The Higgins and Gage Story

The Higgins and Gage Story
by Wayne Menuz

(Editor's note - Some famous names always go in pairs. Comedy has Laurel & Hardy, light music has Gilbert & Sullivan, murder has Burke & Hare. Mention Higgins to a postal stationery collector and he/she will surely add Gage! Believing the story behind the names of H&G should be of great interest to members, I made enquiries in the U.S.A. which resulted in the following inside story from one of our American members.)

Having collected worldwide postal stationery since 1959, I took an opportunity in 1971 to work for 3 months in the Higgins & Gage shop. I also gave some assistance with the writing of the famous catalogue. But let us start the firm's story from the beginning.

In the 1930's Messrs Higgins and Gage formed an auction company in Pasadena, California - near Los Angeles, and then a wealthy area. Shortly after the business was incorporated Higgins died, but Alex Gage decided to continue business under the corporate double name. Alex had a personal collection of postal stationery which was extremely strong in Mexico. In the early 1960s he bought the duplicates from Dr Walton Mitchel's postal stationery collection; a few years later, when the latter had gone almost blind, Alex Gage purchased the collection itself. He also bought the George Slawson collection. The result was over a million items of postal stationery!

The back history of that stock is interesting. Much of it had originally been owned by George Watson and Adolf Lohmyer during the 1880s, until it was sold to the Scott Stamp & Coin Co. (possibly in the 1920s). Included were printers' remainders and Seebeck issues of Latin America. Meanwhile two individuals were forming large collections and duplicate stocks: George Slawson (mostly U.S.A. postal cards), and Walton Mitchel (worldwide, but especially postal cards and letter cards). Dr Mitchel proceeded to purchase the Scott stock. But in the 1940s he moved to Oakland, California and because of lack of space, he had to leave behind almost half a million items - these were considered to have no philatelic value and so were burned!

Returning to the 1960s, we find Alex Gage with an enormous, stock, but (except for the U.S.A.) without any up-to-date catalogue. So Alex Gage, stamp auctioneer, decided to become a publisher, and work was started on the first section of a worldwide catalogue with Norman Lurch of New York as editor. This first section ("A" countries) was hand-written by Mr Lurch and sent to Pasadena, where Alex Gage hired a type-setter to compose the pages. The first edition of the "M's was published in 1964. It was in fact a poor job, being mostly an English translation of the German 1928 Ascher catalogue, but simplified and hardly illustrated. Alex Gage had been too busy organising stamp auctions to check the work carefully, and he was shortly to comment that the "A" section was "as full of holes as a Swiss cheese"! But he also commented that "everyone feels that this is something that has been needed for years". Luckily, he next found a man who was eminently suited to take over the role of editor.

That man was Ed Fladung, a stamp, coin and picture postcard collector. He had earlier started a coin store in Pasadena with another person, who had fled town some time later with all the goods! So he took a job with H&G working 3 days a week. He sorted the postal stationery stock into large cardboard boxes, one for each letter from A to z. Though interested in postal stationery, he had absolutely no knowledge of it. However, he was fluent in German, and when he began sorting the "B" section and found various Bavarian postal cards with coloured views on the backs, his interest developed. Since Ed Fladung could translate the Ascher catalogue, Alex Gage decided to appoint him editor and put him on full-time work with the "B" section. At about the same time Lou Sisco died and, having no relatives, left his remarkable collection of British area postal stationery to Alex Gage - who promptly added it to the firm's stock.

The cataloguing system was rather simple. The box containing all the B items was first sorted into countries. Metal filing cabinets were purchased as needed, and they were filled up with the material sorted according to Ascher numbers, with a cardboard divider for each catalogue number. Up to ten examples of each number were kept in the metal files. If there were more than ten of a particular catalogue number (and some, such as Hyderabad no. 1, had perhaps a thousand copies!), they were stored in another part of the shop in cardboard boxes; then an X was placed on the cardboard divider in the metal files to indicate that overflow copies existed.

Then Ed Fladung began to compose the catalogue. He used an IBM Selectric typewriter on glossy paper that had been pre-printed with blue lines for alignment of the various columns - such as catalogue number, prices, etc. To prepare the listings he used the sorted stock, the Ascher catalogue and such other catalogues and information as existed.

As each letter (A, B, etc.) was published, he would begin to sort the next cardboard box of stock; each of these boxes was huge - about one meter cubed. He would then get Alex Gage to buy more metal filing cabinets for filling up with items sorted according to Ascher numbers. He had no interest in die types, perforations or other such differences; he either followed the detailed Ascher (as for Argentina), or he just simplified it into basic numbers (as for Austria). He then cut slits into the typed page and inserted actual items of postal stationery into the slits as illustrations. The pages were then given to the printers (located next door in the same building) to be photo offset printed. The printed pages were then brought back to the shop, where Alex's sister, Ed Fladung and others collated the catalogues by hand.

The original "A" section (published in 1964) had contained a plea for help with information. This brought good response from around the World, mainly from specialist philatelic societies. As a result of that, Ed Fladung made several trips through Europe to contact postal stationery experts. Working through the alphabet, he eventually completed the 19th and last section "V-Z" in 1974. Particularly fruitful among the European sources of information had been Dr Zimmer of Germany; prior to the 2nd World War he had been regarded as having the most comprehensive of all postal stationery collections. His three-storey house was at that time crammed with postal stationery from top to bottom! But in the War his house was hit by a bomb, and every item there was destroyed by fire. After the war he started collecting again, and by the 1960s he had rebuilt the most complete collection of postal cards and lettercards, though this time he had only medium coverage of other types of stationery. He began to help Ed Fladung with information, and many of the post-1920s items illustrated in the catalogue belonged to him. He lived on till the mid-1980s, after which his collection passed into the hands of a German dealer.

Until 1972 the Higgins & Gage policy was never to sell their last copy filed under any particular catalogue number. Their auctions of postal stationery were usually held once or twice a year and consisted of material consigned by vendors. Alex Gage obtained many fine postal stationery items, including the Chapman collection of used South and Central America, and the Schutz German collection. There is an amusing side story from around this time of the early 1970s: it became necessary for H&G to make new arrangements for the printing of their catalogue - because the firm next door had been caught printing U.S.A. currency at night!

Alexander Drysdale Gage, the instigator and publisher of the "World Postal Stationery Catalog", died on 1st February 1986, aged 81. Ed Fladung, whose mammoth task was to create the catalogue, died on 3rd March 1980, aged 76. Four years earlier he had been presented with a gold medal on the 50th anniversary of the Swiss Postal Stationery Society during celebrations in Burgdorf, Switzerland; about the same time the United Postal Stationery Society (of the U.S.A.) awarded him honorary life membership.

In due course Alex Gage sold his business to Mel Feiner, who was a part-time stamp dealer selling high quality U.S.A. stamps at weekend stamp fairs. Initially he had known and cared little about postal stationery. But at one stamp fair in the 1970s his table was next to the H&G table, and during a quiet spell he browsed through the H & G table stock. He was interested and started buying; after a year or so Ed Fladung asked him why he was buying retail - rather than buying the business outright! So Mel Feiner approached Alex Gage, and a deal was struck. Alex then closed his Pasadena shop, though he still held auctions (infrequently) consisting mostly of unsold lots from his previous sales.

Having acquired the business, Mel Feiner gave up his engineering job and moved the shop stock to Huntington Beach; he proceeded to deal mainly at stamp fairs or shows, also offering postal stationery new issues. He has issued price updates for nearly all of the sections of the catalogue, and also some scattered updates and/or corrections to the original listings. When he bought the stock and catalogue, his intention was to issue new editions, but in the event he has not managed to do so.

Editor's footnote - If my information is correct, the last new editions came out in 1977 (sections "A", "B" and "C") and the last price update (section "I") in 1990. As for poor section "S" , it has had no additions or revisions since it first appeared in 1971! It seems to me that new work on this catalogue is now urgently needed, so as to bring its 5- to 24-year-old listings and prices up to date for the collectors (& prospective collectors) of the mid-1990s.

The Editor (as mentioned at the beginning and the end of this article) was the editor of the Postal Stationery Society Journal at that time - Peter van Gelder.

Originally published in the Journal of the Postal Stationery Society Issue No 4 (August 1994) and Issue No 5 (February 1995)