Philatelic Truck Begins its Journey

Item #M396 – Mint Philatelic Truck souvenir sheet with gum.

On May 9, 1939, the Philatelic Truck departed the White House on a cross-country journey to introduce thousands of Americans to the exciting world of stamps.

The Philatelic Truck was the brainchild of stamp-collecting President Franklin Roosevelt. He ordered the traveling exhibit to show Americans how stamps were made. The first public mention of the truck was in an August 1938 article in The New York Sun that stated the truck’s purpose was to “stimulate interest in stamp collecting among the youth of the country.”

The truck was a custom-made armored vehicle that served as a mobile philatelic museum. It carried specimens of every U.S. stamp issued from the 1847 Franklin and Washington issues to those issued at the time of the tour. The tour officially began on May 9, 1939, with a special ceremony at the White House. After that, Post Master General James A. Farley performed his final inspection of the truck before it set out on its journey.

Item #M396a – Unused Philatelic Truck souvenir sheet with gum. It has small, money-saving imperfections.

Over the next 28 months the truck traveled the nation stopping at hundreds of schools, libraries, and other sites. Visitors to the truck got to see dies and plates used to make stamps as well as a set of die proofs. In the center of the truck was a miniature Stickney printing press. The press simulated the printing of souvenir sheets that were slowly rolled out and cut for each visitor to take home. In reality, these sheets had been pre-printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in large rolls. Over time though, the truck’s operators found that the press moved too slowly to efficiently hand out the souvenir sheets to the large crowds, so they began handing out pre-cut cards.

Additionally, the cards handed out during the first year were gummed. But as people soon began finding the sheets stuck to windows, cars, and even the truck itself, they began producing the sheets ungummed. (The gummed cards are much harder to find today than the ungummed.) Young visitors also had the opportunity to purchase a book produced specifically for the tour for 10¢ – A Description of United States Postage Stamps – Junior Edition.

Item #M395 – Mint Philatelic Truck souvenir sheet without gum.

Visitors to the truck also had the option to mail out letters right there. If they wanted, they could use special envelopes produced specially for the Philatelic Truck. The truck also made a special stop in 1940, at the 46th Annual Convention of the Society of Philatelic Americans. People who visited the truck at this convention received a scarce variety with an overprint marking the convention, which you can view here.

On an average day, about 800 people would usually get to visit the truck. Reportedly, the largest visitation occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Labor Day. The truck was parked at the city’s fairgrounds and was visited by about 5,000 people.

Item #M395a –Unused Philatelic Truck souvenir sheet without gum. It has one or two money-saving imperfections.

After more than two years of traveling, the philatelic truck’s journey was cut short by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The truck was rushed from Yuma, Arizona, to its final stop in San Diego, California, on December 12, 1941. There, the exhibits were removed and sent back to Washington, D.C. The truck itself was reportedly left at the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office. During its trip, the truck had traveled 20,750 miles, visited 490 towns, and had 483,976 visitors.

Click here to see a photo of the truck on the first day of its journey.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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11 Comments

  1. A refreshing article particularly when one considers the timing of this project which occurred in the midst of such events as the great depression and its recovery, all of the projects that were part of the “New Deal” , Pearl Harbor (as mentioned), and America’s entry to World War II.

  2. Fading glory of collection of Postal stamps need to be rekindled with a project like this. This generation is not interested in Philately as much as we did when we were children. It is a great hobby on multiple levels. Little stamp is a beautiful piece of art, history and educational. One reason for reduced interest may be too many issues. Quality stamps stand out. Long live philately.

  3. Interesting to note that this truck was first mentioned the month after I was born and this is the first time I’ve heard of it. I imagine the books. stamps, and truck are long gone but stamp collecting is alive and well. Thank you Mystic for another adventure into the past.

  4. I am a supporter of the Postal History Foundation in Tucson Arizona. Their mission is Youth Education Through Stamps. (YES) It was established in 1960. Hundreds of students come there every year with their teachers to experience the joy of stamp collecting and to learn history, math, and other subjects through stamps. Fascinating place. They sell stamps to collectors all over the world. All this is done with three employees and a host of volunteers. All past and present stamp collectors.

    1. I live in Tucson…been here for 17 years. I have been a stamp collector for well over 50 years. I have never heard of this Foundation. I’ve tried to organize a Stamp Club in Tucson and have never been successful. I’ve attended Stamp and Coin shows (once in a blue moon), but again very little interest in Tucson. So, I just buy stamps from Mystic and other places like eBay, etc. I wish your Foundation would do a better job of advertising yourselves. I would love to help out, join, or even contribute to your Foundation. Could you give me some additional information?

  5. Young people today generally aren’t interested in stamp collecting, in large part because they hardly ever see interesting stamps on mail that comes to their homes. Few people write letters, and stamps that are used are almost always the boring definitives with flags or similar standard images instead of commemoratives. The postal service doesn’t help at all by issuing high value stamps that hardly ever see regular postal usage, or imperforate versions of commemoratives that exceed the Farleys in their phoniness.

  6. I was in Tucson in March this year, and visited the Postal History Foundation operation. Very impressive! By chance, I saw an excellent exhibit in the PHF library there on the Philatelic Truck, done by their librarian, Valerie.
    If you want to know more, but can’t get to Tucson, seek a book titled “The Philatelic Truck” by James H. Bruns, copyright 1982.

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