A Rare Stamp Reunited With Its Lost Love Story
Thursday, May 25, 2006
In the stamp collecting world, often the tiny square on the outside of an envelope is all that matters. It is the commodity that is coveted and traded and sold. But for some, there is the draw of the story behind the stamp -- where it came from, the time it represents, the printing mistake that alters it just a bit from others like it.
And so it was with the Alexandria Blue Boy -- a stamp that carried a love letter in 1847 between a couple that for many reasons should not have been.
They were second cousins. He was Presbyterian; she was Episcopalian. Relatives were watching.
One of the rarest stamps in the world, the Blue Boy sold for $1 million in 1981 and is estimated to be worth many times that now. Still, many wondered why this stamp -- an Alexandria postmaster provisional printed on blue paper before U.S. government stamps were commonplace -- survived when all others like it were lost or destroyed. If the envelope had been saved for sentimental reasons, did the letter also exist? If so, what did it say?
"Did these two people ever get married?" said Gordon C. Morison, executive director of the Washington 2006 World Philatelic Exhibition, a stamp show on a scale seen in the United States only once every 10 years.
Last fall, as Morison and others prepared for the exhibition, he wondered out loud about the Alexandria Blue Boy to May Day Taylor, a fellow philatelist who had volunteered to help with the show.
"We wondered where the letter was or if it even existed anymore," he said. "I did not ever expect we'd find the letter. Frankly, that stuff is not saved."
But on that September day Taylor began her search -- one that sometimes consumed 40 hours in a week and regularly took her from her Friendship Heights home to Alexandria. She started by going through the Alexandria phone book, then sat for hours in libraries researching dates, genealogies and the history of the postal service.
From the envelope, she had a name: Miss Jannett H. Brown. And she had a general address: Richmond, Va. What she re-created from there was a time and a place long gone.
The post office that issued the stamp is now an antique store and the days of horse-drawn carriages are distant, but Taylor said she could stand at one end of Prince Street, on the cobblestones that remain, and see the story unfold through her research.
She found that Jannett Hooff Brown lived at 517 Prince St., a few blocks from her second cousin James Wallace Hooff, who was at 1016 Prince St. They were 23 and 24 years old. In between them lived Daniel Bryan, who was both the postmaster and a poet, although his verses were considered long-winded and grandiose. He is believed to have created the Blue Boy, which consists of a circle of 40 rosettes around the words "Alexandria Post Office." And contrary to previous reports, the Blue Boy stamp was not used in 1846, but rather in 1847, even after the U.S. government had issued its own.
"It's that putting together of all the pieces that makes for a beautiful picture, a snapshot of what it was like in a different day and time," Taylor said.