By Raúl A. Pérez-Rivera
The arrival of American troops in Puerto Rico through the port of Guánica was met with little resistance on the part of the Spanish Army. Richard Harding Davis (1898) described the military campaign in Puerto Rico as “…a military picnic”, compared to the Cuban campaign. The Spaniards fled, particularly toward the north. Spanish government officials and civil servants, such as the postal employees, also fled along with the military, taking with them the basic postal tools such as cancellers. It was also recorded that in some cases, as the Spanish officials left, civilians broke into the post offices and took whatever they could. Therefore, many locations were left without stamps and cancellers. In cities like Arecibo and Humacao, revenue stamps were used as a substitute for normal postage stamps (Figure 1), and in other cases the mayors certified that there were no stamps and the mayoral seal was used as a “provisional” (which in reality it was not) to permit the delivery of correspondence (Figure 2).
In Ponce the postal service was interrupted because the postal employees fled with the troops and took with them or destroyed the pertinent postal materials. Don Ulpiano Colóm, the mayor of Ponce, posed the problem to Major General James Wilson and asked him to restore the service to the civilian population and to approve a provisional stamp to pay for the service of delivery of mail to those towns that would come under the jurisdiction of the United States military. In 1902 the newspaper “El 25 de Julio” reprinted in its entirety the letter that Colóm sent to Wilson and which was published in the local newspaper “La Nueva Era” (Year 1, Number 5, fourth column of the first page). This request took place on August 1, 1898 and indicates the this activity will take place from the moment the United States postal service is organized in order to not interrupt the commerce and communications between the towns. La Nueva Era published an edict that stated:
POSTAL SERVICE – Being duly authorized by General Wilson, the Municipal Mayor has provisionally established a postal service between this city and the following towns: Adjuntas, Peñuelas, Guayanilla, Yauco, Sabana Grande, San Germán, Santa Isabel y Juana Díaz. To defray the costs of this service, each letter shall be charged five cents when it is deposited in the postal office of the Public Library, on the lower floor of the City Hall. The postmen who deliver correspondence to residences shall be paid one cent for each letter. Newspapers free.
The news article further listed the departure times for delivery of correspondence to the different towns as well as the expected arrival time from those towns.
Alvarado (1977) comment that the Ponce stamp was the only provisional authorized by the new American government. However, it is important to note that the person who had the authority to approve or disapprove this stamp was the official representative of the United States Department of the Post Office (Washington office): Lt. Henry Robinson. The day that the mayor of Ponce delivered his request to General Wilson, Robinson had already arrived in Ponce. He disembarked on August 1. Alvarado (1977) points out that it was Wilson who approved the stamp, and that the approval was published on August 4, 1898 in the local newspaper, La Nueva Era. Therefore, the person who approved the use of the Ponce Provisional was not the representative of the United States Post Office in Puerto Rico, but his superior officer. It must noted that according to the military laws of the period, the commander-of the occupying forces was considered to be the military governor and had the power to establish whatever decree deemed necessary for the welfare, not only of the military, but also of the civilian population. In spite of this, it is probable that Robinson was consulted in this and other postal matters, since on August 2, Julio Mirailh y Ortiz is named as the postal official for the city of Ponce and he is assigned a space in the public library on the first floor of the City Hall. One day later, August 3, Robinson opened the United States Post Office in the customs house at Playa de Ponce.
There was no intention of using the Ponce provisional as a substitute for the postage of American correspondence, which was one of the reasons for its rapid approval. Instead it was to be used to charge an additional fee to transport that correspondence to the towns already under American jurisdiction. Accordingly, mail was to be taken to the City Hall and the envelope was to be stamped with the provisional (the Ponce stamp), which would be accompanied by a counterstamp (the mayor’s seal). Everything seems to indicate that the City Hall office actually got to sell American stamps, since on several occasions the Ponce Provisional was used to cancel American postage stamps (Figure 3).
The Ponce Provisional stamp, from its creation until it was described to the philatelic world, has been surrounded by peculiarities, mysteries and doubts. We can begin by pointing out that even though it is a very simple stamp, it has the peculiarity that both English and Spanish were used in its design. It is a 21mm circle, with the word “POSTAGES” forming an arc on the upper inside, and the word “CORREOS” forming another arc on the lower inside. In the middle of the circle is the inscription “5 cts.” (Figure 4). One question, which will remain unanswered, is: “Why were both languages used in the stamp’s design?” It is possible that “POSTAGES” was used partly to gain favor with the Americans, and “CORREOS” to indicate to the locals that the purpose of the stamp was to pay the franking fee for a postal service. Our colleague Victor M Rivera suggests as an explanation of this that the use of the two languages was in the anticipation of making deliveries to the Military Stations (English) as well as those that were still under Spanish dominion.
Alvarado (1972) is the first to write that more than one rubber stamp was produced for the Ponce Provisional. Later, Davila (1987) describes a third rubber stamp. In spite of this only one rubber stamp is known to have been used officially. There are “Ponces” known on cover, on American stamps, and one on a Spanish stamp. Yet the majority of these are known on adhesive pieces of paper. Gonzalez (2006) made an inventory of those expertized by the American Philatelic Society (APS), and the Philatelic Foundation (PF). He found 37 stamps, which invalidates the general belief that there are only 20 specimens. It must be noted that to this group of expertized stamps we must add those that are genuine but have not gone through the process of official expertization. I know of at least four specimens, which, to the best of my knowledge, have all the characteristics of the genuine adhesive stamps. Another peculiarity is that the rubber stamp used to produce the stamps on adhesive paper is different from the rubber stamp used on cover or to cancel American stamps (Davila 1987).
The obvious question is “Why several rubber stamps?” Davila (1987) states that the volume of correspondence generated in Ponce was such that it could not be managed with only one rubber stamp. However, Hamill (2004) points out that in 1897 the average number of letters or correspondence handled every day was 225, half the number handled daily by Playa de Mayaguez. This number is the same managed daily today by the post office of the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao, which is attended by a single postman at the window. On the other hand, the existing evidence of the Ponce provisional that have been found impressed on cover or used as a cancellation on American stamps points to the use of only one rubber stamp for this purpose (Type II, Davila 1987). So both the volume of correspondence and the existing evidence support the official use of only one rubber stamp.
Another explanation, following the preceding hypothesis, could be that having more than one rubber stamp would to continue to offer service in case the first stamp in use was to be lost or damaged.
Several previous writings explain the use of the Ponce to mark the correspondence to be taken to Playa de Ponce or to different towns. However, none of these descriptions states what was to be done with correspondence to be send from one of the towns served by the “Ponce municipal postman”. It is possible that the mayor planned for the “Ponce municipal postman” to carry a rubber stamp to cancel the correspondence that was to be sent to Ponce and for which the 5 cents had been paid for the service. In the letter that Colóm sent to Wilson it states that the Mayor of Ponce would make necessary adjustments or agreements with the mayors and city halls of the surrounding towns that would use the postal service. It should be noted that Davila (1987) states that the Ponce stamp was impressed on covers, which he interprets as the prepayment for the service. But during that period there was a general scarcity of paper, envelopes and stamps and this was material much in demand among the American soldiers. Soldier Hertzog, in a letter dated July 31, 1898, asks his family for stamps, since he had used his last one on that letter (Gonzalez Perez, 2007). Soldier Tetlow, in a letter he sent to his family from Guayama on August 16, 1898 tells them to send him paper, envelopes and stamps, since the military had not provided them and he was not able to buy them in the town of Guayama (Perez-Rivera, 2007). In that letter Tetlow says that he still had $17.00, which I interpret as meaning that it was not lack of money that prevented his purchase of paper and envelopes. Likewise, soldier Lloyd Bower, in a letter sent at the beginning of September from Ponce makes a similar request of his family (Perez-Rivera 2007).
The next question to be resolved is the reason for the use of different rubber stamps, one for covers and the other to produce the adhesive stamps. This is a question, which at the moment has no logical answer. It must be kept in mind that. In the large Sr.Julio Mirailh was commissioned to attend to this service and it seems improbable that a single person would be using different rubber stamps (in this case three) simultaneously.
As indicated previously, the Ponce stamp was developed with the objective of postmarking those envelopes for which the 5 cent fee had been paid for the service of transporting them to other towns or to the Playa de Ponce post office. Scott assigns it number 200 among the Puerto Rico stamps and further, describes it as an adhesive stamp. However, until the present time, no adhesive stamps have appeared on cover and passed the rigors of expert scrutiny. The question one should ask is “What was the objective of producing Ponces on adhesive paper and apparently not using them afterwards?” Alvarado (1972) states that the petition made to General Wilson indicated that the stamp would be produced on common paper and would carry a control mark (the mayor’s personal seal) which had as its design the Spanish coat-of-arms. Alvarado interprets this (and I agree with him) as meaning that the petition indicated an adhesive stamp would be produced, as it is described by Scott. He adds that he believes that later it was decided that it was more practical to make the impression directly on the envelope without the adhesive stamp, and that as a consequence more rubber stamps with the Ponce were ordered. He concludes that the original stamp was never circulated and possibly served as a proof. Another hypothesis argues that all the Ponces on paper are proofs.
Assuming that the mayor of Ponce was preparing to offer a postal service for Ponce and the surrounding towns, one would expect that there would have been several hundreds of adhesive stamps produced before these could be offered to the public. It is not illogical to suppose that several sheets of blank paper would be stamped and later the stamps would be cut apart with scissors. This is practical, as well as economical. An adhesive stamp with a counterstamp is difficult to falsify and provides a flexibility that cannot be provided by a rubber stamp that must be applied at a particular office. This, as Davila (1987) indicates, would allow prepayment for the service. So for those businesses that produced a large volume of correspondence (eg, Lundt, Armstrong, Valdivieso, etc.) it would have been more practical to buy the adhesive stamps than to daily send a messenger with money to the office in the City Hall to buy those services. On the other hand it does not make much sense that once those stamps were produced, they would not be used. I think that the adhesive stamp was devised to comply with what was proposed to the American military government and that it was used for a very short time or in minimum quantities and because of that, so far none have been found on cover. It must be pointed out that correspondence from the part of the Island controlled by the United States Army (Figure 4) during the war is very rare. In the extensive collections of Gallagher and Rudman that were auctioned on 1999, there was only one of these covers. It is on this type of correspondence where the adhesive Ponces should appear. I predict that if one of these should appear, it will be a Type II. The hypothesis of little use and that said covers have yet to be discovered, is supported indirectly by recent discoveries of the Spanish era as well as the period of the Spanish-American War. From the Spanish era there has been discovered a new canceller for Playa de Naguabo and the new registry stamp for Yauco (Vega 2005). Recently an Aldea Saenz cancellation was found. From the period of the war, skeleton or ring type circular date stamps for Arecibo and a manuscript cancellation from the postal station of Mameyes have been found (Perez-Rivera and Vega, 2007). The hypothesis that the Ponces on adhesive paper were proofs also has its weaknesses. The majority of these have counterstamps and if their purpose was as proofs, there would be no reason to include the counterstamp. On the other hand, if they were proofs, all of the rubber stamps would have appeared on adhesive paper and not just the Type I stamp. Finally, if they were proofs, there would have been no reason to produce such a large number of them (37 expertized specimens, not including those which have not been expertized).
Another legitimate yet unanswered question is whether there was a necessity of use of the Type I rubber stamp (a second rubber stamp) if there was little demand for the service and it was offered for a very limited time.
The Ponce Provisional was produced in August 1898, but was “discovered” and described to the philatelic world sometime between 1902 (Alvarado, 1972) and 1904 (Davila, 1987). Why was this stamp discovered so late? This is a very difficult question to answer, and one of great importance from the philatelic point of view. If the approval of the provisional stamp was published in a local newspaper, the news must have been spread, at least among the commercial enterprises (those who generated the greatest amount of correspondence and had the greatest need for such a service). Also, one must consider that the custom of the period was to read the daily newspaper aloud in public in places such as drug stores, barber shops, and even on the corners of the city plaza. One would imagine that people would have been very attentive to any news having to do with the war with the United States. It is not unreasonable to expect that commercial businesses, who still had to send their invoices and purchase orders by mail, would have known about the service. Likewise anyone who visited the provisional post office that had been established in the public library would also have known. The most plausible explanation is that the service was not very popular (because of its high price) or that it was offered for a very limited time. The date of the earliest known use of the service is August 8, 1898 (Gonzalez, 2007). By September 4, the service was virtually unnecessary, since that is the date of the order that all correspondence must use American stamps and by then American postal system in the south was sufficiently well established. By that date the Military Post Office was rendering service to the civilian population and at a price that was 3 cents less than that charged by the City of Ponce. Using the Mayor’s service meant paying a total fee of 7 cents for each 15 grams of correspondence. Davila (1987) mentions a cover on which there is a Ponce, Type II, canceling an American stamp and dated November 11, 1898; Gonzalez (2004) tells of another with a date of December 9, 1898. By September 4, 1898 there was no need to pay the 5 cents to send correspondence to or from any points on the Island, since the United States Post Office was offering its services throughout the Island. It is probable that in both instances the Ponce was being used simply as a canceller, rather than as proof of payment for delivery services. Correspondence with American stamps has shown up cancelled with Spanish postmarks as late as August 1899 (ex., Toa Baja, Hamill, 2004). Likewise, there are also Spanish “parrillas” and cut cork stamps used as cancellers. In other words, whatever was available was used. It must also be pointed out that the Military Post Office offered services to the civilian population, at least extra-officially, virtually from its inception. There are three covers cancelled by a linear R.P.O. canceller, apparently sent from Yauco to Playa de Ponce (Perez-Rivera, 2006). The earliest known date for use of this canceller on civilian correspondence is August 3, 1898 on a cover currently in the collection of Al Kugel. The civilian correspondence mentioned was delivered through the Military Post Office and sent to the receivers outside of Puerto Rico. If the municipal delivery service of Ponce had been widespread and successful, there is no reason that the philatelic collectors of Ponce, including Americans like Motz and Tittman (who was very much in tune with these events) would not have been informed of it. Another hypothesis advanced in the 1930’s is that someone had access to one of the original rubber stamps (and the control stamp?) and produced, a posteriori, the adhesive Ponce Provisional that we know today. (See Preston, 1936, 1937). This may be a case similar to the “Habilitado” stamps of 1898. It is said that there are so many unused “Habilitado” stamps on the market because someone obtained a piece of the original rubber stamp and much later overprinted stamp varieties that were never used or at least have never appeared on cover. The rubber stamp found on these stamps is identical to the ones found on the stamps used in 1898. Returning to the Ponce, whoever missed the opportunity to learn of the production of the stamp in 1898, had it again in 1902. The newspaper “El 25 de Julio”, in celebration of the fourth anniversary of the arrival of “The American Army Liberators” published a program of festivals and of the important news events of 1898, including an article titled “The First American Mail in Puerto Rico” in which they printed the letter from the Mayor to General Wilson along with a detailed description of the Ponce Provisional. It is probable that with this news the stamp collectors of Ponce would learn of the existence of the Ponce Provisional. A relative or good friend of the Mayor or the City Hall Administrator very well could have had access to both rubber stamps and “innocently” arranged to get them to some collector who had asked for them. A few months after the publication of the special edition of “El 25 de Julio” (in 1902) is when the Ponce is first described to the philatelic world. It should be noted that in this first description of the Ponce Provisional, there are no details offered as to their origin (see Davila, 1987). If this hypothesis is what really happened, then the adhesive Ponce Provisional, even though genuine, were not used postally, and were made afterwards for purely philatelic purposes.
I have left for this part my opinion that the municipal postal delivery service of the city of Ponce was not successful, which is the reason that there is so little evidence of its use. Even though the City of Ponce did not resist the advance of the American forces, and General Miles issued a proclamation on July 28, 1898, assuring civilian the population of Ponce that what the Americans offered was protection and liberties, there was a great deal of uncertainty among the residents. This was the normal uncertainty that accompanies any war or incursion into another country. Therefore, I do not believe that spending money to deliver the mail would have been a priority, particularly in a system that cost two cents more than the cost imposed by the Spanish government. On the other hand, in the opinion of my friend Ed Gonzalez, sending a private messenger with several day’s correspondence directly to the Playa de Ponce station, (only three miles from the center of town) would have been less costly to the commercial establishments than to pay the fee for the municipal service. Apparently the Armstrongs were among the ones who did not use the service. I have at least three covers dated between August 9 and September 4 sent by Armstrong with Military Station #1 cancellation which do not show evidence of having passed through the Mayor’s service.
On the other hand, in every large city there were forwarding agents who sent correspondence through various means. It is possible that one of these forwarding agents competed against the Mayor offering better service at a lower cost. It is also worth mentioning that the Mayor of Ponce was a Spanish official and the Americans allowed him to retain his post. If, as has been said, the Ponceños received the Americans with open arms and viewed the Mayor as the last remnant of Spanish rule, it is also possible that a significant portion of the population did not want to patronize his service. Finally, if this service was not widely promoted and did not reach the majority of the population it may have prevented greater use of the “municipal” postal system and the use Ponce Provisional.
Is the price of the Ponce Provisional Stamps in the philatelic market the correct value? If the Ponce were a stamp produced in a city in the United States, it could have a value over $25,000. Baadke (2008) relates that in 1908 $250 was paid for a Ponce Provisional, a very high price for that period. He adds that in October 2006 Cherrystone Auctions sold a specimen for $8,500, about $1,000 higher than the Scott catalog value. However, I recently purchased a certified Ponce with a perfect impression on an American stamp for $1,200 including the buyer’s fee. It is curious that the price of the Ponce adhesive paper stamps, whose origin is not at all clear, is so much higher than the impressions on stamps, which in all aspects appear to be the proper and correct usage of the provisional.
It does not matter what we may hypothesize or speculate about the Ponce Provisional; it continues to be one of the rarest Puerto Rico stamps and a philatelic jewel which all good collectors may aspire to have in their collection.Acknowledgements:
I would like to express my thanks to my colleague Cedar García who made many pertinent corrections to this work, to Ed Gonzalez with whom I exchanged many ideas, which gave rise to the birth of this work, to Dr. Hermán Cestero, who provided me with historic information of great importance to the final article. My special thanks to Victor M. Rivera, who made excellent suggestions, very specific corrections and who translated this work into English.References
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