Hidden Messages in Stamps: The Fitchburg Historical Society Locates a World War II Philatelist’s Letter


Image courtesy of the Lowell Sun.

-Brittany Eldridge

Susan Navarre, the Executive Director of the Fitchburg Historical Society, found a 1937 letter written by a philatelist in Tokyo named Sohichi Ichida. In the letter, he discussed events transpiring during the second world war with an anonymous individual, whom Ichida referred to as his “fellow philatelist,” living in China. In addition to the letter, Navarre found a newspaper article from the Fitchburg Sentinel stating that the letter was a form of wartime propaganda. It is unclear who wrote this letter, but they voiced their opinions concerning the war and tried to convince the philatelist they addressed to join Japan’s side.

The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies stated that the term “propaganda” was derived from the Bible. In Exodus, God warned Moses to not propagate, or spread falsified rumors. “Propaganda” is Latin in origin, and originally referred to the Vatican’s methods of spreading the Catholic faith across lands. The Oxford Handbook stated that propaganda is not necessarily evil, is not always in a fixed form, is not always entirely totalitarian, and can take on meanings unintended by the original creators of the propaganda.

Stamp collecting, or philatelics, involves soaking stamps to remove them from envelopes, sorting them, and then mounting them in an album. Philatelics, or stamp collectors, may belong to an organization, such as the American Philatelic Society, and may participate in judged shows.

In the magazine Stamps, an article titled “Propaganda Stamps” described how philately became a propaganda tool during WWII. Those who designed the stamps maneuvered leaders from opposing countries in “unflattering positions,” according to the article. American artists involved themselves in philately propaganda by altering 12 pf stamps that depicted Hitler’s face. The artists gave Hitler a “deathlike appearance.” 

German-occupied regions often regulated which materials were allowed, but stamps featuring propaganda could be stealthily brought in. Ciphers and barely identifiable letters often found their way onto postage stamps. Countries on both sides of the war forged stamps, as well.

The letter was addressed from a philatelist named Sohichi Ichida. A Dr. Soichi Ichida, according to the Museum of Philately website, was elected to the American Philatelic Society Hall of Fame in 1987. Listings for his cloth-bound books can be found online

Ichida, in the letter, wrote that he wanted to “bring China to better understand her present situation and condition.” He mentioned China’s use of propaganda and also referenced the 1937 Tongzhou Incident, in which China’s East Hopei Army killed approximately 260 Tongzhou civilians. Ichida said that there is no reason for China and Japan to fight one another, and used this idea to convince the philatelist that China should switch from the Allied powers to the Axis alliance. 

He gave an explanation as to why Japan bombed universities in China, and said that Japan is “not the aggressor.” In the same sentence, Ichida requested to discuss philatelics with the man, as well as events regarding China’s wartime involvement. While Ichida wrote this letter to a “fellow philatelist,” he did not mention collecting stamps, compiling albums, or dealing stamps. 

The Fitchburg Sentinel article stated that the letter was most likely written by a government agent. This article, written during the war, brought up concerns about the American Philatelic Society mailing list being used for propaganda. One way to deter this was by not authorizing individuals in these organizations to send out the mailing list.

Students interested in learning more about historical artifacts associated with the Fitchburg area can contact the Fitchburg Historical Society. Individuals looking for historical records regarding stamps, letters, and stationary can search the online Smithsonian Postal Museum Collection. Books that explore the topic of propaganda during WWII include David Welch’s World War II Propaganda: Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime and Nathaniel Lande’s Spinning History: Politics and Propaganda in World War II.