A Philatelic Introduction to B.A.E. II: The Stamps


Paul Skowron, ASPP


Over the past 25 years mankind has attempted to control its tendency to pollute the environment. It seems that the one area of the earth's surface mentioned more frequently than any other in this regard is the Antarctic. Hardly a day passes without hearing the now familiar phrases "depleting the ozone layer" and "a hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole". At the end of the austral summer, scientists from all over the world prepare to vacate their Antarctic research stations thereby ending another summer season of gathering data that has revealed information like the aforementioned. There was a time only 65 years ago that these phrases were seldom, if ever, uttered by human lips. It is that earlier time, the "golden age" of 20th century exploration, that interests us in this essay.

The groundwork for current research and study in the Antarctic was laid down during this exciting era of worldwide exploration. Men like Dr. Larry Gould, Bernt Balchen, Amory Waite and Dr. Thomas Poulter were responsible for pioneering work that has opened a vast continent for scientific study. Anyone living in the colder climates is familiar with the phrase "wind chill factor," a term coined by Dr. Paul Siple during his many years of Antarctic research. However, it was mainly through the efforts of one person that these noteworthy men were able to begin mankind's exploration of this wondrous frozen continent. That man was Richard E. Byrd.

When a person hears his name, they normally envision an adventurous flyer conquering the skies above the Atlantic Ocean or the North and South Poles. While it is true that Byrd's most noteworthy accomplishments were in this regard, his finest talent was in organizing and administrating these endeavors. His ability to methodically and systematically plan and carry out his adventures was the major reason for his success in every undertaking. In talking about his many accomplishments, Admiral Byrd was always proudest of the fact that under his command no human life was ever lost. His countless hours of painstaking planning were the major reason for that achievement.

From the time he was a youngster, almost until the day of his death, Byrd's life was filled with adventure. Born on October 25, 1888 and raised in the small country town of Winchester, Virginia, no hill was too high and no valley too wide to stop this young adventurer. Great explorers were his boyhood heroes: Davy Crockett, Sir Francis Drake, Magellan; but most of all, Peary of the North Pole!

Byrd was quoted as saying, "I toughened myself by going through the winters at home with light underwear and by going without the protection of my overcoat . . . the result I had hoped for came, for as time passed I became inured to extremes of cold." Before he reached the age of 14 he had traveled to the Philippine Islands at the invitation of a family friend, U.S. Army Captain Adam C. Carson of Winchester, Virginia, who had been sent to the islands as a Circuit Court judge. The young Dick Byrd was his companion during horseback journeys into the hostile countryside to dole out post-Spanish / American War justice. On one occasion Byrd was attacked by marauding bandits. Escaping them, he out-raced his assailants back to the U.S. Army detachment sent along to guard Capt. Carson.

During his return voyage to the United States via Ceylon and the Red Sea to Port Said, an event took place that left a lasting impression on this young adventurer. The second mate forgot to wind the chronometer and the ship lost her bearings; or, in other words, they got lost because someone forgot to wind the clock used for navigating. Adm. Byrd later reflected on the true meaning of the incident: "What happened impressed me tremendously. I don't suppose I had ever thought so much about navigation before. I knew the compass was necessary and had seen the officers shooting the sun (using a sextant). But I did not know that time was a part of the calculations in determining position. With the discovery that it was, navigation became at once a mysterious and important function. I suppose my interest in it dates from that moment."

Upon his return to the United States the young Byrd began his formal education. Family tradition dictated he attend the Virginia Military Institute and this is what he did. After graduation he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where he completed his training in the year 1912. It was while attending these institutions that a series of sporting injuries occurred that later left him unfit for sea duty in the U.S. Navy. How ironic that a severely broken ankle would force him from sea duty to a career in the fledgling Navy Air Corps. Here is where he would learn the art that would lead to his name being etched in history.

Several adventures and two New York City ticker-tape parades down Broadway later, we found Adm. Byrd sitting in the office of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States and . . . more notably for some of us . . . a stamp collector. Byrd and Roosevelt were discussing the Admiral's forthcoming return to Little America, Antarctica. It was at this moment in time that the concept for one of the most unusual items in U.S. philatelic history was born: A United States stamp to be used at a post office established on non-U.S. territory. The president mentioned that it would be nice if stamp collectors around the world could have a commemorative cancellation from a U.S. Post Office set up at Little America during Byrd's upcoming expedition. During the course of the conversation it was also suggested that it might be nice if a special stamp was issued just for use on Little America mail. Thus the concept for the "Little America" stamp was born.

There are several good reasons why this stamp was issued. Most importantly, it was to honor Byrd. He was one of only three United States citizens to be honored with a U.S. commemorative stamp while still living. Byrd, Edison and Lindbergh make up this elite trio of Americans so honored! Secondly, the stamp was used to help finance the expedition; revenue generated from a special handling charge on all mail sent to Little America to receive the unusual cancellation helped defray a small part of the expedition expenses. No direct U.S. Government funding was made available to this or any other Antarctic expeditions during this era. Byrd was totally dependent on private and corporate donations to finance his first two Antarctic expeditions. Lastly, President Roosevelt wanted a stamp of his own design issued as a favor for a friend and political ally.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) started work on the stamp in the fall of 1933. The four original designs were rejected by President Roosevelt, who in turn submitted a rough pencil sketch of his concept for the stamp. It is interesting to note here that this was President Roosevelt's first of several designs for postage stamps. Three additional designs were prepared at the BEP by Victor S. McCloskey from F.D.R.'s sketch. All the designs were similar but showed slight variations in routes taken by Byrd on prior expeditions or flights. The stamp as we know it today is very similar to these latter designs. However, one major difference deserves mention and that is the denomination shown. It was originally intended to charge 25¢ for mail service to Little America. The decision to have these stamps issued in the 3¢ value was a gesture of goodwill on Roosevelt's part, aimed at stamp collectors. The additional handling charge for mail carried to the Little America Post Office would be 50¢ per cover and would be charged only to those wishing an Antarctic cancellation.

September 30, 1933 was the date the presses started up for the B.A.E. II stamp. To quote from Max John, . . . "a distinguished company gathered in the plate printing division of the Bureau this Friday afternoon to see the presses started for the printing of the new 3¢ Byrd Antarctic Expedition stamp. Rear Admiral Byrd himself, Postmaster General Farley and many other officials were present when the wheels began to turn. When the first sheet to come from the press was shown to Byrd, he exclaimed, "Nothing has ever pleased me so much as this!" Farley stated, " . . . President Roosevelt had ordered a full sheet of the new stamps for his collection . . . "

The format for the printing of the stamps was 200 stamps per sheet. The sheet was marked and then separated into panes of 50 at horizontal and vertical guide lines. All sheets were perforated 11 X 11 and gummed. No full sheets were sold to the public; however, some exist today signed and dated by both Farley and Byrd. These full sheets were gifts presented to personal friends and supporters of Farley, Roosevelt and Byrd. The color was bright blue, although a second lighter blue shade does exist in some lesser quantity. The total printing run consisted of some 13 million stamps with approximately six million being sold.

On October 9, 1933, the "Little America" stamps went on sale at the Philatelic Agency in Washington, D.C. This agency was the only post office in the entire country selling the stamp. Customers could either purchase stamps through the mail with a postal money order or in person at the philatelic window. At the time of issue the stamp was acceptable for use on all U.S. mail. However, this was not the original intent of President Roosevelt and the U.S. Post Office. When the stamp was first announced to the public it was to be used exclusively on mail directed to Little America. Later, when the design of the stamp was released, a loud outcry occurred. The question was raised: "Why is a stamp with the wording 'U.S. POSTAGE' printed on it invalid for regular postal use?" President Roosevelt and PMG Farley reconsidered their original concept for the Little America "only" usage of this stamp and it was reclassified as a typical commemorative issue. The stamp stayed on sale at the philatelic window in Washington for just 12 months after which it was withdrawn from sale without notice. Several days prior to being withdrawn, the expedition either purchased or was given a very large quantity of the issue and at a later date began selling them as blocks and sheets. Byrd-autographed versions sold for a few dollars extra. Again, this was an attempt to raise funds for the expedition; more on this first issue will follow.

A few months later a second version of the Little America stamp was to appear in conjunction with a well-established stamp show. On January 8, 1934, Eugene Pollock, Chairman of the National Stamp Exhibition, suggested to postal officials the issuing of an exhibit souvenir sheet. Mr. Pollock was successful and it was agreed to issue what is referred today as the "Admiral Byrd" souvenir sheet.

The sheet was printed at the BEP on a flat bed press. The format was 25 imperforate, ungummed panes of six stamps each per sheet. Full sheets were cut into panes prior to issue and no full sheets were sold to the public. However, PMG Farley made sure that some were given his autograph and then presented to friends and associates.

On February 10, 1934, just prior to placing the souvenir sheets on sale at the show, Farley assisted in printing a demonstration sheet. A press was at the show for this purpose and all sheets printed by this press were destroyed. The scene was broadcast live by radio and it was announced that this first sheet would be sent to President Roosevelt for his collection. Those standing close enough to see this first sheet did not believe it would be sent to the president as it was a poor impression, badly misplaced in the press and incomplete.

Upon assuming his postal duties the previous year, Farley had instituted a policy of having multiple first days of issue per stamp. During his tenure 75 different stamps were given this treatment. The "Admiral Byrd" souvenir sheet was one such issue and its "second" first day was on February 19, 1934 at the main post office in Washington, D.C. It is interesting to note here that on this date the Army Air Corps began temporarily flying the U.S. mail. In actuality, there were 46 cities across the nation that had mail flights on this date and all of them could have carried covers franked with this issue, thus creating very unusual first day covers!

On March 15, 1935, at the main U.S. Post Office in Washington, D.C., a group of stamps generally referred to as "Farley's Follies" was reissued. Both the Little America stamp and the Admiral Byrd souvenir sheet were included in this group. The perforated reissue was sold ungummed in full sheets or position blocks. Positive identification is by blocks or pairs with guide lines between stamps. The souvenir sheet reissue was sold ungummed (as original), but in full sheets of groups of panes. Positive identification is by blocks or panes showing gutters between panes.

When considering all the facts, events and mysteries that surround these stamp issues, one must conclude that it would be hard to find another U.S. postage stamp to rival those honoring Admiral Byrd. Many hours can be spent digging through old newspapers, magazines and philatelic reference material in search of a clue or fact here and there that adds to our understanding of this truly oddball stamp, issued at a truly unusual era in U.S. Postal History.

In the next section we will explore the usage of these issues on mail bound for Little America, Antarctica.