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.
April 28th, 2016 at 8:14 am
Wow, Donna, you come up with the most interesting stuff!
I never thought about the origin of envelopes. Thanks
April 28th, 2016 at 8:40 am
That cover is one of my absolute favorites and I’m really pleased to have an unused one in my own collection…I have an interest in 19th century patent medicines and have several Civil War patriotic covers in my collection w/ a medical theme. You can learn more about patriotic covers, generally, and some other fun medical related ones (including “Lincoln’s Laboratory”) in some blog posts of mine (links below) – keep up the great work at streetsofsalem!
April 28th, 2016 at 9:10 am
Jim, thank you so much for weighing in and giving us the links to your great blog! I’m really looking forward to checking it out thoroughly–you have married two great topics in these posts.
April 30th, 2016 at 8:18 am
Reblogged this on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained–Where Past Meets Present at Middlemay Farm.
April 30th, 2016 at 2:49 pm
I’ve sent 3 more Salem postal history covers to you via a
separate e-mail. My collection has more.
May 3rd, 2016 at 6:25 pm
A bit of additional information; some times, local history has been gathered & is available in hobby’s you would never think to look into. Stamp collector’s are responsible for preserving much early paper , inc.many
items that had tax stamps affixed during the Civil War.
Railroad buffs had to resort to taking millions of photo of all manor of railroading activities, from the early beginnings of photography. .Get creative. when seeking
May 1st, 2016 at 3:58 am
Fascinating post. Such bad luck. (In my youth I gave away two stamp collections. I sometimes vaguely wonder what they may be worth now.
October 4th, 2016 at 3:02 am
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