can be worth more than the premium stuff. Collectors will pay top dollar for a letter that was in a plane crash, and has the burns and official postmarks to show it. The Smithsonian Institution’s Postal Museum website has a brief overview of this field, which you can get to by clicking this image that I borrowed. Mr Schoonbrod can count himself lucky that this letter somehow survived the flames of the Hindenberg diaster.

Image: National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution

If you’re REALLY into this idea, you might want to join an organisation like the Wreck & Crash Mail society, and enjoy its wonderfully named newsletter, La Catastrophe. It publishes books like the one shown nearby: Dale Speirs’s The History of Mail Bombs. (Perhaps something to wave menacingly around in front of your friends next time they mock you for collecting stamps.)

History of Mail Bombs Dale Speirs

This society doesn’t seem to have much of an online presence, but there is a website. It contains handy links to resources that will help identify which railroad accident, air crash, or shipwreck your item survived.

Imagine if the website crashed.

Pandemic nightmare: the upside

Let’s talk about the catastrophe we’re living through right now. I probably don’t need to explain to you what COVID is or what it has done to us, but suffice to say it produced an almost instantaneous shutdown of international postal services in 2020… just as postal operators were suddenly expected to home-deliver pretty much everything to everyone on the planet.

But COVID has also been a strange boon to philately. I’ve previously covered the reported boom in lockdown stamp collecting (and hello to you if you’re one of our newly-minted collectors). There is also now a whole new topical collecting field, as many nations have rushed out COVID-themed stamps.

But thirdly, COVID has created a community of postal history collectors who are relishing the chance to compile a philatelic record of a major postal disruption as it unfolds around them. By reading old threads at online chat boards like Stamp Bears, Stamp Community and Stampboards, you can relive the story of COVID. In early 2020, there is confusion and disbelief as stores close, events are cancelled and mail gets delayed. Then the COVID stamp issues start showing up, and before long the postal history aspect of the pandemic comes to be recognised. Present-day archivists are now furiously recording the public-service postmarks being thunked onto mail around the world, and the instructional markings being applied to mail that is delayed or rejected.

For more on collecting COVID (the philately, not the disease), take a look at Jean Wang’s online presentation for the North Toronto Stamp Club. Canadian Stamp News ran an article also drawing upon Jean’s knowledge. She is an award-winning exhibitor, and clearly her spider senses have picked up on this field as something worth pursuing.

Over at the American Philatelic Society’s now extensive archive of Web Chats, Gary Loew (editor-in-chief of the American Philatelist) led an online chat in which collectors shared  their experiences and observations of the COVID era. It’s called Philately in the Time of COVID-19.

COVID-themed philatelic artefacts also touch on Social Philately, which looks at the interaction of the postal system with broader areas of society. Social collections can include non-philatelic material as part of telling the story. As an example, the development of a particular area’s tourism industry might be told not just with stamps depicting the region or postcards coming and going; it might also include tourist brochures and newspaper reports.

Lockdown and rebirth

And so, to today’s feature item. For privacy, I won’t depict it in full, but in philatelic terms, it’s an ‘entire’: a letter inside its envelope. It was a domestic letter, mailed from one address to another in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne, capital of the state of Victoria, suffered Australia’s worst outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. On 5 August, there were 725 active cases recorded; two days later, there were 6,768.

Amid this grim trajectory, the state government didn’t mess around: an extreme lockdown was instigated, and Melburnians spent much of 2020 in their homes. Borders were closed, families were parted, the economy took a massive hit, jobs were lost, parents did it tough as kids were homeschooled, and mental health became an even more pressing issue. A city renowned for its culinary, cultural and sporting vitality became a ghost town.

But here’s the thing: it worked. This week, Victoria marked a month without a locally-transmitted case of COVID-19. There are no active cases (although they pop up occasionally in returned travellers, and have caused one short ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown since). Melburnians are once again wining and dining, obliged to wear masks only in the most crowded of areas. Its Comedy Festival, hastily cancelled last year, opened this week, and football crowds are back in huge numbers at the famous MCG stadium. The vaccine has only JUST arrived.

This story forms the background to the stamp on this envelope. It’s the first hint that this is a COVID-era cover. Australia Post recently launched what it calls ‘MyStamps’, marking the final capitulation of its stamp issuing program to the selfie generation. The honour and prestige of being depicted on the nation’s stamps is a thing of the past; now, all it takes is to hand over $14 more than it costs for twenty regular stamps, and your face can have pride of place on your mail.

I suspect these stamps will be shanghaied into service to mark all sorts of other occasions, and – oh! Here comes one now. ‘Let’s Melbourne Again’ is a campaign to celebrate Melbourne awaking from its lockdown slumber. Driven by a group of corporate interests, including Australia Post, it aims “to make Melbourne, Melbourne again.”

Australia 2021 Let's Melbourne Again $1.10 stamp

(‘Melbourne’, verb: to wear all black to an art gallery while discussing how the current injury list at your Australian Football League club will impact its finals chances, then complain about how you still can’t find a decent café latté in Sydney, as you order the ten-course degustation menu at the nearest food truck.)

But I can’t deny it: ‘Let’s Melbourne Again’ is a beautiful stamp, if you can forgive the scissor-cut edge of the MyStamp heart design. It’s a morning view of the eastern end of the CBD, perched over the River Yarra and a span of the ornate Princes Bridge. Admittedly, you might have to be a local to appreciate the indefinable grey blob in the middle. (And aren’t those iStock images cheap to licence, Aussie Post?) What you can’t see in this stamp is the post-COVID boom in outdoor eating along the river, brought about as the nearby restaurants spilled outside to safely seat more patrons. I walk across this river twice every day, and in the southern summer evenings, the fairy lights reflected in the Yarra waters have lent the locale a wonderful Parisian feel, made just a little more magical by the fact that, after so many months, no one is wearing a mask and we can all see each other’s faces.

So that’s the outside of the cover: a little bit of postal history interest (point A to point B, a mail centre, the date), but undoubtedly a fantastic usage item for the COVID thematic collector. And by sheer fluke, a Red Cross ‘Supporting Australians’ postmark, too, which is almost on topic, and WAY more interesting a cancellation than most covers pick up in the Australian system these days.

Australia 2021 Melbourne Covid letter

But it’s what’s inside this envelope that I simply had to share. Again, I’ll keep personal details private, but here’s the gist.

It is fairly quickly apparent that this letter, though hand-written, is the equivalent of a cold-call. The writer does not know the recipient; it’s addressed to ‘Dear Householder’. It seeks to offer a comforting message. It touches on the concept of government, segueing quickly to a quote from a Biblical passage, then linking ‘government’ to talk of God’s Kingdom. The letter wraps up with a hope that one day soon, a chat in person might be possible; in the meantime, it invites the recipient to visit a website with the name of ‘jw.org’.

Did you catch the twist?

‘jw.org’ is the website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This letter is a COVID-era equivalent of a knock at the door from a pair of your friendly local Witnesses.

Melbourne’s (and the world’s) stringent lockdown put a line through the ‘business model’ of any organisation relying on doorknocking as its first point of contact. Were it not for COVID, and the lockdowns, this letter – and even the stamp on its envelope – simply would not exist. This letter is a philatelic artefact brought about by what is going on in the ‘outside world’ right now.

The recipient was most grateful that his would-be proselytizers chose to write a letter instead of knocking on his door, mask or no mask. I’m also most grateful to the recipient for thinking to pass it on to me. And I hope the letter-writer doesn’t mind if I say that I am VERY grateful for this delightful piece of social philately.

Preach the word of philately to the unconverted! You can also come and knock on my door at FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities

2 thoughts on “Witnessing history

Add yours

  1. Hello Gerard!

    What a great piece of postal history! I’m kinda jealous 😊. Did you know that Aus Post also produced a slogan cancel along with the stamp? It was used only at the DLC letter facility for about a month.

    Also thank you for the lovely shout out. The presentation I gave to the NTSC was early on and I later gave a couple of updates, the latest of which was for the ATA series Fall for Topicals. That talk was organized thematically rather than by type of philatelic item – in other words I talked about different aspects of the pandemic and illustrated the story with stamps, slogans, postal stationery, etc. There’s been so much stuff issued since the beginning of the pandemic that one could put together an entire thematic exhibit just with this material!

    Here’s the link to the ATA page that lists all the Fall for Topicals presentations. Mine is at the bottom.


    I’ve been busy with work but will try to drop in to the Portal today to say hi.

    Best Jean

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great story (as usual)!
    Having said that, I’m not a big fan of postal history. I don’t deny that its rich but too many works is required when you start digging in it.

    I know, I’m lazy…

    But i found your story very interesting. I guess you can call it modern postal history. Nevertheless, it was interesting.
    I also want to focus on how Melbourne dealt with the virus. That is awesome! I’m looking on how things are going in Europe and thr American continent, its a real mess there!
    People should stop complaining and look whats been dond in Australia (not to mention New Zealand and Thailand (where i live).
    We have a normal life now.

    Anyway, stay safe and maybe one day I’ll give myself a kick in the butt and start investing time in postal history.


    Liked by 1 person

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