Covers: Cover Beauty In the Eye of The Beholder
By Doug Finch
Let’s face it – the covers in today’s mail are boring. So why not add a little color? Sure, computer generated cachets for first day covers (FDCs) and event covers are good for spicing up a collection. But the current version of covers of an earlier time that actually traveled through the mail no longer carry interesting stamps or artwork – or sense of history – like that in illustration 1 does.
The lucky finder of this cover at an estate sale scored an historic item worth much more than expected, as it was mixed in with many lesser value covers. It is an advertising cover for the film The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, produced by Universal Pictures Corporation. It was mailed the year the film opened, 1925. But the kicker is that it is addressed to the female lead of the film, Mary Philbin. As most communication is online or at least electronic today, such unusual items are a thing of the past.
A Question of Authenticity
But the type of item that once tantalized postal history collectors…with interesting art, or stamps or markings…well, if you find one in your mail today, hold onto it, as it is rare. No, not rare in the “this cover will put my kids through college rare,” but rare in that they are few and far between.
So the cover collector who fancies himself a bit of a postal history collector is forced into the world of “manufactured covers.” That is, those made specifically for collectors. Oh, the shame, right? But face it, even casual postal history collectors see a cover they know has been put together specifically to attract a collector, and it affects them like a cute puppy they can’t resist. Perhaps like the one in illustration 2, which features Beatle Paul McCartney.
And before you know it you’ve bought it, taken it home and put it in its pen, er, in your cover album and you realize you’re not the tough cover collector who only adds legit items that have done serious postal duty to your collection.
The sad part for today’s collectors is that older collectors had the benefit of interesting and colorful covers not just being produced by cachet makers and cover dealers, but even in their regular mail, like the eye popper in illustration 3. It has certainly gone through the mail, but it also has the sort of artwork that collectors of current covers now only associate with covers especially contrived to sell to them.
The Rebirth of Mail Art
There are those who are doing something about our boring mail and they are known as mail artists. A worldwide community, they exchange and exhibit covers that are not related to history or the stamp on the envelope at all, but can be about anything you might imagine. And they are works of art, like the one in illustration 4.
It’s easy to feel like an art collector when the covers in your collection are produced by artists, using a medium that we are familiar with: covers. But mail art doesn’t have to be separated from legitimate postal concerns – of course, in one sense it can’t be, because unless an artist starts his own postal system he must be dependent on an existing one to get his work to his recipients. And make no mistake, postal administrations are catching on to the popularity of mail art and are beginning to issue stamps directly related to the subject, like the Belgium stamp in illustration 5.
How hard is it to take part in mail art? Jennie Hinchcliff, co-author with Carolee Gilligan Wheeler, of Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art (Quarry Books, 2009), says it takes up a lot of time, but that she loves every minute of it.
“Incoming mail’’ to my PO box varies from week to week; I’d say about 15-20 pieces per week. Some of the mail is in response to Good Mail Day, most of the mail is in response to my mail art activities around the Network. I usually send approximately 20-25 pieces of mail out each week…keeping on top of all of my correspondence is a full time job in-and-of itself! But I love it.”
In earlier columns we’ve looked at advertising covers from the 19th and earlier 20th century and have seen how it was a short trip to the cacheted first day and event covers of later cover collecting. And it’s not so far from appreciating a FDC to getting involved in mail art.
And it is a good way to get younger people into the stamp and cover collecting hobby. Not all of the younger set expresses themselves online in blogs and in chatrooms. There is a large group of Do-It-Yourselfers who find mail art a great way to express themselves. Also attractive is the penpal aspect of making friends through the mail, as well as learning about the world through different country’s stamps.
Then there is an “old guard” group of mail artists, who are something of rock stars in the area. Harley, Chuck Welch, and E.F. Higgins are just a few of those who produce items that are perhaps more collectible than others, simply because of their place in the movement.
One of the first of the big-time mail artists was Ray Johnson, who at the height of his activity had one-person shows at major galleries, a situation almost unknown in the mail art world. The piece in illustration 6 shows his contribution to a themed group mail art project called “Fingerprints,” latter collected into a book by the same name by artist Jo-Anne Echevarria Meyers.
But the good news for stamp and cover collectors who want to get involved in mail art is that it is a club open to everyone who has an imagination and wishes to express themselves through the mails. Recently the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C. gave the movement its own stamp of approval when they hosted an event for families to come in and be part of the mail art world. “The Mail Art Workshop” was inspired by the Good Mail Day book by Jennie Hinchcliff, who also hosted the event.
Doug Finch has worked for several northern New Jersey newspapers as a columnist, reporter, and photographer. He has written on film for publications like Cinefantastique and on collectibles for Scott’s Monthly, Linn’s Stamp News and Stamp Collector, among others. Doug has also written for the Stamp Collecting Guide at About.com. For questions or comments, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.