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The William J. Uihlein Collection of Postage Stamps

by John B. Lundstrom, History Curator and Bernard R. Weber, History Volunteer
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is reprinted without illustrations from LORE magazine, a benefit of museum membership. © 1996 Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.

    It is doubtful that Rowland Hill fully realized the consequences of an idea he first suggested in 1837 to Her Majesty's Government. He thought that postal rates were too high and the whole system far too cumbersome. In those days a letter was still just a sheet of paper folded over, addressed and sealed. Then the rate had to be determined according to the distance to be traveled as well as the weight before the letter could be postmarked and sent on its way. The economy of a rapidly industrializing Britain would benefit hugely from a greater ease in circulating the post. Out of Hill's suggestion emerged the deceptively simple concept of a printed paper label with its own adhesive to be sold by the government and valid for the postage of a single letter throughout the country.
On 6 May 1840, Britain issued the first "postage stamp," a one penny (1d.) denomination printed in black. It proudly bore the portrait of young Queen Victoria. Following soon after was the two penny (2d.) in blue. Gummed on the reverse, they could easily be affixed to letters, but first they had to be cut from their sheets, as they were issued without perforations.

    Postage stamps proved to be immensely successful. Within a few years other countries imitated the British. The first United States postage stamps, a red brown 5 cent depicting Benjamin Franklin and a black 10 cent with George Washington, appeared in 1847. By 1849 twelve countries or colonies had issued a total of 181 different stamps. These early designs were mainly portraits of sovereigns or deceased heroes, coats of arms, or even just plain numerals.

    No one seemed to anticipate the fact that people would find the collecting of these utilitarian scraps of paper to be quite pleasurable and educational. Children were the first to discover stamp collecting, but not always for the same reasons which later made the hobby so popular. In 1841 a young English lady advertised for used postage stamps with which to wallpaper her room. Not until around 1860 did adults in any numbers take up stamp collecting or "philately," as it soon would be known. Collectors began sorting and cataloguing their stamps. The first United States stamp album appeared in 1863. Governments realized the potential for using stamp designs as official propaganda in order to convey a specific message. In April 1866, a year after his death, the United States released a 15 cent regular issue bearing the portrait of martyred President Abraham Lincoln. More and more nations and colonies created their own stamps, and the number of different issues grew astronomically. The hobby was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular avocations in the world.

    One enthusiastic stamp collector was William J. Uihlein. Born in Germany, Uihlein migrated to Milwaukee in 1882 to join his brothers in the Schlitz Brewing Company. An expert on the use of yeast cultures in brewing, Uihlein rose to the post of second superintendent of the massive brewery. In 1910 ill health forced his retirement, but now he had the time to devote to his stamps. Fond of geography and history, he liked to collect stamps from all around the world. His goal was to secure as complete a collection as he could of the worldwide regular issues either in mint or used condition. He acquired only a relatively few covers, that is envelopes with the stamps still attached.

    Uihlein was a real collector, genuinely fond of his stamps, and personally catalogued and mounted them into the albums. He was not merely an investor salting them away for future profit. What a marvelous collection he was able to amass! By 1928 it comprised 22 large albums with nearly 40,000 stamps. Uihlein owned a significant percentage of all of the major varieties of stamps issued worldwide up to that time. Estimates vary, but one source declared that from 1840 to 1928 the world's governments had released about 57,000 regular issues of stamps, not counting minor varieties or revenue stamps.

    In May 1928 William Uihlein presented his magnificent philatelic collection to the Milwaukee Public Museum, where it became the William J. Uihlein Collection of Postage Stamps. In honor of his most generous gift and his acknowledged expertise in the field, the Museum Board of Trustees gladly appointed Uihlein Honorary Curator of Philately to oversee the collection. To properly house the new acquisition, Museum Assistant A. Joseph Gillan designed several special wooden exhibit cases modeled after those used by the U.S. National Museum in Washington D.C. They featured sliding framed glass panels, and into each Gillan mounted eight album pages, four to a side. Arranged alphabetically according to the issuing countries, the collection went on permanent display in the museum.

    Only with a prodigious amount of research and the combing of the stocks of the world's largest or most specialized dealers could the Uihlein collection possibly be duplicated today. His collection is particularly strong in "classics," the pre-1900 stamps, many quite rare, which are so esteemed by modern philatelists. Now the mere thought of any single individual being able to accumulate a collection of all the stamps ever issued by all the nations of the world borders on the ludicrous. Long ago governments became philatelic businesses in order to raise revenue at the expense of stamp collectors. Indeed many small countries earn a hefty portion of their annual national budgets through the release every year of an increasing volume of new stamp issues. Tremendous numbers of stamps far in excess of actual needs have appeared, especially since World War II, and the flow continues unabated. Knowledgeable philatelic writers and experts estimate that approximately 400,000 regular issues of stamps have appeared to date. World issues in 1988 alone are expected to exceed 20,000 different stamps. That is equal to half the number of stamps in the entire original Uihlein Collection.

    Uihlein worked with the collection until his death in 1932. Using funds he provided, the museum during the 1930s and early 1940s purchased stamps in a vain attempt to keep the collection somewhat up to date. It proved an impossible task because of cost and the effort to maintain anywhere near the degree of completeness in acquiring new issues as Uihlein was able to do during his collecting years. Even so, the space required to display these acquisitions made it necessary to reorganize the stamps on exhibit. In the late 1940s Curator George Herrl of the History Department compiled a detailed inventory of the collection and, over the span of several years he gradually removed all of the album pages from the panels. He obtained sheets of white rag paper, which for the time was very high quality, almost acid-free. These he cut to the size of the panels and upon them rehinged the stamps in chronological order. For aesthetic reasons and because of the size of the collection, Herrl had to omit spaces for many past issues which might not yet have been acquired. Once remounted in that fashion, the stamps were very well protected, but after 1950 the collection of necessity remained static. The way in which stamps were mounted and displayed, on sheets behind glass in large wooden frames, made it impossible to add new issued or to fill previous gaps without constantly having to shift significant portions of the collections. With the opening of the new museum in the mid 1960s, the stamp cases were exhibited on the second floor. In 1972 it was decided to devote that space to special exhibits, and the large stamp cases were moved to the secure storage area.

    The renaissance, so to speak, of the Uihlein Collection began in 1982. That year the museum received as a donation from the estate of Mrs. Lavera Pohl the stamp collection of her late husband William. The collection, U.S. and worldwide, included many fine stamps, sheets and blocks, postal stationery and official postcards, and a number of important airmail covers. The question became how to integrate this material (and any such future donations) into the Uihlein collection. The vast numbers of individual stamps and the best ways to store and eventually to display them demanded careful consideration. The decision was made to go ahead and begin dismounting the sheets of stamps from their glass panels in the wooden display cases. That meant dealing with 600 panels or 1200 sheets, each with up to a hundred stamps or more.

    Close examination has shown that the stamps have come through their years under glass completely undamaged, without fading. To insure their continued excellent preservation, the stamps are going into new Scott albums featuring acid-free paper and are being individually mounted using the latest type of Mylar plastic stamp mounts rather than hinges. Because of this process, it is possible for the first time since the 1940s actually to curate the collection, to study and work with individual stamps. As the stamps go into the albums it is now possible to begin filling some of the holes for individual countries and to add issues which have been acquired since Herrl's time. From time to time small numbers of postage stamps have gone on display in the museum. In 1982, in honor of the American Philatelic Society's national convention held in Milwaukee, some of William Uihlein's rarest stamps were placed on temporary display in the museum lobby.

    The whole process of remounting the original collection and integrating more recent acquisitions has and will continue to take years to complete. However, in time to honor the 60th anniversary of the museum's acquiring of the Uihlein Collection, a major milestone has been attained. The United States stamps, the largest single subdivision of the collection proper, have been brought up to date through donations and remounted into five large albums. The principle guidebook for catalogue numbering has been, as it was for William, the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, issued each year since 1863, and now supplemented by the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps, in its 65th edition.

    On the reverse of many of his stamps, Uihlein often wrote lightly in pencil the catalogue numbers and the prices he paid for them, which have risen a great deal since then. Interestingly, some of his catalogue numbers are no longer valid today. During the remounting process it has been necessary to recatalogue portions of the U.S. collection, particularly the revenue stamps. In the late 1930s Scott's catalogue editors renumbered and regrouped several hundreds of the revenue stamps to list them in the sequence of date of issue rather than their previous classification in groups determined by the color or type of paper on which the stamps had been printed.

    Nearly complete in its sequence of the normal issues and including many rare varieties, the Uihlein Collection's U.S. stamps are a wonderful tool with which to study the philatelic history of America. Aside from the chronological sequence of the so-called definitives, commemoratives, airmails, embossed envelopes, postcards, parcel post, coils, booklets, etc. used for regular postage, the collection includes many sheets, plate blocks and first day covers. The collection well illustrates many of the ways in which the government raised money through the use of stamps. Revenue stamps taxed the drawing up of legal documents, stock transfers, liquor, playing cards, cigarettes, even potatoes. It also includes stamps used in American overseas possessions, such as Hawaii, the Canal Zone and the Philippines, plus a full mint set of the stamps issued in 1919 and 1922 for U.S. offices in Shanghai, China.

    As fascinating as the design or historical significance of the stamps themselves is the diverse and quite frequently unorthodox manner in which citizens as well as postal employees used them on envelopes, packages and other items sent through the mail. For example, postmasters added their personal touch to the mail systems as demonstrated by the many special cancellations they applied to stamps as the mail passed through their post offices. These distinctive hand canceling devices were generally made from corks or fine grain hard wood blocks into one end of which was carved a configuration. These individual designs comprised such things as stars, concentric rings, grids, insects, animals or anything else subject to the whimsy of the carver's imagination. The Uihlein Collection includes a fine sampling of stamps bearing a wide variety of special cancellations applied in the late 1800s by postmasters.

    Prior to 1845 all letters sent through the U.S. post were what philatelists describe as "stampless covers." They were postmarked according to their city of origin and date, and postmasters added the zone number and the notation "paid" or "due," depending on whether the sender or recipient were to pay the postage. Congress in 1845 set new postal rates for the entire country in anticipation of introducing federal postage stamps and authorized certain postmasters to issue their own printed stamps on an interim basis, known to collectors as "postmaster provisionals." The Uihlein Collection includes a fine example of the first postmaster provisional, a handsome 5 cent stamp with Washington's portrait, which appeared in July 1845 in New York City. Also present are the rarer 5 cent and 10 cent provisionals from Providence, Rhode Island.

    On 1 July 1847 came the long awaited first U.S. issues, the red brown 5 cent Franklin and black 10 cent Washington, later catalogued as Scott Numbers 1 and 2. The same firm which produced the New York City provisionals received the contract for the new federal stamps. In common with other stamps of their time, they were not perforated. (Perforated U.S. stamps first appeared in 1857.) Their reception was less than overwhelming. One source has estimated that only 1.3 percent of the letters sent between 1847 and 1852 carried stamps. Replaced in 1851 with a new series of stamps reflecting much lower rates, Numbers 1 and 2 were declared invalid for postage, but they were far from forgotten. In 1875 for the upcoming Centennial Exposition, the Post Office Department prepared new plates and officially reproduced the venerable stamps. They also appeared in a souvenir sheet issued in 1947 to honor the first 100 years of U.S. postage stamps. Today Numbers 1 and 2 are the centerpiece of any comprehensive U.S. collection.

With but one exception the portraits of famous Americans dominated the U.S. stamps until the 1890s. In 1869 the National Bank Note Company produced the first U.S. pictorial issue, a very attractive series which included depictions of a postal rider, a locomotive, a steamship, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the landing of Christopher Columbus. The life of Columbus became the subject of arguably the finest set of U.S. commemoratives. For the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition which honored the 400th anniversary of Columbus' First Voyage, the Post Office issued 16 stamps with values from 1 cent to $5. For many years they were the last American stamps to be contracted to a private firm, in this case the American Bank Note Company. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced all U.S. issues until the 1960s when certain jobs proved beyond their technology or capacity to print.

    Superb sets of commemoratives honored subsequent expositions. Among then were the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition held in Omaha, the 1901 Pan-American (buffalo), and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase (St. Louis). In 1926 for the New York "International Philatelic Exhibition," the Post Office produced its first special souvenir sheet with 25 of the handsome 2 cent carmine rose White Plains issue. It was offered for sale only for a short period of time. Over the years many other similar souvenir sheets have followed and have proved highly popular with collectors. The 1986 AMERIPEX International Stamp Show held in Chicago featured four miniature sheets, each with nine 22 cent stamps. Together they depicted all presidents from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson.

    The first devoted philatelist to become President was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and he took a personal delight in controlling the Post Office Department. He had definite ideas as to the type of stamps he wanted and had no qualms about implementing them. On stamp designs and colors he had the final say. Stamps, he felt, were an ideal medium for his administration to convey many of its favorite themes. Unfortunately his first Postmaster General, former campaign manager James F. Farley, managed to commit a philatelic blunder of the highest order.

    During the initial printings of new stamps, Farley customarily purchased and removed from the press room of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing several full sheets before gumming and perforating operations were performed. These inperforate sheets he then autographed, kept three for his children, and presented the others to the President and a number of cronies. Not at all knowledgeable about stamps, he was unaware he was unethically creating very rare and highly valuable stamp varieties available only to his family and friends. Finally in 1934 one of the imperforate sheets was offered on the market at a very high price. Widely publicized in the press, the existence of these "Farley's Follies" became known and infuriated millions of stamp collectors. Subsequent public pressure compelled the Post Office Department in 1935 to print and offer for public sale through its Philatelic Agency the controversial imperforate issued so that any collector could purchase them. These special issues were on sale only from March 15 through June 15, 1935. One of the "Farley's" was the 1934 3 cent Wisconsin Tercentenary issue depicting Jean Nicolet's landing at Green Bay in 1634.

    One highly important series of U.S. stamps has been the airmails. The initial issue of these stamps, in May 1918, was an attractive 24 cent carmine stamp featuring a blue Curtiss Jenny biplane in the center. It was to be used for letters flown (with varying degrees of success) on the route between Washington and New York. Lowered airmail rates later that year soon rendered the stamp obsolete. Lacking only the celebrated 24 cent inverted Jenny error of 1918, the Uihlein Collection includes a copy of each of the 116 airmail stamps issued through 1987. They include the famous "Zeppelins" (Scott C13-15), a set of three (65 cent, $1.30, and $2.60) used in May 1930 for the first Europe-Pan American round trip flight of the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin and were on sale for only a limited time. The collection has them unused and on covers (envelopes) actually carried on the flights.

    Errors such as the inverted Jenny (of which only 100 were accidentally released) hold great enthusiasm for stamp collectors and the public at large. The Uihlein Collection has a fine example of one of the more interesting U.S. stamp errors, "unlike any other committed at the Bureau before or since." It is the 1917 Washington 5 cent in carmine rather than blue. Correcting three individual stamps on plate 7942, one to be used to print a full sheet of 400 Washington 2 cent carmine stamps, a printer accidentally used the transfer roll for the 5 cent, identical except for the denomination. Thus three of the 400 stamps on that particular plate were marked 5 cents rather than 2 cents. The Post Office Department only noticed the error after about 50,000 sheets had been issued, but they managed to track down and destroy a good percentage of the offending stamps. The Uihlein Collection's 5 cent carmine error is the center stamp in a block of nine.

    Another famous error occurred in 1962 with the issue of a 4 cent multicolor (black, brown, and yellow) commemorative honoring the late Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations. The yellow background for at least 400 stamps (two full sheets) came out inverted. Two collectors in different parts of the country each discovered a pane (50 stamps) of the color errors and thought their fortunes were made. Unfortunately Postmaster General J. Edward Day, who snorted: "The Post Office Department is not running a jackpot operation," spoiled everything by ordering millions of the error to be printed. Today they are curios valued only two cents higher than the normal issue. Most stamp collectors did not favor the reprinting of that error. One wrote Day asking that the famous 24 cent inverted Jenny also be reprinted because he would like one for his collection! Because of the uproar, the Post Office Department has decided that if in the future an error on a few sheets accidentally reaches the public, they would not deliberately reprint that particular error.

    In addition to the regular issues used for postage, the Uihlein Collection contains an excellent representation of the various revenue series. They first appeared in 1862 during the Civil War as a means of raising funds for the embattled federal government. They taxed documents recording various legal and financial transactions and proprietary rights, as well as certain goods such as playing cards and later some alcoholic beverages. Documentary revenue stamps were no longer needed after December 31, 1967. One particularly handsome item in the collection is the trial color proof of the 1873 $5 proprietary stamp (Scott RB-10) produced by J.R. Carpenter of Philadelphia. This extremely large green and black stamp is a masterpiece of the engraver's art. Only 2109 copies of the printed stamp were issued.

    Also interesting are the newspapers and periodical stamps. The first issues, large and colorfully engraved stamps produced by the National Bank Note Company, appeared in late 1865. The 25 cent orange red is the first representation of Abraham Lincoln to appear on a U.S. stamp. Subsequent series, printed by the Continental Bank Note Company, concentrated on goddesses and other female symbols and included some of the more risqué representations to appear on American stamps. A later re-issue by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing rendered certain features less prominent on one of the figures.

    As impressive as the U.S. stamps are, the comprise just a small part of the whole. Steady progress is being made to remount into albums the stamps of the many other countries, colonies, principalities, and postal entities represented therein. The philatelic history of each is reflected to a greater or lesser degree in the William J. Uihlein Collection of Postage Stamps. Our ultimate goal is to make the collection again accessible to the public, both through large temporary exhibits and also in a permanent designated philatelic area where small portions could be shown and rotated frequently. Only then will the stamps become the philatelic resource William Uihlein desired them to be when he gave them to the Milwaukee Public Museum.


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