The provisional stamps of the St. Louis Postmaster

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The provisional stamps of the St. Louis Postmaster – he was John M. Wimer – were foreshadowed by a notice published on November 5, 1845 in the Missouri Republican:

“LETTER STAMPS. Mr. Wimer, the postmaster, has prepared a set of letter stamps, or rather marks, to be put upon letters, indicating that the postage has been paid. In this he has copied after the plan adopted by the postmaster of New York and other cities. These stamps are engraved to represent the Missouri Coat of Arms, and are five and ten cents. They are so prepared that they may be stuck upon a letter like a wafer and will prove a great convenience to merchants and all those having many letters to send postpaid, as it saves all trouble of paying at the post office. They will be sold as they are sold in the East, viz.: Sixteen five-cent stamps and eight ten-cent stamps for a dollar. We would recommend merchants and others to give them a trial.”

Eight days later another notice appeared in the same paper; it read:

“POST OFFICE STAMPS. Mr. Wimer, the postmaster, requests us to say that he will furnish nine ten-cent stamps and eighteen five-cent stamps for one dollar, the difference being required to pay for the printing of the stamps.”

The stamps were designed and printed by J.M. Kershaw, who was then head of the leading firm of engravers in St. Louis. He set the Missouri Coat of Arms in a double-lined rectangular framework. The Arms depict two bears – hence the stamps’ nickname; they face each other across a circular device consisting of the State seal surrounded by a garter inscribed UNITED WE STAND DIVIDED WE FALL; the bears stand on a ribbon bearing the inscription SALUS DOPULI SUPREMA LEX ESTO, meaning ‘let the people’s welfare be the supreme law’. Above the Arms, diagonally at left and right respectively, are the words SAINT and LOUIS and between them the indication of value, 5, 10, or 20. At the foot, beneath the ribbon, appear the words POST OFFICE. A few curves, dots and dashes complete the stamp’s design.

Kershaw engraved the designs on a small copper plate, with an area sufficient to contain six subjects in three rows of two. Not having any means of mechanical reproduction he had to cut each design separately by handwork. Consequently each stamp differs from every other stamp on the plate, for handwork cannot repeat itself identically.

The plate as first engraved bore three stamps denominated ‘5’ and three denominated ’10’, each column being of the same denomination.

Kershaw printed 500 sheets on a greenish-gray wove paper from the plate as originally engraved and he was paid 75 cents for every hundred stamps delivered by him. Soon after the 500 sheets had been delivered, the Postmaster ordered the production of stamps bearing the figures 20 to cover a double-weight letter carried for over 300 miles.

The engraver placed the copper printing plate face downwards on a hard flat surface and pounded the back of the plate in the appropriate place on two vertically adjoining stamps denominated ‘5’. The object was to force the copper outwards from the body of the plate and so make it flush with the surface. That enabled the new denomination to be engraved there as on an unused piece of copper. The procedure was an every-day occurrence for correcting mistakes and effecting alterations in the engraving of visiting cards, billheads, and other items of engraved stationery.

It is clear that Kershaw himself did not carry out the engraving of the figures ’20’. Their style is plain, crude, and entirely different from the ornate figures ‘5’ and ’10’. The plate as altered and used for printing consisted of two stamps ’20’ above a ‘5’ in the left column of the sheet as printed and three ’10’ in the right column.

A few sheets from the re-engraved plate were printed on the greenish-gray paper used for the first printing. The rarest single examples of the St. Louis Bears are those denominated ’20’ and printed on greenish-gray paper. A vertical pair of the ’10’ cents on greenish-gray paper used on a piece of envelope and postmarked on July 6th has been removed from the piece and reveals on the reverse an imperfect and inverted impression of a ’20’ cents stamp with parts of the stamps above and below. The impression of the stamp above must be a ’20’ and that of the stamp below a ‘5’. The impression at the back is not a mirror print and, therefore, is not an impression set off from a previously printed sheet. The existence of the impression at the back can be explained as being the first imperfect print on the paper, which was then turned and properly printed.
The second printing as a whole is thought to have been 500 sheets, also; most of the paper used was grayish-lilac.

A further alteration was made in the plate. The figures ’20’ were removed and replaced by figures ‘5’ by repeating the procedure previously adopted. A third printing was made, probably in 1847, and again 500 sheets were printed on pelure paper. A variety, believed to be unique, consists of a ’10’ cents stamp with a ‘5’ cents stamp design on the back. This resulted, probably, from an imperfectly printed sheet having been turned over and used again.

Few of the third printing had been sold by the time the Government issue of 1847 appeared. It is thought that the remainder of the St. Louis Bears were destroyed then.

The fate of the printing plate remains a mystery and no posthumous printings of the St. Louis Bears are known.

During the time that they were in use the St. Louis Bears did not become really popular with the general public. The large majority of examples which have been found at various times are on business letters.

The existence of the St. Louis Bears was known to collectors quite early, certainly by November 1863 when the issue was listed in The Stamp-Collector’s Magazine vol 1 p 152; there was a brief description of the ’10’ cents. In 1864 Frederick Adolphus Philbrick obtained one of the ‘5’ cents from Mount Brown. Collectors thought the 20 cents was a bogus variety until the summer of 1895; its genuineness was settled beyond doubt by the discovery at Louisville, Kentucky, of the largest number of St. Louis Bears.

There a porter at the Court House had been told to clear up the cellars and burn a huge accumulation of old bundled-up papers which were lying there. He was casting the bundles into the furnace when a few of the papers came adrift and fell to the floor. When he stooped to pick them up he noticed that they had unusual stamps on them. He put them on one side and looked through the unburned papers for more.

Later he showed a few of the stamps to two caretakers in the building and, in exchange for the stamps, they treated the porter to a drink. The following day the caretakers went into the cellar and found many more stamps. There were 137 St. Louis Bears in all – 75 of the ‘5’ cents, 46 of the ’10’ cents and 16 of the ’20’ cents. The caretakers sold a few for $5, some more at $25 each and the remainder, it is said, for $20,000.

Another big find was at Philadelphia in 1942. A change of partnership occurred in Charnley & Whelen, a firm of bankers. The new partner, whose name was Townsend, cleared out some of the firm’s old papers and letters, which he sold for $50 to the Hemingway Paper Stock Co. for pulping. When the papers were sorted by F.D. Hemingway he found that many of the letters bore St. Louis Bears.

The final received a large amount of publicity, doubtless inspired by a syndicate of stamp dealers in New York, who were said to have bought the stamps. The number of stamps found was claimed to have been 105, of which six were ‘5’ cents, seventy-nine ’10’ cents, and twenty ’20’ cents. The figure which was published of the alleged purchase price was in the neighborhood of $100,000, but evidence which subsequently came to light did more than throw mere doubt not only on that figure but also on the numbers.

When Charnley & Whelen discovered that they had sold what was a very valuable accumulation of paper for about $50 they brought an action against Hemingway for the return of their letters. They failed. Hemingway kept the letters in an envelope. He had at least one tempting offer for them or what remained of them, during his lifetime. He refused and wrote on the envelope ‘I did not know what to do with the money’.

When Hemingway died he bequeathed the stamps to the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania for the use of its Masonic House at Elizabethtown. On Monday, December 13, 1948, H.R. Harmer Inc. of New York held an auction of The Charnley & Whelen Find, comprising 42 lots, all covers or letter sheets, and consisting of six of the 5 cents, fifty-one of the 10 cents and fourteen of the 20 cents, some in pairs and strips. The total amount realized by that lot was $43,220. The highest price, $4,600, was paid for a cover bearing one 10 cents and two 20 cents. That cover, in the Christie’s Weill Brothers sale on October 12, 1989, as lot 647, sold for $154,000.

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