Monday, March 4, 2013

1939 The Royal Bank of Canada and Rocket Mail

The title of this post is somewhat intriguing and perhaps a bit misleading, but I can assure the reader that there is a link between the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and rocket mail.

A. RBC in Cuba

RBC has a long history of operations in the Caribbean region. It opened its first branch in Havana in 1899, and in 1903 bought Banco de Oriente de Santiago de Cuba. By the mid-1920s, RBC had 65 branches in Cuba and was the largest bank in the country. In December 1960,  RBC operations in Cuba were taken over by the Cuban government. At the time of the sale, RBC had 24 branches in Cuba.

Former  Royal Bank of Canada building in Havana

1939 RBC Correspondence

The air mail  cover shown below was sent from the RBC Havana branch to Springfield, Mass., on November 17, 1939.

The cover was sent to the "Tatham Coin Company" which suggests that the correspondent, A. Latour, may have been writing about numismatic or philatelic matters. The choice of stamp and its location on the envelope also indicate philatelic inspiration. And this is where Rocket Mail fits into this story.

The Stamp on the RBC Cover : The World's First Rocket Mail Stamp

On October 15, 1939, the Cuban postal administration issued the above 10c emerald stamp in connection with an experimental postal rocket flight. The stamp design was that of the 1931-32 Domestic Postage air mail set overprinted:
Experimento del Cohete Postal (Postal Rocket Experiment) 
Ano de 1939 (Year 1939)
Unfortunately the RBC cover was not carried by rocket mail, and the RBCs part of the story is now over. (I needed a Canadian connection to justify the inclusion of this post on the blog!)

B. Cuba's Official Postal Rocket

Many articles have been written about the October, 1939. Cuban rocket flights. Ernesto Cuesta's excellent Cuban Philately website is the source of an article titled Cuba's Official Postal Rocket which chronicles the project and the philatelic items that were produced for the event.

 The Cuban postal rocket programme was established to determine the feasibility of using rockets to transport mail from Havana to other post offices in Cuba. Four pre-test launches preceeded the official flight on October 15, 1939.

 The Postal Rocket

It is reported that 3000 cards and covers were prepared for the launch but only 200 were carried on the rocket. 

Commemorative Card, Stamp and Official Cachet

A handstamp was used to cancel the Rocket stamp and the official cachet was applied to the back of the card:

The official Post Office cachet would be reproduced on future covers and stamps.

First day cover with Havana machine cancel and cachet.

Souvenir Label

A souvenir label based on the design of the official cachet was sold by the Rocket Commission for 20 centavos.

(Not in author's collection)

The failure of the test flight may have put an end to the Cuban Post Office's rocket mail experiments, but the 1939 flight would not be forgotten. Since 1939, there have been many philatelic souvenirs commemorating the Rocket Flight. A detailed catalogue  written by Carlos Echenagusía García has been posted on Mr. Cuesta's website.

Post-Flight Souvenirs

1. Unofficial Labels and Covers

The Club Filatelico de la Republica de Cuba marked several anniversaries of the Rocket Mail flight with the sale of  unofficial  souvenir sheets and covers. The sheets shown below are just a few of the souvenirs produced over the years by Club Filatelico and other philatelic organizations.
1940 (1st Anniversary) and 1954 (15th Anniversary) [Not in author's collection]

1959 (20th Anniversary) [Not in author's collection]

2. Official Philatelic Recognition : Cuba Post Office

a) 1964 : 25th Anniversary
b) 1964 :  Voshkod 1 Space Flight Commemorative
c) 1989 : Space Day Stamp
d) 1994 : 55th Anniversary
e) 1999 : 60th Anniversary

a) 1964 : 25th Anniversary of the Rocket Mail Flight

In 1964, the Cuban Post Office marked 25th anniversary of the 1939 experimental rocket mail flight with the release of several stamps and a souvenir sheet. The 50 cent value reproduces the 1939 stamp and the first day cover cancellation incorporates the 1939 cachet.

1c - 13c Denominations

The five low value denominations were printed in se-tenant format with 5 different designs per sheet, resulting in 25 different low value stamps. The designs show several spacecraft launched by Cuba's trading partner, the U.S.S.R., the U.S. Telstar satellite, and various imaginary space vehicles.


1939 Cuban Rocket Mail 25th Anniversary 1964

The 1939 rocket mail stamp was reproduced on the first day cover cachet.






50c Souvenir Sheet

b) 1964 : Voshkod 1 Space Flight Commemorative

On October 12, 1964, the Soviets launched its seventh manned space flight. It was the first flight to carry more than one crewman into orbit. Spacesuits were not used by the three-man crew during their 24 hour flight.

Cuba recognized the Soviet space achievement with the release of a single 50c stamp using the same design as the 50c Rocket Mail anniversary stamp but in brown rather than black.  The stamp issued days after the flight on October 17, 1964 shows a silhouette of the Soviet rocket printed in silver over the image of the anniversary stamp.


c) 1989 : Space Day Stamps

A set of six stamps featuring experimental rocket flights was issued to commemorate Space Day on April 12, 1989. The 1939 Cuban experimental flight was featured on the 50c stamp.

Cover flown on trial rocket before the official launch

d) 1994 : 55th Anniversary

On September 18, 1994, the Post Office issued a souvenir sheet to mark the 55th anniversary of the Rocket Mail Flight in conjunction with the  2nd Spanish-Cuban Philatelic Exhibition held in Havana, September 19 to 24, 1994.

The 1939 souvenir card is reproduced on the souvenir sheet and the cachet.  

e) 1999 : 60th Anniversary 

On April 24, 1999, t he 60th anniversary of the Rocket Mail launch was marked with the release of  a single stamp showing the rocket in flight. April 24, 1999.

 (Not in author's collection)

If you are interested in seeing more souvenirs check out the Garcia catalogue .