From July 2013 to May 2014, the National Postal Museum Library hosted the “Small Journals Project,” an effort to catalog thousands of rare and unique items of philatelic literature from the late 19th century (when stamp collecting really took off as a popular hobby) to nearly the present day. The journals, many of which were donated from a single large collection, were typically fewer than ten pages and published by individual hobbyists or small, local clubs, thus their designation as “small.”
I was the primary cataloger for the Small Journals Project, and every day felt fortunate to work with rare materials reflecting the diverse breadth and scope of philatelic history. Over 80% of the publications were original catalog records, meaning that the National Postal Museum Library is the only institution presently known to hold them. The collection is so large that even after nearly a year of work, hundreds more titles still need to be cataloged!
Selecting a single item to represent the collection proved very difficult. However, beginning with the oldest item I cataloged in the collection so far—a December 8, 1820 issue of the New England Galaxy newspaper—seemed a good place to start. This newspaper is interesting because of its early critique of postal responsibilities, as well as surrounding news stories and articles reflecting a young American nation.
The New England Galaxy was founded by Joseph T. Buckingham, a prominent New England publisher and politician.(1) Though not a philatelic publication, this particular issue contains a column about so-called abuses by local postmasters. These abuses seem insignificant by modern standards—the newspaper criticizes postmasters who failed to inform newspaper publishers that an addressee no longer picks up their newspaper at the post office. Though this problem is unlikely to appear as a headline today, it nevertheless reflects tension between a newspaper publisher and at least one local post office at an early stage in US mail delivery. The article ends on a postscript with an ominous tone: “If the conduct of a postmaster in one of the principle northern offices should be blown up any time within a year, say that we, without any pretensions to witchcraft, predicted such an event, this eight day of December 1820.”(2)
Other than this mention of postal matters, I also enjoyed seeing the surrounding context of American history and culture as reported at a time when the American Revolution was still within living memory. For example, this issue also contained an article about a US Army detachment that marched to West and their encounters with Native American tribes seeing Europeans for the first time.
This New England Galaxy issue is a brief but interesting window to postal activities and attitudes at an early stage of American history. The hobby of philately and philatelic publications wouldn’t become popular until about fifty years after this issue of the Galaxy left the press in 1820. However it’s interesting to get a glimpse at the operations of the early post service, and examine relationships between the postal service and its customers at a foundational stage of both the postal service and the United States as a nation.
1) Duyckinck, E. A., & Duyckinck, G. L. (1861). Cyclopaedia of american literature, embracing personal and critical notices of authors, and selections from their writings, from the earliest period to the present day, with portraits, autographs, and other illustrations. Retrieved from http://archive.org/stream/cyclopaediaofame008359mbp#page/n11/mode/2up
2) Abuses of the post office. (1820, December 8). The New England Galaxy [Boston].
Written by Michael O’Connor, Project Cataloger, NPM Small Journals