Question: I have a letter dated Aug. 3, 1844. It is a sheet of paper that was folded and addressed. There is no stamp, just a signature and some initials written above the signature. Could it be that the postmaster canceled the letter by his initials? Does it have any value?
Answer: You have what is known philatelically as a stampless cover. Before the use of adhesive postage stamps became widespread in the United States in the 1850s, stampless covers were the customary way to send letters.
A person of the pre-stamp period merely wrote a letter on a sheet of stationery purchased from a local stationer's shop, then folded it, often sealing the edge with wax, and writing the destination on the blank side of the sheet. Then a handwritten or ink-stamped postal marking was applied with notations usually showing the town of origin and the rate of postage in cents.
The fact that the letter is old doesn't mean much. Most stampless covers of the 1840s sell for a few dollars each, especially if from large towns such as New York or Philadelphia. If the town is less known, or if inside the cover is an exotic written message, such as war information, gold-rush tales or whaling descriptions, then a stampless cover can be of value. Likewise, it is of some worth if written by a famous person.
Q: Is it possible to touch a stamp with your hands without damaging it? My local stamp dealer says I should always use stamp tongs.
A: Like all rules, the procedures for handling stamps can be altered if you are knowledgeable enough to know what you are doing in violating the standard techniques. For cheap stamps costing less than a dollar each, it is often practical to touch them with your hands. For rare and expensive issues, always use tongs to avoid damaging the paper by such things as bending the stamps, getting them dirty or transferring oils from your skin.
Q: When President Kennedy was assassinated, a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor. I have several sheets of them: a 5-cent gray issue with Kennedy's portrait and the eternal flame. Have these stamps increased in value over the years?
A: No. With a first-day sale date of May 29, 1964, about half a year after the President's assassination, the stamps that you own are 25 years old. But because they were printed with a press run of more than 500 million copies, they can't possibly be worth more than face value now.
Q: I have about a hundred picture post cards from various states, dating from about 1935. Are these of value?
A: Probably not. Most post-1910 cards are of little value.