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Tuesday 18 April 2017

ISKOLAT: Executive Committee of the Workers, Soldiers and Landless in Latvia 1917 - 18

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I illustrated this cover some time ago but could not explain it. It was sent from Cyrillic ZELZAVA LIFL[and] 17 1 18 addressed in Cyrillic with a Cyrillic STOMERSEE LIFL [and] 17 1 18. It's registered and franked at 45 kopeks, which probably represents 15 kop for postage and 30 kop for Registation - not an RSFSR rate. Both the postmark towns are in the district of Madona on the Plavinas - Vecgulbene railway.

The most notable feature of the cover is the presence of an Imperial style Registration but one which is bi-lingual with both Cyrillic and a Latvian  SELSAWA [ a variant - other possibilities are Dzelsawa and Dzelzava and German Selsau ]. This label is the only internal bi-lingual Registration label I have ever seen before they were introduced and became common in the 1920s in various Soviet republics.

Now I have the explanation. As early as 29 July 1917 an Executive Committee of the Workers, Soldiers and Landless in Latvia [ISKOLAT] was established in Riga. Russia at this time was under the Provisional Government. German forces advanced on Riga capturing it on 3 September 1917. The ISKOLAT then moved to Cesis [Wenden] and then to the Valka [ Walk ] district. When the Germans renewed their offensive in February 1918 [ Operation Faustschlag] the ISKOLAT moved to Moscow. But for a brief period at the very end of 1917 and into early 1918, following the German-Bolshevik Armistice of December 1917, there were some areas of Lifland under accepted Bolshevik rather than German control.

I think the above cover is an example of mail from a Bolshevik-controlled  area of Lifland, and I think the Registration label is a locally-produced post-Imperial effort opening up an acknowledgment of the linguistic character of the area.

This cover is for sale.

Monday 17 April 2017

Guest Blog by Howard Weinert: Captain Prince at the American Embassy in Vologda 1918

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The envelope shown above is stationery of the Office of the Military Attaché, American Embassy, Petrograd. The enclosed letter, typewritten in Vologda on 14 April 1918, is embossed with the Great Seal and “Embassy of the United States of America”. Sent via diplomatic pouch and postmarked in Washington in August. The sender, Eugene Prince, affixed 21 kopecks in postage stamps to pay the 20 kopeck international letter rate, but the rate had increased to 30 kopecks on 10 March. Inscribed “Capt. E. Prince U.S.A.” on front and “Captain E. Prince. U.S.N.A., Asst. to Amer. Military Attaché Petrograd” on back. Fearing that the Germans would occupy Petrograd, the American Embassy left the city on 27 Feb. and moved to Vologda.

Prince [1890 – 1981] was born in St. Petersburg to an American father and a Russian mother. In 1911 he was working in the Moscow sales office of International Harvester Co. In that year he went to the USA to study manufacturing methods at International Harvester in Chicago and Milwaukee. He returned to Russia in 1913 as IH representative, came back to the USA in 1916, and returned to Russia in August 1916 as representative of Willys-Overland an American automobile and jeep manufacturer. In 1917 he served as interpreter for the Root Mission, sent by President Wilson after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, and the Stevens Railway Mission, and then was appointed Captain with the American Military Mission and Asst. Military Attaché at the American Embassy in Petrograd. He returned to the USA in 1919, and afterward continued to represent Willys-Overland in Europe. He was a member of the Rossica Society.

In his letter, Prince says, “When we left Petrograd we had fairly good hopes of going straight on to Vladivostok and then to Japan and the States, but now I am certain it will be quite some time before we get home. The situation here is getting all the time more and more complicated. As usual I am in the thick of most everything. When I shall see you again I shall be able to tell you a lot of interesting incidents, of which now I have to be silent. Vologda where we are now is a dirty small town, it is continuously raining and the mud on the streets is so deep, it is impossible to walk”.

Prince was in charge of identifying routes of Allied occupation and getting copies of German and Bolshevik battle plans. He worked to sabotage property taken over by the Germans and to funnel money to the Czechs fighting the Reds along the Trans-Siberian railway.

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Thursday 13 April 2017

Review: Jay Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 - 1800

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Jay Caplan is a Professor of French at Amherst College in the USA with a special interest in eighteenth century literary history. Struck by the constant references to the workings of the post in French writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, he became interested in the development and organisation of the postal service itself and this short book is the result. It is clearly written, lively and accessible to a non-specialist reader though the text does sometimes lose the battle with the footnotes; the solution is to ignore the footnotes.

Except in Venice, it is only from the sixteenth century on that “the public” began to get access to what previously had been the private courier and messenger services of kings and princes. Opening up and expanding the post proved a significant source of revenue for those kings and princes and, in addition, made it possible to spy on those who made use of the expanded postal services. The development of the post goes hand in hand with the development of secret offices dedicated to opening people’s letters, especially the letters of dissidents like Voltaire and Rousseau. Caplan devotes a chapter to the “Black Cabinets” which did the work of opening and reading letters and tries to assemble what is known about how (specifically in France) they worked. Many aspects of their operations remain unclear.

He focusses on the posts of Thurn and Taxis, France and Great Britain, noting in passing in the case of the latter how Queen Elizabeth the First opted to discourage the development of communication among her subjects, opposing herself to better roads and posts. He looks at how the posts were managed, how they were supervised, how work was divided between those who accepted and delivered letters and those who transported them from post to post – the horse relays which allowed the mails to speed along at a few kilometers per hour. He notes that it was the posts between big cities across the continent of Europe which developed first, the city and town posts for local correspondence - things like la petite poste in Paris and Dockwra in London - coming later. Governments were generally keen to preserve postal monopolies, even if they sold leases to operate services to “farmers”.

Caplan points out several features of the dominant practice of requiring the recipient to pay for a letter, not the sender. For example, it gave an incentive to these for-profit postal services to actually deliver the mail because only then did they get paid. I had never thought of that before! But for someone like Voltaire or Rousseau, receiving sackfuls of fan mail, the fact that the recipient paid for the fan mail was a financial disaster and both Voltaire and Rousseau ended up posting public notices that they would only accept mail from correspondents know to them. It didn’t solve the problem.

Caplan does not mention the interesting practice which allowed poor servant girls or apprentice boys living far from home to  send empty letters to their parents who would then refuse to pay for the letter, but would know from the fact of it being sent that their children were at least alive.

The postal service and letter writing develop in symbiotic relationship and, at first, being able to write to someone a long way away was as novel as was being able to telephone them or Skype them was at later dates. Caplan quotes very interesting passages from Madame de Sevigné which indicate how the development of a frequent and reliable letter service altered daily life, habits and expectations so that something like impatience became most clearly illustrated by the feeling one had waiting for a letter. An etiquette to letter-writing developed, even written out in Handbooks of how to do it, and covered such things as when to use a single sheet (what we now call entire letters) for both correspondence and address, and when to wrap the letter sheet in a separate sheet, the enveloppe.

Conventions developed about folding the paper and tucking in flaps. It was not until the 19th century that the technology for machine folding envelopes was perfected. Sealing was also an important matter and there was some obvious etiquette, like black seals for mourning letters. Interestingly, the spies who opened letters had to deal with the problem of repairing the broken wax seal and it occurred to me reading Caplan that we probably don’t look out for censor-repaired or replaced wax seals in the same way as we look out for other signs of later perlustration.

This is a book which will have considerable interest for collectors of pre-philatelic letters. Unfortunately, the 210 page paperback is priced at £60

J.Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 – 1800. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation 2016) ISSN 0435-2866