Aerophilatelic mystery close to being solved

Why is there a ‘D.w’ handstamp on 44 philatelic covers?

By Jesse Robitaille

There’s mystery in the air.

Or at least that’s where it was. Now the mystery has turned to the ground, but aerophilatelists are hot on its tail, following close behind in hopes of solving what one philatelist called “a mystery worthy of a Sherlock Holmes novel.”

Robert Timberg, Royal Philatelic Society of Canada (RPSC) executive manager, explained further: “As no one really knows what the letters stand for, however, it’s a mystery all should find fascinating whether they’re into aerophilately or not.”

After more than half a decade of researching the “D.w.” handstamp found on 44 covers from the Winnipeg area dating back to the 1930s, Chris Hargreaves, a member of the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society (CAS), said there might finally be some solid answers.

Hargreaves, who’s also editor of the CAS journal, The Canadian Aerophilatelist, said the handstamp could’ve been used to mark the end of air mail service.


In the June 2015 issue of The Canadian Aerophilatelist, Hargreaves detailed the responses he received about the mystery of the “D.w.” handstamp, which was first discussed in the early 1990s.

“The ‘D.w.’ handstamp has been an occasional topic of conversation among aerophilatelists since 1993, when a question about it was published in the newsletter for the Air Mail Study Group of the British North America Philatelic Society (BNAPS).”

Hargreaves said he decided to write about the mystery in The Canadian Aerophilatelist after talking with fellow philatelist and esteemed postal historian Don Fraser at Royale 2008 in Quebec.

Since then, Hargreaves has been researching the meaning of those two letters – “D.w.” – that were stamped on covers at the Winnipeg Post Office in the early 1930s.

“That article produced more responses and debate than any other article I’d published, so I pursued the topic with a series of further articles,” he said, adding he has since corresponded with upwards of 40 noted philatelists about the handstamp. “This mystery has generated more interest than any other topic I have written about.”

And after nearly two decades of searching for answers, Hargreaves said he believes the mystery is all but solved.

“I think the ‘end of air mail in Winnipeg’ theory solves the major elements of the mystery.”


Initially, the handstamp was believed to be a pilot’s mark; however, the pilot for the Winnipeg-Pembina flight at that time was A.E. Jarvis.

Afterwards, around 2008, the debate focused on whether the “D.w.” handstamp was a private collector’s mark or a post office marking. However, some questions arose: why would a collector cover a stamp if there was ample space on the cover, or why would the post office use a handstamp only reading “D.w.” if handstamps typically stated the reason for which they were applied in full?

Another theory – this one by Don Amos, a long-time CAS member who worked in the Winnipeg Post Office after the Second World War – suggested the handstamp was a post office marking that stood for “Delayed weather”; however, some questioned why a marking for delayed weather would be used if flights were also delayed for other reasons. Also, when abbreviations are used, the letters are often the same size.

What’s more, Hargreaves said a number of backstamped covers that hadn’t been delayed in transit were reported.

“Further research also showed that many of the ‘D.w.’ covers were flown when the weather was reported to be fine,” he said, adding the handstamp was also found on several covers mailed to addresses near Winnipeg, and those would’ve traveled by surface routes rather than by air.

“As the enquiry progressed, and more covers to a variety of addresses were reported, there began to be a consensus that the handstamp was a post office marking,” he said. “The handstamp was generally found on covers that passed through Winnipeg, that were endorsed for air mail, and that were mailed during the period March 3, 1930 to March 31, 1932, when the Prairie Air Mail Service was operating.”

More importantly, Hargreaves said, the “end of air mail” theory explains why the handstamp was found on covers that weren’t delayed and that traveled by surface routes from Winnipeg in fine weather.

“A detailed analysis of the 44 recorded covers established that 43 of them would have reached their destination as quickly by surface routes from Winnipeg as they would have if they travelled by air.”


And despite all the work being done, Hargeaves said there’s more to uncover yet.

“The theory can explain 43 of the 44 recorded covers. I would still like to find a logical reason for sending the one remaining cover by rail from Winnipeg,” he said. “There is also still a question as to what ‘D.w.’ stood for. ‘Diverted Winnipeg’ fits the ‘end of air mail in Winnipeg’ theory, but several people have commented that in the grammatically correct 1930s, a capital letter would have been used for Winnipeg.”

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain.

“Unfortunately, I think the only irrefutable evidence would be a post office document referring to the ‘D.w.’ handstamp,” said Hargreaves, “and it seems unlikely that such a document will be found.”

In 2002, Amos wrote in the BNAPS Air Mail Study Group newsletter: “Before I retired I was in the main post office. One day I wanted to check back in the records for someone asking a question about them. I went to the room where the records were. I was told they needed the room and the records were all thrown out. I couldn’t believe it. I tried Ottawa but they had no record of them.”

Hargreaves said he has also searched the records of the post office department at Library and Archives Canada but could find no reference to the “D.w.” handstamp.

And if one can’t find irrefutable evidence like a statement in a postal bulletin, said Hargraeves, then another approach is to consider the response of other philatelists.

“The theory has done well in this regard,” he said, “with many interested comments.”

In addition to comments from one’s peers, another element of validation is to find new covers with the “D.w.” handstamp and determine whether the “end of air mail” theory fits with how they were handled.

Hargraeves is asking anyone who comes across an unrecorded “D.w.” cover to send a copy to see if it fits the “end of air mail” theory.

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