What is a First Day Cover?

Simply put, a First Day Cover is an envelope or card on which a new postage stamp is placed and postmarked with a "First Day of Issue" postmark showing the date and place where the stamp was first sold.

Anyone who has made a special trip to the Post Office on April 15th to make sure that his income tax return is postmarked before the midnight deadline will quickly grasp the significance of a First Day Cover ("FDC"). Although the postage stamp is an essential feature not to be forgotten when posting Form 1040, it is the postmark which makes all the difference.

The U. S. Postal Service and virtually every other postal service in the world regularly issue new postage stamps which honor great men, significant events, important programs and historic places deserving the recognition and wide publicity which a postage stamp affords. It stands to reason that for each stamp that has ever been issued, there must have been one day that it was first sold to the public for use in prepaying postage on packages and letters. That first day of issue date is what makes a First Day Cover.

In the earliest years of postage stamps, the "First Day of Issue" was haphazard and often a poorly documented event which happened only for the obvious reason that the post office needed new stamps. But this soon changed. With the great value attached to important firsts, including such items as first editions of books and original works of art, it is not surprising that by the late 1800's postal administrations the world over began to announce the planned dates of issuance of new stamps in advance. Collectors soon seized the opportunity to purchase the new stamps on first day of sale, to attach them to whatever envelope they had handy and to have them postmarked and mailed on that first day of sale.

Whether intentionally prepared by a collector, or accidentally created by someone who just happened to have a letter to mail that day and bought the stamp, the complete envelope bearing the stamp and cancellation, known as a cover, came to be recognized as an historical document recording the first day on which the new stamp was sold. Although millions - even billions - of the stamps might actually be used to transmit mail in the following weeks and months, only those postmarked on that very first day would achieve the status of "First Edition."

The passing of time has greatly formalized the First Day of Issue of a new stamp. In the early years, in fact until 1937 in the United States, the postmark authenticating the First Day of Issue was no more than the everyday postmark of the post office which cancelled the First Day Cover the one out-of-the-ordinary difference being, of course, the date. First Day Covers of these early years are often identifiable only by comparing the date of postmarks to the references in a standard First Day Cover catalog which lists the First Days of Issue established through careful research. Today, a First Day of Issue is no longer an accidental event, as evidenced by special postmarks, attractively designed special cacheted envelopes and lavish ceremonies in which hundreds of distinguished dignitaries, often including Presidents and Prime Ministers, enthusiastically participate.

Aside from the one obvious advantage of having postmarks which incorporate the explicit wording "First Day of Issue," and thereby facilitate identification of the First Day Cover, the special postmarks, as well as the cacheted envelopes and ceremonies, reflect an important role which postage stamps have come to play. If Sir Roland Hill, the inventor of the postage stamp in 1840, could today see the process of selecting a new stamp design and the trappings of issuing it on the First Day, he might wonder if the original purpose --- to provide a convenient and reliable method of evidencing payment of postage --- had been lost.

Of course, it hasn't been. But in retrospect it would be quite clear to him that the wide publicity which every stamp achieves made it inevitable that the postage stamp would become something more: a medium of artistic expression, and a place of high national tribute as well, particularly as literacy and the use of mails increased. Today, as an example, for a person to be pictured on a United States postage stamp virtually constitutes his election to a pantheon of American greats who include George Washington, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King and others who have added immeasurably to making America what it is. The postage stamp which started so humbly has come to be something of a national birthright which Americans, no less than the citizens of other nations, have come to take quite seriously.

In this context, it is easy to understand why First Day Covers have achieved their present form and why First Day Cover collecting has attracted increasing numbers of collectors. The result has been doubled and redoubled efforts not only to select as subjects only those men, women, events, and achievements truly deserving of such national recognition, but to commission the most talented artists to portray the subjects as well.

This effort is no small task with as many as ten thousand proposals every year for stamp subjects in the United States alone: it is no less demanding than selecting the recipient of a Nobel Prize. When the choice has been made, an especially significant post office is usually selected for the distinction of being the one and only place the stamp will be sold on the First Day of Issue, and an appropriate date is designated. It might be the exact two hundredth anniversary date of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the birthday of a late President, or just a convenient day on which dignitaries, interested individuals, and collectors will gather. In preparation for the event, programs are prepared, bands hired, speeches written, and special envelopes designed. When that designated day finally wanes, First Day Covers with their distinctive "First Day of Issue" postmarks remain as the historic records of the events: in a real sense, First Editions which every interested citizen can acquire, either in person or indirectly, to enrich his leisure hours. The First Day Cover makes it possible for all of us to participate, even if from afar, in the First Day Ceremony. That vital First Day of Issue postmark makes us eyewitnesses to history, past and present.

How to Collect FDC.

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