Bonus: Stamp Calamity!

The idea was to do a quick-and-easy essay for this month as I work on my upcoming foray into the stamps of British southern, eastern and central Africa. My idea was to offer “out-takes” as a follow-up to last month’s essay, “Stamps on My Wall.” That is, I would present the several framed stamps and sheets that have resided for the past couple of years in a box in my basement, because there simply isn’t enough room on my walls for all of them.

Imagine my consternation when I descended to the basement the other day and delved into the box holding the frames, only to discover that they had suffered from water damage.


Pictured above is some of the detritus from my efforts to salvage the ruined stamps from their frames. Notice some stamps are still stuck to a frame. Below is the box that held the frames, now flattened with other water-damaged boxes and ready to recycle.

Water! The bane of every mint stamp collector’s existence. Water is the arch-enemy of philately (except when it is used to soak off used stamps that date back to the days before pre-moistened stamps of today, which are difficult if not impossible to remove from their paper backing). Short of cutting, creasing, spindling or otherwise mutilating, fullsizeoutput_343enothing can ruin the value of a mint stamp quicker than a drop of water.

Living in high-humidity regions can be dangerous for mint stamps in a collection. A sticky climate can induce mint stamps to stick, forming a bond that usually cannot be remedied. Imagine the stamp collections  ruined by hurricanes and flooding. It’s enough to send chills up the spine of my stamp album. I come unhinged at the thought.

In my case, the culprit was not meteorological, but rather a burst hot-water heater in my house that left several inches of water in the basement. Like a real knucklehead, I had neglected to store the box with my framed stamps above floor level. Even worse: I thought I had it safely stored, so I took my time checking it. The cardboard absorbed water, some of of the moisture seeped through to contaminate the frames and the stamps inside. Eek!

As it happened, I was out of town when the water heater broke, so it was left to wife Chris to manage the emergency response. Restoration workers did a fine job of pumping the water out of the basement, installing a  new sump pump and saving what they could. A new hot-water heater was installed and we were back in business. By the time I got home, there was little more to be done than a final reckoning and mopping up. When I finally got around to examining the box with the stamp frames in it, there seemed no way to undo the damage. 

Just about my only consolation in this minor disaster was my decision to use the  mishap as the basis for this month’s essay! 


Here is the pile of damaged stamps I reclaimed from the waterlogged box of framed sets and sheets. Peeking out at the lower left is part of a complete sheet of gray, 1-pfennig stamps from the early days of the German Federal Republic. There also are three U.S. sets — a series of four bicentennial sheets from 1976, portraits of the (dead) presidents as of 1986, and a 20-stamp set from 2000  featuring different iterations of the American flag. At top left you will see one more sheet — the 1-cent kestrel from the lengthy, multi-year U.S. flora and fauna set (1990-2001).

My salvage operation began with an inventory. Nearly every stamp in the box had been affected. Some of the eight frames were still damp as I dismantled them — which occasionally proved beneficial, as the stamps and sheets were still movable. But any hope of retrieving mint stamps with gum intact was gone. Some stamps stuck to the glass and began to tear as I tried to free them. Others had dried to their paper backing, though it turned out more than a few stamps yielded to patient probing and came unstuck — without intact gum, to be sure.  

Since I no longer have an intact set of the bicentennial souvenir sheets, I must borrow an image of them, for your reference, from the current Mystic Stamp Co. catalog (see below).



The handsome paintings depict four scenes from the revolutionary era — the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington reviewing his troops in winter at Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware, and the surrender at Yorktown.  The series was issued May 29, 1976. In July, the international philatelic exposition Interphil was held in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time. My friend George was visiting, and we spent hours on a stamp jag. Needless to say, it was an exciting time for this philatelist. Don’t ask me why, but the U.S. Postal Service had decided in fullsizeoutput_3453its wisdom to issue a four-stamp set July 4, displaying a wider view of the same painting that appeared on one of the souvenir sheets — signing of the Declaration — with the inscription, “July 4, 1776.” (see right). I took advantage of the situation by affixing that set, along with the souvenir sheet containing a detail of the same design, to an oversize envelope bearing  a “cachet” (engraved design), and stood in line for the coveted first-day cancellation,  creating the unusual cover you see below.


I know I have strayed from my account of the Stamp Calamity, but I just wanted you to know I didn’t ruin all of my bicentennial sheet paraphernalia. Accordingly, I  include two more  bits of data on that subject, just for fun.  First, here’s an odd cover fullsizeoutput_3456I concocted back in May 1976, when the Bicentennial souvenir sheets were issued (see right). First I broke up one of the “Yorktown” sheets, and must have used three of the five embedded stamps for postage on letters. The other two stamps, still intact with the sheet remnant, I stuck to a commemorative envelope, put my address on it and had it sent to me across town through the mail, complete with the first-day cancel. Any idea what a partial first-day cover is worth? 

Finally, I have  one more related cover to show you. It’s the bicentennial sheet with the well-known painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington crossing the Delaware River Dec. 25, 1776, to defeat the British-allied Hessian troops at Trenton and  turn the tide of the Revolutionary War. Using an envelope with a special cachet, I attached the sheet to the cover. On Christmas Day 1976, I drove the 40 miles north to the tiny village of Washington Crossing, near New Hope, Pa. There I had the sheet specially cancelled at a local postal station set up for the occasion to mark the precise bicentennial of Washington’s Crossing at that spot. Lots of historical resonance in the resulting cover,  which you see below. It’s unusual, to be sure, and worth … not much, probably. (sjgh)


OK, back to my Stamp Calamity. Here I am, left with the detritus of what were once handsome frames of philatelic interest.  However,  “detritus” may not be the right word. True,  the mint stamps I was able to recover were no longer of much value — as mint stamps. Any added value over the ensuing decades since their release was gone as well. However, the stamps all held their “face value” — that is, an 18-cent stamp was still worth 18 cents, when used for mailing purposes. I could use a glue stick to “gum” the backs and stick them on an envelope. Three 18-centers and a 1-center would make today’s first-class postage rate of 55 cents.




fullsizeoutput_344fNow consider: I have recovered each of the five stamps on the bicentennial sheets (pictured above). Removed from their surroundings in the damaged sheets, they take on a whole different aspect. If you examine them one by one, you may conclude, as I do,  that some of them work better than others (Row 1, second from the right, fit pretty bad; also Row 3, far left and far right; or  any in Row 2). I imagine the painter Emanuel Leutze might take exception to having his classical portrayal of Washington crossing the Delaware dismantled into an awkward series of five stamps (see Row 4).

Here’s my idea: Use each of these stamps, in some combination, on letters I send to loved ones in coming days. As I frequently do when sending my indulgent loved ones unusual stamps as postage, I will note “please save” on the envelope, with an arrow pointing to the stamps. With any luck, I eventually will be able to accumulate a collection of these odd stamps in used condition. And they are odd. Let’s face it: Those bicentennial sheets were meant to be collected, not used for postage. Cancelled examples of the individual stamps probably are not very common. Indeed, if you check the current price of the sheets in the Mystic catalogue, you will notice the price for used examples is the same as for mint ones. 

Just a couple more items. You will recall I recovered a sheet of 1-pfennig German stamps that sustained a little damage. I kept it and stowed it away, not knowing quite what to do with it (I bought the 100-stamp sheet at the post office in Heidelberg, Germany in 1962 for 100 pfennigs — 1 mark, then worth a quarter). Today the stamp is hardly worth anything, so it’s no great loss, I guess. Below is another sheet of 1-pfennig stamps I bought at the same time, this one featuring the Brandenburg Gate. It’s also not worth much, and I don’t know its exact condition because I left it in the frame. One dispiriting hint is the appearance of puckering along the right side of the sheet.  (see below)


fullsizeoutput_3449The last two frames I offer for your inspection, at right, represent a considerable labor of love on my part. I patiently accumulated cancelled copies of each one of the 50 values in the 20-cent state-birds-and-flowers series of 1982. (Back then I was a newspaperman and had access to tons of mail.) Then I mounted the set, in alphabetical order of the states, on two grids and framed them. Cute, eh? At first the frames didn’t appear to have suffered damage, but when I started to lift the glass out of one frame, some of the stamps  stuck and fullsizeoutput_344dstarted to come apart. I stopped immediately, returned the glass to the frame and let it be. What to do now? Since these are used stamps, I suppose I could soak them off in water (!) and even assemble another two-frame display

On the other hand, I just might take these two frames, and the frame with the Brandenburg Gate 1-pfennig sheet, maybe even that other 1-pfennig sheet I stowed away, and … put them on all my wall! 















In conclusion, let’s not call this a major calamity after all. The face value of all the damaged stamps came to less than 20 bucks. None of them have grown appreciably in value. The stamps are still valid for postage, and I was able to recover most of them in usable condition.  

Still, it’s a humbling experience, and an embarrassing one for a guy who considers himself  such a big-deal collector that he presumes to carry on a blog called the “FMF Stamp Project.”