Understanding Postal History and Cover Collecting: The Texas Hold ‘Em Analogy
The collecting of stamps in cover is a very misunderstood field that has exploded in popularity in recent years, largely due to its complexity and for the opportunities it affords the astute collector. The biggest difference between covers and single stamps or multiples is that the stamps themselves are NOT the key factor in determining the interest level, scarcity and ultimately the value of the cover. They are but one of several factors that you need to consider. When you collect a cover, you are looking at the entire piece, not just the stamps on it.
For many years now I have tried co come up with a model to assist in the valuation of covers, and a way to explain to the layperson or non-postal historian how to understand covers and learn how to spot the more desirable ones. I believe I have come up with a good analogy that will allow me to take the elements that give covers their scarcity and value, and explain how they integrate together.
Before I get started, a word about condition is in order. When you are collecting covers you have to bear in mind that covers are exposed to all the elements in the mail system – rain, wind, being thrown together in large bins, going through sorting machines and excessive handling. So, they will not generally exist in the same condition that mint stamps will exist in, or even used stamps that have come off a cover will. So, while extraordinarily good condition is a plus that increases the value of the cover, it is not nearly as critical to the value of a cover, as it would be to the value of a stamp. In fact, in the case of wreck or crash covers, poor condition is expected. Even redirected and dead letter covers are also often in less than stellar condition, due to the excessive handling.
The analogy I have come up with is to think of Texas Hold’em poker – specifically how a hand in that game develops and acquires its value. Forget about the betting and bluffing and focus on the hand and how it develops in the game.
What are the Factors That Determine the Value of a Cover?
Other than condition, the main factors that add to the scarcity of a cover and thus its value are:
- The destination – where the cover is going.
- The rate – how much postage was required to send the cover. Whether it travelled surface or air, whether it was regular first class, special delivery or registered.
- The franking – what combination of stamps were used to pay the postage.
- The route – how did the cover travel to reach its destination.
- The addressee – who the cover was sent to.
- Where the cover originated – a small obscure town versus a major city.
- Whether the cover is associated with any historically important event.
- Cancellations and other important markings.
Let’s talk a little about these factors and how they influence both scarcity, and ultimately value.
At different points in time the mail leaving certain countries tends to go predominantly to one or two countries, depending on where most of the social ties of that country are. For example, up until the late 1960’s most immigrants to Canada came from Europe. Also, most all of our trade was conducted with the US. So covers going to the US, UK and most Western European countries will not be particularly special in most cases, as these are where the majority of our foreign mail would be going. However, destinations in South America or Asia at this time would all be very scarce. Of course these patterns can change over time, as the demographics change. So, Canadian covers to South America are still scarce, but covers to Asia, while scarce are less so than they would have been in say, 1958 for example.
Typically we are referring to foreign destinations when we speak of destination, but there could be some scarce destinations within a country, such as a town that no longer exists, or one that has extra historical significance.
Postage rates today are relatively simple compared to several decades ago, being streamlined in most countries. In Canada, we have three basic first class rates and no second or third class rates anymore. Our first class rates are split into 3 groups: domestic, US and foreign. Then the rates are determined by weight steps. In the past though, the rates were often country specific or region-specific, with preference being given to certain regions over others. Also, there were many more types of services offered other than just first class mail. For example, we used to have second and third class mail, which were less expensive than first class and we used to have a printed matter rate, which was the cheapest rate and required the item being sent to be unsealed. While airmail is standard today for foreign mail, it was not standard until the 1950’s or 1960’s, and in fact it was still possible to send mail by surface up until the late 1980’s in many countries. Finally, there used to be additional enhanced services offered, such as special delivery, acknowledgement of receipt and the like, whereas now those services have been replaced by expresspost and registered mail only.
The rate under which the cover being sent that applied is an important factor in determining value and scarcity because some rates are much less common than others. Some are common, such as registered, but tend not to survive because of the fact that most business correspondence is not kept inside its original envelope, but is instead taken out and filed while the envelope is thrown away. Most registered letters are of a business nature, so registered covers are, on balance, scarcer than regular first class ones. Likewise, first class mail from the turn of the 19th century to the 1990’s is very common, because letter writing was how people stayed in touch. Long distance calling was still very expensive until the 2000’s, so letter writing was more common and people tended to keep the letters they received, along with the envelopes, at least until the 1960’s.
Some rates may be uncommon because they only applied for a very short period of time while others are uncommon because there just was not a lot of demand for the service being offered. An example of the latter would be any surface mail sent after airmail became standard and inexpensive.
Another factor that comes into play is whether or not the rate was correctly paid and if not, was any shortage caught and appropriate postage due assessed? Obviously most of the time the rate will be paid at the exact amount, and so postage due covers will be more desirable.
The franking refers to what kind of stamps as well as which specific combinations of stamps were used to pay the postage on the cover. All other things being equal, one would expect that the most common franking will be the fewest number of current definitive stamps required to pay the rate. Commemoratives will generally be much less commonly used than definitives. But there are exceptions and what is common can change over time.
To understand this consider how letters are sent today as compared to decades ago. Back in the day, most households had a supply of stamps handy and indeed most people had them in their address books, their purses or on their desks. However, most of the stamps on hand would have been lower value first class stamps, because those are what would have been used to mail most letters. Registered or special delivery items would likely have been taken to the post office as they would be today. So, multiples of lower value stamps used to pay higher rates would have been more common earlier than they would be now. Most people send so few letters now that many don’t have stamps on hand and have to take their letters to the post office. There, which stamps are used will depend on the postal clerk, but it is a fair assumption that generally it will be the fewest number of stamps possible.
So, it will be very unusual to find higher rates paid with combinations of current commemorative stamps, where it is obvious that the cover is not philatelic in nature, i.e. not contrived by a collector, but just happens to have been sent with the stamps affixed.
Today, most airmail routes are standard, so route is less applicable, but back many decades ago there were often several different routes that letters could take to reach their destination. Postal regulations were such that a marking would be placed on covers at each stage in their route, usually in the form of a handstamp applied to the back of the cover, also called a “backstamp”. By reading the series of backstamps and other markings and playing close attention to the dates it becomes possible to trace the route that a cover travelled to reach its destination.
All other things equal a cover that shows clear route information will be more desirable than one that does not.
Most of the time the addressee will not be a person of any great significance, but occasionally you will come across covers sent to important historical figures or other famous people. These generally will be more desirable.
By and large most covers will originate from major cities, but those that come from small towns, especially those that no longer exist will be more desirable.
A cover can be either directly or indirectly associated with some important historic event. An example of direct association would be a cover carried aboard the Titanic (if any exist) or the Hindenburg, or for a more modern example, a cover sent to the World Trade Centre in the week of 9/11, which can be reasonably regarded as likely having been on the premises when the disaster struck. An example of indirect association would be a cover sent to China during the Great Leap Forward or to Budapest Hungary during the 1956 uprising. These associations enhance the desirability of the cover, as most covers have no such associations.
Cancellations and Other Important Markings
Some cancellations, particularly those that were in use during the classic period are highly sought after and collectible in their own right. These can add greatly to the value of a cover that has them. Also, notations and markings that are of an instructional nature that can indicate how the cover was handled may add additional value. Examples are postage due markings, return markings, mail service suspension markings, senate or free markings, "too late" markings and so forth. They are often important indicators of what the correct rate for a cover would be, so they add value directly if they are seldom found on cover and sought after, but also indirectly by acting as supporting evidence of a specific rate.
So, there are the factors. In assessing a cover, you take all of them into account and as you can see, most of the time the stamps on the cover will have little value off cover. This, I believe is one reason why the field, despite growing greatly in popularity, remains outside the scope of most collectors collections.
Back to the Poker Analogy
Now would be a good time to go back to the poker analogy. When you play poker, you are initially dealt 2 cards. The vast majority of the time what you are dealt does not result in a hand that has any value. If you are lucky you receive a pair of aces or kings, called a pocket pair, or you get two high cards of the same suit. These hands have potential, but that potential will not be realized until the dealer turns up additional cards at the flop, the turn and finally the river. Each time cards are turned up there is a chance that the hand will be improved.
You can look at cover collecting this way:
A basic cover that has no scarce stamp on it can be thought of in the same way as a low pair or two totally unsuited cards would be in poker. By itself, it is nothing special. It needs the additional factors to be just right for it to go from being a common, relatively worthless cover, to being a scarce and desirable postal history item. A cover that has stamps on it that are already scarce off cover, and valuable in their own right can be thought of as the proverbial high pocket pair – good in its own right, and has the potential to get much, much better.
The flop’s equivalent in cover collecting would be the destination, the rate and the franking. These three things will, 95% of the time determine the ultimate desirability of the cover, just as most of the time in poker the flop makes or breaks the hand. So, a cover that has no rare stamps off cover, could be going to an exotic and scarce destination, could be paying an unusual rate and could be an unusual combination of current commemorative stamps that have almost no chance of being used in combination with one another. In that case, we could have the cover equivalent of a high straight, flush or full house, if all three factors are adding to the cover simultaneously. If just one factor or two factors come into play then we still have a great cover, but it is more akin to three of a kind, two pair or a low straight.
The turn’s equivalent would be when we consider the route, cancellations and markings. So a cover that is otherwise ordinary could travel by an unusual steamship route for a foreign cover, or could be a railway post office (RPO) cover in the case of a domestic cover. If it is an otherwise common cover, the route could transform it to the equivalent of what three of a kind or a low straight would be in poker.
Finally, the river’s equivalent would be to consider both the addressee and the historical events the cover is associated with. If it is an otherwise common cover, and is associated with a somewhat famous person or event then it might become the equivalent of two pair in poker. If it is associated with a very famous and important person than it might become the equivalent of three of a kind or a low straight. If it was already a low straight cover at the flop then this factor might take it into flush, full house, four of a kind or royal flush territory: it depends on the other factors.
Let’s illustrate this now with some examples of covers now. All of these have been featured in my first themed sale covering the Karsh and Wilding Period of Canada. Each of them is special because of at least one, and in most cases several of the factors discussed. I will show how these factors come together in each cover.
Cover #1 - Local Registered Paid With Unusual Stamps
Here we have a standard registered commercial cover from 1961, rated at 25 cents, which was the standard registration fee of 20 cents and 5 cents domestic first class rate. Normally, this would still be a decent cover - the equivalent of a high pair, because registered envelopes were usually thrown away. But this one is better than usual because the postage, rather than being paid with either a single 25c chemical industry or a 20c paper industry and 5c Wilding, which would be the most common combinations, is paid instead with 7 singles (a strip of 5 plus a pair) of the 3c Wilding and a 4c Wilding. This combination takes it to the equivalent of a good three of a kind hand in poker.
Cover #2 - Local Registered Paid With Unusual Stamps
Here we have another local registered cover sent within Montreal in November 1957. This time it is not clear whether or not it was commercial. It looks like it could be personal in nature. What makes this cover special is the fact that the 25c rate has been paid with 5 different commemorative stamps - ALL of which were current in 1957. Now two of them: the Royal Visit and David Thompson stamps came from another envelope that had not been cancelled and had been cut out and used here. They aren't unfortunately tied by the postmark, but the postmark on them is clearly the same as postmark that does tie the other stamps to the cover. So, they clearly belong on the cover.
What are the chances of 5 different commemmorative stamps being used on a commercial cover? Must be very, very low. So, as far as local covers go, it doesn't get much better than this. The only way this cover could be improved would be a more famous addressee, clearer postmarks or all the stamps being tied. I would consider this the cover equivalent of a flush in poker.
Covers #3 & 4 - Foreign Airmail Cover With Unusual Stamps Paying the Rate
The next two covers are both airmail to France, which at the time was a relatively common destination for airmail - not as common as the UK, but certainly not rare. However, better than domestic usage for sure. Both covers though have the standard 15c airmail rate being paid using unusual combinations of stamps.
Here the postage has been paid with a 7c Canada goose, a 2c Wilding and a 6c Wilding. The 6c Wilding was issued to pay surface mail rates to Europe and is rarely seen on cover, so its usage here to pay the rate makes this a better cover. Probably the equivalent of a low straight in poker.
Here we have the rate being paid with the 7c goose again, but the other 8c is made up from two commemoratives: the 1951 Royal Visit and the 3c Moose from the 1953 Wildlife week issue, and then a 1c Wilding. The cover is from 1955, which makes the commemoratives a bit late, as far as usage goes, but not outrageous and not obviously philatelic. This a nicer combination which elevates the cover to the equivalent of two pair for sure, and possibly three of a kind. It is a nice use of the 1c Wilding as a make-up stamp. If the commemoratives would have been more current this would be solid straight for sure.
Covers #5 and #6 - Better Foreign Airmail Rates Paid With Unusual Frankings
The next two covers are both airmail again, but they are better either because of the destination, or the rate.
This is a 1954 registered cover to France. While airmail to France is not uncommon, registered airmail to France is less common. The rate of 20c registration and 15c postage was paid with a 20c newsprint industry, a 1c Karsh and two 7c CAPEX commemoratives from 1951. Again the usage of the CAPEX stamps is somewhat late, as the 7c Canada Goose stamp was available at this time. A 15c Gannet would be the common stamp to pair with the then current 20c newsprint industry stamp, but the usage here of the other three stamps is slightly better. The condition of the stamps could be better, and this makes the cover slightly less desirable than it otherwise would be. So I would rate this as the cover equivalent of a good solid three of a kind.
Here we have what I believe to be a registered airmail cover to Estonia, which in 1958 was part of Russia. There is no registration marking, but there is a boxed marking in Cyrillic and the postage on the cover is 35c which would correspond to 20c special delivery plus 15c airmail to Europe. It is paid with a 25c Chemical Industry and two Newspaper Industry commemoratives.
The destination is spectacular - very unusual for this period, which is the outset of the Cold War. The 25c stamp is expected for this rate, but the commemoratives are a nice touch rather than a 10c Inuk and Kayak or 2 5c Wildings, which is what we would expect to see here. It could be improved: with clearer markings to indicate the rate, and more commemoratives in place of the 25c, but it is still a very nice cover. I would say this is the equivalent of a straight in poker.
Covers #7, #8 and #9 - Better Rates, Destinations and Frankings - All 3 Factors
The next three covers combine the better elements of all three factors - good rates, with great destinations and nicer than usual combinations of stamps paying them.
Here we have a 1958 airmail cover to Korea. The rate to Korea was 25c rather than 15c. So, it was an unusual destination at the time, and an unusual rate. Then the postage, rather than being paid with common definitives is being paid with four different 1958 commemorative issues. This makes the franking almost as good as the local registered cover I illustrated earlier. It would be better if one of those Elected Assembly stamps were a different 1958 commemorative from the other stamps, like La Verendrye or the BC Centennial. The condition could be a bit nicer, but it is not bad for a cover to Asia. As it is this is the cover equivalent of a full house or four of a kind. It is a very nice cover.
Here we have a 1953 registered airmail cover to Argentina. Again, the destination is unusual, the preferential 10c airmail rate to South America is unusual and the 30c postage has been paid with a combination of definitives and commemoratives. The 3c and 4c King George VI definitives are just about 6 months out of period, as the Karsh issue came out in May and the Peace Issue 8c is a little late, or maybe not at all, given that no 8c was issued in its place. So, it could be improved by having slightly more current stamps, but as it stands it is a solid full house.
Here we have a registered airmail cover to Budapest, Hungary. Again, the destination is unusual for 1955, as Budapest was behind the Iron Curtain, and this was the Cold War. It was sent about a year before the Budapest Uprising, so unfortunately it is too early to be associated with that event. But it is registered, which again is unusual for foreign mail and finally the postage has been paid with 2 current commemoratives, the 5c Wilding, 6c Wilding and 10c Inuk and Kayak - a very nice franking that includes the seldom seen 6c used in period.
Again, it could be improved with more low value definitives, or additional commemoratives, but as it is this a flush for sure.
All these covers are not improved at the turn or the river, since none of them are to famous people or are associated with famous events. Now, let's look at two covers whose desirability improves on the turn.
Covers #10 and #11 - Underpaid Returned Mail and Longer Route Surface Mail
The next two covers show examples of better routes.
Here we have a shortpaid airmail cover to Australia which was shortpaid by 9c, as the rate to Australia was 25c and only 16c was affixed. Although the 4c Wilding is a common stamp it was usually used for local first class letters, so 4 singles used here instead of a 15c Gannet and 1c, or a 10c Inuk & Kayak, a 5c Wilding and a 1c Wilding is unusual. It was addressed to an individual who worked for P&O Cruise lines, and whomever was responbsible for delivering it was unable to find Mr. Jarvis and so it was returned, by boat, travelling from New Zealand to Canada.
So what you have here is an unusual destination, short payment, a slightly better franking and a long route caused by return. The condition is actually better than what we would expect for such a well travelled cover. It is the cover equivalent of a flush, and this last bit of value comes about because it was returned to sender and had to travel by surface when it was originally intended to be airmail.
Here we have a registered SURFACE cover to Switzerland, sent in 1959, when airmail would have been standard. The 26c has been paid by 5 different commemoratives, 4 of which are current and a 1c Wilding - one of the best possible frankings for this rate. It could only be improved if the 1957 Royal Visit stamp were a bit more current.
The backstamps indicate that although the senders lived in Burlington, ON, they sent it from Gordon Bay, which is in Muskoka - cottage country, and they sent it on August 28, at the end of summer. It was mailed at the Gordon Bay post office, travelled to Gravenhurst, where it then travelled by train to Toronto, then from Toronto to Montreal, where it was flown out and then it arrived in Bern, Switzerland on September 14.
So here you have a somewhat common destination, a two pair destination, an usual rate, a really nice franking and then a long route. The condition is fabulous and the postmarks are clear and sharp. In cover terms this is either a full house or 4 of a kind. It is a fantastic cover.
Now we consider the river, in which the last factors that could add value are considered.
Covers #12 and #13 - Famous Recipient and Famous Event
Here we have a reduced airmail cover to none other than Fidel Castro in Cuba. The date appears to be in April 1958, before the Cuban Revolution, but is clearly addressed to him as Prime Minister, which he wasn't until 1959. So, it most likely is April 1959. The preferential airmail rate to Cuba was 10 cents and we can see 3 1c Wildings and a space which most likely contained a 7c Canada Goose, but which is now gone - a significant detraction unfortunately.
Had this cover been sent to anyone else, it would be maybe a 2 pair cover at best, because of the reduction in size and the missing stamp. The franking would have been slightly better if it was complete, but it isn't unfortunately. However, what you have with this cover is a famous recipient and because of the timing you also have association with the Cuban revolution, which was ongoing at this time.
These two facts take what would be a 2 pair cover and transform it to the cover equivalent of a solid straight.
Here, for the final cover is an unaddressed souvenir cover from the 1962 Calgary Stampede. As a postal history item, there is little value because it didn't actually do any postal duty. But the Calgary Stampede is a fairly famous annual Canadian event and the artwork is quite nice. It is machine printed though. If this were hand-painted it would be a $250-500 item, but as it is it is a low two pair cover - probably in the $4-$5 range. If it were just a local cover with the 5c Pauline Johnson stamp, it would be a nothing cover, or at best a low pair cover,. but the artwork and association with the event make it slightly better.
So How Do We Use These Factors to Ascribe Value and Come Up With Prices?
Now that we know how to rank a cover using this poker analogy, we have a basis to determine a valuation model. The starting point is to consider how much a nothing to low pair cover for the period would be worth. This would be a value that essentially covers a dealers time and labour in preparing the cover for resale. As is the case with common stamps, it is not meant to indicate resale value. This may indeed differ, depending on the period we are talking about. So, for instance if we are talking about the Cents issue period of 1859-67 for Canada, the worst cover will still be worth $5-$10, no matter what, whereas a nothing cover from the Elizabethan period will be as low as 50 cents or $1 (I'd argue that these days $1 is as low as you can sell an individual item and not lose money).
Then starting with that baseline you come up with value ranges to represent the successive "improvement" that comes with the different factors. So if we use the Elizabethan period that we have covered here and use a base value of $1 we can come up with the following "poker analogy value scale" as follows:
Nothing to very low pair covers: $1-$2 a cover
Moderate to high pair covers: $2-$5 a cover
Two pair covers: $5-$10 a cover
Three of a kind covers: $10-$20 a cover
Straight covers: $20-$30 a cover
Flush covers: $30-$50 a cover
Full house cover: $50-$75 a cover
Four of a kind covers: $75-$100 a cover
Straight flush covers: $100-$200 a cover
Royal flush cover: $200-$500 a cover
That covers a value range that begins at $1. If your value range starts at say $5, which it might for a late Queen Victoria period cover, then your Royal flush end of that range would be $1,000-$2,500 which is about what the very rare covers of this period tend to sell for.
The reason I like this analogy and resulting model so much is that poker is all about probability and moreover the very low probability of a royal flush. Most seasoned poker players are lucky to see one of these in a lifetime. So, it is with covers. You will see one or two of these factors being superb, but is very, very rare to see them all come together in one cover. Accordingly, the model gives you a way to comprehend those instances in which you will see a cover that you didn't think was that special sell for very very high prices at auction.