Fabric Philately

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My new postal-themed purse.

                The past two weekends I’ve been getting a little crafty. One thing I really wanted to make for myself was a new purse, so I went looking for some philatelic-inspired fabric to make it with. I looked through four different fabric/crafting stores and found a variety of material to choose from.

                One thing I noticed while looking for stamp themed fabric was that most of it was less focused on stamps and more focused on France. Vintage Paris, with its romantic imagery, is a popular theme right now for craft products. While I did buy a few yards of pretty pastel fabric covered in images of French stamps, I generally shied away from these types of material. I mostly work with US postal history and don’t know much about French stamps. Since I was planning on carrying this purse regularly, I wanted to be sure if anyone asked about it, I’d have a story to tell.

                Finding fabric with US stamps was difficult. Luckily, I was able to find two fabrics with a familiar piece. These two fabrics, one canvas and one burlap, each included a variety of different postal markings and stamps but there was one image they shared: an Essex Letter Express stamp. Or at least, an artistic attempt at something similar to an Essex Letter Express stamp.

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Two of the stamp patterned fabrics I found while browsing fabric stores.

                Essex Letter Express was a United States local post. Maybe. As with most of the history behind early US locals, it can be difficult to say which were legitimate and which were created solely for philatelic profit. Essex Letter Express seems to fall into the latter category. As far as my research has found, the private post office was founded by three or four former employees of other mail carriers in 1856, and was located on Essex Street in New York City. After a month of selling their stock of stamps, the company disbanded and the owners took off with the profits.

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Essex Letter Express stamp (65L1).

                Essex Letter Express was far from the only post to set up stamp sales with no intention to seriously carry mail. The history of US locals is littered with these types of little stamp factories. But at least we can be somewhat certain that Essex Letter Express genuinely existed! There are dozens of stamps that were created for fantasy post offices – stamps created from the imaginations of stamp forgers with the intention of tricking collectors. (Stamps for these fake post offices are called “bogus” stamps, and are collectible in their own right.)

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Essex Letter Express forgery.

                Sometimes those tricky forgers could be tricked themselves, however. A story relating to the Essex Letter Express stamps notes that the famous stamp dealer and forger George Hussey produced and advertised a supply of “genuine” stamps for the post that included the letters “SX” printed under the ship. These, of course, were false. The collector who supplied Hussey with the original stamp to copy purposely modified it so that all of the forgeries Hussey produced could be easily identified.

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Close-up photos of the Essex Letter Express stamp images on the fabrics featured above.

                You’ll notice that the stamp featured on these fabrics has been highly modified as well. It’s taller; the ship has been replaced by a completely different ship; the word “cents” has been written in full; and the corners have been notched. It makes sense that they took some artistic liberties to make the design a little flashier and more polished for a fabric design. The heart of the design is still there though, so I appreciate that it was at least modeled from a genuine stamp and I’m happy to wear the image on my purse.

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Canvas Embellishments from a Michaels craft store, featuring a clear image of a fake Essex Letter Express stamp.

                [ In addition to the fabrics, I found this stamp design once more in a package of small canvas patches. It just so happened that these packages also included the image of another US local stamp, the City Express (formerly Adam’s City Express) 2₵ design. This image remained much closer to the design of the genuine stamp. ]

                To make my purse, I chose to only use the canvas fabric and some plain gray material for the lining. I used a simplified version of this tutorial from the Fabric Mutt blog. I chose not to apply an accent stripe on the flap, and I increased the size by an extra inch to insure that my iPad would fit inside. For the strap, I used a strip of trimming I purchased from Wal-Mart that had a handwritten/hand stamped pattern. I thought this would match well with the handwritten sections of the canvas fabric.

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Inside view of my new philatelic purse.

                I couldn’t be happier with my new purse. While I don’t have any plans yet, I’m looking forward to using the rest of the fabrics and patches I purchased to make more philatelic-inspired items.

                If you’d like to learn more about US local stamps, check out the article in the Siegel Encyclopedia.

  • The genuine Essex Letter Express stamp featured in this story is from Siegel sale 830, lot 627.

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