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The Lure of U.S. Possessions

By John M. Hotchner

An undiscovered philatelic gem with many facets is the philately of U.S. possessions. The United States is not an imperial power that set off to support its economy, its importance, or to provide an outlet for its educated classes through its acquisition of foreign lands to govern. Yet, it has through accidents of war, physical proximity, and in one case the need for a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, fallen heir to possessions that became philatelically significant. Each of six entities became either the users of overprinted U.S. stamps, or the issuers of U.S. look-alike stamps, or both. They make historically interesting, and for the most part inexpensive, collections (for the major varieties) that are limited in time, and therefore are relatively easy to complete.

Let's take a quick tour, moving from one to the next alphabetically, starting with the Canal Zone. The Zone was the creation of a 1904 treaty with the then-new country of Panama. The treaty created a 552-square mile strip of land across Central America that would contain the Panama Canal. Its first stamps were Panamanian, overprinted "Canal Zone." These were followed in 1924 by U.S. stamps overprinted; and in 1928, the first Canal Zone postage stamps were issued. The final stamps were issued in 1976. The entire collection is about 260 stamps, and, while there are a few rarities, 90 percent of the basic stamps should cost you $10 or less (often much less) in fine or better used condition. There are, however, a ton of overprint varieties that are fun to search for, and many of these can be found in dealer stocks, priced as the normal stamp.

Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam became U.S. possessions as the result of Spain's capitulation ending the Spanish-American War of 1898. I don't collect the provisional overprints of 1898 on Cuban stamps. I couldn't afford them if I did. But U.S. 1895 issues were overprinted in 1898, and these were rapidly succeeded by specially designed stamps for use under U.S. military rule in 1899, which were used until Cuba achieved its independence in 1902. There are about 25 stamps required for a complete collection. Again, most are inexpensive in fine condition.

The Danish West Indies are often included as a U.S. possession, and so it became when the United States purchased the colony from Denmark in 1917. However there are no DWI stamps issued under U.S. administration. The DWI stamps that exist were all issued by Denmark, and they are pretty pricey. One aspect that makes them of more than casual interest is that most are valued in Scott's at more for genuinely used copies than for mint. And if money is no object, there are lots of varieties.

Guam, which came to the U.S. as a result of the Spanish-American War, boasts 14 U.S. stamps overprinted GUAM, and 11 stamps (most of them originally issued for U.S. administration of the Philippines) overprinted for local use between Agana, the capital (now known as Hagåtña), and other towns. Atypically, this is a pricey area, with few stamps being used over the course of only about five years. After that time, plain U.S. stamps were used. It is also a possession where the used stamps catalogue more than mint, because the climate was such that not much in the way of prime philatelic material could survive in good condition.

The strategic importance of Hawaii made it one of those few possessions that the U.S. sought. Until 1898, it was an independent kingdom, or a republic. But it was annexed by the U.S. in 1898, and given territorial status in 1900. Hawaiian postage stamps, first issued in 1851, continued in use until June, 1900, when they were replaced by standard U.S. stamps. Thus, like DWI, there are no special Hawaii stamps issued for use under U.S. administration. But unlike DWI, mint stamps issued after 1864 catalogue more than used, except the 21 provisional overprints of 1893, and the great majority are available within the means of most collectors. The first 29 stamps of Hawaii are considered classics, and many are quite scarce and quite expensive. The remaining 60 or so stamps are reasonable.

The Philippines, invaded by Admiral George Dewey in mid-1898, were administered as an occupied territory, and used plain U.S. stamps until overprinted U.S. stamps were introduced in June, 1899. Forty-five such stamps were used, followed in 1906 by specially designed "Philippine Islands United States of America" stamps that were used until independence in 1946, with the exception of the years during World War II when Japan occupied the Philippine Islands. The occasion of their being driven from the islands gave rise to a good many local VICTORY overprints, some of which can cost a pretty penny. With those exceptions and some early expensive air mails, the country, with about 500 stamps needed to complete it, is affordable.

Puerto Rico was taken from Spain in mid-1895, and there are a few provisional overprints on Puerto Rico stamps that were used before the overprinted U.S. stamps arrived in 1899. Again, the provisionals are expensive. Most of the ten overprinted stamps exist with two angles of overprint, but none are prohibitively expensive. After 1900, unoverprinted U.S. stamps were used.

The Ryukyu Islands, formerly belonging to Japan, were occupied by the U.S. in 1945, and administered by the U.S. military until they reverted to Japan in 1972. Scott recognizes the roughly 260 stamps issued under U.S. administration as being a U.S. collectible. Most are easily within a moderate budget. Scott also notes the existence of provisional issues: mostly overprinted Japanese stamps, used between 1945 and 1948 when the first US.-sponsored stamps were issued. The provisionals are highly sought after with a price to match.

What Scott does not recognize as U.S. possessions material fit for listing in the U.S. Specialized Catalogue are the Allied Military Government stamps of Austria, France, Italy and Germany, many of which were printed in the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, for use in U.S.- and British-occupied zones of those countries. I believe it is clearly U.S. material, and collect it avidly. There are about a dozen basic stamps for each country, though postage due overprints were done for Austria, a second set was produced for France, and additional easily differentiated printings were done for the German stamps. The great majority are readily available.

For almost all of these areas, there are also revenues and postal stationery available, not to mention usages on cover, and a good many varieties. It is no wonder that some collectors have been able to make the study of one or more of these areas their life's work. But for the more casual collector, they represent an achievable challenge; one from which much can be learned, and much enjoyment derived.

For more information, you may wish to check the U.S. Possessions Philatelic Society website.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

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