Brought to You by the House of Farnum
By Doug Clouse
A few minutes of digging at a stamp fair can uncover gems of design and the printing arts. Most appealing for the low-budget, adventurous ephemera collector are the bins and boxes of postcards, used stamps, first day covers, and even old personal mail. Letters from Nigeria and Honduras on delicate blue stationery edged in red and blue stripes are there for their stamps, but also offer voyeuristic glimpses into ancient business deals and the plans of long-deceased pen pals.
Recently I discovered a series of first day covers illustrated with engraved line drawings notable for their neat perfection. The first I found, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the consolidation of the five boroughs of New York in 1948, shows bright red skyscrapers, planes and ships festooned with a letter-filled banner. Other covers turned up that looked similar, all showing well-composed illustrations often shaded with lines cut from thick to thin, like shading in wood engravings. The 100th anniversary of the Boys’ Club of America design, from 1960, places a boy into a much larger circle that intersects a line of text, creating a geometric, modernist composition that suggests work by the young Jan Tschichold. The lettering throughout the group is not high modernist though, but similar to what was once common on engraved social stationery and commercial letterheads of the mid twentieth century.
Intriguingly, the illustrations all contain a small “HF,” as if signed. Research turns up not a person’s name but the improbable House of Farnum, a company that designed philatelic first day covers. Unfortunately I cannot find anything about the specific designers of these covers.