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TV's, FDC's Recorded History 40 Years Ago

by Marjory J. Sente

Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of John Glenn’s successful spaceflight in 1962, my thoughts turned to elementary school and how excited I was that day. My music teacher brought in his portable television to track the mission.

Our small school relied on a traveling music teacher who taught at five schools in the district. Luckily the day of the mission was when he taught at our school, so I was able to witness first this televised milestone event in space exploration.

Although I was a stamp collector, I knew nothing then about first-day covers, so the issuance of the 4¢ Project Mercury stamp to mark the successful mission eluded me.

Just what happened on Feb. 20, 1962, as far as the philatelic world was concerned?

After viewers witnessed the landmark event on television, they watched Deputy Postmaster General H. W. Brawley present a special album of the new Project Mercury stamp to Mrs. Glenn at her home.

The stamp was released at 301 post offices throughout the nation at the exact hour that Glenn’s historic first American orbital flight ended. Prepared and distributed in absolute secrecy, the stamp was revealed only when 301 postmasters were told to open their mystery packages. Placed on sale about 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (10:30 a.m. in Hawaii.), by the close of business, over 11 million of the stamps had been sold.

Using the search engine Google, I searched for the Project Mercury stamp on the Internet.

One of the first hits was the Artcraft site. From it, I learned that its largest print run for any Artcraft cachet was for the 1962 4¢ Project Mercury stamp, shown at left in Figure 1.

Because of the excitement about the first orbital flight by an American, there were rumors that a stamp would be issued. [Artcraft founders Leo and Samuel August] . . . had worked with Al Nelson to produce two plates. “When news arrived that a stamp indeed had been released, a cachet was ready to go, and the Washington Stamp Exchange hurriedly distributed . . . a unique offer to collectors: Send us your uncacheted Project Mercury FDCs . . . and we’ll engrave them for you. How many such ArtCraft Project Mercury covers were engraved? It was too hectic a period to keep records, but a run of over two million would be a reasonable estimate,” according to the website.

At http://spacecovers.com, maintained by Joe Frasketi, collectors learn: “Since this was a surprise stamp issue, many post offices only had the stamps on sale for a couple of hours. Collectors did not have much time to prepare first day covers and they used whatever envelopes were handy. Thus many of the Project Mercury FDCs have the cheaper envelope paper used for everyday correspondence, and today many of these envelopes are now beginning to show toning (discoloration).

“Only the Cape Canaveral Florida postmark has the words ‘First Day of Issue’ in its cancel [as in Figure 1]. This is considered the official cancel. Many collectors have tried to collect a first day cover from each of the 305 cities, but, as far as I know, this has not been accomplished.

Figures 2 and 3 show unofficial first-day cancels of Boise, Idaho, and Phoenix, Ariz.

“Did you know that when the Project Mercury stamp was issued there was no post office named Cape Canaveral? Cape Canaveral was a geographical name for a point of land where the launch took place.”

Although he was not a collector at the time, David Baird was at Canaveral on the day of Glenn’s flight and got caught up in the excitement. He provides insight at:

www.livefromsiliconvalley.com/space

“I was a radar operator and my site supported all launches from Cape Canaveral. We started . . . checks at noon on [Feb.] 19th for the launch of John Glenn on Mercury Atlas 6 and I had been at the radar site for over 21 hours when liftoff occurred.

“. . . shortly after the launch my friend Roy said ‘Hey, Dave, I hear they are opening the Cape Canaveral Post Office to sell first day covers. You ought to stop by and get some.’ That was all news to me; there was no Cape Canaveral post office in those days and I had no idea what Roy was talking about. He explained what a cover was, told me that the post office was brand new, not really ready yet, but was going to open for one day to sell these souvenirs.

“On the way home I swung by the post office. . . There was a sign on the wall reading “Project Mercury First Day Covers, 5 cents, limit 5 covers.”

He bought five, later persuading a clerk to sell him the entire stock of about 1,200 FDCs. And he did manage to get Col. Glenn to autograph one for him.

At www.spacephilatelics.com, Space Philatelics has a section devoted to suspect covers, including a write up about Project Mercury FDCs postmarked on USS Noa.

According to the site, “. . . there was no Project Mercury stamp aboard the USS Noa on Feb 20, 1962 when the destroyer recovered the space capsule. . . [Noa’s] postal clerk stated ‘The stamps did not reach the ship until Feb. 23. Those special envelopes with the ships picture and capsule, plus a small number with printed cachet First U.S. Orbital Flight / John H. Glenn, Jr. USMC / Space Craft Friendship 7, all dated Feb. 20, were stamped only for the crew and their loved ones . . .’

The report concludes “300 backdated covers exist with the Project Mercury stamp postmarked on Feb. 20, 1962. In addition, 24 covers exist with red cancels . . .

“Approximately, 1,500 [legitimate] covers . . . exist with the Project Mercury stamp . . . postmarked Feb. 23, 1962 . . . [Also, legitimate] covers do exist postmarked on Feb. 20, 1962 on the USS Noa with a 4¢ definitive issue U.S. stamp.”

The report concludes that “Any recovery ship cover with a Feb. 20, 1962, postmark and Project Mercury stamp is a backdated cover . . .”

This is just a sampling of what you will find on the Internet on the Project Mercury commemorative. And don’t forget to check the American Philatelic Research Library’s on-line article index at www.stamps.org/