This colorful hand-painted cover by the renowned artist Karl Lewis has the green 1d, orange 2d and chocolate 1½d KGV heads with the C of A watermark, postmarked with two NORFOLK ISLAND/ 30 SP 38/ AUST postmarks, addressed to Toledo, Oregon U.S.A. In a recent auction it has an estimate of AUD 1,000 placed on it (Figure 1).
Any collector who has marveled at the beauty of the covers produced by Karl Lewis and never wondered about the fascinating life of the man, has missed the most interesting aspect of a truly American legend. Lewis is shown in 1918 at age 53, before he was a dealer servicing covers (Figure 2).
Lewis was a Kentucky lad (born Sept. 10, 1865) who became a man at the age of 13 on the docks of San Francisco. He followed the sea for 23 years, married a Japanese woman and learned the Japanese language. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese arrested Lewis as a spy, eventually releasing him to the custody of his wife’s family. He is buried on the grounds of a Buddhist temple.
Little is known about Lewis for the next 23 years after going to sea. He lived for short periods at various times in Australia, New Zealand, France, England, Italy, Holland, and Japan while waiting for his next ship. During this period, he taught himself many subjects. He became a prolific letter writer, and he developed considerable skill in English. Somewhere along the way, Lewis became an accomplished photographer, a skill that would be an asset later in life. Although he had visited Japan before, Lewis did not decide to make that country his home until July 17, 1901, when he settled in Yokohama. On Aug. 14, 1903, he took a common-law wife named Sasako Sadako, age 17. He was 37 at the time. They lived in Yokohama, and he was fond of this area because it afforded him a view of Mount Fuji. His fascination with the majestic mountain dominated many of the scenes later depicted on his many covers.
Contrary to popular opinion, Karl Lewis covers were not produced by woodblock; each one was hand painted and shows minor variations. Many of the covers Lewis mailed from Japan are first day covers. Between 1901 and 1916, Lewis operated a photographic studio at Yokohama. He advertised himself as “The Only European Photographer in Japan”. He produced and specialized in photographic postcards of all types, many of which were hand colored . He also operated a printing business producing menus and announcements.
In 1905, at the age of 40, Lewis published a 34-page catalogue of picture postcards he was selling. In the catalogue Lewis offered to take any “photograph, sketch, or drawing& that may be sent to me” and produced from it 100 “elegantly colored postcards” that he would send by registered mail “to any address” for the low price of $1.75 U.S. Unfortunately, the photographic studio did not provide sufficient income.
Lewis became interested in the possibility of selling stamp specialties. In 1934, he advised the American vice consul in Yokohama that he was supporting himself and his wife by the sale of such items, as well as by selling silk goods and dolls by mail order. He made arrangements for covers franked with foreign stamps to be mailed from various exotic islands of the Pacific, from Japan and other Asian countries. The mystique of the Orient and the lure of the exotic tempted many a would-be collector (Figure 3).
On Dec. 29, 1939, at the age of 74, Lewis suffered a paralytic stroke. In two letters written Feb 8 and 10, 1940, he said he was only able to sit up for two hours in the mornings and afternoons. On March 15, 1940, Lewis filed the necessary papers with the American vice consul in Yokohama confirming his allegiance to the United States. It is a requirement of any U.S. citizen that such documents be filed with the State Department every two years while living overseas for any extended period of time. On March 16, 1940, Lewis’s wife of 37 years died. Lewis was in ill health, and his wife’s relatives, the Sasako family, took care of him. On or about the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Lewis was arrested by the special higher police, controlled by the civilian Home Ministry, as a suspected spy.
His brother-in-law, who operated a photographic studio in Tokyo, convinced the police that Lewis was no threat to the war effort and that he was too old and too sick to do any harm to anyone. Lewis was released to the Sasako family and was allowed to remain under house arrest until his death May 19, 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor. He is buried on the grounds of the Buddhist temple, Shinkoji near the Lewis home in Yokohama.
Addendum: This Tin Can Mail cover has additional interest in that it is another example of Karl Lewis’ fine artistry. It was postmarked NIUAFOOU/ 7 JE 37/ TONGA on the 1d red and black Ovava Tree and the 1 1/2d grey-black Queen Salote stamps, addressed to Michigan, U.S.A. (Figure 4).