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A Famous Philatelist's Letter from 1909

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

The Schuyler J. Rumsey Philatelic Auction on August 26, 2022, had the following lot for sale:

1909, 2¢ Alaska-Yukon, imperf. Tied, along with large green & red Exposition label on cover by 7/12/09 Seattle, Wash Exposition Station cancel, to Philadelphia [Figures 1 and 2]; includes original note on official Exposition U.S.P.O.D. Exhibit letterhead [Figures 3 and 4], in which the sender asks his wife to save the two enclosed mint labels [Figure 5] for his collection, which she obviously did, because they are also included.

The picture of the cover was attractive. That, combined with (a) that I lived in the Seattle area for several years and now live in the Philadelphia metro area and (b) the cover included a note from the sender, compelled me to bid on this item. In the US Scott catalog, the 2-cent imperforated Alaska-Yukon stamp is number 371, and on a cover with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE) Station cancel, it has a catalog value of $450.00. I posted the winning bid of $425.00 (plus an 18% buyers’ premium), so this cover is now in my collection.

Little did I realize that the cover and letter I acquired were sent by a famous early 20th century philatelist from Philadelphia by the name of Joseph Allison Steinmetz. It took a little research to convince myself that was correct.

I started by looking for a “Joseph A. Steinmetz” in the 1909 Philadelphia city directory with the address “6636 Greene St.” I got a hit on the name and address plus an additional piece of information: a company by the name of “Janney, Steinmetz & Co.”

I got a number of hits when I did a Google search on that company. It was an iron and steel merchant and engineering firm based in Philadelphia run by Joseph Steinmetz. Both his father and mother (whose maiden name was Janney) had deep roots in Philadelphia, and his father and grandfather were both connected with the iron and steel business in the city.

According to the brief bio sketch[i] I was reading, Joseph, who was born in 1870 and died in 1928, had an illustrious career as a businessman and figured prominently in public affairs, but what really caught my attention as a stamp collector is that he owned positions 11 and 12 of the famous sheet of stamp errors called the “Inverted Jenny”![ii] I thought to myself, “Can that be the same person who sent this letter from Seattle to Philadelphia?”

It didn’t take too long to confirm that was indeed the case. A search on for a Joseph A. Steinmetz born in 1870 and died in 1928 turned up an individual by that name whose spouse was Oma, the name of the person on the letter. That cinched it for me. This was indeed a letter sent by Joseph Allison Steinmetz, philatelist (Figure 6).

Joseph Steinmetz was among the Philadelphians profiled in a 1912 publication titled, Philadelphia, A History of the City and its People; A Record of 225 Years[iii]. That has a just a brief reference to his interest in stamp collecting. A more complete description of his philatelic career appeared in the journal of the US Philatelic Classics Society in 1987.[iv] The opening paragraph of that article by Stanley M. Bierman provides an excellent overview:

Joseph Allison Steinmetz came into national prominence, if not philatelic notoriety, for his role in 1911 in the Travers-Post Office Department scandal involving the unlawful distribution by the Acting Third Assistant Postmaster General of U.S. bluish experimental paper issues of 1909 through the well-known Philadelphia stamp collector-dealer. Steinmetz should be better remembered by posterity for his pioneering work in aviation and national air defense, a distinguished career as a mechanical engineer, and by philately, in great measure, for his remarkable showing at the 1913 New York International Philatelic Exhibition. Described as " . . . a brilliantly organized philatelic achievement," the Steinmetz Exhibit which was entitled, in part, "Talismans of the Arabian Nights of Stampdom," included critical Government correspondences regarding the manufacture of U.S. postage stamps during the 1851-60 period, preserved in large measure for scholars through his own particular intervention. Steinmetz also possessed a major U.S., Essay-Proof, Foreign and Aerophilatelic collection, and played a key financial role in the acquisition of the pane of the 1918 inverted flying Jenny.

Mr. Bierman’s article includes a description of the seven auctions held to sell Joseph Steinmetz’s collection following his death in 1928 at age 58.

Joseph Steinmetz also was a member of the Philadelphia Stamp Club, which was a predecessor to the Greater Philadelphia Stamp & Collectors Club, of which I am a member. Steinmetz was the associate editor of the Philadelphia Stamp Club Bulletin, and he is featured on the first page of the first issue from October 1, 1910.[v] He also wrote an article for this first issue on designing your own stamp album

While he addressed the envelope to himself, he addressed the enclosed note to his wife, Oma Frances (nee Fields) Steinmetz (Figure 7). The online record on her is sparse. She was born in Colorado in 1867, married Joseph in Colorado in 1903, and had two children with him: Joseph Janney (1905-1985), a well-known commercial photographer,[iv] and Frances Margaret (1909-1991). In a Washington Post interview from 1983, Joseph Janney said, “Mother was a talented pianist from Colorado Springs, where she would ride across the mesas and practice her arpeggios.” (As for his father, Joseph Janney said: “Daddy was passionately interested in stamp collecting, aviation and inventing. To think of him as a man engaged in a standard vocation is not to understand him.”) Oma passed away at age 79 in 1947, 19 years after her husband.

As for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, or AYPE, it was a very successful world’s fair that highlighted the development of the Pacific Northwest. The fairgrounds become the campus of the University of Washington.[vii]

In addition to issuing two stamps commemorating the AYPE (one perforated – US Scott 370 -- and the other imperforated – US Scott 371, the one on this envelope -- both depicting William H. Seward, who orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867), the US Post Office hosted an exhibit at the AYPE. A few pictures are available from the University of Washington’s digital collection including one of a dog team and musher (Figure 8)[viii]. And as evidenced by Joseph Steinmetz’s letter, the US Post Office also provided stationery highlighting the scope of its activity.

The AYPE label on the envelope and the two that were enclosed in the envelope depict the official AYPE emblem designed by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson (1876-1932). One of the many published APYE guides explained the emblem in detail:

The figure on the right under the fir tree represents the Pacific Slope, holding in her hand a train of cars, typifying Commerce by land. That on the left, shaded by the dwarf tree of Japan, represents the Orient, controlling Commerce by sea. In the center, with a background of the Northern Lights, is the figure representing Alaska, bearing a double-handful of gold nuggets, signifying the untold wealth of the North, meeting halfway the commerce of the East and West, and supplying the wealth for both.[ix]

The University of Washington’s digital collection contains a photo of the staging of this emblem with live models (Figure 9).

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Back

Figure 3 - Letter

Figure 4 - Back of letter

Figure 5 - Exhibition labels

Figure 6 - Joseph Steinmetz

Figure 7 - Oma Steinmetz

Figure 8 - Dog sled at Post Office exhibit

Figure 9 - Staging of exposition emblem with live models

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