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Stamp on history

Significant events in Antarctica reflected in polar philately

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Dozens of books have been written about the history of Antarctica, many by the pivotal figures themselves, like Byrd and Shackleton and Scott.

But one doesn’t have to go to the library to read the stories that shaped the continent. A different sort of narrative can be found within the zipped binders that fill the bookshelves in the basement of Scott Smith’s Denver home.

Inside many are envelopes and postcards carrying addresses foreign and domestic. Some envelope covers are Spartan, with only hastily scribbled addresses. Others are stamped with penguins or show printed artwork from different expeditions or military-sponsored operations, called cachets. The canceled marks over the stamps pinpoint not just a date in time but also a moment in the historical development of a continent.

“All of these envelopes have a history attached to them. They tell you a story,” said Smith, who for nearly 20 years worked for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), the last 10 at South Pole where he volunteered as the station’s postal clerk until 2008. “It tells you about these different events that took place.”

The postal history of the continent dates back to at least the 1800s with the early expeditions, represented by the first U.S. mission led by Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842, according to Hal Vogel, a polar philatelist for more than 50 years.

One archival piece of mail includes a letter from Wilkes, a naval officer and allegedly the inspiration for Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, to his wife informing her he was returning to the States.

“[The letter] took so long to get home that he was already home when it arrived,” said Vogel, who has penned a number of publications and is a member of one of the world’s leading polar philatelic societies, the American Society of Polar Philatelists.

Vogel recalled seeing the famed scientist Paul Siple on TV one Sunday morning in the mid-1950s as a young boy. Siple was discussing how he would work at a research base at the South Pole. Already a budding philatelist, Vogel reckoned he could send a letter to Siple and receive a South Pole cancel in return.

About two years later, he got the canceled letter back. Over the last 50 years, he’s become an expert in polar philately, winning numerous awards at philatelic exhibitions with his collection. He seems to possess an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Arctic and Antarctic history by following the postal trail through time.

“These items postally document an event, an individual, an occurrence. It’s almost like a time stamping of history,” Vogel said. “There are pieces of polar postal history that are the only ways that we know of certain facts.”

For example, a man named Morrison, a Maori (native) from New Zealand, sent several letters home to his mother during Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition (1928-30). But there’s no reference to the man in the expedition’s official record, Vogel said.

“Even in Byrd’s narrative he doesn’t exist. The only way to know that he exists is this mail to and from him,” Vogel said. “It is on expedition stationary or has expedition cachets, or it is canceled wherever he was. We know this individual is on this expedition. We wouldn’t have known it if it wasn’t for his mail.”

Smith caught the philatelic bug about 40 years after Vogel. An article on polar philately spurred him to collect the various combinations of U.S.-related covers and cancels from the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1956 until present.

“I thought, ‘How many could there be?’ I figured 50 cancels, 50 envelopes. It would be complete. Not even close,” Smith said ruefully.

Try almost 400 cancels — four hundred different cancellations from various research stations, particularly McMurdo and South Pole, but also bygone scientific bases like Byrd and Little America V. And for nearly 40 years the U.S. Navy mostly ran the logistics show, meaning all the ships that went down to the Ice had their own post offices for the sailors, according to Smith.

Stamp on history

Today, polar philately is a hobby — albeit a serious and expensive one for some collectors — but in the nascent scientific age of the 1950s, it also was a political tool.

No one nation owns Antarctica. However, until the world generally agreed to suspend all property claims with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, several countries had staked out a pie-shaped slice of the continent.

The United States didn’t make a claim nor did it recognize any other territorial claims. But that didn’t stop some subtle — and not so subtle — attempts during the 20th century to legitimize any possible future claims. One weapon in this diplomatic war was establishment of a post office on the continent.

“If it ever got around to people recognizing different claims, and if we had set up post offices and done philatelic mail over certain sites, that would help us in that process,” explained Bob Chaudoin.

Chaudoin was a young Navy enlisted man in 1955 when he chose to give up an assignment in Paris for an eventual post at the South Pole during Operation Deep Freeze, the military mission during the IGY. His background working the mailroom at a Navy base in Hawaii was enough to qualify him for the job of postal clerk.

In the austral summer of 1956, he joined members of the Seabee Construction Battalion to build the first research station at the geographic South Pole. He and weatherman Jerry Nolan paused for two 12-hour days to cancel some 500,000 first-day covers (the front of the envelopes), using the first hut built at the new station. The first cancel was Dec. 15, 1956.

“There was no postal clerk in the Antarctic at that time handling the mail,” said Chaudoin, only recently retired at age 81 and living in Florida. “What the postal clerks were designed for was to cancel philatelic mail that was going to be handled at Little America and at the Pole.”

The job of handling regular mail, as well as more bags of philatelic mail, fell to Earl Johnson, who wintered over at South Pole in 1957 with 17 other men, including Siple, the famed scientist who partly inspired Vogel to become a polar philatelist.

Johnson and Chaudoin never crossed paths at South Pole, likely missing each other by just a few days. A “whole bunch” more philatelic mail awaited processing. Johnson also made souvenir covers for the 18 South Pole winter-overs, each of whom signed the machine and hand-stamped envelopes for what today is a highly valued collectible.

“South Pole is the ultimate desire. Everybody knows South Pole,” Smith noted. “When you think of Antarctica, you think of the South Pole.”

Beth Watson estimates the South Pole Station receives about a thousand pieces of philatelic mail a year. “You get them from everywhere,” said Watson, former South Pole Station Support supervisor for the USAP who oversaw the all-volunteer post office.

Smith said he probably canceled about 10,000 pieces himself over the years.

Priceless secrets

The South Pole wasn’t the first place where the United States attempted to surreptitiously gain a territorial foothold in the Antarctic through the U.S. post office.

One of the more famous — but totally secret at the time — philatelic operations took place under Finn Ronne, the legendary Norwegian-American polar adventurer.

The Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE), from 1947-48, was the last privately sponsored expedition from the United States and the first to include women in the winter-over party. Ronne established the Oleona Base on Stonington Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, where he canceled about 25 envelopes on the opening and closing dates of the expedition.

It turns out that before he left for Antarctica, Ronne had been secretly sworn in as a 4th class U.S. postmaster.

“It was a territorial claim,” Smith said. “The United States made him a postmaster down there to cancel envelopes to counteract the British claim to that part of Antarctica.”

There were several different aspects that could constitute a geographic claim, Vogel explained. One is having an active, bureaucratic management, which can be represented in the form of a post office.

“Having a post office and issuing stamps for an entity is considered one of the important aspects in a case for a geographic claim,” Vogel said.

Needless to say, RARE covers are extremely valuable among polar philatelists. One particular cover was canceled three separate times by Ronne. Once during his tenure with Byrd during the latter’s second Antarctic expedition in 1934. A second time at Oleona Base. Finally, a third time when Ronne was the leader at Ellsworth Station during the IGY.

Smith has one in his possession today, worth about $2,500. For collectors like Smith and Vogel, however, such pieces of polar history are really priceless.

“There’s a lot of history. The history is a large part of my interest,” he said. “I’m a stamp collector. It’s fun for me.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs