The Story of Mystic Stamp Company Continue reading
Collectors sometimes “lift” stamps on covers to see what kind of paper the stamp was printed on. “Lifting stamps once helped save the free world from Adolf Hitler’s evil empire. Here’s a neat story about stamps, espionage and a 200-mile race across snowy mountains…
Germany invaded Norway in the spring of 1940. Sven Somme, a marine biologist, and his brother Iacob joined the underground resistance movement. Iacob plotted to sabotage the hydro plant in Telemark, where Germans were building a nuclear bomb. He was caught and executed in 1944.
In spite of the risk, Sven continued. His assignment was mapping strategic German military bases and photographing their military torpedo batteries and submarine bases along Norway’s west coast. Sven then mailed the intelligence to his Allied handlers on microfilm – hidden underneath the stamp on the envelope!
Click here to see images of Sven and one of the letters he hid beneath a stamp.
The plan worked until German soldiers spotted the sun glinting off his camera lens as Sven snapped pictures of a U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. He hid his camera under a rock as the Germans ran toward him, firing shots. Sven told them he was bird watching. His cover fell apart when the soldiers found his camera before he could get off the island.
Sven was taken to the mainland by boat and confined to the vessel overnight to await his execution. When his guard fell asleep, he slipped off his handcuffs and walked casually past five armed soldiers, who mistook him for a civilian. Sven fled into the countryside.
About an hour later, the Germans realized he was gone and sent 900 soldiers and a pack of hounds after him. By now Sven had crossed streams in his light shoes and was climbing up snowy mountains, where frostbite was a real possibility. With the Germans in pursuit, he sometimes swung from one pine tree to another to avoid leaving footprints in the snow. A family sheltered him and exchanged a pair of boots for his shoes. Sven made it to a safe house, where he hid for five weeks while false papers were made for him. He walked across the border into Sweden and arrived in Great Britain for a private audience with the exiled King of Norway. Sven had walked more than 200 miles in brutal conditions during the two-month escape.
Sven married an English wife and had three children before dying of cancer in 1961. After the death of his wife, his daughters found an archive of secret documents – envelopes with tiny maps hidden under the stamps, instructions from the resistance written in invisible ink, a map used during his escape and a Nazi warrant ordering Sven’s arrest and execution. Amazingly, the family that sheltered him was found – and they had kept his shoes, preserving even more of this 70-year old story.
Who’s Delivering Your Mail?
What do legendary football coach Knute Rockne, President Harry Truman and the serial killer known as the Son of Sam have in common? If you guessed they were all postal workers at one time, you’re right! Actually, a lot of famous people helped move the mail before becoming household names. Let’s take a look at a few…
Before he became one of the most famous college football coaches of all time, Knute Rockne worked as a postal clerk in Chicago. The USPS honored Rockne with a commemorative stamp on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Harry S. Truman, Abraham Lincoln, and abolitionist John Brown, who led the raid on Harpers Ferry, were once postmasters. (Truman accepted the position, but gave the responsibilities and salary to a widowed neighbor.)
Noah Webster of dictionary fame worked as a special agent for the postal agency. Truman, Lincoln, and Webster have been pictured on U.S. stamps.
Novelist Charles Bukowski worked as a postal worker in Los Angeles for three years. In 1969, he wrote to a friend to say he was making a career change. “I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy… or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
Sherman Hemsley, who portrayed George on the television series The Jeffersons, and Bing Cosby were mail clerks. Walt Disney and Rock Hudson worked as letter carriers. Disney was pictured on a 1968 U.S. stamp.
Novelist William Faulkner worked as a postmaster in Mississippi before he realized he wasn’t suited to working with the public. Faulkner reportedly told his boss he was resigning because “…I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”
Comedian Steve Carell, star of The Office, quit his job as a mail carrier because his boss told him he wasn’t very good and needed to be faster. Bill Nye – aka “The Science Guy” – was the postmaster of Laramie, Wyoming. William S. Hart, honored in the 2010 Cowboys of the Silver Screen set, was once a mail clerk in New York City.
Imagine what a bright future might be in store for your mailman!
Chances are you’re familiar with First Day Covers, which feature a newly-issued stamp, an official cancellation marking the issue date and often artwork that complements the stamp design. But Special Event Covers are also fun to collect. Often overlooked, these are important souvenirs of special moments in history that complement your stamp collection nicely.
Special Event Covers are limited editions, created and cancelled to mark occasions ranging from stamp shows to Space Shuttle flights, like the one pictured here. The cover to the right was carried aboard the Challenger’s STS-8 mission. It bears the 1983 $9.35 Express Main stamp and a color cachet picturing the mission’s official patch. The cover was postmarked on August 14, 1983, at Kennedy Space Center to commemorate the shuttle’s official launch.
Take-off was delayed, however, until the 30th of that month. A second cancellation was added on that date, along with a third postmark on September 5th to mark the return to Earth. Additional markings commemorate NASA’s 25th anniversary. This cover is also a direct connection to three historic landmarks – STS-8 was NASA’s first night launch, its first night landing, and the first space flight by an African American astronaut, Guion Bluford.
This set of two Special Event covers marked the end of one millenium and the dawn of the next, showing another neat way to combine stamp collecting and history. One cover was postmarked December 31, 1999, at New Year’s Eve Station. The second cover was cancelled January 1, 2000, at Celebrate 2000 Station. Notice how the cachets complement the stamp design and the cancellation’s type fits the topic.
Even sporting events like the World Series and the Iditarod make great topics for Special Event covers. The 2010 Iditarod Race cover pictured below was personally autographed by DeeDee Jonrowe, the world’s most celebrated female musher.
The cover bears the Alaska Statehood, Pony Express and Transpacific Airmail stamps plus a map of the route and cancellations marking the beginning and end of the 2010 race. Only 100 Iditarod covers were autographed and carried by Jonrow as she braved the grueling 1,049-mile race across Alaska, fighting bitter cold and the elements.
Like stamp collecting in general, prices for Special Event covers range greatly. But supply and demand has less of an impact on the cost of these covers – even though they’re created in small numbers and can never be reproduced, many of these scarce covers can be purchased for just a few dollars.
Cloaks, Daggers and Stamps
Most collectors know stamps have played their part in shaping history. They’ve started wars and celebrated peace; they’ve turned hostilities into bloodbaths, ridiculed political leaders and been used as propaganda. Some, like the French “spy” stamp have been used as a weapon of war. The story goes like this…
The Nazis overran France in the early days of World War II. A French underground, known as the Maquis, formed to stop the Germans. Life for the Maquis was extremely hazardous because the efficient Germans had an excellent counter-espionage system. One of their favorite and most successful techniques for uncovering the Maquis was to send a suspected spy a message, like “Be under the Rhone Bridge Tuesday for dynamiting.” A Frenchman loyal to the Germans would ignore the message or take it to the German authorities. Anyone who acted on the message was automatically assumed to be guilty and executed.
The Nazis were especially brutal and losses of French partisans were staggering. So too were the loses of British and allied soldiers who parachuted in to help the resistance or to gather military information.
British Intelligence realized their problem was unsecured communications. Since reliable communications were vital for effective resistance, they couldn’t stop communicating. What they needed was a foolproof way to tell friend from foe. Taking a page from history, an operator remembered that the British had reproduced German postage stamps to mail anti-German propaganda inside Germany during World War I. Why not try a variation on the theme?
The British chose the 1939 French Mercury stamp, changing it just enough so that those in the know would recognize it immediately while those uninformed would not become suspicious. Namely, more prominent highlights appeared on the left cheekbone, on the neck and over and around the left eye socket of the forgery.
A letter franked with a British-made stamp was to be regarded as official instructions while letters with authentic French stamps would be realized as German traps. If it worked, the underground would be able to communicate effectively with the French post office delivering the letters right under the noses of the Germans – and after they were censored by the Nazis!
The plan was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war. Only a handful of people – and only those who absolutely needed to know – realized the stamps were being dropped by parachute along with weapons and supplies. The Germans and the French collaborators never caught on, even though they must have wondered why their traps suddenly produced no victims. In their arrogance, they may have believed they had eliminated most of the resistance movement’s spies. One thing’s for sure, few gave any thought to stamps or stamp collecting during the war.
Ironically, the Roman god Mercury – the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, the god of roads and travel, and the god of crafty, deceptive trickery – is the image on the stamp chosen to pull the wool over the Nazi’s eyes. The entwined snakes around his winged staff protected him on his travels just as the counterfeited French Mercury stamp protected the Maquis and vital wartime messages.
Because the resistance could never be sure when the scheme was uncovered, correspondence was to be destroyed immediately. Mint French spy stamps are scarce and used examples, especially on cover, are extremely rare.
In 1985, news of a newly discovered U.S. invert stamp rocked the philatelic world. It was the first major inverted stamp in 66 years and said to be rarer than the coveted Jenny inverts. But the details were cloaked in secrecy, hidden in a maze of deception that took two years to unravel.
The story began when an auctioneer specializing in U.S. error stamps announced the discovery of 85 inverted 1979 $1 Rush Lamp stamps. The stamps had been discovered by a “business in northern Virginia” and the finder wished to remain anonymous. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing launched an internal investigation and found that there were no indications of impropriety by its employees.
A few months later, Mystic Stamp Company joined with two partners and purchased 50 of the inverts. Curious about their origin, Mystic President Don Sundman filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Months passed. When the report finally arrived, it was accompanied by a cover letter – from the Central Intelligence Agency! Names were blocked out in the 35-page report, but Sundman was able gather enough information to trace the stamps back to the C.I.A.
Sundman discovered that an on-duty C.I.A. employee had purchased the partial sheet of 95 inverted stamps at a small post office near McLean, Virginia. When he and his co-workers realized what they had, they pooled their money and substituted non-error $1 Rush Lamp stamps for the inverts. Each of the nine co-workers kept a stamp. The remaining 86 stamps, including one that was damaged, were quietly sold to the auctioneer.
The story made headlines across the nation and was featured on every major television network. The CIA launched an ethics investigation and demanded that the co-workers surrender their inverts or face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for conversion of government property for personal gain. Five employees returned their stamps, one claimed his had been lost, and three people resigned.
The CIA donated the recovered inverts to the National Postal Museum, where they joined a copy donated earlier by Mystic. Investigations conducted by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and Justice Department cleared the co-workers of any wrongdoing.
Twenty years later, the employee who purchased the sheet and later claimed to have lost his copy offered to sell the stamp to Mystic. Today these neat error stamps, bearing the words “America’s Light Fueled By Truth and Reason,” retail for $15,000 each.