John Caples   [1900–1990]

John Caples  [1900–1990]

Carmen Joseph Riccelli   [  1917–  1995]

Carmen Joseph Riccelli [1917–1995]


The story of an adman and a postman

by Richard Riccelli / First Published December 7, 2007


ONE EVENING, LATER THAN USUAL, I was leaving my office at Quinn & Johnson/BBDO, an ad agency then in Boston. The janitors were about and had emptied the collected trash into a large rolling barrel which was parked in front of the elevators where I waited.

Idly looking in, I saw John Caples, the famous adman, staring back at me. His photo, probably used in a presentation extolling BBDO’s impressive heritage as a Madison Avenue laboratory of copy testing, had apparently served it purpose and was discarded, no longer needed. But it felt wrong to see Mr. Caples atop the trash. So I retrieved it. Took it home. Put it in a ready-made frame. Hung it in my office.

.  .  .

SEVERAL YEARS LATER—having started my own agency in the interim—my office was in my home. Caples on the wall.

One day a visiting colleague or client saw the photo and asked, “Is that your father?” “No!” I said reflexively. But as quickly, I caught myself and reversed my answer. “Yes, actually he is…”

And I gave a bit of the history of the great man. BBDO. Tested Advertising Methods. They Laughed When I Sat Down At the PianoDirect marketing as we know it today. Even adding ostentatious details about an advertising award I won in his name. More information, I’m sure, than my polite friend wanted to know.

I never met John Caples. But I felt his hand in my life.

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MY FATHER’S NAME was Carmen Joseph Riccelli. “Carmen” to his Italian brothers and sisters and friends in Boston where he was born and raised. “Joe” to my mom and her family, and everyone in the post WWII suburb 20 miles north of Boston where we lived when I grew up.

My father was in the direct mail business too. He worked for the Post Office in downtown Boston. First sorting mail in the back. Later selling stamps out front. 

Sometime in the 1960s, when the Post Office went from a department of the federal government to a quasi-private, profit-pursuing business, the newly christened “United States Postal Service” decided to make more of its commemorative stamp business.

Encouraging the public to collect—and thus not use—stamps is a profitable business indeed. Enough to elevate my father to Chief Clerk for philatelic sales in the lobby of the Boston Post Office. There he manned a small window, which grew into a boutique, that catered to stamp collectors, professional and amateur alike.

DAD TOOK HIS WORK SERIOUSLY. I recall him spending time researching famous figures who were being featured on upcoming stamps, looking up histories in our installment-plan encyclopedia. That way, should a customer inquire, he would be familiar with the back story and significance of Dag Hammarskjold’s UN or John Audubon’s birds or John Donne’s poetry.

Like the subjects of the stamps he researched, my father was talented in several creative ways. He built fine furniture featuring carved inlays of exotic woods. He cultivated an extravagant garden of trellis roses and plum tomatoes. He hand-lettered signs and proclamations in old English letterforms. 

And he designed a stamp — a Christmas stamp in particular.

.  .  .

MY FATHER TOOK UP STAMP DESIGN when the newly minted USPS publicized its intention to welcome the work of outsiders for the honor of having created the annual Christmas Stamp—long the province of a small circle of inside artists, none of whom had ever sorted mail during the holiday deluge or sold stamps to the general public.

Dad wanted to be first to receive that recognition. And he had a wonderful idea. A “peace stamp” featuring a single dove above a radiant earth against deep blue space. I can still see it in my memory. It was imaginatively designed and carefully drawn, hand-lettered and beautifully painted at a size many times larger than the stamp would be engraved, so as to reveal every detail.

The original was submitted veiled in vellum and mounted on art board. Accompanied by a letter Dad carefully wrote and Mom carefully typed explaining the inspiration that underpinned his proposed stamp. Sent to the Office of the Postmaster General in Washington. And answered by an all-too-quick, all-too-terse, “sorry-received-too-late-for-Christmas" letter of rejection.

.  .  .

DAD WAS PERSISTENT. In his workshop hung a hand-lettered sign quoting William Penn: Patience and Diligence, like faith, remove mountains. So he wrote a reply and re-submitted his stamp—early for consideration the following year—answering each objection to its acceptance.

While persistent, Dad was not stupid. And after many months of finding his art and letters returned to sender, with ever-more oblique reasons against its issue, he stopped corresponding with his employer.

My father never mentioned the disappointment he must have felt. Concentrating instead on the stamp collection he had started for me with every new commemorative issued from the day I was born to the day he retired from the Postal Service in 1980. Twenty-six years of American stamps carefully organized in binders.

Upon his death, Dad’s stamp collection became a gift to me and I have it still. It includes wonderful issues, some perfect plate blocks, and postmarks on first-day covers canceling stamps that commemorate remarkable people and events from history. 

Some of the stamps are now famous. Some may be valuable. Some were even flown to the moon and back — or so he said.

And in those binders I also found a carbon copy of Dad’s Christmas Stamp letter of submission, still full of hope.

.  .  .

BUT NO MATTER WHERE I LOOKED among my father’s effects, I failed to find his painting of the Christmas stamp that would never be. It remains unreturned, a dead letter of sorts.

If I had it in hand, I would issue it today. On the 53rd anniversary of the inaugural day of Dad’s stamp collection. Out just in time for Christmas, 18 days ahead.

I would use my father’s stamp to send greetings of the season, each with a message I feel father to son, business and personal, captured in the poetry of Donne.

"Letters mingle souls."