I’ve been digging around in bins and folders for scraps of paper for as long as I can remember, and I do recall one item that caught my attention years ago: it was an envelope with a still-bright print of Abraham Lincoln depicted as some sort of wizardly chemist, an alchemist, I also recall thinking, in the midst of a rather wordy laboratory. It had a sticker marked $5 on it which struck me as quite steep at that time. Now I see that this same envelope fetched $2600 at a recent auction! The envelope, produced by the Salem stationery and publishing firm of G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith (1860-1875), has become a highly-coveted example of Civil War propaganda, and I clearly missed out.
Whipple and Smith were not only showing their colors; they were marketing a relatively new product: the envelope itself. Before 1851 U.S. postage was charged by the sheet, so people simply folded their letters with sealing wax and mailed them off. In that year a flat postage rate was introduced for mail under a half-ounce and traveling less than 3,000 miles, so protective “covers” were introduced, which became patriotic covers a decade later. More than 10,000 embellished envelopes were produced in the North during the Civil War, much less in the South. They became collectible items even during that time, as many survive unaddressed—like the one I saw some time ago and those below. I can see why the “Union Alchemist” envelope is coveted today: its image and message is a bit more intricate than the majority of pro-Union covers I have seen–many featuring Jefferson Davis swinging from a rope (actually he is there, in the upper left-hand corner, in a specimen jar, next to General Beauregard).
Lincoln is writing prescriptions in a laboratory full of his distillations, including pure refined national elixir of liberty and metallic soap for erasing stains..for the southern market; he is not only the Great Emancipator (and the Great Distiller) but also the renowned rebel exterminator. It’s such a great image and item: what was I thinking years ago when I passed it by? I’ve found quite a few more in auction and historical archives, but none available, for $5 or $500: this is definitely one that got away, but I did catch a Salem octopus!
Whipple & Smith’s “Lincoln’s Laboratory or the Union Alchemist” covers, from Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, The Helfand Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John A. McAllister Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Cowan’s Auctions, PBA Galleries, and the Bangor Historical Society.