A thematic stamp collection highlighting the “postal history” of Hartford in the 18th and 19th centuries is heading to auction in March after winning several major awards. A result of years of searching for specific stamps and documents, the collection provided a rare perspective on where the stamps originated and how they were distributed.
“People have an outdated image of stamp collecting,” says Charles Epting of H.R. Harmer Fine Stamp Auctions, the New York-based firm handling the sale. “They think it’s still people in solitude, hinging stamps for themselves. Over the past couple of decades, it’s become more about collections shown competitively. There’s also a whole other layer to it when the stamps are still on the original envelopes.”
Anthony Dewey, who’s lived in Connecticut his whole life, studied engineering at UConn and is now retired, says he’s been collecting stamps since he was 8 years old and has always been fascinated with local history.
“I have a postcard collection of Hartford as well,” says Dewey, who has exhibited competitively at stamp conventions since 1991. “In 2005, I decided to do more with U.S. history, and someone suggested postal history markings. Early letters were not like [we] have today. Before 1847, the only option you had was pre-sized letter sheets, folded and sealed with wax.”
The collection is “essentially mail to and from Hartford,” Epting says, “but Tony used it to create a history of America. He’s one of the people bringing new life to stamp collecting.”
Because of who could afford to send mail in the 1700s and 1800s, “essentially everyone who’d get a letter in those days would be sea captains or prominent city residents or Revolutionary War soldiers,” Epting says.
The oldest letter in the collection is from 1717, nearly 60 years before the U.S. Postal Service began. It was sent through the British Colonial Postal Service and has the marking “On His Majesty’s Service.” The first Connecticut post office opened in 1775. At some times in history, the system had competition from other postal services such as the Hartford Mail Route.
Among the local institutions referenced in the collection are Hartford City Hall (via a letter from its then-mayor Thomas Seymour), Union Station (through letters sent by the Hartford, Providence, Fishkill Railroad, which formed in 1849), the Hartford Insurance Company, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance and The Hartford Courant, which was founded in 1764, predating the state postal system.
There are several pieces in the collection related to Charles Dudley Warner, who was editor of The Courant in the 1860s and ‘70s and cowrote the novel “The Gilded Age” with his Farmington Avenue neighbor Mark Twain.
When competition judges told Dewey the cutoff date he’d imposed on his historical collection, 1900, seemed arbitrary, he looked for a more defendable date and realized that 1897 was when Connecticut opened its first branch office. That milestone came about because a local factory didn’t want their workers to go downtown every time they needed to post a letter. “It perfectly reflected the growth of industry at that time,” Dewey says.
Dewey says he didn’t want to sell the stamps in the collection format he created but as separate items. He realized that they crossed over into different categories and interests. “I prefer that it’s sold the way it’s being sold, lot by lot. There are so many different aspects, like letters from the 1850s to China and Japan. I had gathered all these pieces together because they were tied to Hartford. I achieved my goal of exhibiting the collection. I couldn’t go any further with it. It was time to say goodbye.”
He says the collection won three national Grand Awards at philatelic conventions. This is the first time he has sold the collection through an auction house.
“Tony’s belief,” Epting says, “is that so many pieces in his collection would fit into other collections. For example, prisoner-of-war camps. The main appeal of course in Hartford, but there’s a lot of crossover.”
“Digging into this collection forced me to look at Hartford in a different way,” says Epting, a history buff who lives in Duchess County, New York but has visited Hartford many times and has been to a Yard Goats game.
Other stamp collections have used cities as their main themes — Epting mentions ones centered around Philadelphia and Chicago — but Hartford is ideal for such treatment because it’s not too large a city and it was home to a number of world-famous letter writers.
“One item in the collection that jumped out to me was addressed to a publisher in Boston,” Epting says. “The return address is ‘S.L. Clemens.’ That in itself is fantastic.” Samuel L. Clemens was the real name of Mark Twain. The envelope no longer contains a letter, but that document was located in a museum based on information from the envelope. Twain was telling one of his publishers that he no longer wanted them to handle his books. “It’s basically a breakup letter,” Epting says, adding that the existence of the envelope is also special. “Letters survive. Envelopes are much scarcer.”
“I have a few regrets,” Dewey says of the collection he amassed. “I never did a Thomas Hooker [letter or envelope], though he wrote profusely, or a Jonathan Trumbull. Those items exist in institutional collections.”
The only time the collection has been shown in Hartford was at a convention there a few years ago.
Dewey’s ready to move on to other collecting projects and let others handle these precious historic items.
“Holding a letter that was written to a Connecticut soldier in a Confederated prison camp during the Civil War brought history to life right in my hand,” he says.
Reach reporter Christopher Arnott at firstname.lastname@example.org.