Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights

The Ku Klux Klan

Most U.S. postmasters were not issued standard devices for canceling stamps until the 1890s. Prior to that, they were purchased from vendors or homemade. A number of hand-carved KKK-themed cancels were used by the post office at Union Mills, Pennsylvania in 1870. They serve as a reminder that the Klan had adherents in the north as well as the south.

‘Skull and Crossbones’ KKK postal cancel, Union Mills, Pennsylvania, c. 1870

refer to caption

The skull and crossbones was one of the earliest symbols adopted by the Klan.

Loan from Stampvestors LLC through Columbian Stamp Company

 

Watertown, New York Ku Klux Klan, c. 1870

refer to caption

Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

‘Kleagle Mask’ KKK postal cancel, Union Mills, Pennsylvania, c. 1870

refer to caption

This cancel depicts an early style of homemade KKK mask. Stamp collectors refer to it as a kleagle mask after the title given to Klan recruiters, but that word was unknown in the 1870s.

Loan from Stampvestors LLC through Columbian Stamp Company

Curator Calvin Mitchell on KKK postal cancels

I am Calvin Mitchell and I am an Assistant Curator of Philately with the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. These Ku Klux Klan cancels from Union Mills, Pennsylvania post office are examples of what we call “fancy cancels.”  Postal clerks were required to cancel stamps so that they could not be used again, but the Post Office Department did not really specify how the cancel should look. Many nineteenth century postmasters used a simple pen knife and carved pictorials in cork or wood. Ninety-nine percent of these fancy cancels depict animals, patriotic symbols, or intricate geometric patterns. But a handful of them appear to be associated with the Ku Klux Klan. They include the initials KKK, sometimes combined with images such as hoods and coffins associated with Klan activity. Although the Klan of the 1860s and 1870s was concentrated in the south, all of the known KKK postal markings emanated from northern post offices, such as Chicago, Illinois; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Union Mills, Pennsylvania. Many northern cities experienced an influx of southerners fleeing their devastated homes in search of manufacturing jobs and other opportunities. Union Mills, Pennsylvania was one of these places, growing rapidly due to the discovery of oil there. All of these KKK cancels are rare and highly sought after by collectors, usually commanding a premium price during stamp auctions. Yet, at the same time, collectors know so little about them! Why do they occur only in the north? Were the postmasters involved Klan members, or sympathizers? The era of fancy cancels came to an end in the 1890s, when the Post Office Department issued new regulations standardizing the form of cancellations. But many questions surrounding the KKK cancels endure. The National Postal Museum is currently researching the origins and use of these cancels, which coincided with the beginnings of KKK activities in the south.


Mississippi Ku Klux, Harper's Weekly, January 27, 1872

refer to caption

Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

Ku Klux Klan hood and mask, c. 1990

refer to caption

Former slaves hoping to enjoy newfound freedom were soon confronted by whites trying to maintain their supremacy. The KKK began as a society of Confederate veterans that used terrorism to intimidate freedmen. Its most recognizable symbol—the pointed hood and mask—did not become common until the 1920s, however.

Loan from the Southern Poverty Law Center collection of regalia donated by former Klan members

Author Michael Newton on the evolution of Ku Klux Klan hoods

Hi, I’m Mike Newton calling from Indiana. I‘ve published seven books on the Klu Klux Klan and today I’m talking about the evolution of their hoods and masks. The original Klan in Reconstruction wore very ornate Halloween–type costumes and masks prepared by individual members’ wives, sisters, mothers, anyone they knew who was a seamstress. Later, as the Klan spread and grew to half a million members, the costumes degenerated. Many members would wear something very simple like a pillowcase or a cotton sack with eyeholes cut in it. In 1915 when the Klan revived, the uniforms were standardized, very similar to the ones you may recognize today with the pointed hood, the mask and the robe. The only difference between costumes was different colors to denote ranks, sometimes insignias on the sleeves or the chest. Otherwise, they were standardized and sold for profit by the Klan.