In the late 1970s a fascinating series of articles written by Mr. K. Kouwenberg about the history of stamp collecting, appeared in the Dutch magazine Philatelie. This series has been the source of inspiration for PostBeeld owner Rob Smit to rewrite the history of stamp collecting in instalments. This is Part 30 – William P. Brown.
So far, we have mainly focused on Europe, but stamp collecting had also begun, albeit a bit later, over the Atlantic Ocean in North America. But it is not entirely certain who can be seen as the first American stamp dealer.
John William Kline, acting in business as A.C. Kline, was a bookseller in Philadelphia. In the 1850s he was also an important coin trader. At some point he also started trading in stamps and actually issued a catalogue in 1862.
Another candidate was William P. Brown. He was a collector from the fifties and a trader from 1860. Possibly he was the first trader who fully occupied himself with the stamp trade. He sold stamps to passers-by in New York City Hall Park. In any event, he was the first to have his own store in New York. In 1864 he opened a shop at 145 Nassau Street, where he sold stamps and soon afterwards also coins to New York collectors. His example was later followed by many (among others in 1867 by John Walter Scott), as a result of which Nassau Street developed as a philatelic centre. This remained the case until the 1970s (including the Stamp Center on 116 Nassau Street). Currently there is no stamp trader operating on this street.
Brown was born in India in 1841 and spent his youth in Japan as the son of a Baptist missionary. His father Nathan Brown worked as a pastor in the USA, Burma, India and Japan, where he translated the Bible into Japanese. See Wikipedia for more information about his father.
He was a striking figure. In appearance he sometimes resembled Santa Claus. He had a clubfoot, hence his bouncing gait behind his shop counter and he handled stamps and coins with dirty fingers without using tweezers as he served customers.This eccentric behaviour made him a real attraction. Maybe his was eccentricity and religious fervour was inherited from his father.
William P. Brown was once appointed to a lay jury but refused to take the oath on religious grounds. When the judge also learned that Brown earned his living trading old stamps, he came to the conclusion that if the court had known of his trade, he would never have been called for jury service (source: The Philatelic Record 1881; 79).
He was not always loved by his colleagues as he could sometimes make a nuisance of himself. In 1856 a new private postal service was established in New York, the ‘Essex Letter Express Post’. This postal service used its own stamps but soon went into liquidation. As a result of the rise in collecting there was a demand for stamps from private postal services but the rare Essex Letter Express stamps were nowhere to be found. At one point, however, Brown found a number of these stamps at a grocery store that used to have a letterbox from the Essex Letter Express. Brown used this opportunity to spoil the reputation of a colleague he disliked. He took one of the stamps, neatly removed the letters ‘sx’ from the pennant on the mast of the ship and placed the letters under the ship. Then he sent the modified stamp to his colleague. To Brown’s delight, some time later advertisements appeared from the colleague who offered genuine Essex Letter Express stamps for sale. Brown ordered a few and yes, the letters ‘sx’ were under the ship instead of in the streamer. Counterfeit!
Original with ‘sx’ on the pennant.
And the fake with ‘sx’ under the ship
Years later, Brown started his own city post. It is not entirely clear whether the reason was to earn money via mail delivery or with the stamps he could issue for the mail, but I have my suspicions.
An example of Brown’s City Post stamp.
The fact that Brown was unpopular with many colleagues is apparent, among other things, from the fact that S. Allan Taylor copied the above stamp, in which he placed a devil behind the man with the wheelbarrow (which was assumed to be Brown) as a symbol of the driving force behind Brown. He added the text ‘3 limps to the post office’. Not really subtle in view of Brown’s disability.
Nonetheless, Brown continued his stamp trade for a long time, also publishing a philatelic journal. Brown died in 1929.
The American Stamp Dealers Association has dedicated a page to William P. Brown with more information.
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