By Jesse Robitaille
After one collector acquired a slightly tattered cover dating back more than a century and a half, he decided to restore it to ensure its survival as a scarce and significant piece of postal history.
Mailed from Prescott, Ont., to watchmaker Willis Coates in Victoria, the cover is dated May 25, 1862, about two months before the latter city’s incorporation. It paid the 15-cent rate, which is the first known rate for stamped covers to Vancouver Island or British Columbia.
“I collect the ‘Decimal’ issue, and the covers that I bought represent two of the three Decimal-era rates to British Columbia and Vancouver Island between 1859 and 1868, when the ‘Large Queens’ were released,” said Jim Jung, who’s a member of the Pence-Cents Era Study Group and the editor of its newsletter.
He acquired the now-restored cover in a group of three – all from the same correspondence to Coates – in a public auction hosted by a major Canadian auction house this spring.
“All the covers to British Columbia and Vancouver Island in the Decimal period are scarce, especially the 15-cent rate cover that I had restored.”
Wanting to stay away from claims of forgery, Jung enlisted the help of a professional and altered none of the cover’s stamps or markings.
“Only the frayed paper at the edges was restored and done by a professional paper restorer. There was a light cleaning of the soiling within the original paper also,” he said.
“The acceptability of the act has mixed feelings among collectors; however, in my research, covers with this rate and from this correspondence are always damaged, and at least three other covers have been recorded as having been restored.”
Former study group newsletter editor Ron Majors agrees there are major benefits to this kind of restoration.
“I think it is a valuable service for today’s postal historians to ensure that old envelopes and paper artifacts are preserved for future postal historians,” said Majors, a long-time British North America Philatelic Society (BNAPS) member who also belongs to BNAPS’ fellowship, the Order of the Beaver.
“Just the simple process of de-acidifying a cover can add decades to its lifetime. Paper from pre-1900 was prepared somewhat differently than paper of today and care wasn’t taken to make sure that the paper document would live a long life. There is a whole department at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., that is devoted to treating old paper documents to extend their lifetimes for decades, if not centuries, to come.”
FIRST RATE TO B.C.
From July 1859 to December 1861, the first letters to Vancouver Island and British Columbia paid a rate of 15 cents and were carried across the continent as U.S. mail into Oregon or via Port Townsend, Washington Territory.
The U.S. rate across the continent, however, had been 10 cents since April 1855.
“This was the same as the rate to California,” said Jung, who added no Pence covers and “only a very few” Large Queen covers to British Columbia are known to exist.
In the Pence period – 1851-59 – the rate was nine pence to Canada’s western colonies, he added, and “very few” stampless covers are known with this rate.
“In July 1859, this rate changed to 15 cents with the release of the first Decimal issue.”
A decade before the rate change, Vancouver Island became a British colony and remained so until 1866, when it joined the mainland to form the colony of British Columbia, which later joined Canadian Confederation in 1871.
Only six stamped covers with the 15-cent rate are listed in the 1996 book, Canada’s Decimal Era, 1859-68, by George Arfken and Arthur Leggett.
While the rate was changed again in January 1862 – this time to 25 cents – it’s unknown when the rate changes were applied, Jung added.
“The based-on rate to California was 15 cents well into 1863, and with the U.S. Civil War peaking in battle, the overland route was replaced by routing to New York via Panama to San Francisco in a letter dated Aug. 1, 1863.”
The 25-cent rate was used from January 1862 to June 1864.
“The completion of the railroad across the isthmus of Panama made the New York, Panama to San Francisco route more suitable for light mail, especially since the U.S. Civil War made the overland route unacceptable.”
The now-restored 1862 cover recently acquired by Jung is franked with a trio of 1859 five-cent beaver stamps (Scott #15) from the Decimal issue (also known as Canada’s first cents issue).
The stamps are tied by a pair of four-ring “35” numeral cancels used in Prescott. Two postmarks – from Prescott and Ogdensburgh, N.Y. – are accompanied by a red oval “US PAID” handstamp.
Originally addressed to New Westminster, B.C., the cover was then forwarded to “Victoria, V. I.” (denoting “Vancouver Island,”) and has a “Received Sept 19th 1862” manuscript in pencil at the left.
“Since this took almost four months to make the journey, it’s a guess as to the routing it took,” said Jung, who added if anyone has additional information to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before its restoration, the cover’s “big issue” was the condition of the edges at the right, top and bottom sides.
After showing the cover to fellow collector and Pence-Cents Era Study Group Chair Ron Majors, who suggested paper restoration to fix the cover but avoid altering the stamps or markings, Jung contacted Jane Dosman, of paperrestoration.org.
Dosman received a Master’s of Art Conservation specializing in paper objects from Kingston, Ont.’s Queen’s University in 2008.
“As a student, I interned at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Qué., and at the Swiss National Library in Bern, Switzerland,” she said.
After graduating from Queen’s University, she trained for one year at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, Pa., before joining the paper lab at the Centre de conservation du Quebec from 2009-16. She’s now based in Toronto, where she’s engaged in private practice.
Jung’s restoration was the first time Dosman worked on a philatelic artifact, “but what’s important in paper conservation is the paper and the media on it,” she said.
“I’ve worked with many different types of paper, having many different functions. So it wasn’t a stretch to work on an envelope.”
Describing herself as being “passionate about paper conservation,” Dosman also said she “really enjoyed working on this artifact.”
Dosman’s restoration process began with “surface cleaning” the cover to remove accumulated surface soil.
“Then, I repaired the small tears in the corners and the top and bottom edges,” she said, adding she then moved on to reconstructing the right edge, which was torn off.
“I used Japanese paper, which is really strong and non-acidic. I toned the paper with acrylic paint. I adhered the paper with wheat starch paste, an adhesive we use in paper conservation because it is reversible in water and doesn’t deteriorate with age.”
This treatment helps to conserve the artifact, which went from “a fragile state to one that is structurally sound by repairing the damage.”
“Also, aesthetically speaking, the treatment brought the artifact back closer to its original condition.”
Conservation work – like the paper restoration on Jung’s cover – doesn’t detract from the genuineness or perceived value of an artifact, she added.
“If anything, conservation work adds value to the artifact by returning it to its original intended state,” said Dosman.
“Conservators follow the principle of minimal intervention, respecting the integrity of the item by doing just as much work as is necessary to restore the structure and appearance. We also follow the principle of reversibility; we use materials that can most easily and most completely be removed with minimal risk to the object.”
Again, there were no alterations or removal of the original material.
“In this case, I didn’t touch the stamps or postal markings,” she added.
Professional conservators also fully document their work with a written and photographic record of the object before treatment as well as a post-treatment report.
“We stress the importance of maintaining the reports to the owner,” said Dosman.
Altogether, Jung paid $225 to fix the edges without touching the stamps or markings.
“I was really happy with the results,” he added.