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This is the story of some exceedingly rare early Texas postage stamps and the small-town postmasters who brought them to life. These extraordinary stamps were printed and sold during the Civil War years in Victoria, Goliad, Beaumont, Austin, Gonzales, and a few other Texas towns by postmasters struggling to handle hardships presented to them by the Confederate Post Office Department. The United States Post Office had provided these Texas towns with an abundant supply of stamps, and both the postmasters and their patrons were accustomed to their use. The Confederate postal authorities, however, were unable to keep stamps readily available, making it more difficult for Texans to send their mail. To alleviate this problem, some enterprising Texas postmasters simply printed and sold their own stamps to stop the complaints of their customers. These rare local stamps that they created on a whim have become so desirable and coveted by collectors that a small group of them sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars in a New York auction in 2009.
This is also a tale of a few early Texas philatelists, or stamp collectors, who, once they learned of the existence of these crudely designed and printed stamps, went searching for examples for their own collections. These were some very industrious folks who devoted years of their lives to their search. As new discoveries were made, or additional copies of previously known stamps were found, these early collectors would freely share the news with the growing number of serious philatelists in this country and abroad. As news spread, other collectors, of course, wanted examples for their own albums.
Thus, this is also a tale of the early great collectors of the entire world of philately, the fabulously wealthy members and heirs of European royal families and immensely wealthy American industrialists, as well as the dealers who strove to serve them. These many eyes were all watching the serious philatelic journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and as new discoveries were reported by those indefatigable Texans, the desire for examples of these rare stamps increased even more.
As with any tale involving rare and incredibly valuable objects of desire, one can expect to hear accounts of greed, mystery, and intrigue, of philatelic fakers of the nineteenth century and common criminals of the twentieth century. As the tale unfolds, the names and families involved in the telling will include the well known and the obscure, in both Texas and American history, as well as in international philately. The story will also be affected by cataclysmic events such as world wars and depressions. It is an unending tale, one that will likely never be entirely told. Indeed, as recently as 2008, a fortuitous discovery was made of two more copies of these rare stamps that had been hiding in plain sight for about fifty years in the reference and forgery collection of one of the country's largest stamp dealers, where they had been placed by an employee who doubtless considered them to be forgeries.
Difficult Times for Southern Postmasters and Their Customers
In the summer of 1861, Texas postmasters were in a quandary. They had no stamps to sell. The Confederate Post Office Department took over all postal operations in the seceded states on June 1, 1861, but for a period of several months was unable to provide postage stamps to its post offices. The new Confederate postmaster general, John H. Reagan, of Texas, was able to offer a number of fairly valid reasons for this to other government officials who were looking over his shoulder, but the exasperated postal patrons, now accustomed to the ease and simplicity of readily available stamps at the post office, were not satisfied.
And this situation was not unique to Texas, either. All across the South, merchants, attorneys, businessmen, and family members bemoaned the disappearance of these small bits of paper that had made corresponding with friends and relations so much easier since they came into use a few years earlier.
One complainant, in the Richmond, Virginia, Daily Examiner newspaper, noted on September 26, 1861, after almost four months without stamps:
Postage Stamps—the want of this necessary accommodation in Richmond, to which our people have become used under the old Washington government, is felt to be a most serious inconvenience by all who rely on the Postal Department of the Confederate government as a means of communication … It seems to be conceded that something ought to be done to allay the growing discontent.
Most Texans in 1861 were probably satisfied with the mail service provided by that "old Washington government." Post offices were widespread in Texas at the time, and a 3-cent stamp would carry a letter up to 3,000 miles, which for a Texan was just about anywhere in the country.
The previous decade had seen some major changes in the way mail was sent and the way Americans communicated with one another. Postage stamps were first issued by the United States in 1847. There was a 5-cent red-brown stamp bearing a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, which paid for letters being sent under 300 miles, and a black 10-cent stamp showing George Washington, which was for letters being sent farther than 300 miles. (Only a handful of Texas post offices got a supply of these beautifully engraved 1847 stamps, and letters from Texas bearing these stamps are exceedingly rare and sought after by today's stamp collectors.)
Postage rates were changed in 1851 to 3 cents for a distance of up to 3,000 miles (or 5 cents if the letter was sent unpaid with postage to be paid by the recipient). This change brought forth a new series of stamps with a 3-cent featuring Washington and a 5-cent with Thomas Jefferson's portrait. They were supplied to post offices in full panes of 100 stamps each, already gummed on the back but without perforations, thus requiring the postal clerk or patron to cut them apart with scissors.
A few other postal innovations in the 1850s made the mails much more user-friendly. By the mid-1850s, envelopes as we know them came into widespread use, thus making it easy for a letter or note to be written on any sheet or scrap of paper and sealed without resorting to the bother of sealing wax. In 1855, the post office regulation allowing letters to be sent unpaid, or "collect," was dropped, and by January 1, 1856, all letters were required to be prepaid with the necessary postage stamps affixed to them.
The last innovation arrived in 1857, when perforating machines came into use and perforated stamps as we know them today became available. In the late 1850s these perforated stamps were widely available, even in tiny post offices throughout Texas.
So when the Confederate Post Office Department became responsible for the mails on June 1, 1861, Texans had, for at least four years, been accustomed to a convenient mail system. One simply bought a 3-cent stamp, licked it, stuck it on an envelope, and dropped it off at the post office. And by keeping a few extra envelopes and perforated 3-cent stamps on hand, one could prepare and drop off letters even when the post office was closed. The first big change when the Confederate government took control of the mails was an increase in the postage rate from 3 cents to either 5 cents or 10 cents. Letters traveling less than 500 miles were charged 5 cents, while those going longer distances had to pay 10 cents. (Just over a year later, on July 1, 1862, the rate for all letters became 10 cents.)
Confederate Postmaster General Reagan was from the East Texas town of Palestine. He had served as a member of the United States House of Representatives before the war, and he reluctantly agreed to take charge of the Post Office Department for the new Confederate government. Reagan was determined to provide postage stamps printed from "skillfully prepared steel dies and plates," which by 1861 were in use in many countries, beautifully portraying kings, queens, founding fathers, and national symbols as exquisite miniature works of art. But he quickly ran into the same problem that bedeviled Southern attempts to acquire manufactured goods all through the war years. Most firms that produced such goods were in the more industrialized North. Reagan calculated the South's stamp needs to be around 260,000 per day for normal mail levels, and he could find no engraver in the South who could provide more than 80,000 per day. He finally arranged for lithographed stamps to be supplied by the small Richmond firm of Hoyer and Ludwig, and these stamps, in gummed sheets but without perforations, were issued on October 16, 1861, fully four and a half months after Reagan's Post Office Department had assumed control of the mails. The inadequate supplies of stamps, he later lamented, "only serve to increase the public discontent, as they are insufficient to meet the demands of even the principal cities."
So how did these postmasters in Texas (and the other Southern states) handle this "no stamps" situation? They improvised. They did the best they could. Reagan effectively left it up to them to figure it out. His only instructions required merely that "all postage must be paid in money," whether stamps were available or not. To complicate matters further, silver coins began to disappear from circulation, making transactions even more difficult. Many postmasters reverted to the old practice of a few years earlier, before the advent of stamps, by simply marking letters "Paid," either with handwriting or with a small handstamp postmarking device. All of this meant that trips to mail letters were more troublesome. There would have to be a calculation of whether it cost 5 cents or 10 cents to send letters to faraway towns, and that would be followed by a sometimes complicated financial arrangement. Some post offices opened charge accounts for customers who had a large volume of mail. And some printed their own scrip to facilitate making change as small coins became unavailable.
Before long, a few postmasters, eager to quell discontent, concluded that Reagan's rather loose instructions gave them the latitude to print stamps for their own post offices. This was actually not a new idea in American postal matters; back in the 1840s, before the United States first issued stamps in 1847, postmasters in a number of cities, including New York, Providence, Rhode Island, and St. Louis, had printed their own stamps, so there was already a precedent for the situation. All over the South, the use of these "local" stamps spread rapidly. In Texas, philatelists today know that ten different postmasters created and sold their own stamps during the war years, and all of those stamps are now extremely rare philatelic objects of desire for collectors across the world. They were not officially sanctioned, so no records of their issue or sales were kept. Technically, they were valid only for postage at the post office where they were sold, but postal officials in the towns to which they carried their letters did not question them or ask the recipient for additional funds.
In those parts of the South close to the Confederate Post Office Department headquarters in Richmond, and thus likely to receive frequent shipments of the government stamps, the use of these "local" stamps was generally confined to the first few months of the Confederate postal operations, typically from the summer of 1861 to November or December of that year.
In other areas, especially in Texas and states west of the Mississippi River, the use of postmasters' stamps continued occasionally during the 1862–1864 period because of the infrequent shipments of regular government stamps. Indeed, after the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, on July 9, 1863, any communication between Richmond, the seat of the Confederate government, and states west of the Mississippi was extremely uncertain, Reagan wrote years later, so shipments of stamps west of the Mississippi became even more irregular. The situation increased the frustrations of the Confederate postmasters in Texas, again requiring them to create their own stamps.
Easily the most prolific of these Texas postmasters in terms of different varieties of stamps produced was John A. Clarke, of the small but historic town of Goliad. Using a local printshop, he had some crudely designed 5-cent and 10-cent stamps printed. A first type showed nothing more than the words "Goliad," "Postage," and either "5" or "10." A later design revision added the words "John A. Clarke, Post Master." Sloppy proofreading produced one variety with the town name misspelled "Goilad," and the severe paper shortage that plagued Texas and the South during the war produced several more, as the printer used any available paper for the stamps. Some are known printed on white, gray, rose, and dark blue paper, as well as on the back of old business forms. Counting the spelling errors, there are eleven different varieties of the Goliad postmaster's stamps known today, and all are exceedingly rare.
Another of these postmasters, John V. Law of Gonzales, can surely be classed as the "most creative" of the lot. A partner in the firm of Colman and Law, booksellers and druggists in Gonzales, Law had been postmaster there since 1853, and the post office was located in his store. Colman and Law had ordered a supply of small advertising labels, printed in gold on colored glazed paper, to be affixed to books (and possibly to containers of pills) as they were sold. When stamps were unavailable, Postmaster Law had the bright idea to use these labels instead, with the gold on dark blue becoming a 5-cent stamp, and the gold on garnet or crimson taking the role of a 10-cent stamp. These, too, are very rare, with only a handful of each being known today.
The postmasters who produced the most typical of these Texas stamps were the three from Beaumont, Victoria, and Helena. The Beaumont postmaster included here is Alexander Hinkle, one of four different postmasters to serve that town during the Confederacy. Hinkle took office on December 5, 1863, and during his fifteen months on the job, three different stamps were printed and issued. Two were quite simple, bearing only the words "Beaumont," "Paid," and "10 Cents," and examples are known printed on both yellow and pink paper. The third stamp was a larger and more elaborate version, and only a single copy of it has been found.
The Victoria postmaster, James A. Moody, was one of the most experienced in the state, having served in that office since 1838, during the Republic of Texas years. Moody also issued three stamps, all printed locally in reddish-brown ink on dark green paper. There are perhaps a dozen of these known to collectors today.
David Daily, the postmaster at Helena, a tiny community about 30 miles down the road from Goliad, also issued a 5-cent and a 10-cent stamp, both so much like the Goliad stamps in appearance that it was generally thought by early philatelists that they were printed by the same local printshop that made the stamps for Postmaster Clarke in Goliad. Only three of the 5-cent and two of the 10-cent stamps have been discovered by philatelists to this date.
Only a pair of scissors and a pot of paste were needed to make what we would describe as the "most puzzling" of these Texas postmasters' stamps. These were created by Postmasters William Rust at Austin, John McKnight at Independence, Thomas Notgrass at Hallettsville, and William R. Johnston at Plum Creek. All of these officials just cut a small bit of paper, about the size of a typical stamp, wrote or stamped the word "Paid" on it, and then glued it to letters mailed at their office. Three of these were circular in shape, having been cut around an impression of a handstamp postmark device; the fourth, from Plum Creek, was much smaller and cut from a piece of blue ruled paper.
Perhaps the most mysterious of these stamps in the minds of many philatelists is the sole example found so far from Lavaca, Texas, apparently created by Postmaster Charles A. Ogsbury. For reasons unknown, the Confederate Post Office Department changed the name of Port Lavaca to Lavaca on March 2, 1862, and Ogsbury was named postmaster on the same date. The one stamp from Lavaca that has survived is another simple design, with an illustration of a paddle-wheel steamboat at the top, followed by the words "Postage," "10 Cents," and "Lavaca." But the mystery surrounding the dropping of the "Port" from the post office name remains, as does the question of how and where this stamp was printed.
We will find out much more about all of these stamps in later chapters devoted to each town. But we now turn our attention to the discovery of these Texas philatelic gems in the years after the Civil War.