It was a cold, blustery day with a chilling wind blowing off Lake Erie as Bernice Mittower unlocked the door of the 165-year-old, tiny, white, clapboard post office.
The post office is one of a dozen frame structures erected in the 1820s and 1830s that were part of Lyme, Ohio, a 19th-Century town that never made it into the 20th Century, preserved as a historic village on the outskirts of Bellevue.
Mittower, 72, is curator of the Old Lyme Post Office, now the headquarters, library, museum and only building ever owned by the national Post Mark Collectors Club.
The old post office houses the largest collection of postmarks anywhere in America, more than 4 million postmarks from every post office in the nation, from hundreds of post offices that no longer exist. The earliest postmark in the collection is a letter canceled and mailed from a ship in Boston Harbor May 5, 1793.
Shelves in the PMCC library and museum are lined with large blue three-ring notebooks filled with postmarks on whole envelopes or portions of envelopes alphabetized by states, then broken down into cities and towns. Hundreds, for example, are from Los Angeles from the 1870s to the present.
File cases are filled with postmarks. Shelves contain Postal Guides from 1789 to 1989, histories of the U.S. Postal Service, books with information on the derivation of names of cities and towns.
Collecting postmarks is the hobby of more than 800 members of PMCC who live in every state except Alaska and in nine foreign countries. California boasts the largest number of members, 78. Other leading states are Ohio with 52, Illinois, 51, and New York, 45.
“Our members are from various walks of life, including doctors, lawyers, merchants, ministers, teachers, teen-agers, retired people, a newspaper editor, the general manager of a Toronto radio station, an undertaker in Peoria, Ill., and a retired school custodian in Compton, Calif.,” Mittower said.
Vic Steward, 42, the Peoria mortician, recalled when he was 15 and started collecting postmarks from Illinois. “Then I began sending away all over the country for postmarks from towns with peculiar names like Peculiar, Mo.
“One day I sent a stamped, self-addressed post card to the postmaster of Ninety Six, S.C., and when he sent me a postmark from his town he told me about the Post Mark Collectors Club. I never knew there was a national club for postmark collectors. I thought I was the only idiot in the world doing this,” said Steward, who figures he has more than 150,000 postmarks.
Postmark collectors swap with other collectors. They mail stamped, self-addressed postcards to post offices. They collect current and old postmarks. They buy old post cards and old letter envelopes at antique shops, swap meets and flea markets. They have companies, friends and relatives give them canceled envelopes. They ask almost everybody they encounter if they have old letters or post cards stashed away in the attic or basements.
“I was in Hamilton, a little town in Utah, in a small antique shop and bought a shoe-box full of old post cards for $6,” Steward recalled. “There were 1,200 post cards with postmarks including one canceled at Piopolix, Ill., in 1897, that had been mailed to someone in Munich, Germany, and somehow ended up in Hamilton, Utah.”
J. Riley Groom, 77, of Compton, who was a conductor on the old Red Car in Los Angeles for 20 years and then a custodian for 18 years at Ralph Bunche Junior High School, has one of the largest postmark collections on the West Coast, numbering nearly 200,000. His earliest postmarks go back to 1853.
The late Dr. Howard Thompson of New Hampshire had what is considered the finest private postmark collection in existence, numbering in excess of 1 million postmarks. That collection is now part of the PMCC archives.
Members pay $9 a year dues--$4 for 18 and younger--which entitles them on entry to an assortment of postmarks plus a yearly subscription to the 24-page monthly PMCC bulletin. In existence since 1946, the club has annual conventions, the most recent held in Ridgecrest, Calif., last August.
Some members collect postmarks from every state; some from every post office, and former post office in his or her state; some specialize collecting nearly every conceivable topic--male and female names, romantic, humorous or odd names like Chicken, Alaska, and Tomato, Ark.
The cover page on a recent copy of the PMCC bulletin featured reproductions of postmarks with country names and postal state abbreviations, for example, England, AR; America, MN; Russia, OH; China, TX; Germany, KY; Italy, TX; and Japan, NC.
The Bulletin is filled with information about members, about coming club meetings, stories about histories of post offices and other features, description of duplicate postmarks to be auctioned from the club’s collection and ads from members.
Postmarks are generally auctioned in lots; for example, 400 postmarks from Texas. Prices are reasonable. The biggest auction of the year is at the PMCC convention for the benefit of maintaining the headquarters building. Last year’s convention auction had 125 different lots that brought a total of $3,400. One of the highest prices ever paid for a single postmark was $80 from a 19th-Century post office by a member whose great-grandfather had been postmaster there.