As a boy, David Dube drew artwork for thank-you notes.
As an adult, the Helena artist is one of an obscure group of artists whose work embellishes the envelopes of newly issued stamps.
His fascination with envelope art began in 1953, when his parents took him to the opening of the C.M. Russell Museum. Dube's folks encouraged him to illustrate his letters the way the famed cowboy artist had done.
Dube, who was 5, took their advice to heart.
"From then on, when Grandma and Grandpa got a thank-you card, instead of some long note, mine were very short-winded, and I put my artwork on the envelopes," said Dube, a man with a wiry frame, sharp features and brushed back hair.
As he rummages through old documents at a Billings antique store for his latest undertaking, he wears a dark blue brocade vest reminiscent of an Old West gambler, but with none of the gambler's gaudiness. A watch fob hangs from his vest pocket.
Once Dube started drawing on envelopes, he never stopped.
During the Vietnam War, he spent six months in the field and another six months as a hospital corpsman at aid stations.
To cope with the night shift at the battalion aid station, he embellished letters to his fiancé. The drawings involved pop art lettering or intricate scenes of Vietnamese hillsides or bamboo sampans plying the waterways.
He and his fiancée, Teresa, were married in September 1970, three days after he got back from Vietnam. Later, Dube taught computer programming at Eastern Montana College before moving to Helena in 1983, where he handled computer security for the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department until he retired in January.
Almost by accident, Dube found he could make money off his envelope art.
During Montana's centennial in 1989, the post office issued a commemorative stamp of a Charlie Russell painting.
Dube added complementary artwork to 20 envelopes as keepsakes for his family, then stood in line to buy the stamps on their first day of issue. The stamped envelope with a Postal Service cancel is called a first-day cover.
"By the time I had gotten a chance to buy my stamps, I had sold all of those 20 envelopes," he said.
Until then, he didn't realize that stamp collectors call the illustrations on envelopes "cachets."
The following year, Dube partnered with a gallery owner to mass-produce his cachet design for the Wyoming Centennial Wagon Train, which traveled the Bridger Trail from Casper to Cody.
By 1991, he was regularly making cachets, doing hand-drawn and hand-painted artwork on envelopes for 24 to 27 subscribers, collectors who signed up in advance to buy his limited-edition envelope illustrations.
In 2004, he teamed up with Montana Hallmark stores to offer 5,000 mass-produced first-day covers of the Lewis and Clark stamps with cancels from Great Falls and Three Forks.
He has been known to go to great lengths to get a cancellation to match a stamp's theme. He had stamps honoring Christopher Columbus flown from Chicago to Billings, then drove the stamped envelopes to the town of Columbus for the cancel. For a stamp showing a bald eagle in flight, he got a cancel from Black Eagle Station, near Great Falls.
"I like to use Montana, like the Ringling Brothers circus poster that we did in Ringling," he said.
New stamps are typically issued on a specific date in a specific city that has some relationship to the stamp's topic.
The first-day circus stamps were issued in Rochester, N.Y. Dube arranged to have someone buy them in New York and put them on a flight to Helena. They arrived at 5:30 p.m. Luckily, he had made prior arrangements with the postmaster in Ringling.
"We canceled the stamps on her kitchen table," he said.
During the last 20 years, Dube has gained a reputation among collectors as one of the top cachet-makers in America.
About 40 professional artists regularly market hand-done cachets, said Don Reinke, a spokesman for Handpainted First Day Covers, a collector's group that is no longer active. Reinke puts Dube's work among the top five.
Mass-produced first-day covers are often cranked out in runs of 25,000, and sell for about $2 to $5, said Ken Martin, interim executive director of the American Philatelic Society. Cachet makers usually do the same hand-drawn and hand-painted design in limited editions of about 25 for subscribers who sign up in advance to collect their work.
Dube's current subscribers pay about $95, but his older cachets sometimes fetch double that price. Each year, he usually does cachets for a half-dozen newly issued stamps and for Federal Duck Stamps. He also does one-of-a-kind commissioned cachets.
Since 1991, Dube has done 48 different cachets for his subscribers.
His latest is a Gary Cooper stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series. The stamp will be released Thursday with an official first day of issue ceremony in Los Angeles and a special cancel in Helena.
He added a previously issued Grace Kelly stamp to the Cooper stamp on his first-day cover to fit the "High Noon" movie theme.
When Dube retired from the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department this year, his wife asked him how long he was going to keep being "a color copy machine."
Dube admits it's a daunting task to repeat the same design on 27 envelopes.
"When I've done issues of 27, the first nine that I do, I'm into it," he said.
Keeping the same level of intensity for the rest is challenging.
Prompted by his wife's comment, his art went "off the envelope" in February.
He calls the new direction, Old Paper Art, a paper chase that brought him to Billings in mid-August and has taken him on a treasure hunt through antique shops across the state.
He hunts for old commercial documents including routine business correspondence, bills and receipts. The documents belong to a category of collectibles called ephemera, items designed to last for only a short time and not meant to be saved.
"I don't mind going through a box of 4,000 or 5,000 pieces of paper, if I find only one that I think has some value," said Dube, who majored in history in college.
While doing stamp art, he became fascinated by advertising done between the 1890s and 1945.
"There was sort of like a golden age of advertising in this country, for advertising and packaging. The reason for it was, if the advertising and the packaging didn't sell the product, it didn't sell," he said.
He weds the old business documents to nostalgic advertising images. Unlike ledger art, which is also done on old paper, In Dube's work, the visual image is connected to the content or subject of the old paper.
"What I'm looking for is a hook that I can put my visual fish on," Dube said.
He looks for pieces of paper that have a history all of their own and then adds a visual piece to it.
At the moment, he's searching for the seed package design used by the Sioux City Seed Co., which once operated in Billings.
On his August trip to Billings, he found a document from the Red Lodge Canning Co. He also found a can of peas made by the company, with a label containing the likeness of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Dull, corporate correspondence or receipts can trigger his research into little-known aspects of advertising history.
"Who knew that Zu Zu the Clown sold Nabisco ginger snaps? Or the Uneeda Biscuit boy sold Uneeda Biscuits? That's a play on words. That was some advertising guy who came up with that, and then they developed this little guy in a rain coat and a rain hat, a slicker, to sell their biscuits. That's fascinating to me," Dube said.
The biscuit boy wore a rain slicker because the Uneeda soda crackers, unlike their competitors, were sealed in moisture-proof packaging to keep them fresh and sanitary.
"These pieces of paper have a history all their own. There's a little story behind each of these pieces of paper or I wouldn't be doing it," Dube said.
"Did you know that the Brown Shoe Company sent people all over the U.S. that looked like Buster with a dog? Well, they did," he said.
"They had little actors that went around with pompadour haircuts and fancy outfits with their dog to promote the Brown Shoe Company. And Brown Shoe Company actually purchased the rights for Buster from the cartoonist for $200 at the St. Louis Exposition."
"Until then, Buster didn't have a last name," Dube said and chuckled.
Reviving forgotten advertising art lends a nostalgic feel to his work.
Dube would love to find a bill or letterhead from the Fred Boss Farm Market from his hometown of Shelby. He remembers the grocery store's neon sign showing a farmer in a straw hat with his finger pointing to the door.
"It just happens to be a place that I remember from being a really young kid that had sawdust on the floor and my mom went down there to buy coffee," he said. "It had the coffee grinder and all these really wonderful smells."
Contact Donna Healy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1292.