On May 9, 1939, a plan to bring stamp collecting directly to people residing in cities and towns — large and small — throughout the United States made its debut at the White House in Washington, D.C. in the form of a touring Philatelic Truck. A special ramp had been built into the truck for U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tour the interior but the Philatelist-in-Chief opted to view the vehicle from his own car. Later that day, the truck was moved down Pennsylvania Avenue and parked in front of the Post Office Department building where it received a total of 5,872 visitors between then and May 14, each receiving a specially-prepared souvenir sheet pre-printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and distributed from a model Stickney press installed on the truck. On May 15, the mobile stamp exhibit took to the road stopping at the post office and high school in Hyattsville, Maryland, before continuing on to Laurel that day and Baltimore on May 16 and 17. The truck trekked around the United States until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It’s last date open to the public was December 13, 1941, in San Diego, California.
The idea of the Philatelic Trust was just one of the many contributions to the hobby made by President Roosevelt and his Postmaster General, James A. Farley. This was in addition to their previous extensive use of philatelic press releases, the establishment of philatelic windows in post offices, and even the concept of first day of issue ceremonies.
The Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year June 30, 1939 states the mission that the truck was tasked with:
“As a further means of directing public attention to the benefits of stamps collecting, the Department authorized the construction of a special motorized postage stamp-display car for touring purposes through the country, thereby giving collectors and the public distant from Washington an opportunity to inspect specimens of all issues of postage stamps ever provided by the Department, as well as first-hand information with regard to the processes employed in the designing and printing of United States stamps.”
The truck was first announced to the public in article by Isaac Gregg which appeared in the New York Sun on August 6, 1938. It stated that the initial plan was for the truck to visit schools in order to make “school children more stamp-minded than they are at present”. There were to be “frames containing specimens of every United States stamp from the initial issue” accompanied by a “practical philatelist … who knows the stamp game from top to bottom.” In a follow-up article published on August 20, Gregg mentioned that “stamp clubs and many postmasters throughout the country are now making application to the Post Office Department requesting that their particular communities be included in the itinerary.”
Details of the truck’s construction were also given in the August 20 article:
“It is now being constructed under the supervision of officials of the post office at Chicago, Ill. It is expected to be a six-ton truck, with a wheel base of approximately 147 inches. It will be a four-wheeler without a trailer.
“Painted on the sides of the truck in full-size Roman letters will be the words: UNITED STATES POST OFFICE DEPARTMENT. It will be equipped with Shatter-proof glass windows, enabling the stamps to be on view from every position.”
On September 10, a further New York Sun article by Gregg detailed some of the philatelic materials to be displayed aboard the truck — including postal stationery items that ultimately weren’t a part of the exhibit — and also mentioned the inclusion of “a miniature printing press which will turn out souvenirs for those in the communities to be visited, each step in the process of stamp manufacture will be illustrated within the truck. There will be on view actual working specimens of steel dies, transfer rolls, flatbed plates and rotary press plates.”
The Philatelic Truck itself was constructed in Chicago with a bus-type body built on a 1931 White truck chassis. A Chicago firm had been given the contract to construct the truck for a mere $6500. However, modifications made to the truck to securely carry its cargo of United States stamp issues from 1847 to the current releases of circa 1938 came to about $30,000. The modifications and stocking of the truck took place in a garage at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Annex in Washington, D.C. There were delays in the construction and adaptation which increasingly pushed back the start date for the truck’s debut.
In addition to frames and glass cases installed inside of the truck, two display cases were also to be mounted on the exterior, weather permitting. These were locked into mounts on the front bumper. The stamps to be displayed were sent to the BEP on March 16, 1939; those not used in the exhibits were returned on April 19. Despite Congress cutting the budget for manning the truck, on May 6, the Post Office Department Information Service announced that the
“...new philatelic truck will start its nationwide tour from the White House Tuesday morning. President Roosevelt, the nation’s number one stamp collector, will be the recipient of a sheet of postage stamps which will be presented to him from the truck by the Postmaster General in ceremonies incident to the departure of the first traveling exhibit ever authorized by the Post Office Department.
“Following Tuesday morning’s ceremonies at the White House in which the President and the Postmaster General are to take part, the truck will remain on exhibition in Washington for several days before actually leaving the city on a schedule which will take it into cities and towns in every state in the Union.
“From Washington the truck will proceed north to New York and Boston with stops being made at the many intermediate points en route. Further details as to the truck’s itinerary will be announced later by the Post Office Department.
“The philatelic truck will carry specially prepared stamp frames showing all United States issues, displayed on the inside walls. At one end of the truck a miniature model of a rotary press will be shown in operation, issuing a souvenir engraving the design of which will be a photograph of the White House, 3 x 4½ inches.
“In addition to displaying stamps and the model press, there will be show cases in which various items of a philatelic nature will be placed, consisting of the gum, ink and paper used in the manufacture of postage stamps, a master die, transfer roll and other items interest to collectors.
“The truck will visit schools all over the country so that children and others interested will have an opportunity to view an exhibit of this nature. A stamp expert will be in charge to explain and encourage the hobby of stamp collecting.
“The souvenir engravings of the White House will be distributed free from the truck, and a special junior edition of the Post Office Department’s “Description of United States Postage Stamps” will be sold from the truck at ten cents per copy. This booklet will carry a complete description and photographs of all United States commemorative and historical postage stamps.”
The publication referred to in this announcement came in three editions — the newly-printed “junior” edition prepared beginning in late 1938 and sold on the truck for 10 cents apiece, and previously-published paperback (25 cents) and hardcover (75 cents). The junior edition was described in a USPOD press release dated May 8, 1939, as:
“Carrying an opening message from the President to the junior collectors of the country and a forward from the Postmaster General, this junior edition comprises 63 pages of descriptive and photographic material on all historic and commemorative stamps issued from 1893 to 1939.
“Bound in blue, the booklet has a cover depicting three junior collectors at work on a collection around a recreation room table, while on the back cover of the book is a reproduction of the Post Office Department’s new philatelic truck.”
Once the truck got on the road in mid-May, it was initially manned by two Washington-based clerks in the USPOD’s Division of Stamps, Ralph Davis and Charles Branan, driven by a Mr. Dawson until the end of June 1940. Branan left the crew in Ohio on September 11, 1940, replaced by William N. Hartley who lasted about a year. Davis usually slept in the truck to provide security (using the passenger side display cases as a makeshift bed, warmed by keeping the fluorescent lights on all night) while the other crew members slept in hotels along the way.
A three-day visit to Philadelphia (May 23-25, 1939) included stops at the main post office, City Hall, the University of Pennsylvania, five different high schools, the Gimbels and Wanamaker’s department stores, the plants of the three major local newspapers, and others. An attendance of 7,453 was recorded during the nineteen stops in the city which generated sales of less than $200. On May 30, the truck arrived in New York City where it remained until July 4 including 23 days at the World’s Fair. The truck actually arrived at the site of the World’s Fair on June 9 but wasn’t allowed to occupy its assigned spot due to the visit of the King and Queen of England, delaying its opening until July 12.
From New York, the Philatelic Truck headed to Connecticut and then on to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, across upstate New York State, back south through Pennsylvania, and into Virginia in early November before entering North Carolina on December 1. After leaving Charleston, South Carolina, on December 16, the truck took a well-deserved break before picking up the road once again in Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 12, 1940. The crew had been having trouble with the truck so repairs in Washington, D.C., were conducted during this period.
During 1940, the truck travelled first to Florida where it spent two months travelling down the east coast and up the Gulf coast before meandering through Georgia, through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana, before arriving in Memphis for a three-day stay (December 12-14). Following that, there was a four-and-a-half month break before starting again on May 1, 1941, in New Albany, Mississippi.
The 1941 itinerary took the truck south from Mississippi to Alabama, western Florida, and then westward to Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and north to Chicago where it stayed from July 22 to July 27. Eleven days at the beginning of August were spent in Wisconsin followed by three weeks travelling through Minnesota. The beginning of September found the truck in Iowa and it arrived at Bethany, Missouri, on September 23. It stayed in the Kansas City area, visiting locations on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas state line, from September 25 to September 30 before making a one-day stop in Lawrence, Kansas on October 1. Ten days later, it arrived in Oklahoma and it reached Texas on October 21. On November 26, it departed El Paso, Texas, and visited Las Cruces and Deming in southern New Mexico the day after. It proceeded almost due westward, hitting Tucson, Arizona on November 30, Phoenix on December 4, and Yuma for a three-day stay from December 6-8. After a one-day stop in El Centro, California on December 9, it proceeded to San Diego where it arrived on December 10 and was open to the public from December 11 until the 13.
According to the Postmaster General’s annual report for fiscal year 1942, “The auto-truck philatelic display was withdrawn from service December 13, 1941, because of the necessity for conserving gasoline and rubber. In its last six months of operation, from July 1 to December 13, the truck had visited 116 cities and toured by 61,347 people.
A few days after the last visitor exited the Philatelic Truck on December 13, the vehicle was driven to Los Angeles where the displays were removed and returned to Washington, D.C. The truck was then taken to San Francisco, where it sat for a few years baking in the hot California sun at the Rincon Annex post office and disappeared from all records.
The Philatelic Truck souvenir sheet can be classified as a “Cinderella stamp” as it was never available for actual postal use. Thus, it is unlisted in the Scott standard catalogue and receives just a mention in the Scott specialized United States catalogue as a “forerunner” of the later Bureau of Engraving and Printing souvenir cards. It was designed by Alvin R, Meissner based on an October 1888 engraving of the White House by Angelo Delnoce.The lettering and frame for the sheet were engraved by William B. Wells The design was approved by Postmaster General Farley on March 22, 1939, and the master die was completed and hardened on April 20. The BEP used two plates — 141069 and 141070 — to print the sheets in larger sheets of ten. A total of 730,040 souvenir sheets were printed and distributed imperforate; all but 173,220 were ungummed.
There were three printings of the souvenir sheets made. The first printing was sent to press on May 10, 1939, meaning none were given away on the first day that the truck was open to the public. All of the first printing were gummed.. The second printing was ordered on May 22, 1939, ungummed, and the third on August 4, 1941, also ungummed. According to crew member Ralph A. Davis, the ungummed version was requested after many of the initial souvenir sheets were found pasted onto the sides of the truck, nearby automobiles, store windows, telephone poles, etc.
Many of the sheets from the first printing were put together in coils of 500 each for distribution from the model Stickney press installed in the center of the truck’s display area. When activated, the coil advanced upwards through the press giving the impression they were actually printed on the truck. At the end of the model press was a cutter that sliced the coils into separate souvenir sheets. This model Stickney press is currently on display in the Visitor’s Center in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, D.C.
Many visitors applied the souvenir sheet to envelopes for mailing, adding the then=current 3 cents in postage. While the truck did not have posting facilities of a postal marking of its own, the truck’s crew would accept envelopes from visitors and deposit them at the local post office for cancelling and forwarding. While repairs were being made on the truck in the winter of 1939-1940, a handstamped cachet was designed and applied to 3-cent embossed envelopes that were sold for 5 cents apiece beginning with the January 12, 1940, stop in Raleigh, North Carolina. Perhaps 25,000 of these were sold before the truck finished its travels.
For an extensive examination of all details of the Philatelic Truck and the various philatelic souvenirs of its travels, including a complete itinerary and much more, I highly recommend James H. Bruns’ monograph The Philatelic Truck published by the Bureau Issues Association in 1982. It draws on two earlier articles written by Franklin R. Bruns but greatly expands on those by delving into archival records as well as interviews with former Philatelic Truck crew member Ralph A. Davies.