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Collection Overview

Princeton University. Library. Special Collections and Tower, William H.
William H. Tower Philatelic Collection
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1380-1950 (mostly 1700-1949)
20 boxes and 15.4 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-20
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Consists of envelopes both used and unused (also known as covers), letters, postcards, documents, postage stamps, and a variety of other philatelic material from around the world as collected and annotated by the Reverend William Hogarth Tower (1871-1950). The collection spans the topics of English Postal History, United States Postal History, War Covers, Philatelic Miscellany, and Franking.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of envelopes both used and unused (also known as covers), letters, postcards, documents, postage stamps, and a variety of other philatelic material from around the world as collected and annotated by William Hogarth Tower (Princeton Class of 1894). Rev. Tower's collection spans the topics of English Postal History, United States Postal History, War Covers, Philatelic Miscellany, and Franking. A baked clay tablet letter enclosed in a partially broken case (circa 2200 B.C.), from Drehem, Mesopotamia, is the earliest item in the collection.

The next earliest letters in the collection date from the late fourteenth through the fifteenth centuries in Europe. There are signed letters or documents by royals such as King Charles II, King George II, Queen Caroline, and King William IV, as well as a small pencil sketch of his own royal frank by King Edward VIII. English postal history is well illustrated by letters from or to nobleman such as Edward Harley, Hugh Percy, Thomas Fairfax and his son, Ferdinando Fairfax. Letters from notable persons during the Colonial American period include: Joseph Dudley, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and a love letter from William Bradford to his future wife, Susan Boudinot.

Two volumes in the collection are devoted to the topic of Abraham Lincoln in philately. Another volume focuses on Arctic philately and contains single letters from John Franklin, C. F. Hall, Princeton University's Edward Libbey, Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, and Richard Evelyn Byrd. The majority of this volume contains material from A W. Greely's 1881 Arctic Expedition that was later recovered in 1899 from Fort Conger during Robert Peary's expedition.

Tower's War Cover volumes contain examples from the U.S. Civil War, World War I, and World War II, as well as many other conflicts around the globe throughout the centuries. Single letters of interest include a military dispatch to Emperor Napoleon from one of his generals and a letter by the Duchess of Richmond about her husband and sons at the Battle of Waterloo.

It should be noted, however, that most of the covers and letters collected by Tower are from 'ordinary' people and were considered significant, not for the contents inside, but for the postal marks on the outside of the envelope or the locations from which they were mailed.


Tower's original volume numbers start at 15 and go up to 72, with 3 miscellaneous volumes at the end. Items were removed from the volume if they constituted correspondence (letters, documents, postcards, etc.) or displayed significant postal marks or seals illustrative of postal history or the franking signatures of notable persons. Removed items are housed in folders, which are arranged in each box chronologically by date and by ascending volume number in 8 archival boxes (boxes numbered 1-8). Tower's original volumes containing his typed, annotated pages and the remaining (unremoved) items are in 10 record center carton boxes numbered 9-18.

Collection Creator Biography:

Tower, William H.

William Hogarth Tower (1871-1950), Princeton University Class of 1894, served as secretary of his class and was a resident of Montclair, New Jersey. It was Professor Lawrance Thompson of the Princeton University Library who encouraged Tower "to begin a Princeton stamp collection" and who later suggested that Tower bequeath it to the University (From "William Hogarth Tower," an obituary published in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume XII, Number 4, Summer 1951, p. 225.). Tower described his own collection in an article entitled "A Philatelic Medley," published in The Princeton University Library Chronicle (Volume V, Number 1, November 1943, pp. 14-15), as follows:

When I made a fresh start in collecting, about six years ago, I hoped to form a collection that would interest anyone, collector or not. That meant keeping away from the lesser details and minor types, and permitted the broadest latitude in acquiring philatelic material... my collection is predominately made up of postally-used envelopes, or covers, and completeness of any given period or country is not sought after so long as I can show illustrations of varieties and types along certain lines. Even that is a consideration secondary to miscellaneous items of peculiar interest. With this as a working principle, my collection has gradually fallen into four or five distinct sections, each of them an essential part of the whole: (1) Philatelic Miscellany; (2) English Postal History; (3) United States Postal History; (4) War Covers; and (5) Franking.

Tower assembled and annotated hundreds of pages of philatelic material and bound them into over fifty volumes (see photos of him at work). He won prizes at many exhibitions, and was especially renowned for his early English postal history and American Colonial covers, Abraham Lincoln collection, and Arctic philately collection. Tower was instrumental in establishing a Stamp Room in the Princeton University Library in 1946 for the study of philately and postal history, and became the curator of many well-received exhibits there. Tower died on December 14, 1950, and was elected posthumously to the American Philatelic Society"s Hall of Fame in 1951.

1100 Henry I employed messengers, or Nuncii, to carry Royal Despatches. 1484 Under Edward IV, Posts were set up where horses could be hired, and Messengers seldom furnished their own horses. 1512 The reign of Henry VIII. Sir Brian Tuke appointed first Master of the Posts. Regular service for Royal and State messages begun. 1635 Charles I appointed Thomas Withering to establish Posts between towns, and private letters were included in the Service. 1656 Charles II. First Act establishing Rates and confirming State Monopoly. 1661 Henry Bishop, Postmaster general, advertised "A Stamp has been invented,"-the first Postal mark, in use 126 years. 1680 William Dockwra established his Penny post with house to house delivery. 1682 Dockwra deprived of his Post and the use of his Stamp or mark. His Penny post continued as a branch of the State Monopoly. 1801 Penny Post changed to Twopenny Post to help meet the expenses of the French War. 1839 Fourpenny Post, leading to Uniform Penny Postage. 1840 The first Adhesive Labels or Stamps-the famous Penny Black-with compulsory pre-payment. 1853 Use of the adhesive stamps made mandatory. 1639 First post office in America established in the private residence of Richard Fairbanks in Boston, Massachusetts 1672 New York City-Boston service established 1711 First organized of system of post offices in America created by the British Parliament 1847 First US official issue of postage stamp 1862 Mail service by railroad instituted 1918 Airmail service begun

Collection History


William H. Tower bequeathed his collection to the Princeton University Library prior to, and upon, his death in 1950 . Additional materials in the Library's accessions conerning Tower have been added to the collection.


The decision was made to remove the letters and documents, the majority of which were folded up on the pages of the volumes, in order to preserve them for the long term. In general, items were not removed from the volume if they were unused envelopes, addressed covers without associated correspondence, postage or commemorative stamps, or other philatelic memorabilia. Tower's captions, which he researched and typed onto the pages of the volumes, were often lifted, in whole or in part, and incorporated into the box and folder list descriptions of this finding aid.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Sylvia Yu in 2003. Finding aid written by Sylvia Yu in 2003.

Collection title updated by Faith Charlton in 2022 to provide more specificity.

In 2022, restrictions on original material where researchers were required to use a surrogate were lifted as part of a restrictions review project.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

William H. Tower Philatelic Collection; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-20

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Related Materials

Tower, William H., "A Philatelic Medley," in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume V, Number 1 (November 1943), pp. 14-26.

Separated Materials

A Babylonian baked clay tablet letter enclosed in a partially broken envelope case (circa 2200 B.C.), from Drehem, Mesopotamia, is stored separately from the rest of the collection, and therefore its date is not included in this range of collection dates. The letter, in cuneiform characters, is the larger of the two pieces, and has to do with grain which was given out for seed by the priests of the temple.

Subject Terms:
Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration -- 19th century.
Covers (Philately)
Franking privilege.
Nobility -- Great Britain -- Correspondence.
Postal service - History -- Sources.
Stamp collecting.
Stamp collections -- United States.
Genre Terms:
Greely, A.W. (Adolphus Washington), 1844-1935
France -- History -- Directory, 1795-1799 - Postal service.
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 - Postal service.
United States -- History -- War of 1812 - Postal service.
World War, 1914-1918 -- Postal service.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Postal service.