New York in History and Anecdote
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Nassau Street

“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

February 13, 2009   Comments Off on Nassau Street

Stamp Acts

Acurrent off-off-Broadway production, Miami Beach Monsters, revolves around the notion that several classic movie monsters, now retired to Florida, are rediscovered thanks to a new issue of commemorative postage stamps. (Dracula, apparently, complaining he never consented to the use of his image). This charming notion is already old-hat: the United States Postal Service has honored Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman, not to mention Daffy Duck, Buggs Bunny, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner will join them later this year.

Stamps 2000, a poster at the General Post Office on 34th Street, illustrates the commemorative stamps the Postal Service intends to issue during the coming year. There will be at least 113 of them. Indeed, the United States now issues so many varieties of postage stamps with such enthusiasm that one might forget they are merely adhesive receipts for prepaid postage on items of mail.

The English “commemorative” is derived from the Latin commemorare: to recall or put on record. Its postal use is now sufficiently common that the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged) includes it among its definitions: postage stamps “issued to commemorate a historical event, to honor the memory of a personage, etc.” They are themselves memorials or reminders, making honorable mention of something worth remembering.

Consider that: they remind us of the things that should be remembered, that deserve to be.

Why does the United States issue so many commemorative stamps? It is not that we have so many great men and women or so many more notable events. It is for money. There are millions of stamp collectors willing to pay for nearly every bit of postal paper that drops from a government press.

A century ago, the United States rarely issued commemoratives. A non-collector may probably find a good collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. stamps quite boring. Throughout the Gilded Age, the post office used a series of classical designs, all nearly as forgettable and monotonous as the interchangeable presidents of the time (each looking like one of the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark), picturing the nation’s great dead men. In 1869, the post office released its first pictorial issues: stamps that bore images other than those of dead politicians. Each denomination illustrated something different—a ship, an eagle or a steam locomotive, for example. Some were even printed in two colors. They were quite controversial: James Gordon Bennett the elder wrote in the New York Herald that he feared the government might be “changing stamps as often as every six months, not giving the people a chance to get used to one variety before it was withdrawn and the people’s eyes startled by another.”

But as a rule from 1840, when Britain issued the first postage stamp, until, say, 1894, most countries viewed stamps as utilitarian: more or less elegant as the nations’ tastes required (if memory serves, Luigi Barzini argued in “Italy and Its Aristocracy” that an evidence of the decline of the nobility in Italian public life was reflected in the architecture of its buildings, the courtesies, even in the typography of official documents and the design of its postage stamps).

In 1894, Their Excellencies Tonnini and Marcucci, co-Regents of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (a tiny independent country on the Northern Italian peninsula), professional politicians pressured by a rising national debt, yet averse to increasing taxes, envisioned that the pocketbooks of the world’s millions of stamp collectors, rather than of the few thousand Sammarinese, might be opened to swell the coffers of San Marino. They released a special issue of finely engraved stamps bearing portraits of the co-Regents with views of the interior and exterior of the National Palace.

Several months later, stamp sales alone had retired the national debt and financed a sewage system. San Marino has since issued many, many, many different kinds of stamps: internal postage, external postage, airmail, semipostal, postal tax, postage due, airmail postage due, postal tax due, and thousands of commemoratives: all beautifully produced stamps showing national and international heroes, ships, locomotives, military uniforms, dinosaurs, aircraft, castles, temples, and so forth. All are valid for postage, of course, and all are intended not to carry mail but to land in stamp albums around the world. The sale of postage stamps is perhaps the country’s leading industry, having edged out wine and marble some time ago, and one understands heroic equestrian statues of Tonnini and Marcucci have been raised in the city of San Marino itself. Forty years ago, the little country was issuing fifty-six different stamps a year. Now, it releases new issues several times a week, and apparently there is no end to the demand. San Marino, all thirty-eight square miles of it, has issued more stamps than nations a thousand times its size, and without shame.

The United States Post Office first established a philatelic agency in 1921 (“philately” is the English term for stamp collecting, from the Greek philos, “fond of,” and ateleia, “exemption from tax”; together, the words mean nothing, though they may suggest that a sender’s prepayment of postage exempts a receiver from paying it). In 1932, the United States elected a philatelist to the presidency. One of FDR’s enduring achievements was increasing the number of commemorative postage stamps issued by the United States and his successors have followed his example.

As I get older, the stamps commemorate people and events I remember myself. Sometimes, the result is surprisingly good. The ongoing “Black Heritage” series hit its high note last year by honoring Malcolm X: a splendidly designed stamp showing him alert, active, and thoughtful. Greatness is a remarkable thing; thus we can honor without irony a man once known as “Detroit Red” and “the Harlem Asp,” “a hustler, a pimp, a dope addict, a gambler, a numbers pusher and a thief”—as the political historian George Thayer noted—because he transformed himself into a dynamic, vitriolic preacher and teacher, and then into a practical, heroic visionary. I think of Ignatius Loyola, who aspired to a life of unending sensation: wenching, drinking, and fighting, until he turned to God from sheer boredom; and Malcolm X somehow comes to mind.

As I believe this would be a better country if he had lived, so I used dozens of these stamps on my mail. They are handsome, and I wanted to honor not only what was, but also what might have been. Apparently, I am not the only one who felt this way. The stamp honoring Malcolm X is one of the few recent commemorative stamps to sell out long before its planned withdrawal from sale.

This year’s honoree in the “Black Heritage” series, Patricia Roberts Harris, is something of a contrast. She is pictured with a nice smile, a nice hairdo, and a nice, puffy yuppie woman’s bowtie. The Honorable Harris was a Jimmy Carter Cabinet official and college professor—an upper-middle-class political hack, one of that elite whose finest flower was the late Ron Brown, high class legal hustler and Cabinet officer immortalized by Al Sharpton as “Ron Beige.” Harris was even ambassador to Luxembourg, the foreign service’s most blatantly political appointment. Without white folks’ patronage, she was nothing: her 1982 campaign for mayor of Washington, D.C., against the egregious crack-smoking adulterer Marion Barry—he stomped her into the ground— illustrated the hoary truth that universal suffrage eliminated the elite and their tools from elective public office.

Besides, the revolution meant justice for all, not the gravy train for some.

Another set of stamps, “Stampin’ the Future,” used four designs submitted by children from eight to twelve years old. The set’s title, with its dropped final consonant, is as condescending as its designs are crudely repellent.

And even where the design is classic, the publicity is bland. The Florida statesman Claude Pepper is being honored this year in the “Great Americans” series. The poster describes him as a “champion of elderly rights.” Thus, one might never know he was a tough, wily, radical politician and a magnificent orator, whether on ceremonial occasions or on the stump, tie askew, fists waving, and the crowd surging to its feet. V.O. Key wrote of him, “In Senator Pepper’s races the division has been most concretely drawn. There is never much doubt about where Claude stands.”

Because he was a great whirlwind campaigner who brought New Deal projects and military bases to his state, he was elected twice to the U.S. Senate, only to lose in 1950 to a McCarthyite opponent who called him “Red Pepper.” More than a decade later, Pepper went to the House of Representatives at an age when most men retire, and held his seat until his death in 1989.

I chatted with him, briefly, when he held a hearing with the City Council President in City Hall’s old Board of Estimate room in the mid-80s: he was nearly as old as the century himself. His eloquence and genuine though elaborately Southern courtesy nearly concealed an extraordinarily alert, subtle intelligence, a genius for cross-examination, and a gentle admiration for the splendid charms of our vivacious staff intern. He was among the last men in Congress to have served there during the New Deal. Long after he must have realized that social justice would not be realized in his lifetime and perhaps never, he still remembered what it was to be poor and to have no hope. He stood for so much more than “elderly rights”—yet another intrinsically meaningless phrase that, in context, merely signifies taking tax money from the working poor, skimming off salaries for public and not-for-profit sector administrators, and passing the rest to the impoverished elderly.

Worst of all is “Celebrating the Century,” a series of ten sets of fifteen stamps, one set for each decade. Perhaps the concept itself is flawed. Certainly, the means of selecting the stamps for the last few decades have been. Postal customers have chosen the topics by voting: yet another weakness of universal suffrage. As Albert Jay Nock observed, as against a Jesus, the historic choice of the common man goes regularly to some Barabbas.

Thus, for example, the stamps commemorating the 70s honor Big Bird, disco fever, the smiley face and Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. (No one thought of Nixon in China.) The set for the 80s, which was released on January 13, 2000, is worse. Cabbage Patch Kids; cable television; video games; The Cosby Show, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. There is a stamp, too, for Cats. The American musical theater of our time is represented thus: music composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber with verse by T.S. Eliot, a St. Louis-born Harvard man and anti-Semitic elitist who renounced American citizenship to become a British subject.

Are these the things that should be—deserve to be—remembered? I think not. Such choices are the fruit of our society’s truly remarkable ignorance of our own history—even that of our own times. Cicero observed that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children, and the infantile nature of the selections disturbs me.

As does the evasive quality of what we are commemorating. Last year the stamp “Honoring Those Who Served” purported to pay tribute to “the many millions of courageous men and women in public service and the military who have served or presently serve our country.” This vague, ambiguous purpose is a politician’s dream. What is courage in these diverse contexts? Thus we reach for a lower common denominator. Everyone goes into the pool: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Douglas MacArthur, and the creep behind the counter at the Parking Violations Bureau.

For some reason, I think of my father’s eldest brother, a paratrooper who vanished in the fighting for the Remagen Bridge more than ten years before I was born. For my family his remains are the War Department telegram and a few fading photographs. His body was never found. We don’t even know if he was brave. My father has no memory of him. Perhaps the stamp honors my uncle, too. But the wider we cast the net and more thoroughly we work out the logic of the language defining the stamp’s subject—the person, institution, or event we honor—the less meaning it has. The stamp might honor even me for two decades’ public service, working for the City of New York.

But when everyone without distinction is honored, no one is distinguished. That’s not much of an honor at all.

New York Press, February 2, 2000

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Stamp Acts