During the 19th century Christian Missionaries were prolific in going out to far-flung parts of the world to spread the Good News. Sometimes this meant travelling to remote and unheard of locations, and it was not the most glamorous of callings, albeit it was no doubt commendable and often closely connected with charitable works. This missionary work was at times a perilous occupation, with well meaning evangelists either contracting a fatal fever, or coming down with a deadly disease whilst ministering to the natives. And although it isn’t what we want to ponder in the philatelic realm, an even worse fate could befall our saintly beings, when they encountered unwelcoming locals who subjected them to a grizzly end. But you don’t want to read about Missionaries being bound and chucked into a furnace to burn, do you? However, that’s what happened to our featured cover, which is the most famous, most important and certainly the most expensive item from the mythical Hawaiian Missionary stamp issues – selling for $1.9m in 2015.
It is in fact ranked as one of the most important philatelic rarities of the world, being the only example bearing the rare Hawaiian 2 cents Missionary stamp on cover and the only intact full cover with two different denominations of these mythical stamps, having the 5 cents also alongside the 2 cents in combination with the USA 3 cents pair. Known as, The Dawson Cover, it forms part of the Steven C. Walske exhibit; ‘San Francisco as a Postal Hub from 1849 to 1869’, available to view on the Museum, which is one of the seven award winning collections from this eminent philatelist and postal historian. Oddly, this cover was indeed bundled up and tied among a pile of other correspondence which was flung into a furnace, to burn. It was fortunate on two counts. Firstly, it was tightly secured in the middle of the fated correspondence, which protected it from the worst of the flames, and crucially enabled it to be later recovered before it came to a fiery end. This rescue and discovery of a world rarity was made in 1903 and it still bears the scars of this redemption – the brown scorch marks on the left side are reminders of how close it came to being destroyed. Other Hawaiian Missionary material were not so fortunate, but that is another story. The importance of this discovery sent waves of wonder into the philatelic world and its significance was not lost on one of the greatest philatelists of that period, the Canadian George H. Worthington (1850 to 1924), who reportedly paid $6’000 for it back in the early 1900’s which was a significant sum. Another legendary collector later acquired the cover, when Worthington fell on hard times and the cover was sold in 1917 for $6’100 and later acquired by an American legendary collector and renowned philatelic connoisseur, Alfred H. Caspary (1877 to 1955). The exact figure he paid for it is not known, but according to the Encyclopaedia Of Rare and Famous Stamps, by L. N. Williams (published by David Feldman), in 1957 it was purchased for $25’000 by the famous stamp dealers Raymond and Roger Weill who placed it with a Mr Phillips. In 1969 A. J. Ostheimer III paid $120’000 for the honor of having this iconic Missionary cover in his collection. Sometime later and after it had been bought by The Honolulu Advertiser in 1971, it breached the millionaire barrier, in 1995, when it sold at auction for a record breaking $2m.
Now, the thing is, this story of peril, redemption and millions of dollars is all rather glamorous for a Missionary, which is rather ironic because as we all know these rare Hawaiian stamps weren’t actually produced by our humble travelling preachers, the little blue stamps just take their name from the intrepid apostles due to the fact they were the ones who blessed us with much of the correspondence from this Pacific Ocean Island, which it is worth stating is located about 2000 miles off the mainland coast of the United States. A long long way. And even today, with the availability of air travel that is quite a journey, but back in 1851 when this cover was mailed it had an even more commendable trip by ship to San Francisco which became the postal hub for mail into and out of America. Of course all this and much more is artfully and colourfully illustrated in Steven C. Walske’s 129 page exhibit, which as well as having a further five covers with Hawaiian Missionary frankings, tells many other fascinating tales surrounding the unsung postal hero that was San Francisco including, transcontinental rail, water routes, overland, ocean and even the rarely seen Pony Express mail. So, at the risk of sounding like a preacher, take a journey around this collection without the risk of peril, even though it will transport you to many far-flung places.
Read more about Steven C. Walske in our article “The Boy Swept up by the Balloon”.