The Value of First Day Covers for Stamp Collectors

Air Mail Cover

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Many stamp collectors spend a lot of time and money going to the post office and buying new stamps. This is common with first-day-of-issue stamps. They get them, put them on clean white blank envelopes, and send them away for a first-day-of-issue cancellation. These are called first-day covers (FDC) and, traditionally, have been all the rage in the stamp collecting business.

Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic shift in the value of first-day covers. Over the years, collectors have made it clear that they prefer their first-day covers with cachets.

Added Value of Cachets

A cachet is an informative illustration usually on the left-hand side of an envelope or postcard. The cachet is designed to be attractive, educational, or humorous and supports the stamp by usually giving a little information about the featured stamp. For example, a 2003 stamp featuring the American Purple Heart Award had an accompanying postcard with an illustrated cachet showing three soldiers carrying a fourth wounded comrade.

Overall, cachets covering all or most of the envelope have become popular. The cachet trend began in the early 1900s and is reminiscent of 19th-century advertising design. Hand-painted artist covers usually command a premium over mass-produced cachets, such as those marketed by Artcraft, Artmaster, Fleetwood, and other popular brands.

As supply and demand dictate the price, the limited-edition independent artist-produced cover—almost without exception—sells for more than their numerous commercial counterparts.

The one certainty in the world of first-day cover collecting is that blank first-day covers are virtually worthless in today's stamp collecting marketplace. In general, only stamps canceled with the first-day date are deemed collectible without a cachet. The First Day of Issue cancellation didn't yet exist before the middle 1920s—prior to the era when the cacheted cover came into vogue.

First Day Covers' Past and Future

Stamp dealer and publisher George Linn created the first first-day cover when he developed a simple text cachet for the Harding Memorial stamp issue of 1926. From those humble beginnings, the collecting of first-day covers grew into a market with sales in the millions of dollars. 

But collectors can take heart: If you are of an artistic bent, you might consider putting your own stamp-related artwork on a cover. Thanks to the ease of printing with computers we are in the age of the add-on cachet. If you can draw, print, and paint, your first-day cover collection might not come up blank after all. FDC collectors always invite a good artist into the fold and if conditions are right, you might become the next cachet star.

Beware though, as computers can be used to create add-on cachets for earlier (1930s and 1940s) uncacheted first-day covers. While legitimate cachets have been identified and cataloged by Michael Mellone and Earl Planty, the uninformed collector may be fooled into paying high prices for covers that appear to be classics but are modern creations.

As printing methods have become more sophisticated in recent years, the approximation of old cachets has become easy to accomplish. Most legitimate producers will note when their covers contain an add-on cachet, though the collector of older first-day covers should do a bit of research to make sure they are adding the real thing to their collection when they purchase from first-day cover dealers.

To learn more about the ins and outs of first-day collecting, a great resource is the American First Day Cover Society