Piecing together postal history in Fredericksburg

Provisional stamp offers example of wartime adaptability

The Free Lance–Star – Aug 27., 2023

TOP: The best known example of Fredericksburg's 1861 5-cent provisional stamp, issued by postmaster Reuben Thom, on a letter, from the collection of Keith Littlefield.


It was the summer of 1861 and Fredericksburg's longtime postmaster, Reuben Thom, was wondering how to continue doing his job.

Virginia had seceded from the Union that spring and the U.S. Post Office was no longer delivering mail from and among the seceded states.

The Confederate States of America formed its own Post Office in June of 1861 and appointed a postmaster general, but since most of the printers capable of printing large quantities of stamps were located in the North, Confederate stamps were not yet available.

Meanwhile, Fredericksburg residents had business they needed to conduct and family and friends they needed to correspond with.

So Thom became one of the first of 19 Virginia postmasters to create and locally print provisional stamps. In September of 1861, he had printed a number of sheets of 5 and 10-cent stamps — 20 stamps per sheet printed in red or blue ink on blue paper surrounded by a border of multirayed stars and bearing his name, "R. T. Thom."

It's not known how many sheets Thom had printed in total, but only five of the 5-cent provisional stamp sheets are known to have survived, said Keith Littlefield, a local historian and philatelist who last year published a comprehensive book on Fredericksburg's postal history.

Philately is the study and collection of stamps.

There are no surviving full sheets of the 10-cent Fredericksburg provisional stamps, but there is a half-sheet now in the collection of the British Library.

Littlefield estimates that there are only 35 of the single 10-cent stamps in existence. A single 10 cent stamp would sell for more than $1,000.

There may be 100 5-cent provisional stamps in existence as singles, pairs or blocks of four.

"Each would sell for $400 to $500," Littlefield said. "Currently, a block of eight 5-cent stamps is listed at $8,000 by a top stamp dealer."

A 5-cent provisional stamp on an envelope — or "on cover" — would sell for $5,000. There are no known 10-cent stamps on cover.

In June, a piece of envelope with a Danville, Virginia provisional stamp sold for $3,250 at auction in New York. A stamp on a piece of envelope is worth more to collectors than a single stamp by itself, Littlefield said, but not as much as a stamp on a full cover.

For years, Littlefield said, philatelists and historians questioned who had printed Fredericksburg's provisional stamps. The assumption was that it was Jesse White, the publisher of the newspaper The Weekly Advertiser, because White also printed emergency scrip for the city of Fredericksburg once U.S. currency became illegal.

However, Littlefield discovered through his research on Virginia's obsolete paper money that a local Fredericksburg grocery store, Hart, Hayes & Co., had its own 10-cent emergency notes printed.

Those notes, which were issued on Sept. 2, 1861, feature the same border of multi-rayed stars around the denomination block as Thom's provisional stamps. They also bear the imprint "Recorder Job Office," meaning they were printed by Robert Alexander, publisher of the newspaper The Democratic Recorder.

The Fredericksburg provisional stamps were in use by Sept. 12, which suggests to Littlefield that Thom saw the Hart, Hayes & Co. notes and got the idea to have provisional stamps printed by the Recorder using the same printing plates as the notes.

One month later, Hart, Hayes & Co. printed a new set of 10-cent notes with a completely different design. Littlefield theorizes that this is because Alexander used up the Recorder's entire inventory of star type pieces on the stamps.

Fredericksburg's provisional stamps were only used for two months. The earliest known use of CSA-issued stamps is Oct. 16, 1861, and the last known use of the city's provisional stamp was on Nov. 16 of that year.

At some point, someone tried to mail a letter using the 1861 5-cent Fredericksburg provisional stamp, Littlefield writes in his book, "From New Post to Princess Anne Street: The Postal History of Virginia 1657-1990."

The letter was not mailed until 1863 and required a CSA stamp to be posted over the provisional stamp.

Fredericksburg's provisional stamps were of interest to collectors almost as soon as the Civil War ended, Littlefield said. People knew they existed, but because they were in use for such a short period of time, few people knew what they looked like.

One man, Samuel Taylor, printed and hawked at least 20 varieties of the Fredericksburg provisional stamp that look nothing like Thom's original issue. He did this from the 1860s through the 1880s, Littlefield writes in his book.

Thom himself was almost 80 years old when the Civil War began. Despite his age, he was quick to improvise and adapt to the rapidly changing situation caused by the war, Littlefield said.

Thom died in 1868 at age 85 and is buried in the graveyard at St. George's Episcopal Church.

Littlefield's book about Fredericksburg's postal history is available to read in the Virginiana Room of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library's downtown branch, and available for purchase for $130 at Riverby Books and Beck's Antiques, both in downtown Fredericksburg. Only 250 copies of the book are in print.

Adele Uphaus: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com@flsadele