As you know, Our Iowa Heritage is a website for those interested in the rich history of Iowa City, Johnson County, and eastern Iowa. At the time of this writing, we have over 500 web pages on our site, and nearly 250 blog posts. For those who have been with us from the beginning, you know that, at the very core of our website, there is a love of collecting U.S. postage stamps. You can read about our beginnings here. So here, I’d like to introduce you to what philatelists call Cinderella Stamps.
A Cinderella Stamp is virtually any promotional stamp that’s been produced by a business and/or a political or non-profit organization – and, it cannot be used for any postal purposes, nor has it been approved by a governmental postal administration like the U.S. Post Office. Two good examples (see above) are the use of Christmas Seals and Easter Seals – long used for raising millions of dollars that go toward medical assistance and research.
So, now, let’s go back to the 1920’s. As we’ve discussed on an earlier post – NBC’s Chimemaster – Iowa’s Meredith Willson – radio came into its hey-day during the Roaring Twenties. In the beginning – November 2, 1920 – there was one station – KDKA in Pittsburgh – that made the nation’s first commercial broadcast, but by 1930, there were well over 600 stations around the country!
In 1924, in the city of Chicago – home to both WLS and WGN – two of the strongest radio stations in the country – a brilliant marketeer, working for a small promotional company – EKKO, came up with a marvelous idea that combined two highly-popular entertainment crazes in the 1920’s – 1) listening to radio, and 2) stamp collecting.
The EKKO Company of Chicago wisely chose the very same printing company that the U.S. Post Office had used in the late 19th century – The American Bank Note Company – to produce their new idea – promotional Cinderella Stamps that celebrated Commercial Radio across America. And, since their Radio Stamps were both similar in size and quality to U.S. postage stamps – featuring a perched bald eagle flanked by two radio towers emitting stylized lightning bolts – they were an immediate hit!
Step One – There were about 600 radio stations around the country in the mid-1920’s, and the EKKO team convinced nearly all of them to go along with their promotion. Thus, there were over 500 different EKKO Radio stamps printed in 1924/1925 – with each stamp customized by color – there were 15 different EKKO colors – and with the radio station’s call letters. By the time the promotion ended in 1930, over 800 different stations throughout North America had been actively involved – including Canada, Cuba, and Mexico!
Step Two – Once the stamps were printed and sent out to the participating radio stations, the process was very simple. Get the word out to the national radio audience that for only $1.75, EKKO would send you a Broadcasting Station Stamp Album (see below) in which you could collect your stamps.
The EKKO album contained pre-printed pages with an outline of each of the stamps currently available, a listing of broadcast station call letters and wavelengths, and a nice map on the inside cover that showed the locations of these stations. Spaces were also left for stations not yet participating, or stations that were just coming on the air. In addition, there was space to jot down up to four dial settings at your own time of reception. All for only $1.75! But wait – there’s more!
Step Three – When the radio listener received his or her album, they also got a stack of “Proof of Reception” cards (see above left). Listeners needed only to put a few facts on these cards about when and where on the radio dial they had heard a broadcast, add in ten cents to cover mailing costs, and mail it off to their local radio station. There, the card was checked against the station log for accuracy, and the listener was mailed an EKKO stamp (see above right) with the station’s call letters. How cool, huh?
This article on the EKKO stamp phenomenon appeared in Radio News of February, 1925.
In many ways, this promotional idea – while a bit gimmicky – still did two things. First, the listening audience of a radio station was given the ability to support their local station, while secondly, the promotion enabled each station to “relate” with their audience, while also determining – albeit in a very unscientific way – the size and location of its listening audience.
As you can see from the map (above), in 1927, there were at least two dozen radio stations across Iowa, and thus far in our exploration, we’ve not been able to track down all of the stamps that were part of the EKKO stamp program, but we’ve got a healthy start. So, here goes…
(S-0081) WSUI in Iowa City – the oldest educational station west of the Mississippi River – got its start in 1911, prior to the era of broadcast radio, operating a “wireless telegraph” transmitter under the experimental radio call sign 9YA. It began airing voice broadcasts in 1919, and was granted a full license on June 26, 1922, originally as WHAA.
Carl Menzer (pictured above), whose interest in wireless communications began at his high school in Lone Tree, entered the State University of Iowa as a freshman in 1917, and later became station director for WHAA/WSUI, a position he held until his retirement in 1968. After the World War I moratorium on radio transmission was lifted in 1919, Menzer brought vacuum tube technology to 9YA, signaling the start of regularly-scheduled voice and music broadcasts. On June 26, 1922, the call letters WHAA were assigned, and by the end of September, test transmissions were complete. On October 17, 1922, the station was officially on the air with a gala on-air commemoration including a talk by SUI President Walter A. Jessup. In 1925, WHAA in Iowa City became WSUI – but more on that later.
In 1924, a second radio station in Iowa City came on the air – KFQP – a privately-owned 10-Watt station that survived until 1930 under the ownership of George S. Carson. Small but still effective during the 1920’s, KFQP brought many live radio broadcasts to Iowa Citians and beyond – see articles below…
Just as we had published TV Guides in the early days of television, The Iowa City Press-Citizen would publish a Weekly Radio Page, featuring the latest news about Iowa City’s two stations – WSUI and KFQP.
In the earliest days of broadcasting, radio stations in Iowa, such as WHO in Des Moines, WOC in Davenport, WOI in Ames, WIAS in Burlington, and WKAA in Cedar Rapids were given call letters starting with a W. In 1923, the boundary between K and W stations moved from the western border of Nebraska, eastward to the Mississippi River, putting Iowa now in K territory. Thus newer stations – such as the ones shown below – received call letters beginning with K.
But, despite this big change, older stations in Iowa that already had W call letters were allowed to request new names – so, in 1925, WHAA in Iowa City, for example, became WSUI. Many times the call letters represented the station’s owners. So, WGN in Chicago, for example, which was owned by The Chicago Tribune, stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper. Which is why WSUI – an affiliate of the University of Iowa – took the call letters it did – which, in the 1920’s, went by the title – State University of Iowa – SUI. Read more on that story here.
By 1927, with the explosion of new stations popping up everywhere, it was apparent that the federal government needed to step in and restrict the growing number of broadcast stations around the country. The marketing people at EKKO saw this news, not as a threat, but an opportunity, so they sent out a circular reminding collectors that their stamps might soon become a rare item. And as you might imagine, there is nothing like telling Americans they can’t have something – because it makes them want it all the more! So, as a result, the hobby’s popularity soared, and soon, other start-up companies, and even some of the stations themselves – looking to cash in on the radio stamp craze – began producing their own versions, which only fueled the growing fad. Below are a couple of examples…
But then it happened. October 29, 1929 – the Stock Market crashed, and as the Great Depression began to set in, money for hobbies like EKKO stamps suddenly dried up. Sadly, by 1930, EKKO had gone bankrupt, and the Radio Stamp craze was basically over. Oh yes, other companies tried their best to keep things rolling, but as time went by, the novelty wore off and Americans turned to other interests.
You see, Iowa Radio in the 1930’s had bigger and better things to hold listener’s interest. For example, there was the weekly WHO Barn Dance that featured a young men’s quartet from Wall Lake, Iowa – The Williams Brothers. Yup, that’s Andy Williams – the youngest in the group.
And then, there was a young sportscaster by the name of Dutch Reagan who worked for both WOC in Davenport, and WHO in Des Moines. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He went on to a very successful acting career in California, and then, I believe, went into politics. You can read more here.
So, here’s a big salute to EKKO Radio Stamps, Iowa City’s WSUI & KFQP, and the entire Iowa radio network of the 1920’s. Gone – but never forgotten.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.