From the earliest days of the war between the States, designs began to appear on envelopes sold to the public which expressed various kinds of sentiments of patriotism and/or negative caricature-like opinions of the enemy, or some other type of related subject. This type of postal expression had never been used to any extent prior to the Civil War. Earlier illustrated envelopes to promote various causes were usually of a propaganda nature, such as Intemperance, Cheaper Postage Rates, Anti-Slavery, etc. Patriotic themes on envelopes were used sparingly prior to 1861 in connection to a few political campaigns, but they were limited in scope and intent. Then, in 1861, all Hell literally broke loose!
The user of patriotic-theme envelopes could, depending on the design he chose to mail, express a wide variety of sentiments. This surely appealed to the average citizen during this turbulent period, and the practice spread widely and quickly, creating a great demand for the designs, in turn causing many publishers to enter into the growing field. The result is a facinating collecting field, wrought with colorful and often emotional designs, concentrated in a brief period in our history. No other field of U.S. cover collecting offers as many different design possibilities concentrated into such a short period.
Our records indicate that at least 200 different publishers and printers produced patriotic designs. Special albums could be bought during the war in which to mount the envelopes. Today these albums are $500/1,000. items. The collecting of Civil War Patriotics actually began during the war, and one design actually promotes the collecting of the covers! It is said that some publishers continued printing and selling covers after the war ended, but rumors of modern production of these designs are, in my opinion, mostly unfounded. I am of the opinion that 95% or more of the patriotic covers that exist today were printed between 1861-65. Indeed, some modern fakes exist, but not in any sufficient amount to yet create alarm in the collecting community. It is claimed that over 10,000 different designs exist, but I have concluded based on my studies that it is probably more like 7,500, as designs that I have not seen before, in 35 years of watching, rarely come into the marketplace. The collecting of CWPs is popular and the prices being currently paid on eBay, and elsewhere, are at record levels.
A wide variety of subjects were used on envelopes to inspire patriotic sentiment, etc. Included in these are; Famous People (military and non-Military), Scenes (Battles, Non-Battle, Specific locations), Army Corps and Regiments, State-related designs, Caricatures (a wide variety, probably 1,000 different), Eagles, Flags, Soldiers/Males, Liberty/Female, Miscellaneous subjects including Bells, Shields, Poems, Stars, etc. Designs were predominately printed in red and blue (also to inspire patriotism!) but exist in a wide range of colors, including highly prized handcolor designs produced mostly by Charles Magnus Co. and Kimmell Co. and on envelopes of many different colors (but white is most common). Some collectors limit their collections to one or two of the subjects of their liking, but most try to aquire as many different designs as possible. Those who collect postally used designs may do so by subject too or by the State they live in, or some other criteria of their choosing. Specialized collections have been formed, for example, of only those used to foreign countries, only those used from Kentucky, only Caricatures, etc. As with all areas of collecting, how to do so is a highly personal choice.
Twenty-five years ago, the lowest-priced unused CWPs could be bought for 10c-25c each! Today, the minimum price is roughly $5.00 and range upward to well over $250. for the most desirable subjects (Lincoln, Rose of Washington, etc.) . Postally used designs start at about $10.00 for those in very poor quality with very common designs, and range up to many thousands of dollars. As a young collector I can recall unused CWPs being common enough that we would sometimes use them to mail letters! I doubt many folks would do that today, although several businesses exist that sell envelopes bearing reproduced designs of CWPs for use.
Various books exist listing and illustrating Civil War Patriotic Covers including; 1. THE GEORGE WALCOTT COLLECTION OF USED CIVIL WAR PATRIOTIC COVERS; published in 1934. This was a public auction catalog produced by Robert Laurence. It listed 3,253 lots and came with a list of the prices realized for each lot. This book is sometimes available today from philatelic literature or Civil War book dealers in the $35/75. range. The numbering system is obsolete and the prices hopelessly low in relation to today's market, but it is useful as a comparative price guide if the user knows the rough relationship of the 1934 vs current values
2. THE HANDBOOK OF CIVIL WAR PATRIOTIC ENVELOPES AND POSTAL HISTORY; published and written by Robert Grant in 1974-75; this book was stated by the author to be a "part one" with his intent to produce future volumes, which never materialized. This book is difficult to aquire and generally sells in the $150. and up range. It is superior to the Walcott catalog but falls far short of a comprehensive coverage of the subject since it was limited to the first volume only
3. THE COLLECTION OF J. BISCHEL; sold in auction by Nutmeg Stamp Sales in 2000. Comes with prices realized except that the information (prices) only include those lots which actually sold, but since over 50% did not sell, it is of limited use as a price guide. The estimated prices were extremely misleading and inaccurate. The illustrations are in color, which is a big plus. The cost of the hardbound book is roughly $50. from dealers
4. THE CATALOG OF UNION CIVIL WAR PATRIOTIC COVERS; written and published by W.R. Weiss, Jr. in 1995. Hardbound, contains illustrations of over 5,500 designs, has a cross-section by verses of over 3,500, and comes with handy cross-reference guide to the Bischel catalog, comes with a price guide and contains cross-reference to Walcott numbers. This book is $110.00 retail.
We recommend that serious collectors try to aquire all four of these books, but the last two as a minimum. Between them all, they definitively cover the subject of Civil War Patriotics.