Collecting Civil War
Letter Sheets

by Bill Weiss

The Charles Magnus firm was the most prolific publisher of illustrated stationery during the Civil War, making envelopes, letterpaper, songsheets, maps, prints, games, playing cards and other items. The definitive study of Magnus was published in 1949 in THE AMERICAN PHILATELIST and a good overview appeared in the 1977 HANDBOOK OF CIVIL WAR PATRIOTIC ENVELOPES AND POSTAL HISTORY, by Robert Grant. Additional information is found in UNION CIVIL WAR PATRIOTIC COVERS, published in 1995 by William R. Weiss, Jr.

Collectors of Civil War Patriotics and related items consider those produced by Magnus to be among the most desirable. The extensive use of hand coloring of his envelopes and lettersheets only adds to their appeal and beauty. Pre-cut stencil patterns were laid over the black and white designs and women and children, paid at the rate of 8 cents per day, painted the cutouts. These workers seemed to use colors at their own personal whim, so each hand color design may be unique.

Several competing firms during this period, mainly G.P. Hardwick of Washington, DC, W.A. Stephens of Philadelphia, J. Gay and J. Magee of Philadelphia and, of course, Magnus - decided to combine songsheets, also popular at the time, with letter paper. These illustrated songsheets typically were 8.5 x 11 inches, folded once horizontally, with the illustration on the front page, with the other 3 pages available to write on. Most of the surviving sheets are found with only the illustrated cover intact. Magnus also produced accordion-style booklets of songs on heavier card stock.

In 1951 George Malpass, a well-known collector of Civil War patriotics, produced a cross-referenced checklist of Magnus song letter sheets which included 211 different designs and 250 different song titles. Combining these, Malpass had a total of 400 known possible permutations, but Magnus advertised 1,000 kinds, a figure now considered to be an exaggeration. Magnus also advertised 100 different illustrations for a single song WHEN THIS CRUEL WAR IS OVER but, in fact, no songsheets have been recorded with more than 15 different designs. Where are the others? In 1963, the outstanding collection of songsheets owned by the Library Company of Philadelphia formed the basis of the book AMERICAN SONG SHEETS, SLIP BALLADS AND POETICAL BROADSIDES, 1850-1870, by Edwin Wolf, which alphabetically catalogues more than 2,700 different song titles of the period. One needs to ferret through these listings to isolate titles that appeared on letter paper, but this work is the best reference to date.

As of 1997, we have compiled a listing of song titles and combinations which raise the known total of Magnus song letter sheet titles to over 300 and the possible combinations to over 700 different. Collecting these songsheets, since many of them share similar designs to patriotic covers, is a logical extension to a Civil War patriotic cover collection. Unused song lettersheets typically cost $10.00 for the least expensive up to $200. or so for the most expensive. Those with designs showing Battlescenes or famous Generals are among the most prized, as well as a few depicting Lincoln or having a slavery connection. Based on this modest price range, forming a respectable collection would not be financially hazardous.