A brief biography of Helen Kingsbury Zirkle (1898 – 1976)

Catalogues and books

My interest in Chinese stamps has focused for the past few years on Manchukuo. During this time I have collected a number of books that have aided my research and one of the most useful has been a book with the catchy title “The Postage Stamps and Commemorative Cancellations of Manchoukuo/Manshukoku, Manchou Tikuo, Manchukuo”, written by Helen Kingsbury Zirkle and published by The Collectors Club, New York in 1964 (also published in German).

After WWII, Helen began corresponding with Japanese philatelist Dr Yoshitsugu Mishima, together they wrote a series of ten articles about Manchukuo published in American Philatelist in 1951. This collaboration, with extra help from Robert M. Spalding Jr., helped Helen develop her book about Manchukuo which effectively completes the works of Roy Akagi and Alexander Schumann which only covered issues up to 1941, prior to America entering into WWII.

This book provides the complete picture of Manchukuo from 1932 to 1945. Included are details of 159 stamps; a full listing of postage tables and illustrated details of all 85 of the commemorative cancellations (or LCD’s) issued by the Manchukoan Post Office, the first time this had been done. Also included are varieties, errors, imprints, plate numbers, proofs and slogans – everything a collector needs to know. This is the definitive work on the subject.

Cover of “The Postage Stamps and Commemorative Cancellations of Manchoukuo/Manshukoku, Manchou Tikuo, Manchukuo”.

The cover shows this book was “Collectors Club Handbook Number 16, Published under the Auspices of the Theodore E. Steinway Memorial Publication Fund”. Steinway, the well known manufacturer of quality pianos joined the Collectors Club in 1912 and in 1922 he funded the purchase, by the club, of the huge philatelic library of the Austrian philatelist Chief Justice Victor Suppantschitsch. This helped to make the Collectors Club philatelic library one of the finest in the world. The fund was established after Theodore’s death in 1957. Helen Zirkle was one of the first philatelic authors to benefit from this fund and acknowledges that her book would not have been possible without help from this fund and the support of the Collectors Club.

When I read important works like this I can’t help getting interested in the author. My first port of call seeking information about this noted philatelist was the China Stamp Society, China Clipper archive, sure enough, trawling the database reveals a number of articles written by, or about Helen K. Zirkle. She appears four times, the last appearance is a two paragraph obituary – I think she deserves more.

So who was Helen Kingsbury Zirkle? She was born Helen Emily Kingsbury in San Pablo, California on June 30 1898. Her parents were Willard DeLamater Kingsbury (1868 – 1929) and Clara Jeanette Stanbridge (1879 – 1906), who sadly died when Helen was only 8 years old. Helen had a younger brother Willard Stanbridge Kingsbury (1903 – 1973).

They were a very academic family. Her father Willard was a teacher and a graduate of Stanford University, her aunt Dr Susan Myra Kingsbury (1870 – 1949) was also a graduate of Stanford and taught history at Vasser. Later she became Professor of Economics and the head of the Graduate Department of Social Economics and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, a college Helen was to attend herself. Susan was also an early campaigner for women’s rights.

Following the death in 1906 of Helen’s mother Clara, her father Willard became a missionary and moved the family to Nagasaki in Japan. His aim was to promote the YMCA and the Red Cross in Japan, China and Siberia. In Yokohama during 1908, he married a German nurse, Malinde Bakenhus (1876 – 1964) and they soon had a son Ronald Dietrich, a stepbrother for Helen.

In 1918 the family moved to Seattle in the US and my guess is that Helen then remained in the US to study, probably staying with her aunt Susan. In December, following the death of a stillborn son, Helen’s father Willard and his wife Malinde returned to Japan where he died, in Kobe, in October 1929. Helen’s experience of Japan probably explains why she concentrated her stamp collecting on the Far East and in particular Japan, China and Korea.

Helen followed in the family tradition of academic excellence. At Bryn Mawr she received a B.A. in 1920 followed by an M.A. in 1921. She then went on to do post graduate work at John Hopkins. This is where she met her husband, Dr Conway Milton Zirkle (1895-1972), they married in San Francisco on 4th October 1923. During this time she taught briefly at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore and then from 1924 until 1930, Helen was a director of Alford Lake Camp (a summer camp for girls aged 12 to 18). It is still in existence and looking at the website I discover it was founded in 1907 and one of the co-founders was Dr Susan Kingsbury, Helen’s aunt.

Meanwhile her husband Conway worked at Harvard. In 1934 they moved because Conway had been invited to join the faculty of Philadelphia University. Helen became a member of the board of the Philadelphia YMCA and later, during the war, she became the Chairman of Consumer Interests for the Pennsylvania Civilian Defence Council. After the war Helen taught at Brown Preparatory School until 1949.

Helen took philately seriously and began making a name for herself, she joined many of the stamp societies associated with China, Japan and Korea, often this was in an active role and she served on many committees – the list is formidable:

  • Research shows she was an honorary member of the Council of the American Philatelic Congress where she produced The Congress Book between the years of 1955 and 1961. In 1960 she was the first winner of the Congress Service Award and in 1965 she was the recipient of the Eugene Klein (philatelic) Research Award.
  • Helen was the Chairman of the editorial committee for the Korea Stamp Society which she joined in 1956 becoming their 100th member and was a director of the society from 1962 until 1973. In co-operation with other members of this society she produced many articles and two books. In 1966 the loose leaf Christmas-Tuberculosis Seals of Korea, published by the Korea Stamp Society and in 1970 the Philatelic Handbook for Korea 1884-1905 sponsored by the Steinway Fund and published by the Collectors Club of New York, handbook number 23. Both of these books are available to download free from the Korea Stamp Society website.
  • Helen also joined The International Society for Japanese Philately 1949-1976 where she acted as secretary and treasurer (membership #61) becoming an honorary life member in 1972. She again wrote many articles for the Society’s journal Japanese Philately.
  • She was a regular contributor of articles to Linn’s Weekly Stamp News.
  • Helen was a member of the American Philatelic Society, The Busan Philatelic Club, The Postal Stationary Society, The Royal Philatelic Society of London, The Collectors Club of New York and, of course, The China Stamp Society which she joined in 1959, membership #1136.
  • She wrote the section on philately in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was listed in Who’s Who among America Women as a philatelist.
  • Letters from Helen Kingsbury Zirkle are preserved in the Catherine Mannings Collection in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Dr Conway Zirkle became an eminent biologist and scientific writer. He wrote four books and many papers on botany and the history of Science. Before his death in 1972, at the behest of his wife Helen, he created a fund to purchase books about the history of science for the library at Bryn Mawr College. He also donated his fine collection of scientific books to the library in honour of his wife.

Zirkle family grave at Glen Mills (Delaware County, Pennsylvania).

Helen had poor health during the last few years of her life and finally died, at home in her sleep on April 1976. She is buried with her husband Conway at Glen Mills, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I think it is fair to say that the remarkable Helen Kingsbury Zirkle led a productive life and was one of the finest philatelists of the twentieth century.


My thanks to the following for their kind help with the supply of information and fact checking for this article:


  • The Ancestry Website
  • Family Search Website
  • United States Census 1930 & 1940
Additional information
This article was originally published in The China Clipper, the journal of the China Stamp Society. It is republished here because of the importance of Helen Zirkle’s work for the KSS in the past and for Korea-related philately in general. Her KSS titels, Christmas-Tuberculosis Seals of Korea and the Philatelic Handbook for Korea 1884-1905, can be download for free by KSS members from the KSS website. (If you are not a KSS member yet: joining is for free and can be done in just a few minutes!) Simon’s website can be found at www.ManchukuoStamps.com.

2 thoughts on “A brief biography of Helen Kingsbury Zirkle (1898 – 1976)

  1. It is so appreciated that you wrote this post and that I would find it, as I attempt to learn more about my great Aunt, Helen. This is a gem to behold for me and my family and I shall pursue finding this publication.

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