Mr. Derleth did it differently. This month he had 20,000 stamps, the same size as a postage stamp, printed each with his own picture on it. Above the picture it says: SAC PRAIRIE SAGA … and below it, it says, with simple eloquence: AUGUST DERLETH. These stamps Mr. Derleth is affixing to letters which he sends out and he has given sheets of them to Sauk City merchants with the request that they affix them to whatever mail they happen to be sending out during the holidays. Just like the Tuberculosis seals, you know. (Betty Case, Capital Times, November 28, 1939)
More than a decade ago, I wrote the short article “The Branding of Arkham House” to explain the reason behind the never-duplicated cachet surrounding Wisconsin author August Derleth’s publishing venture Arkham House: Publisher, which has lasted longer than three quarters of a century and is present yet today.
Primarily a marketing concept, branding is the continuous process of imbuing a specific company’s products or services with unique meaning in the minds of customers and reviewers. Derleth did exactly that remarkably well with Arkham House, as any aficionado of the imprint knows already, for which even the least among the company’s published ephemerae are sought and collected, commanding high prices.
Without this understanding about the dynamics of branding, Derleth’s unexplained subtleties—he was a personality known more for his lack of this quality, especially as a younger man—have come across as self-aggrandizing or self-promoting, rather than his sincere effort to make indelible and desirable the things he believed and was willing to stand up for.
In Derleth’s view, his entire world was connected—his writing (fictional, historical, political, pastiche, verse, nonfictional, reviews), his publishing (Arkham House, Mycroft & Moran, Stanton & Lee), his literary venues (Scribner’s, Prairie Press, Candlelight Press), even his milieu (Sauk City-Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin River, Place of Hawks)—which he represented and which represented him.
Perhaps instinctually, Derleth made even the most common elements in his life a part of this effort. I’ve already described, for example, the mystique of the Christmas cards he sent to neighbors and correspondents early in his career:
A Derleth Christmas card
Derleth conducted his business on papers featuring the imprints of his publishing ventures, but he adorned letters written to friends and other associates with carefully selected illustrations, usually made from woodcuts fashioned by J. J. Lankes, Frank Utpatel, and other artists: “I wonder whether you could do for me a spring woodcut … an evening scene, new moon, with perhaps a plowman coming from his field or in the field—something that is the essence of the country of past time, rather than the mechanized country of today” (Derleth to Lankes: 8 Oct. 1958). Here’s a different example:
Derleth unfailingly represented the Wisconsin prairie landscape and lifestyle during the season in which he was writing, much to the amusement of his close epistolary friend H. P. Lovecraft—the now-famous writer of cosmic weird tales—whose personal thrift required that he use every inch of available space for written content only, despite having developed a microscopic script. Since then other Lovecraftian fans have guffawed at Derleth’s odd consistency in this regard.
The curious thing is how many of these letters are extant, perhaps a majority. They were treasured and saved, and today they are sought and collected. Indeed, there is an active market for all Derleth’s correspondence, with the letters having artistic headers trading for $50, $100, even more apiece—well above those without, despite having equivalent content.
Indeed, there was synergy that developed between all that was Derleth and everything that comprised Sauk City-Prairie du Sac. Together, August Derleth and his towns became greater and were something of a Wisconsin brand. Derleth strove hard to put both on the map.
Which brings me to Derleth’s infamous Cinderella stamp pictured above, about which Case concluded, “Anyway, other men have blasted their way to fame when other means failed, so why not August?”
Cinderellas are privately produced labels that are the standard size and shape of United States postage stamps. They range from Christmas and Easter Seals to exhibition labels, even the once ubiquitous S&H green stamps.
Cinderellas were common during the halcyon days of the U. S. Post Office. Book club stamps were not unusual. While many are common, those which were privately produced in limited numbers can be little-known and very rare.
Did Derleth purchase his Cinderella stamps? Perhaps they arrived as adjunct to his Guggenheim Fellowship of 1938, finalized sometime in 1939, awarded with the intent and purpose he should continue writing his Sac Prairie Saga.
Derleth’s Cinderella commemorates, unmistakably, his long-range “plan to tell the story of Sauk City and its twin village, Prairie du Sac, in a sequence of approximately fifty books, combining novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, journal extracts, and miscellaneous prose under the collective title of the Sac Prairie Saga” (Derleth).
Or perhaps he just felt the need to celebrate and so put to use a small amount of his Guggenheim funds, which he also used to stock his library and to bind newspaper comic strips. One description of the stamp reads:
The “stamp” is brown in color, printed on yellowish paper. The design is 24mm high by 18½mm wide. It is gummed, and to satisfy the curiosity of the philatelists among us, it is perforated 12½ . (“August Derleth Stamp”)
It is likely that other of the town residents who had grown up with Derleth, after they saw the stamp, responded much like Betty Case.
So much for mutually beneficial synergy…
I first became acquainted with the stamp many years later, as I searched for any Arkham ephemera. A fellow collector I knew well boasted he found a postcard with an unusual stamp and sent me a scan. The card read:
Dear Mr. ——–,
This note will acknowledge your payment for one
copy of H. P. Lovecraft’s THE OUTSIDER AND OTHERS,
which we will ship to you within a week or ten
And here’s what it physically looks like:
Card with top (recipient) cropped off
Featured on the left, without the slightest explanation, was the first Derleth Cinderella stamp I had ever seen—but not the last.
The second Cinderella appeared to me only in an online image (but does prove that at least one Wisconsin business had circulated the stamps Derleth provided, if only wryly on communication addressed to Derleth himself).
Not until this year, 2018, did I finally discover a great example I could procure—the best I could hope for—for which I paid dearly, though eagerly and without buyer’s remorse. My “Outsider postcard” is not only in crisp, perfect condition, but it is addressed to the famous artist Hannes Bok (both to be subjects of a later post).
These “Outsider postcards” should raise questions among Arkham House collectors. Should this item be on the official list of Arkham’s publishing ephemera, which is heartily collected? It commemorates the first issue of the publisher’s most famous book. There were no more than 300 of these created, probably fewer (but not much fewer) based on pre-publication sales, all worded similarly but addressed individually and essentially meeting the same criteria as the pre-publication announcements in the Mays or Herron lists.
Don Herron will know…
On a more basic level, are they desirable? That is the litmus test, and here is how I know they are:
After years of never sighting, or seeing for sale, a Derleth Cinderella stamp, an individual stamp finally popped up for bidding on eBay in 2004. I put in a healthy bid but lost.
Another turned up in 2007. I placed a large bid this time but lost again.
August Derleth died in 1971. His daughter April, who had been living in Place of Hawks and managing the publishing business, passed in 2011. Not surprisingly, some interesting items became available, including what appeared to be a full sheet of the stamps that turned up for auction on eBay in 2010. Guns blazing, I was outbid nonetheless.
In 2012, a block of four still in one piece went up. (I wondered if the previous winner was now selling his loot in lots.)
Yup, I lost yet again!
No doubt at all that Derleth’s stamp is a desired collectible. If you think I’m crazy, put in your own bid the next time, should you have the opportunity.
John D. Haefele contributed this article.
“The August Derleth Stamp.” Unattributed. August Derleth Society Newsletter Vol. 10, no. 4 (1981)
Case, Betty. “Day by Day.” [Madison] Capital Times (November 28, 1939)
Derleth, August. “August Derleth.” Book of Catholic Authors. Walter Romig, 1960.