by Bart Lee, xWPE2DLT
327 Filbert Steps
San Francisco, CA 94133
Correspondence is invited.
Stamps are those little, stickum-backed, often colored, and colorful, perforated squares and rectangles of paper that entitle us to send letters when appropriately applied, for which we prepay in return for the stamps. Some people collect stamps with the fanaticism of radio collectors. (I know that is hard to believe but it is true). Some stamps, say, with upside-down airplanes on them, cost as much as catalins. Other stamps, little purple ones from long ago and far away, cost as much as Marconi gear. De gustibus non est disputandum , as Petronius Arbiter used to say: There is no accounting for tastes. If you like to collect stamps, you know all of this already. What you may not know is that there are radio-related stamps of all kinds, readily available. One nice thing about collecting radio stamps is that they take up a lot less room than radios. An even nicer thing is that they tell us about some little-known radio history.
The earliest radio stamps were issued by the wireless telegraphy companies. These "franks" (above) are of the Marconi company, the United Wireless Company, and the United Fruit Company wireless telegraphy division. These franks entitled the bearer to send a wireless message. They were often made available as complimentary perquisites to good customers, sought after customers, and company officials. The Marconi stamps issued to stockholders in 1913 for complimentary messages. They were printed on sheets, and issued in booklets of several pages of four stamps each. Most were perforated. The landline telegraph companies had long issued such franks, and the wireless companies merely followed suit. The Marconi frank is a near copy of the Western Union frank of the period. (Recently, Italy honored Marconi with an appearance on its 2000 Lira bill. Few other depictions on monetary instruments relate to radio. The collection of money is a whole 'nother subject; so, too, is the collection of stock certificates, many of which issued from radio companies).
The United Fruit Company had one of the earliest wireless networks to coordinate its Latin American operations, put together around 1908. It put its surplus capacity to work transmitting radio-grams, as a competitor to Marconi for maritime work, and perhaps also the cables. It supplied wireless telegraph franks as early as 1910, through 1913, to plantation owners to alert ships for crop pick-up and other purposes. It should be remembered that in those early days, competing wireless companies would not carry each others' traffic. As late as 1926 a Tropical Radio Telegraph Company (whose motto was "The Voice of the Americas") at least essayed radio-telegraph franks.
The United Wireless franks tell a story in themselves. The earliest, from 1908 on, are signed by its General Manager, C.C. Galbraith or its President C.C. Wilson. In 1912, the last year of issue, the signature is foregone for authorization of the "Trustees in Bankruptcy." Shortly before, the United management had all been indicted for stock fraud. They certainly sold a lot a stock, and transmitted all too few messages. Yet in the present era when a startup biotech company can sell for rising share prices before any products are even approved, let alone sold, or 110 times earnings with products, one has to wonder if the United Wireless management was as crooked as the prosecutors claimed, or merely prescient pioneers for what became the booming telecommunications industry. Lee deForest was also indicted in this period, and the Federal Judge thought he was a crook for sure, because deForest had claimed that someday radio would carry the human voice across the Atlantic.
In the 1920s, broadcasting caught on nationwide. It was, however, a relatively quiet ether into which these signals reverberated. Listeners were thus able to, and did, go after long distance reception--DX. To real DXers (as opposed to mere BCLs), the programming was often but tedium between station identifications. Dedicated DXers wanted written verifications from each station heard. The stations were flattered to have been heard so far away, and they were mostly happy to comply with verification requests. Letters were followed by QSL cards, and in the mid twenties, the EKKO stamp company came along. Its name is an obvious play on "echo" and the return of a QSL. It provided each station with a postage-like stamp with an eagle on it and the call letters. The station could send the stamps with or as verifications. Canadian stations got stamps with beavers on them, but the Cubans, close as they were, got no cigar--their stamps also had eagles. Other stations did up their own stamps. Fervid DXers could hear many stations around the country, and accumulate most of the EKKO stamps. EKKO sold a stamp album and kit for these DXers. Radio News in February, 1925 made EKKO stamps its cover subject with an article: The New Radio Stamp Fad.
Stamps of this sort, that are not really postage stamps, but seem to want to be, are called "cinderellas" by stamp collectors. There are other radio cinderellas as well. RCA in particular issued stamps in relation to its product line. The Quarter Century Wireless Association has issued stamps to its members. There are also tax stamps relating to radio, at least in England and maybe Canada. The BBC was financed by a user fee or tax on radios. Payment of the tax was shown by display of the BBC Radio Tax stamp on the receiver. Canadians also taxed such things, and there may be Canadian Radio Tax stamps. I have seen neither, but Paul Bourbin says he has seen the BBC stamp.
Various nations have been issuing postage stamps relating to radio for many years. In 1956, a small book came out by Herbert Rosen called Radio Philatelia . It was reviewed in Popular Electronics in April, 1956 and some of the stamps in it illustrated in the July, 1956 issue. Many nations have commemorated Marconi over the years, and France has commemorated Eduard Branley, inventor of the coherer that made Marconi's work possible. The Russians put Marconi's contemporary Alexander Popov on a series of stamps, along with his receiver circuits, with which he first detected lightning storms. Nikola Tesla appears on the stamps of the former Yugoslavia. The U.S. did a series on pioneering electronics including deForest Audions, as well as an International Telecommunication Union commemorative and one for Amateur Radio. The U.S. also honored inventors Edwin Howard Armstrong, Philo T. Farnsworth, Nikola Tesla and Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Radio has also appeared on stamps relating to space exploration and satellites. The U.K. honored Marconi with four stamps issued for the 75th anniversary of the Marconi--Kemp experiments, in 1972. Both Newfoundland and Canada honored Marconi as well, for his 1901 transatlantic tests performed in Newfoundland. China and Japan have honored radio communications and facilities, as well as electronics, on recent stamps.
Stamp collecting is known as philately or philatelics, and there is certainly a radio philatelics. Collections of stamps about just one subject are known as topicals. There is an association of topical stamp collectors. As far as I have been able to determine, there is (as yet) no special interest group among the topical collectors for radio stamps. The American Topical Association would be happy to sponsor one, no doubt.
Stamps like the telegraph franks are known as "back of the book" because of where they are covered in the Scott master stamp catalog. I found out about the Marconi stamps from such a mention (without illustration) in the back of a 1989 Scott. Later I found other, old catalog pages illustrating the wireless franks among the telegraph stamps. Larry Nutting has been very helpful in this regard, particularly in supplying excerpts from George Jay Kramer's book, UNITED STATES TELEGRAPH STAMPS AND FRANKS (The Collectors Club, NY, 1992) and from Joseph S. and Stephen G. Rich, UNITED STATES TELEGRAPH ISSUES (Society of Philatelic Americans, 1947), both of which I have relied upon for some of the information in this note.
There is a specialized dealer, Dr. Robert Freeman [7800 North 37th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85051 (602 973-4021)] who has helped me get the wireless stamps on the cover, and who has access to more. The radio-related postal stamps are in the general parts of the catalogs for each country, and more easily available. I have been very pleased with the help I have had from stamp dealer Richard Hoffman [Philatelic Enterprises, P.O. Box 4569, Vallejo, CA 94590 (707 642-8650)] as well. Also, the U.S. Stamp Company [368 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94104 (415 421-7398)] can fulfill want-lists. I recommend all of these sources if you are interested in Radio Philatelia.
Copyright 1994 California Historical Radio Society, all rights reserved.
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