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Hugh Nelson McAllister - A Pennsylvanian Who Deserves to be Remembered

Updated: Apr 7

On the surface, the folded letter in Figure 1 is not all that remarkable. There are, of course, only about 11,500 covers and folded letters known that are franked with the 5-cent Franklin from the 1847 issue (one of the first two adhesive stamps issued by the U.S.), so it is remarkable from that perspective, but the postmark is not crisp. The stamp, which is Scott 1a, has three nice margins and at best would be graded "fine."

Figure 1 - Scott 1a on folded letter postmarked December 27, 1850, in Philadelphia. U.S. Philatelic Classics Society inventory number 1115 with Philatelic Foundation certificate number 317498 that opines the usage is genuine. Source: Author's collection.

So why did I submit the winning bid on this item at a recent Robert A. Siegel Auction? Well, I had been looking for a Scott 1 or 2 on cover with some sort of advertising feature - an illustration or even a return address. This one satisfied my itch (at least until I find something better!). As shown in Figure 2, the back of the folded letter has a nice forwarding mark applied at the Columbia House in Philadelphia. The letter writer must have been a guest there, and a clerk from the Columbia House forwarded this letter to the post office to be stamped and sent on its journey. You can learn more about hotel mail markings in Volume II of the American Stampless Cover Catalog published in 1987.

Figure 2 - Forwarding mark on back of folded letter. Source: Author's collection.

As I dove a little deeper into this folded letter, however, I discovered it has all sorts of interesting connections to Pennsylvania, my adopted home state, as well as to the world of philately.

Start with the Columbia House. It was a hotel owned and operated by brothers Peter Ferguson (1817-1862) and Charles Ferguson (1822-?) from 1841 until the building was razed in 1856. The Columbia House is shown to the left in Figures 3 and 4, which is a watercolor by Benjamin Ridgway Evans. Evans painted this around 1880 and based it on a drawing contained in the Philadelphia Pictorial Directory & Panoramic Advertiser from 1851.

Figure 3 - "North Side of Chestnut St., Extending from Sixth to Seventh St., 1851," by B.R. Evans, circa 1880. Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Figure 4 - Close-ups of the Columbia House and Bloods Dispatch from Figure 3.

If you look to the far right in this illustration, you will see the headquarters of Bloods Dispatch, a famous local mail carrier in Philadelphia. The Columbia House was just four doors away from Bloods Dispatch! According to Philadelphia As It Is In 1852 published that year by one R.A. Smith, "In addition to the usual post-office facilities, Philadelphia possesses the advantage of the most complete City Post in this country. Blood's Despatch [sic] Post...was established in 1845, and was for a long time considered a doubtful experiment. By its attention to the public interest, and by continued improvement, it has now become a necessary convenience to business men and families. Several hundred box stations are scattered over the city, from which letters are collected every two hours; and thousands of letters are thus collected and distributed daily."

Bloods Dispatch is celebrated to this day in the logo of the Greater Philadelphia Stamp & Collectors Club (

The contents of this folded letter concern a financial dispute, but it is hard to make out the names of the parties involved. The letter may have been written by someone named "Hale," and he was complaining to the recipient about someone named "Parson" or "Parsons." Fortunately, the letter's date is clearly written, which helps confirm the date of the postmark, as are the recipient's name and location: "H.N. McAllister, Bellefonte, Penn."

Bellefonte, in Centre County, is well known to stamp collectors in general and to aerophilatelists in particular. First off, it's where the headquarters of the American Philatelic Society is located. Second, Bellefonte was critical to the success of early transcontinental airmail. Located roughly midway between New York and Cleveland, Bellefonte was an ideal spot for early airmail pilots to refuel. The location of the Bellefonte Air Mail Field is identified today by a historical marker near the present-day Bellefonte Area High School.

As for the letter's recipient, his full name was Hugh Nelson McAllister (Figure 5). If anyone deserves a Wikipedia page, he does, but unfortunately, McAllister's contributions to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have largely been forgotten.

Figure 5 - Hugh Nelson McAllister.

McAllister was born into a farming family in 1809 in Juniata County, just southeast of Bellefonte. At age 21, he enrolled at Jefferson College in Canonsburg (that college operated between 1802 and 1871), and two years later, he graduated near the top of his class. He then studied law in Carlisle under the Honorable John Reed, and in 1835, he was admitted to practice in several courts in Centre County.

McAllister established an extensive private law practice and was known for his "ability, earnestness, zeal, and indomitable perseverance." He never held public office - which may be one reason why he doesn't have a Wikipedia page - but not because he didn't have opportunities. On more than one occasion he was asked to stand for election as a judge but declined.

He did, however, contribute significantly to the public well-being. Most notably, he was instrumental in the founding of the Farmer's High School of Pennsylvania, what is now Pennsylvania State University, and served on its board of trustees for 18 years. The McAllister Building at Penn State was named in his honor. Built in 1904, it was initially a dormitory. It how houses the Math Department and the University Park branch of the U.S. Post Office.

During the Civil War, McAllister was a strong supporter of the Lincoln Administration and the Union cause, and he helped raise and organize many of the companies from Centre County that fought for the Union.

In 1872, he was selected by the Republican State Convention as one of 14 at-large delegates to the convention to reform the Commonwealth's constitution. He was highly respected by his convention colleagues, but sadly he passed away in May 1873 before the convention completed its business. His passing was eulogized by the other delegates in a series of obituary addresses that were preserved in a booklet titled, Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention and Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of Hon. H.N. M'Allister of Centre County, Pa. To give a sense of the standing he had with his colleagues, consider this one passage from the Proceedings:

It will doubtless be generations before another citizen will die whose loss will be so deeply and universally felt, and whose place in public and private stations it will be so impossible to fill.

The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society's census of 1847 covers includes a whopping 50 that are addressed to McAllister in Bellefonte. It would be wonderful to hear from anyone who owns one of those covers or folded letters and if they have any insight into the identity of the person who wrote this letter. That individual's signature is shown in Figures 6 and 7.

Figure 6 - Signature of letter writer from the bottom of letter.

Figure 7 - Signature of letter writer from back of letter.

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