BROWN, WILLIAM PENN
Copyright 2011-2022 John N. Lupia, III
Fig. 1. Photograph of William Penn Brown circa 1880, detail of larger composite published in MeKeel's The Philatelic Journal of America, 1905
William Penn Brown (1841-1929), was born on December 12, 1841, in Assam, India, son of Rev. Nathan Brown, Jr., (1807-1886), a missionary native of Vermont and Eliza Whitney Ballard (1807-1871), a native of Massachusetts. His early years were lived with his missionary parents in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
Fig. 2. Orrin W. Simons writes about William P. Brown and the origins of stamp collecting and dealing in America published in his monthly column in Boys Life, November (1924) : 58. Later Alvin Fay Harlow (1875-1963), Paper Chase : The Amenities of Stamp Collecting (Henry Holt and Company, 1940), recounts the origins of stamp collecting and dealing as well.
He is considered the first American stamp dealer who began in 1859, though he considered himself second to James Brennan. He was a dear friend of John Walter Scott and introduced him to philately and in 1860 helped him with finances sufficient enough to open a stamp business.
In 1859, at City Hall Park, New York City, William P. Brown began to sell postage stamps at a stand. He was inspired by previously selling the foreign stamps mailed to him on envelopes from foreign correspondents to the postal clerks who wanted to collect them. They were not alone. There was an interest in the general population. Crowds used to gather in the corridors of the old Post Office, Nassau and Liberty Streets, to buy and exchange stamps. It is possible that to avoid congestion in a public building the crowds were asked to move outside and conduct their affairs off the premises. Some have recently speculated that George Hussey, owner of the Special Message Post, and one of his letter carriers James Brennan were the first two stamp dealers in America. It may be. It seems virtually impossible to ascertain as to the day and hour who was the very first stamp dealer in America. In a more sober approach, without splitting hairs, it is safe to say that George Hussey, James Brennan, and William P. Brown began dealing about the same time. William P. Brown erected a small stand at the Park and sold postage stamps discovering the market and demand was bigger than one could have guessed. The rest is history.
In 1860, Brown expanded his business of stamp dealing to include a full array of U. S. and foreign coins, medals and tokens.
Fig. 3. A genuine Essex Letter Express local carrier stamp. Note the capital letters SX on the mast flag.
Fig. 4. A Fake Essex Letter Express local carrier stamp. Note the capital letters SX are not on the mast flag, but rather, below the ship in the sea.
Brown was a very clever man with a sense of humor. In 1862, Brown came into possession of a few Essex Letter Express local carrier stamps. In 1856, four letter carriers working for various local letter express companies decided to form their own company. They printed their private stamps but after selling all that had been printed they took the money and dissolved the company. However, there is a report that one or two of these local carrier stamps were found on covers that were delivered. So it seems the company dissolved the first week or so after making some deliveries. Brown came upon some of these unused local carrier stamps considered quite rare in 1862. A local stamp dealer who also ran his own postal letter delivery service "Special Message Post" named George Hussey asked Brown for one. Brown knew Hussey was a cheat and would give the stamp to his printer Thomas Wood to replicate for sales of forgeries of them. So Brown erased some of the waves of the sea below the ship. He also erased the letters SX off the mast flag. He then inscribed SX in the blank area of the sea. (See Fig. 4) With these alterations one can easily detect the Hussey forgeries (compare Figures 3 & 4).
In 1864, Brown was the American editor and John George Boal the U.K. editor of the London and New York Stamp Collectors Review, the first American philatelic journal. It only ran for two issues and some believe it never circulated due to problems with Boal.
Fig. 5. Once A Month, or, The Stamp Collectors Advertiser, November 1 (1864) : 126
He and his father Rev. Dr. Nathan Brown were members of the American Philological Society, New York.
In 1870 he lived with his parents and sister Elizabeth in Jersey City, New Jersey. Brown was an innovative pioneering curiosities, coin, and postage stamp dealer, and publisher of De Kuriositi Kabinet (Sept 1870 – Aug 1871), with orthography based on The American Philological Society changed title to Curiosity Cabinet which ran until October 1884; Tiffany No. 20. Kuriositi Kabinet was printed in some text that Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., identifies as Old Saxon revived by the American Philological Society in the 1860’s, a pseudo-precursor to Esperanto (1887).
In May 1871, he published the first report of a discovery of the New Haven, Connecticut postmaster's local stamp.
Fig. 6. E. A. Mitchell, was postmaster, New Haven, Connecticut from 1844-1852, and had a brass stamp made to impress envelopes with carmine ink, later blue. "The New Haven Envelope," The American Philatelist, VI, No. 7, July 10 (1887) : 114l later on in Mekeels Stamp Collector, Vol. 15, No. 44, November 3 (1902) : 534. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library
He exhibited the Charles Coster locals collection in August 1871.
Brown purchased 16,000 foreign coins from Mr. King of London cited in Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, Vol. V, August (1871) : 127,
Descriptive Price Catalogue of Government Postage Stamps for Sale by WPB, New York. 1st edit., March 1868, 2nd edit., Sept 1871, 3rd edit., 1872, 4th edit., 1873.
In 1876 he was located near City Hall Park and Park Row, in the Potter’s World Building belonging to the former Massachusetts attorney, Orlando Bronson Potter (1823-1894), at Beekman and 145 Nassau Streets, New York.
In 1876 he lived at 145 Nassau Street, New York, New York and his shop was located 37 Park Row.
Brown was a donor in 1878 to the ANS library.
Fig. 7. Brown's correspondence with William M. Weston, Sr., a watchmaker at Boston, Massachusetts, postmarked April 30, 1879, New York. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library.
Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., mentions visiting Brown's stamp & coin shop in the beginning of May, 1879 after stopping in at Bangs & Co., attending the Michael Moore coin auction sale catalogued by Ed Cogan. Apparently, during that visit he was given an advertisement from Brown to have Mason publish it in his next issue of Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald.
Fig. 8. Brown's advertisement selling Confederate paper money published in Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 1, June (1879) : 8b. This advertisement ran for several months. Brown offered a complete list of the different Confederate notes in one issue of his own publication, The Curiosity Cabinet. Notice of this was also made by Ed Frossard in Numisma, Vol. 3, No. 4, July, 1879. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library.
Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., visited Brown in May 1880 climbing the steep and lengthy stairwell implying his office was on a high floor. Miss Ida Small was his clerk who ran the office when he was away.
E. F. Gambs, a coin and stamp dealer at St. Louis, Missouri, [later at San Francisco, California] wrote a letter to Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., which he published in his magazine and titled the letter : "The 1802 Half Dime," Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 3, December (1879) : 26a-c. Gambs says he discovered the finest 1802 Half Dime in the country about October 1877. He wrote to both John W. Haseltine and William P. Brown sending them rubbings. Each replied informing him the same thing that the best price had was at the Ed Cogan auction of the E. Harrison Sanford sale on November 27, 1874 held at Bangs & Co., New York, realizing $47.50. Since Gambs was already a frequent customer of Brown he sent the coin to him on approval by registered mail specifying his lowest acceptable price. Brown promptly paid him the asking price of $25.00. Gambs said he was very pleased until he learned that Brown sold it at auction and realized $147.50. However, Brown graciously wrote to Gambs immediately after the sale and generously gave him an additional $25.00 in credit.
Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., mentions seeing Brown as a bidder at the Smith coin auction sale held at Bangs & Co., New York on Tuesday, October 5, 1880.
Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., mentions visiting Brown's stamp & coin shop in late April, 1881.
Fig. 9. In 1881 he was fined $25 and imprisoned for 5 days in the Ludlow Street Jail for refusing to take an oath in court. Philatelic World, Vol. 1, No. 12, May (1881) : 95. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library.
Brown became the secretary of the American Philological Society, New York.
Fig. 10. William P. Brown wrote De Kuriositi Kabinet on a principle of The American Philological Society purging language and culture of pagan notions. New York Tribune, Friday, January 2, 1882, page 2
His 4th floor office, Room 37, on Nassau Street, which he shared with a Mr. D. P. Lindsley, was destroyed by a fire that broke out at 10:12 pm on January 31, 1882 putting him out of business for a while.
On March 20, 1882, John Walter Scott, sold the 600 lots of coins remaining of the stock of William P. Brown from the fire. Scott wrote a "large and valuable assortment of American and foreign coins, the entire remainder of the stock saved from the great fire in the Porter building, the property of the well known dealer William P. Brown." "In many respects this is the most peculiar lot of coins ever offered at public auction."
In 1884 he relocated to 13 Ann Street, New York cited in J. M. Hubbard’s Stamp Dealers of the World (1885). His first stamp auction catalog Catalogue of a Fine and Rare Collection of United States Stamps: Sale No. 1. (New York: C. C. Shelley, 1878) waived mail bid fees by introducing a novel way of bidding that allowed absentee bidders to place their bids through Bangs & Co., or William Erving without paying the 10 percent commission.
In 1885, Brown published Price Catalogue of US and Foreign Postage Stamps.
Fig. 11. Brown writing to the Chapman Brothers postmarked April 16, 1887, New York. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library, Special Collection, The Chapman Family Correspondence Archive.
In 1889 he ran a small display ad in McLean’s Stamp Collectors’ Guide (1889) : 56
In 1892 he wrote : “Philatelic Reminiscences” imitative of Mason’s column on “Reminiscences of a Coin Collector”.
His ‘Philatelic Reminiscences’ of 1892 were reprinted in the September 1987 Collectors Club Philatelist.
In the January 1895 issue of The Numismatist, we read from the classic essay of Augustus Goodyear Heaton, "The Tour Among the Coin Dealers," a succinct note about Brown :
"Going down Broadway, one finds in a third floor front room the latest location of Mr. W. P. Brown, a rather taciturn and bearded philosopher who is most actively occupied in stamps and publications, but has a coin stock which has for years proved worth occasional visits from alert collectors.
Brown's Sale No. 2 was published in 1897 and was a Vickery auction.
Fig. 12. Brown purchased an 1830 Georgia $5 gold piece thought to have been that sent by Baldwin of London to Lyman H. Low of New York, and stolen at Customs. The Numismatist, December (1904) : 373, reprint from The New York Times, December 3, 1904. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library.
Brown also wrote, "The Reminiscences of a Philatelic Veteran", The Stamp-Lovers Weekly, Vol. 1, No. 17, January 7 (1905) : 4-5.
Fig. 13. William P. Brown is No. 14, lower left corner, in the above photo gallery published in MeKeel's The Philatelic Journal of America, 1905. Note the photograph of John W. Kline is the exact same one found in Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, based on the same principle of a Photographic Gallery of 1869.
He died December 30, 1929. He was 88 years old.
In 2008 inducted into APS Hall of Fame.
Once A Month, or, The Stamp Collectors Advertiser, November 1 (1864) : 126
Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 9, September (1870) : 143, notice on De Kuriositi Kabinet
Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 11, November (1870) : 173 notice on 2d issue of The Curiosity Cabinet
Mason’s Coin & Stamp Collectors’ Magazine, Vol. V, No. 2, February (1871) : 32-33, comment on January 1871 issue of The Curiosity Cabinet
Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, Vol. V, August (1871) : 127, purchase of 16,000 foreign coins from Mr. King of London
"Faded Out," Mason's Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, Vol. V, No. 10, October (1871) : 159, comment on the absence of a new issue of The Curiosity Cabinet
Scott’s Monthly Stamp Journal, Vol. 58, Issue 5, May (1877) : 4-8;
Proceedings of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, of New York At the Annual Meeting, March 18, 1879: page 13
Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 1, June (1879) : 3a
Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 1, June (1879) : 8b, advertisement
Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 2, September (1879) : 19a-b, advertisement
"The 1802 Half Dime," Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. I, No. 3, December (1879) : 26a-c
"Editorial Excursions, No. VI," Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. II, No. 2, September (1880) :12a
" Sale of the Smith Cabinet,” Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. II, No. 3, December (1880) : 18c-19a
Truth, Saturday, February 11, 1881, page 2, cites Ida Small
Philatelic World, Vol. 1, No. 12, May (1881) : 95
"Numismatic Excursions, New Series, No. I," Mason's Coin Collectors' Herald, Vol. III, No. 1, June (1881) : 39a;
The New York Times, Wednesday, February 1, 1882, page 1 story about the fire.
"Exit Brown," Mason’s Coin Collectors’ Herald, Vol. III, No. 4, March (1882) : 60d
"Fire!," Mason's Coin Collectors' Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 2, September (1882) : 37
Agassiz Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, June (1885) : 11
"The New Haven Envelope," The American Philatelist, VI, No. 7, July 10 (1887) : 114
Western Philatelist, December (1889) : inside back cover ad.
The Numismatist, January (1895) :
Mekeels Stamp Collector, Vol. 15, No. 44, November 3 (1902) : 534
Gnecchi, Ercole and Francesco, eds., Guida Numismatica 4th edition. (Milano : U. Hoepli, 1903. Edition) : 554, No. 5729
The Numismatist, Vol. XVII, No. 12, December (1904) : 373
The Numismatist, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, February (1905) : 61; No. 3 March (1905) : 92
MeKeel's The Philatelic Journal of America, 1905
"Some American Express Stamps," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday, September 28, 1913, page 70
"Philatelists Hold Election; Rotnem Again President : Can't Lose if You Are a Stamp Collector, Asserts Veterans of Pastime," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Thursday, August 7, 1924, page 4
Jean Piper, "William P. Brown 82 Years Old, First Stamp Collector in this Country," Sunday Eagle Magazine, September 28, 1924
Boys Life, November (1924) : 58
Later Alvin Fay Harlow (1875-1963), Paper Chase : The Amenities of Stamp Collecting (Henry Holt and Company, 1940)
Collectors Club Philatelist, Vol. 27 (1948) : 11
Herman Herst Jr.,"Philately’s Early Days", Scott’s Monthly Journal, Vol. 58, No. 5, May (1977) : 4-8.
Adams, John Weston, United States Numismatic Literature (1982) Vol. 1, 61;
Remy Bourne, American Numismatic Periodicals 1860 -1960 (Minneapolis, Minnesota : Ramm Communications, 1990) : 1870-1-2
Collectors Club Philatelist, Vol. 80, Issue 3, May/June (2001) : 141-142
De Kuriositi Kabinet : The Asylum, Winter (2004) : 10
Brian Birch, "America’s first stamp dealer?", The American Stamp Dealer & Collector, Whole number 38, October (2009) : 10.