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F.D.R. and Flag Cancels

by Frederick Langford (2000)

It is still widely known, and while he was president it was universally known, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a stamp collector. In fact, he enjoyed having all persons know this.

A book recently published by LINN's tells us of Roosevelt's life's activities with stamps. It touches on politics not at all, but this book tells only of the president's lifetime career as a stamp collector, and it contains a fascinating and much revealing story.

From the age of under ten years, onward to and including the day he died at the age of 63 years, stamps were a part of almost every day's activities. For his last twenty-five years they were a self-cultivating obsession.

The books tells us that he had collections of many countries' stamps, besides stamps of the USA, and that his fascination with the world's stamps gave him a vast knowledge of both history and geography. However, he was never an erudite philatelist. He never hunted "flyspecks" on stamps, nor was ever an explorer of yet-unresearched philatelic subjects. He never put into print any reference literature from the results of his stamp studies, nor wrote an article for the benefit or knowledge of other collectors. In today's terms he would be called both a collector and an accumulator, but not a specialist.

As time passed, and especially after he became president, people made him gifts of valuable philatelic sets and collections. He arranged to get bulk covers from the daily correspondence of government departments, and other materials that then would have been called philatelic "junk." He did not esteem any newly-acquired matter for its supposed market value, but he delighted in being everlastingly the recipient of more and more philatelic matter, every bit of which he deemed worthy of his study and investigation. However, it is apparent that in his later years he received much bulk matter that he never had the time nor the strength to sort out.

The last two preceding presidents had tried to cultivate a public image that they trout-fished for their recreation. The public accepted this belief as evidence that they were by choice outdoorsmen, or were men with recreational tastes common to, or that could appeal to, the majority of ordinary men.

When the stresses of office fatigued Roosevelt, he often enjoyed taking a week's or longer cruise on a Naval ship, usually U.S.S. Houston. During those times, the newspapers and the public were informed that the president spent much of his shipboard time fishing, printing that he "had departed on a fishing cruise." This was quite untrue. His pleasure cruises on Naval ships were for the purpose of refreshing him from the cares of his office, it is so, but they were especially designed to get him away from Washington and its politicians by giving him time to work alone and uninterrupted with his stamps. Stamp collections were brought along on all cruises, but fishing from battleship's decks was not done. That these were "stamp working cruises," or "stamp sorting cruises" was not revealed while he lived.

After Roosevelt died, everything philatelic of his was sold in auctions by Harmer & Co. in New York, divided into a great many auction lots. It was realized after the first auction that the stamps had sold for much more money than they would have from their strict market value as stamps, because collectors wanted to possess something philatelic which had actually belonged to Roosevelt. Accordingly, items such as album leaves and old covers were rubberstamped by Harmer as being "From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Collection," to prove their source, and to entice bidders.

[Flag Cancel Cover]

Flag Cancel Cover from Collection of Franklin D. Roosevelt

To me, the most notable, most worth reporting circumstance, is that, of all the quantities of covers Roosevelt gathered and owned, there is no knowledge that he ever owned more than one Flag Cancel cover. Other than the one shown here, no cover bearing a Flag Cancel, whether the cover was addressed to himself or to anyone else, ever turned up in the Roosevelt collection of covers.

Two especially important features of this cover are worth noting. First, its cancellation is by the only Ovate flag cancelling machine used any time while Roosevelt was president. Secondly, the adhesive stamp it bears is the Eagle air mail stamp issued May 14, 1938, for National Air Mail Week, a stamp designed by Roosevelt himself. Not that he did all the fine art work, but the design was thought up and was sketched out by him.

It is said the postmaster of Russell, Minnesota, knew that he had the only Ovate flag cancelling machine in use in the United States, and he was proud of it. Obviously, he franked a cover with the attractive new air mail stamp which was issued that week, then imprinted it with his unique canceller, and sent it to President Roosevelt. Had this postmaster never done this, there would be known today no Flag Cancel cover, whatever, from this president's collection.

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