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Yorktown stamp was sensation of 1931

by Marjory J. Sente

Seeing the United States Postal Service's proclamation of its intention to reduce the number of stamps that it issues next year on the front page of the Sept. 24 issue of Stamp Collector got me to thinking about how things have changed over the decades.

Seventy years ago, in 1931, the Post Office Department issued only three commemoratives.

Although it released several values of the Fourth Bureau Issue of definitive stamps, just three commemoratives was a very small number, even by the standards of that day.

The first two commemoratives came early in the year. The 2¢ Pulaski commemorative was the first, released on Jan. 16 at 12 different cities: Brooklyn, Buffalo and New York, N.Y.; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; Gary and South Bend, Ind.; Detroit, Mich.; Chicago, Ill.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Savannah, Ga.; and Washington, D.C.

Then on May 21, the 2¢ black and red Red Cross commemorative was issued at Danville, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

Both of these commemoratives were well received.

However, the issue that truly captured the imagination and interest of U.S. first-day cover collectors in 1931 was the bicolored 2¢ Yorktown Sesquicentennial commemorative.

Released Oct. 19 at Yorktown, Va., and Wethersfield. Conn., the carmine rose and black adhesive memorialized the surrender of the British General Cornwallis, marking the crowning American victory and the end of the fighting in the Revolutionary War.

To help get out the word, special labels were affixed to commercial covers, special advertisements were printed on many envelopes used for business and specially prepared stuffers were inserted with the regular correspondence.

Figure 1 shows the overall design from the back of one of the envelopes that was used to promote the event.

The interest was overwhelming. About 275,000 stamps were sold at Yorktown and 270,000 at Wethersfield on the first day.

Why all the interest in the Yorktown commemorative?

It had been five months since America had seen a new commemorative. Even in 1931, that was a long time for the new issue collectors to go between stamps. Also, the subject - a great victory - was always patriotic and popular.

The new 2¢ commemorative, however, was only a small part of an extended four-day Yorktown Sesquicentennial celebration, which began on Oct. 16 and lasting through Oct. 19.

Figure 2 shows a sesquicentennial bro-chure, titled On To Yorktown, that was enclosed in many mailings prior to the celebration.

Regrettably, the release of a special commemorative stamp was not mentioned in the brochure. However, the text went into great detail about other events, as well as housing and concessions in the region.

And what a celebration it turned out to be, attracting a crowd or no fewer than 400,000 people.

In 1928, Congress appointed a United States Yorktown Sesquicentennial Commission - a federal organization - to oversee the national celebration.

Figure 3 below shows one of the special penalty envelopes prepared for the commission, that was used as a first-day cover for the 2¢ Yorktown stamp.

While no official first day ceremony was scheduled, on the day that the new stamp was released, President Herbert Hoover visited Yorktown and addressed the American public.

Postal officials estimated that about 125,000 covers received the FDOI cancellation and more than 1.5 million Yorktown stamps were purchased in Yorktown alone. The post office facilities there were nearly overwhelmed.

Michael Eidsness, the postal official who was in charge at Yorktown, noted that noncollectors outnumbered collectors during the event.

He said that people were inspired by the celebration. They sent the FDCs that they prepared to themselves, as well as all over the world.

Another intriguing aspect of the FDCs serviced at Yorktown are the ship cancellations.

The United States dispatched a contingent of 40 ships to the event and France sent two.

Among the American ships was the historic frigate USS Constitution - the oldest vessel still on the U.S. Navy lists. Recently restored in 1931, it was on its first extended trip to visit the ports of the United States.

While unofficial first day cancellations are recorded from many of the ships, including those sent by the French, by far the most plentiful are the ones from USS Constitution. One of these, cropped from an FDC, is illustrated on the facing page in Figure 4.

At Wethersfield, Conn., the other official first-day city for the stamp, the release of the Yorktown commemorative was the central focus of the celebration.

Unless you really know your American history, Wethersfield may seem an unlikely selection for the release of the stamp.

In 1781, however, the famous Yorktown Conference was held at the Webb House, where Washington and Rochambeau formed the initial plans for the decisive Yorktown campaign.

Arthur Willard was a prime mover behind the first-day activities at Wethersfield. He also was responsible for a handsome cachet featuring the Webb House.

Using the central motif of the Wethersfield official cachet, Wil-lard's friend Jared Standish enlarged the Webb House image and added color and text. Though only Willard and his friends used the cachet, it is fairly common.

Figure 5 shows one of these FDCs from my 'Return to Sender' collection.

The Yorktown and Wethersfield first day activities are a study in contrasts- and I have only scratched the surface in this column.

David Whitesell conducted an in-depth study of all the first-day activities related to this issue. His findings were recorded beginning with the November-December 1973 issue of First Days, the official journal of the American First Day Cover Society, and continuing in several installments and updates.

By the way, the U.S. Post Office Department quickly made up for the paucity of commemorative stamps released in 1931.

On the very first day of the following year - Jan. 1, 1932 - it issued a set of 12 commemoratives for the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.