A Mysterious Envelope Was Returned to the English Department – 61 Years Later

A Mysterious Envelope Was Returned to the English Department – 61 Years Later

A small envelope arrived in the English Department a couple of weeks ago, returned for insufficient address and postage. In fact, it wasn’t addressed to anyone at all and the envelope was empty. It had the University of Virginia’s Department of English as the return address with its mid-20th century location in Cabell Hall.

Then office administrator Colette Dabney noticed the circular postmark – from 1958!

She was stunned when she realized, “I was holding a bit of department history that took 61 years to be returned to sender,” she said recently. Besides the Charlottesville and University Station postmark with the date July 31, 1958, 11 a.m., the envelope also has a modern cancellation date of June 12, 2019 from the “Capital District.”

Dabney alerted English professor and bibliographer David Vander Meulen, who put on his sleuthing hat and offered his best explanation.

“It seems to me that it was prepared by someone with philatelic interests or understanding, and I think Fredson Bowers would be a prime suspect,” Vander Meulen said from the department’s current home in Bryan Hall. “But that doesn’t explain where the envelope has been the past six decades.” 

Bowers, an English professor on Grounds from 1938 to 1975 who chaired the department for seven years, is credited with building the faculty and the department’s reputation, partly through his and others’ bibliographical scholarship. The English department’s small library is named for Bowers, who died in 1991.

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He was also a diligent stamp collector, said Vander Meulen, who knew and worked with Bowers in the late 1980s for the Bibliographical Society of UVA. When stamp collectors acquired newly released stamps, they would often put them on an envelope, and then go to the post office to have it postmarked. This envelope shows six stamps, graced with Benjamin Franklin’s face and worth a half-cent each. Fractionally valued stamps were uncommon even then, Vander Meulen said.

In 1958, the first-class postage rate for a letter was three cents, so the stamps were worth enough at the time. The “postage due” label on the envelope could be for the current rate.

Bowers developed the scholarly discipline of bibliography, which analyzes books as physical objects. In 1947, he helped to found the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, and a year later, he established its journal, Studies in Bibliography, for which Vander Meulen is currently the editor.

In addition, Bowers became well-known for his other hobbies: writing classical music reviews and judging Irish wolfhounds at dog shows.

Vander Meulen said sometimes Bowers would ask contributors to the journal to return the original envelope he had sent so he could get the stamps back. But this empty, little envelope remains a mystery. Did it get sent by accident? Was it mixed in with other mail? Did Bowers go to the post office to get it postmarked, and drop it?

Where has it been over the past 61 years, and how did it see the light of day?

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications