Stamp covers are perhaps the most tangible examples of postal history, which is a separate collecting pursuit. Cover collectors seek out envelopes with stamps affixed to them, usually cancelled and often featuring interesting markings or graphics. These collectors are after first day covers, as well as covers bearing historic dates, unique graphic themes, and fancy cancellations. Of course, they are also interested in a unique and collectible stamp, like the three-cent design appearing on the country's first pre-stamped envelopes in 1853, which were made by the George F. Nesbitt and Co. of New York City.

Postal history collectors are interested in all that, too, but they tend not to be as fixated on stamps. For postal history collectors, being able to chase down the evidence of a letter’s journey from Point A to Point B is often more important than the letter itself, let alone the stamp affixed to it.

One popular cover type is the advertising cover, which is usually collected more for the quality of the illustration, or cachet, on an envelope than for the rarity of its stamp. Advertising covers give the cover collector a lot of information about the sender, and are historical snapshots of a range of goods and services from a particular time.

Disaster covers are letters and envelopes that have been salvaged from shipwrecks, train derailments, airplane crashes, and the like. Mail salvaged from the Hindenburg fire of 1937 is especially collectible (only 200 pieces were salvaged out of the 17,000 that were on board).

More-recent examples of disaster covers are the letters and other pieces of mail that were hand-cancelled on April 3, 2006, the first full day that the U.S. Postal Service resumed normal operations after Hurricane Katrina. Also of interest to collectors is mail that was irradiated during the anthrax scare of 2001. A radiation-burned envelope with the words "Mail Sanitized" on it tells you a lot about that moment in American society.

First day covers, or FDCs, are one of the most popular pursuits of cover collectors. Some collectors focus on events like the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, others gravitate toward FDCs for that day in July of 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

Other first day covers honor individuals. The Series of Famous Americans from 1940 put 35 people like Samuel Clemens, Walt Whitman, Alexander Graham Bell, and Luther Burbank on postage stamps. A Prominent Americans series from 1965 to 1978 featured everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright to Thomas Paine...

Patriotic covers get us into postal history—some of the most interesting and collectible examples date to the Civil War. In addition to simply looking for evidence of a functioning mail-delivery system from a moment in time (the cancellation stamps, the rates imposed, franking marks, etc.), postal-history buffs try to use that evidence retrace a piece of mail back to its sender. If possible, they will also collect evidence and ephemera associated with the mode of delivery itself, be it Pony Express in the 19th century, Graf Zeppelin in the early part of the 20th, or steamship sailing through the Suez Canal after World War II.

Another collecting category that touches on both covers and postal history is military mail. Here, collectors sometimes look for mail that has been through a particular Army Post Office (APO). Cover collectors can choose from first day covers with cachets of General Eisenhower to the quintet of Civil War Centennial stamps, which were printed one a year from 1961 to 1965.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

PhilaMercury

PhilaMercury

Richard Frajola's incredibly rich database of over 11,000 U.S. and foreign 19th Century postal stamp covers. This s… [read review or visit site]

Universal Ship Cancellation Society

Universal Ship Cancellation Society

Compiled by the Universal Ship Cancellation Society, an international philatelic club, this web site is filled with… [read review or visit site]

The Stamp Collecting Round-up

The Stamp Collecting Round-up

Don Schilling's long-running, in-depth blog on stamp collecting and postal operations. Schilling stays up on all th… [read review or visit site]

National Postal Museum

National Postal Museum

If you're into postal history or collectibles, check out the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. This extensive s… [read review or visit site]

R. A. Siegel Auction Galleries

R. A. Siegel Auction Galleries

This auction house site offers an extensive online database of US stamp information. Includes PDF catalogs of past … [read review or visit site]

Post Office in Paradise

Post Office in Paradise

Post Office in Paradise showcases Hawaiian postal history from the years before Hawaii became a part of the United … [read review or visit site]

Private Die Proprietary Stamps

Private Die Proprietary Stamps

Bob Hohertz's impressive database of U.S. Private Die Proprietary stamps from the Civil War and Spanish American Wa… [read review or visit site]

Alphabetilately

Alphabetilately

First shown in 2008 to celebrate the Smithsonian National Postal Museum's 15th anniversary, Alphabetilately is esse… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

John Young Handsigned Apollo 16 Insurance Cover - Ex John Young ! - 6e658France 1851 Cover To Us 20c Ceres X 5, 1fr Sc #9 Battle Steamer Ex WalskeMomen: Us Stamps #294-299 June 10 1901 Registered Used Cover $ Lot #1070Momen: Us Stamps #1 Imperf Used Cover Vf $ P1394r #944Sts-51 L Challenger Nasa Crew Handsigned Launch CoverMr Fancy Cancel 26 Civil War Patriotic Wards Soeech At Camp Dennison Ex-rareUsa 1930 - Zeppelin Air Mail Cover Flight To SwitzerlandApollo 15 "captain Cover" Handsigned By All Three Astronauts - 6e546First 6 Female Us Astronauts Selection Handsigned Cover 1978 - 6e643[75] Usa 1887 Spectacular Registered Cover New York To Calcutta India *must See*Usa 1930 - Zeppelin Air Mail Cover Flight To SwitzerlandMr Fancy Cancel 3c Env Railroad Cover Madison & Ind R.r. Towle 309-i-2 Rarity Vi1907 Type 2 Christmas Seal Tied On Postcard Mailed Dec. 24 Wayne Pennsylvania1863 Stockton, Ga Confederate Civil War Letter - Militia & Georgia Guards Wow ![70]1862 Patriotic Cover W Scott#69 & #71 New York To Switzerland Cat Val:$3,000Yuri Gagarin Handsigned Vostok 1 Commemorative Cover - 6e5591863 Minnesota Infantry Civil War Letter From Helena, Arkansas Terrific Content!Strip Of 3 Cent Blue On Union Patriotic Cover To Somerset, Mass.Mr Fancy Cancel Stampless Railroad Fls Watertown&rome Towle 102-c-1 Rarity ViiiMomen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #855Astp Cover Handsigned By Prime, Backup And Support Crew !!! - 6e622Momen: Us Puerto Rico Stamps # Used Cover $ Lot #1049[68]1849 Cover From Cleveland To Philadelphia With Scott#2 Pen CancelMomen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #857Momen: Us Stamps # Used Shanghai China Cover $ Lot #10161984 Group 10 Shuttle Astronauts All Handsigned Sts-1 Cover - Rare - 6e568Mr Fancy Cancel 190 Pr Cover San Francisco Fancy To Sydney Nsw Australia Cv$550+Momen: Latvia Stamps # Airmail Cover $ P1359r #880Us Sc #29 Strip Of 3 On Cover To Versailles Apr 18 1861 Via "persia" Ex WalskeMomen: Us Stamps #285/290 Used Cover Registered To Germany $330 Lot #1056Momen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #860Momen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #8591839 New York Stampless To Sailor Aboard Uss Constitution In Pensacola, Florida!Momen: Germany Saar Stamps # Airmail Cover $ P1359r #697Momen: Germany Danzig Stamps # Airmail Cover $ P1359r #702Momen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #856Momen: Germany Saar Stamps # Airmail Cover $ P1359r #701Us Sc #11a Tied To Cover By Blue Wells Fargo Express Cds Pf CertificateSc #11 - Used Strip Of 7 On Front - New York Packet Nov 17 Steamer Arago Red H/sSoyus Tm-13/14 - Austria/germany Flown Mir Cover Handsigned - 6e272Momen: Us Stamps #c5-6 Used Graf Zeppelin Postcard To Germany $ P1394r #92521st Connecticut Infantry Civil War Letter - References Battle Of Antietam Etc..12th Massachusetts Infantry Civil War Letter Building Log Hut Camp Frederick MdMercury Mr-2 Launch Cover Pc Chimp Ham 31.1.1961 - 6e269Momen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #862Us Sc #22 - 1c Franklin Strip Of 3 Used On Cover Pen Cancel To TexasUs 1847 Imperf Cover 10c Sc 2 Cat $1150Momen: Us Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #854Momen: Denmark Stamps # Airmail Cover Bremen Catapult $ P1359r #858Momen: Us Puerto Rico Stamps # Used Cover $ Lot #1048Mercury Ma-5 Enos Uss Davis Recovery Ship 29.11.61 Rare Cover - 6e645Mr Fancy Cancel Legal Scott 230-234 Special Delivery 1893 Cvr #3752[69]1860 Cover #1lb9 & #26 Local Issue Used On Cover - Vf1864 Pennsylvania Artillery (young's Battery) Civil War Letter - Alexandria, VaLot Of Worldwide Postage Stamps Off Paper Non-researched, Over 9 Pounds Look !Buzz Aldrin Handsigned (collins Ap) Apollo 11 Fdc - 9d165Momen: Germany Saar Stamps # Airmail Cover Catapult Katapult $ P1359r #694Mr Fancy Cancel 65 Civil War Prisoner's Letter Examined Cover Ft Delaware DelMomen: Us Stamps #341 Used Registered Officially Sealed *rare* $5,000+ Lot #1142Momen: Liechtenstein Stamps # Airmail Graf Zeppelin Cover $ P1116r #351