By Jesse Robitaille
Today, first-day covers are issued alongside stamps by many postal services around the world, including in Canada, where the “official first-day cover” (OFDC) signalled the demise of private cachetmaking.
While Canada’s Post Office Department issued its first OFDC nearly 50 years ago, in 1971, its American counterpart only began selling cacheted – or illustrated – first-day covers in the early 2000s.
“In fact, it took decades before the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) would sell a first-day cover,” said collector and award-winning exhibitor Derwin Mak, of Toronto.
“For decades, the way to get a first-day cover in the U.S. was to get the stamp, put it on your own envelope, send it to the city of the first day of issue and get the postmaster there to cancel it and send it back to you,” added Mak, who’s a member of the American First Day Cover Society (AFDCS).
“You just could not walk into the post office and buy a first-day cover.”
While the USPS has since started offering first-day covers, they generally lack a cachet – something that differs from Canada’s OFDCs.
“That’s because the U.S. has a strong first-day cover industry, which has a strong lobby group with the USPS,” said Mak, who’s also a member of the North Toronto Stamp Club, Royal Philatelic Society of Canada and invite-only Philatelic Specialists Society of Canada.
“Unlike other countries, the U.S. has a very strong first-day cover collecting subculture within stamp collecting; Americans just love first-day covers. They like hand-drawn covers, they like one-of-a-kind covers, they like silk cachets and they even do things like buy uncacheted or unillustrated first-day covers from the past and add their own illustrations onto them afterwards.”
Mak also referenced the AFDCS, which is not only devoted to collecting first-day covers but also illustrating and designing them.
The USPS has shied away from making its own cachets due to the AFDCS and other first-day cover producers’ “worries that official first-day covers would put cover producers out of business,” Mak said.
The USPS, however, is still in the mix: the postal service often offers uncacheted first-day covers franked with new stamps, which are tied by a special postmark, and has sold blank white covers with first-day cancels since 2005.
More recently, the USPS has even started selling cacheted first-day covers of some – but not all – of its issues.
“These are always on #10 business-size envelopes,” said Mak, “not the traditional ‘6-3/4’ envelope size.”
The uncacheted covers, however, are issued in the “6-3/4” envelope size.
“I suspect that the USPS is using the business-envelope size for its cacheted covers so as not to compete with the first-day cover producers,” added Mak, who said private producers “tend to prefer” the “6-3/4” size.
“Some fear that we are on a slippery slope towards the USPS getting into the business of cachetmaking and special cancels full time,” wrote AFDCS President Lloyd de Vries in a 2005 issue of Linn’s Stamp News, which also reported the USPS had “no intention of getting into the first-day-of-issue cachet cover business.”
“I know that’s kind of the agreement that we’ve always had with the cover community, that we would not get into that,” David Failor, then executive director of stamp services for the USPS, told Linn’s in 2005.
Last year, the USPS once again ignited the concerns of cachetmakers when it offered its own cacheted first-day covers at some day-of-issue ceremonies.
A CANADIAN COMPARISON
The emergence of OFDCs in Canada is described as “the defining moment” of Canadian first-day cover collecting by Bruce Perkins, an honorary member of the British North America Philatelic Society’s First Day Cover Study Group.
“This was followed in short order by the rapid decline of the private cachetmaker as a Canadian philatelic institution,” wrote Perkins in a July 2001 issue of First Days, the AFDCS’ bimonthly magazine.
The transition is also detailed by Kerry Barrow, collection cataloguer for the House of Commons Heritage Collection, which includes more than 750 first-day covers either collected or created by the House of Commons Postal Services from 1967-94.
As OFDCs became more available – and desirable – to collectors, “local production by smaller independent merchants drastically decreased and virtually ceased,” wrote Barrow in a 2015 collection profile for the House of Commons website.
According to Perkins, the transition is “best exemplified” by Rosecraft Covers, which was Canada’s “dominant cachetmaker” before its 1974 departure “marked the end of an almost 30-year era of cachetmaking.”
Even earlier, however, Rosecraft’s two main competitors – Cole and H&E Covers – stopped production less than a year after the Post Office Department launched its first OFDC.
In fact, of all the major Canadian cachetmakets, Rosecraft was the only active company by 1972, Perkins said.
“Today, very little Canadian FDC action occurs beyond the realm of the official post office covers.”
AN ISSUING ENTITY
Another difference between Canadian and U.S. collectors is their penchant for producing covers, Mak said.
“I notice Canadians and Brits aren’t so much into the do-it-yourself philately. They like to collect things from the post office and mount them and research them, but the U.S. has this subculture to it.”
Inspired by these creative collecting practices, Mak issues local stamps and first-day covers as the owner of two non-contiguous plots of land, each holding one square foot of peat bog in Caithness, Scotland.
After naming his two square feet of Scottish land “Transcamster Bog” – meaning one must cross Camster, in northern Scotland, to go from one plot to the other – Mak issued his first stamp in 2016. It depicts a sheep alongside one of the Grey Cairns of Camster, a pair of 5,000-year-old Neolithic stone tombs.
Under the name “Transcamster Bog Local Post,” Mak has issued several stamps each year since 2016.
BALLET FIRST-DAY COVER
Most recently, Mak used one of Canada Post’s new holiday stamps – the $1.27 U.S.-rate stamp issued Nov. 4 as part of the “Shiny and Bright” set – to create a first-day cover with a ballet theme.
“The photo has a history,” said Mak, who was leaving Toronto’s Nota Bene restaurant after a dinner date three years ago when he noticed Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.
“When we went to get our coats, we saw Karen Kain getting her coat too,” Mak said, adding he was seeing the perennial Christmas classic The Nutcracker later that evening.
“We asked if we could get our photo with her, and she graciously agreed. I had read in Toronto Life magazine that Karen Kain took the National Ballet of Canada’s largest donors/patrons to lunch and dinner at Nota Bene. I hadn’t imagined that we would actually see her there.”
Closed at the end of last year, Nota Bene has since been transformed by its owner David Lee into a vegetarian and vegan restaurant called Planta.
Kain is slated to retire as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in January 2021.