“Nassau Street—where stamp collecting began.” (Old advertising slogan of the Subway Stamp Co., formerly of 111 Nassau Street in lower Manhattan)
Nassau Street was named some time before 1696 in honor of William of Nassau, the Dutch prince who became King William III of England in a 1689 coup d’etat. Now largely a pedestrian mall, it winds south from its intersection with Park Row at Printing House Square to Wall Street. Much of it is lined with late-Victorian office buildings, their imposing masonry and cast-iron facades rising almost unnoticed above the frenetic retailing on their ground floors.
For roughly a century, from the 1860s through the 1970s, Nassau Street was the mecca of American philately—postage stamp collecting. Some called the neighborhood the Stamp District. Entire buildings, like the Morton Building at 116 Nassau, were filled with stamp dealers. Sanders Zuckerman, who has been selling stamps in the area for fifty-nine years—the Daily News proclaimed him “a legend in the stamp business”—says collectors came from all over the world to buy and sell stamps.
Stamp collecting was a new fad in the 1860s. The first postage stamp, Great Britain’s one-penny black, had been issued only in 1840; the first known American stamp collector, William H. Faber of Charleston, South Carolina, began collecting in 1855. New York’s first stamp dealers appeared in the early 1860s. They did business along the fences of New York’s City Hall Park, where stamps were pinned up on boards for the delectation of passersby.
Open-air merchants—whether street pharmacists dealing in controlled substances or vendors selling souvenirs from a cart—are marginal people, engaged in what the Marxists call the early stages of capital accumulation. The man who made stamp dealing a business and Nassau Street the center of American philately was John Walter Scott (1845-1919). Scott had dabbled in stamp dealing in his teens while working as a merchant’s clerk in London. He emigrated to New York in the summer of 1863. At first, this did not seem to be a good idea. There were no jobs: the draft riots in early July had devastated much of the city. Scott’s job search was so unsuccessful that he even considered enlisting in the Union army.
One day, according to Edwin P. Hoyt’s One Penny Black, Scott struck up a conversation with an outdoor stamp dealer in City Hall Park. The dealer advanced him about a hundred dollars’ worth of stamps, which Scott agreed to sell as his agent. He was amazingly successful: he was soon earning $30 a month, roughly the wages of a skilled workman, and quite enough for a single man to live on. Scott then wrote to his sister, who began buying and sending stamps to him from England, and he went into business for himself.
In 1868, he opened an office on Nassau Street. He had been issuing one-page monthly price lists since June 1867. In September 1868, Scott issued a paperbound booklet, A Descriptive Catalogue of American and Foreign Postage Stamps, Issued from 1840 to Date. With the knack for self-important publicity that marked or marred him throughout his career, Scott trumpeted the pamphlet as the “16th edition” of his catalog. This was because he was counting each of his one-page lists as a separate earlier edition.
In the same year, he published a stamp album, a book with blank pages on which collectors might affix their stamps. He also started the American Journal of Philately. He was not the first American philatelic journalist: S. Allan “Just-as-Good Taylor had first published his Stamp Collector’s Record from Montreal in December 1864. (A brilliant counterfeiter, he openly insisted his stamps were “just as good” as the real things.) Scott finessed this fact, as he did most facts that inconvenienced him: his official biography says that he published the first “important” American stamp journal.
Truth presented no barrier to the vaulting imagination of J.W. Scott. He claimed sales of 15,000 albums. There were then probably not 15,000 stamp collectors in the world. His competitors claimed Scott had reduced lying to a science. No one cared.
Like most entrepreneurs, Scott was extraordinarily self-interested. A true child of the Gilded Age, he would turn a blind eye to others’ dishonesty if he could turn an outwardly licit dollar from it. Thus, he often dealt with “stamp finders,” men and women whose nose for rare stamps was often aided by a knack for larceny. Scott never asked where the stamps came from. One of his pet finders, known only as “Mr. McGinnity,” had “entered” the Philadelphia Customs House and raided its records for old stamps; another stamp finder raided the New York Institution for the Blind. He carried off numerous stamps clipped from its old correspondence, promising to return to pay for them. (The Institution is still waiting for the money.)
Scott also lobbied the United States government into cheating collectors by reprinting its old and valuable postage stamps. He even produced what were politely called “representations” of rare stamps, such as the so-called Postmaster stamps issued by individual American post offices before 1847, when the government began issuing its own. Such shenanigans put Scott, in some ways, on a par with “Just-as-Good” Taylor.
Taylor’s boast that his counterfeits were better than the originals was often true. (One scholar characterized Taylor’s forgeries as “fine engravings, totally different from the crude typographic printing” of the real stamps.) By the early 1870s, Taylor was part of the “Boston Gang” of crooked dealers and journalists, specializing in inventing South American issues. Years before El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Paraguay had released their first stamps, for example, the Boston Gang was printing and selling bogus stamps from these countries, backed by supposedly official documents, which were themselves forgeries. Taylor published equally fictitious articles about these stamps in his magazine, which helped create a market for his product. Only an age that combined slow communications with exploding collector demand for exotic stamps made this possible, and, at the end, only a federal counterfeiting rap brought him down.
Other hustlers were equally artistic, like Sam Singer, the repairman. Torn or mutilated stamps have no value to collectors. According to Hoyt, Singer could take a half-dozen mangled stamps and from them manufacture a composite that fooled most collectors and dealers. Like Taylor, he was proud of his work: he became so good that he sometimes bought stamps that he himself had repaired, not realizing until later that they had been damaged and mended. When the millionaire collector Colonel Edward H.R. Green found himself with one of Sam’s specials, he purchased a magnifier that could enlarge a stamp’s image from one inch to four feet square. It cost him $22,000; the movers had to remove the doorframe to bring it into the Colonel’s townhouse on West 90th Street.
In this century, Nassau Street’s most flamboyant dealer was actually an honest man. Herman “Pat” Herst Jr. (he was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1909, which led his friends to nickname him Pat) graduated from Reed College and the University of Oregon in 1932. He then came east by jumping a slow freight and riding the rods. He landed a twelve-dollar-a-week job as a runner for Lebenthal & Co., the municipal bond brokers, that took him into the Stamp District, where he met several Lebenthal clients who collected stamps when not clipping coupons. They rekindled his childhood interest in philately: he began buying and selling stamps as a vest-pocket dealer. By 1936, Lebenthal was paying him $28 a week; his stamp dealings earned twice that, and he left Wall Street for Nassau. His business became so heavy that he welcomed an elevator operators’ strike: it let him catch up on his paperwork.
He published a newsletter, Herst’s Outbursts, from 1940 until 1968. It charmingly combined self-promotion, anecdotes about stamps, and a passion for trivia. (A friend once asked, “Pat, what’s the population of Cincinnati?” Herst replied, “Yesterday or today?”) He also published columns and articles in the philatelic press. Eventually, he recycled his journalism into a series of popular books. Nassau Street, his memoir of stamp dealing in the 1930s and 1940s, has sold more than 100,000 copies in seven editions since 1960.
Herst was among the first dealers to abandon the bustle of Nassau Street. In 1945, he moved his family and his business to Shrub Oak, N.Y., then a hamlet with a population of 674. As he received more than 100,000 pieces of mail a year, the local post office was immediately reclassified from third to second class. However, at that time even a second-class post office did not make household deliveries. From his love of trivia, Herst knew that an 1862 law permitted private posts under just these circumstances. With the help of his children and their German shepherd, Herst’s private post delivered mail door to door for two cents a letter. Naturally, he issued his own stamps, including one depicting the dog. Most went to collectors.
Today, though now headquartered in Ohio, Scott’s still publishes its annual catalog of stamps of the world. From J.W. Scott’s one-page “first edition” it has grown to six massive paper-bound volumes. Scott’s also publishes numerous stamp albums, including the renowned Scott’s International. Volume 1, which is somewhat thicker than the Manhattan Yellow Pages, houses nearly every stamp issued by every nation in the world between 1840 and 1940. Volume 2 only reached 1949. Subsequent albums now appear roughly every year to accommodate the gushing flow of stamps from every nation in the world, most meant for sale to collectors rather than for postal use.
Nassau Street is no longer the mecca of American philately. Even Sanders Zuckerman characterizes himself as the last of the dinosaurs. Gentrification, soaring taxes, rising commercial rents, and increasing competition from mail-order dealers operating from low-tax, low-rent states forced most dealers to move or close during the late 1970s. Today, the Verizon Yellow Pages lists only three dealers in the Nassau Street area under “Stamps for Collectors.”
Zuckerman, who operates Harvey Dolin & Company from 111 Fulton Street, usually wearing a necktie with a pattern of postage stamps, also sells coins, baseball cards, and World’s Fair and World War II memorabilia to get by. He says young people don’t collect stamps. When recently asked why he was still in business, the old man shrugged. “I like the place and I like the people,” he said. “I’m not going to retire till they close the lid on me.”
New York Press, November 5, 2002
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