Turned covers highlight recent Pence-Cents meeting

By Jesse Robitaille

Long considered an ingenious aspect of postal history in early Canada as well as the U.S., “turned covers” was the topic of a recent meeting of the Pence-Cents Study Group of the British North America Philatelic Society (BNAPS).

One of more than 20 active study groups affiliated with BNAPS, the “Pence and Cents” people focus on the area of classic Canadian philately that started it all. Issued by what was then known as the Province of Canada prior to Confederation in 1867, the Pence and Cents issues are Canada’s earliest stamps.

“We’re a fairly new group,” said chair Ron Majors, who has served at the helm of the study group since its formation seven years ago.

“The group that studied the series before us disbanded in the ’70s, but we started again in 2012.”

Today, the group is nearly 60 members strong, and there’s no cost to join.

“We don’t have any hard-copy mailings; we do everything by email,” said Majors, who considers himself a decimal collector with a focus on the Cents issue.

Beginning in April 1851 with the three-penny beaver (Scott #1), 13 stamps were issued as part of the Pence series (SC #1-13), which was denominated in pence.

On July 1, 1859, as Canada officially changed from sterling to decimal currency, its next series of stamps – the Cents issue – was released. A total of seven stamps (SC #14-20) were denominated in cents and used through 1868, at which point the newly formed Dominion of Canada began its Large Queen issue (SC #21-30).

A Montréal turned drop letter was first used on April 26, 1867, and re-used a day later on April 27. (Photo by Ron Majors)


One intriguing area of Pence- and Cents-era postal history involves turned covers, which are envelopes that were used more than once.

“The idea of using turned covers has been very popular throughout history, especially in Canada during the Second World War,” said Majors, who also served as the editor of the study group’s newsletter from 2012-15. “The government encouraged all their people to use envelopes over and over again as much as possible, even with labels sometimes stuck on top.”

After receiving a letter, the addressee could then use steam to remove the envelope’s glue, open it up and turn it inside out to produce “a brand new envelope,” Majors added.

The U.S. Civil War, which ran from 1861-65, was another period in which turned covers were widely used.

“When the south ran out of paper in 1863, they had to use things like wallpaper. They used beautiful wallpaper covers that were folded up and used as envelopes, and then people would open up that envelope and re-use the other side. It’s a pretty interesting area to study.”


A turned cover posted in Montréal paid the domestic five-cent rate for less than half an ounce to John A. Macdonald, then the Member of Parliament for the Province of Canada’s Kingston riding. (Photo by Ron Majors)

A turned cover first described in 1986 by award-winning exhibitor Ron McGuire – a Fellow of both BNAPS and The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada – was described by Majors as “quite a unique item.”

First sent during the Pence era on June 6, 1859, the cover was mailed to Montréal from Aylmer, a former city along the Ottawa River that was later amalgamated into the city of Gatineau, Qué.

“The rate was six pence at the time, and it was received the same day, but on July 1, 1859, it became the Cents era.”

Three months later, on Oct. 1, 1859, the cover was reused and rated at seven cents with a manuscript “7” written across the front of the now-turned cover.

“This means postage wasn’t paid up front, so a two-cent penalty was added and the recipient was forced to pay seven cents,” said Majors, who added the rate in the decimal period was five cents for a letter weighing less than half an ounce, but because this envelope was sent collect for the recipient to pay for postage, a two-cent penalty was added.

“A lot of people sent their mail unpaid, which is how it worked in those days.”

Majors has yet to find another turned letter sent during the transition between the Pence and Cents eras – or between the Cents and Large Queen eras – but he isn’t losing hope.

“I don’t know if anybody’s ever seen one, but that would be a nice addition. I almost have enough now to do a one-frame exhibit, but these turned covers are very tough to find; I’ve been looking for years now and only have about 12 of them.”

The Macdonald cover was re-used and also paid the five-cent letter rate to an insurance company in Montréal. (Photo by Ron Majors)


Majors also showed a “more typical usage” of a turned cover with a drop letter, which is a piece of mail left at the post office for the addressee to collect.

“You’d take it to the post office, and then somebody would pick it up,” he said, of the drop letter process.

For this turned cover, the first letter was mailed within Montréal on April 26, 1867. A day later – after the original addressee collected his or her letter from the post office – the cover was re-used and re-sent.

Both rates were paid with the 1859 one-cent Queen Victoria stamp (SC #14).

“It’s very nice to be able to fold this and show both turned letters on one small area of your exhibit,” Majors added.

Another drop letter, this with a mixed rating, is a “really interesting” piece to study, Majors said.

“Initially, this letter was sent as a one-cent circular rate from Chippewa to Enniskillen, Oil Springs, Canada West (present-day Ontario). But when the person mailed it, they sent it as a letter – sometimes if you added a page or two, you’d have to classify it as a letter rather than a circular – so it was a five-cent rate.”

The cover’s red “PAID 5” handstamp means it was paid in advance (opposed to a black handstamp, which would mean the cover was unpaid by the sender and would be paid upon delivery by the recipient).


“Some of these turned covers have a lot of faults because when people turned the paper inside out, it made them weak,” Majors said.

He referenced a turned cover first mailed from Montréal on Oct. 10, 1863, to John A. Macdonald, then Member of Parliament for the Province of Canada’s Kingston riding (and later the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada).

The cover was then re-folded and re-used – again with an 1859 five-cent beaver (SC #15) – and mailed from Toronto to H. J. Johnston, secretary of the North British and Mercantile Insurance Company in Montréal.

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