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U.S. Postage Stamps of 1959: A View from 50 Years Later

What We Commemorate

Commemorative stamps memorialize recently-deceased presidents, mark important anniversaries, acknowledge national institutions, boast of engineering, scientific and artistic achievements and celebrate victory in war and in peace.  Historically, U.S. stamps have portrayed the country as we like to imagine it is, or was.

If history is written by the victors, then that portion of history represented on our stamps is written by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC).   As we look at the commemorative issues of 1959, we might ask three questions:

  1. What is the ostensible subject of the stamp, the real historical event?
  2. What was notable about the subject matter in 1959?  What recommended this for commemoration?  How did the ethos of 1959 color the portrayal of the subject?
  3. How is the subject viewed today?  Is it of enduring interest?  For example, was it widely celebrated in 2009?

The Lincoln Sesquicentennial

The sesquicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln in 1959 was celebrated by a redesign of the Lincoln Cent (retiring the “wheat back” and introducing the “Lincoln Memorial” reverse) and with a series of four commemorative stamps.    The first stamp (actually issued in 1958) marked the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  I covered that stamp last year with the other 1958 stamp issues.

The Final Report of the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission gives many details of these stamps and the ceremony around their release:

The second stamp in the Lincoln Commemorative series was of 1-cent denomination and the first-day issuance was held at Hodgenville, Ky., on February 12, 1959.  Hodgenville was chosen as the site since it is the nearest post office to Lincoln’s birthplace. A commemorative event had already taken place here when on December 27, 1958, Commission Chairman Cooper, Senator Thruston B. Morton, and Representative Frank Chelf, all of Kentucky, formally presented to Carl Howell, president of the Hodgenville Chamber of Commerce, the Post Office Department’s cancellation die hub, especially prepared for commemorative use at the Hodgenville Post Office during Lincoln Year. The die was inscribed : “Lincoln’s Birthplace, Sesquicentennial, 1809- 1959”

Mr. Howell turned the die over to Postmaster Russell Parker, who began using it on January 1, 1959, to cancel all mail issuing from the Hodgenville Post Office.  At this ceremony, also attended by Mr. George M. Moore, executive assistant to the Postmaster General, announcement was made of the first-day issue of the new 1-cent Lincoln stamp. This second stamp in the commemorative series was arranged vertically, printed in green and measured 0.84 by 1.44 inches in size. It bore the head of Lincoln from the famous portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy. After Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860, he sat for a portrait by this famous American artist. This portrait, known as the “Beardless Lincoln,”  is owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, and was used for the design of the stamp. Initial quantity issued: 90 million.

If you look at the original Healy portrait you will notice that Ervine Metzl’s stamp design departs just slightly from a literal copy.  The features are the same, but the pose has been adjusted with a slight twist to the neck and tilt to the head.  Compare the angle of the shoulders in the original compared to Metzl’s pose.  Posing, like fashion, changes over time.

Young Lincoln

The third stamp in the commemorative series was of 3-cent denomination, arranged vertically, the same 0.84 by 1.44 inches in size, and maroon in color. It featured the sculptured head of Lincoln by Gutzon Borglum which was completed in 1906 in marble and is now in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The first-day sale ceremony was held at the Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1959, as a prelude to Cooper Union’s own centennial year and marked the 99th anniversary of Lincoln’s address there. It was on February 27, 1860, that Lincoln, speaking in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, delivered what has come to be known as his famous “right makes might” speech. As he concluded his address, the campaigner said :

‘Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.’

As a memento of this first-day-issue ceremony, the printed program carried a picture of Lincoln delivering his Cooper Union Address on the front cover and the first-day cancellation on the inside. The Honorable Robert F. Wagner, mayor of New York City, gave greetings; Postmaster General Summerfield delivered the address; and Dr. Edwin S. Burdell, president of the Cooper Union, responded. Initial quantity of stamps issued was 90 million. There were 1,576,866 stamps sold in New York City on this first day of issue and 437,737 covers canceled.

Compare the stamp design with a photo of the Capitol’s Borglum Lincoln bust.   The name Gutzon Borglum may be more familiar to you as the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.

Borglum Bust

The fourth and final stamp in the Sesquicentennial series was placed on first-day sale at a special ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., May 30, 1959. This date also marked the anniversary of the completion of the Lincoln Memorial, the most popular shrine in the United States. The stamp, printed in blue, arranged horizontally and measuring 0.84 by 1.44 inches, featured a drawing by Fritz Busse of the head of Lincoln in the Memorial sculpted by Daniel Chester French.

Cosponsored by the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission and the Post Office Department, the stamp dedication ceremony drew an audience of several hundred persons, including diplomats. Cabinet officers, Members of Congress, Lincoln enthusiasts, and scores of visitors to the Nation’s Capital. Following the Presentation of Colors by the Joint Services Color Guard and an invocation by Maj. Gen. Frank A. Tobey, Chief of Chaplains, U.S. Army, the audience heard a stirring eulogy to Mr. Lincoln by John B. Fisher, a member of the Commission’s Executive Committee. Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton- delivered an address of welcome, Deputy Postmaster General Edson O. Sessions gave the dedication address, and Mrs. Katharine McCook Knox, an honorary member of the Commission, presented to the Post Office Department a reproduction of the Healy portrait of Lincoln on which the i-cent stamp in the series is based. L. Rohe Walter, special assistant to the Postmaster General, presided.

Daniel Chester French Statue

Oregon Statehood Centennial

The Oregon Statehood issue, Scott #1124, was designed by illustrator Robert Hallock.  The wagon is unhorsed, signifying that the travelers have arrived at their destination, perhaps having traveled along the famed Oregon Trail.  The star represents statehood.  You can see Mt. Hood on the right.

Oregon Statehood Centennial

Ten Years of NATO

Only 10 years?   This seems like an unsubstantial achievement.   Or was this beating expectations?  Keep in mind the world of 1959: Castro in charge in Cuba, the first American dies in Vietnam, the Space Race heating up, and de Gaulle withdrawing France from NATO in 1959, preferring to develop their own force de frappe deterrent.  So I’m not sure what exactly we were celebrating.

The design here is by Stevan Dohanos, a social realist illustrator known for his Saturday Evening Post covers.

10th Anniversary of NATO

Arctic Explorations

This design by George Samerjan marks two events:  the 50th anniversary of Admiral Peary reaching the North Pole, and the 1959 sub-polar transit (Operation Sunshine) of the nuclear submarine “Nautilus”.

(Btw, it is well worth a trip to Groton, Connecticut to visit the Submarine Force Museum.  If you are not claustrophobic you can take a self-guided tour of the Nautilus.)

Robert Perry Arctic Exploration

World Peace through World Trade

There is an IBM connection on this one.  Former IBM president — and a giant of industry and commerce — Thomas J. Watson, Sr., coined this phrase in an address to the International Chamber of Commerce in 1937.  It then became an IBM advertising slogan which was featured for many years on a 30-foot sign on the side of 590 Madison Ave in NYC.

It is interesting that the slogan was pre-war, though the stamp is post-war. Certainly the optimism of world peace in 1937 was not very prescient.  But post-war there was a string of successes including Bretton Woods (1944), GATT (1947) and the Marshall Plan (1948).  For a generation that saw two world wars and world-wide depression, there was a lot to be optimistic about in 1959.

The design by Robert Baker, features a globe and laurel.

World Peace Through World Trade

Centennial of the Comstock Lode

Silver was discovered in Utah Territory (now Nevada) in 1859 on the slopes of Mt. Davison.   The commemorative stamp, designed by Robert L. Miller and W.K. Schrage is based on an old print which I have not been able to identify.

Of course, this is a romanticized view of the original event, which was soaked in blood and whiskey. No mention is made of the most significant social result of the silver rush, namely the instability introduced into the US currency system, then based on gold and silver, by the rapid increase in the silver supply.  Left uncorrected this would have lead to inflation, which was favored by those in debt.  This became the largest political issue of the day, culminating in the  Coinage Act of 1873 (which de-monetized silver) and the 1896 presidential campaign of the populist William Jennings Bryan and his renowned “Cross of Gold” speech:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Silver Centennial

Opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway

The St. Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1959, a joint U.S.-Canadian venture that connected the Great Lakes to the sea, an event considered momentous enough to warrant a contemporary stamp issue.  The design of the stamp was also a collaborative venture, by Arnold Copeland, Ervine Metzl, William H. Buckley and Gerald Trottier.  There was a corresponding Canadian stamp featuring the same design which was issued simultaneously.

St. Lawrence Seaway

The 49-Star Flag

Alaska joined the Union as the 49th state on January 3rd, 1959.  The design of the Union (that portion of the flag which has the stars) was updated to include the 49th star, but this design was in use only for a short period of time, since Hawaii became the 50th state later that year.  So the 49-star flag was only officially used from July 4, 1959 to July 3, 1960.  It must have been good business for flag makers that year.

So what happens if a new state is added in the future, say Washington, DC, or Puerto Rico?  USC Title 4, Chapter 1, § 2 covers this:

On the admission of a new State into the Union one star shall be added to the union of the flag; and such addition shall take effect on the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

What about the design?  Where exactly do you put a 51st or 52nd star?  The US Army’s Department of Heraldry has that covered, with contigency designs for 51-56 stars.  Just in case.

U.S. Flag with 49 Stars

Soil Conservation

Now here’s a topic you don’t hear a lot about these days.  Errosion.  Soil conservation.  Contour plowing.  We don’t hear much about it these days, mainly because the movement, lead by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  Soil  Conservation Service after the 1930’s “Dust Bowl”, was successful.   By plowing fields parallel to the natural contours of the land, water run-off was reduced, preventing topsoil errosion, improving the efficiency of irrigation and increasing crop yields.

Soil Conservation

Centennial of Drake’s Oil Well

When you think of oil wells, you typically don’t think of Pennsylvania.  But that is where a lot of the early work happened, including the first US oil refinery (Pittsburgh) and Colonel Edwin L. Drake’s early oil well (some claim it to be the first in the U.S.) in Titusville.  Of course, there were no automobiles in 1859.  Coal was king.  So what kind of “petroleum” industry was there?  Kerosene, mainly for lamps, as a replacement for whale oil.

Petroleum Industry

American Dental Association Centennial

The American Dental Association resulted from a merger of several smaller associations at a convention in Niagra Falls in 1859.  The Association’s 1959 centennial celebrations in New York City made the headlines due to an unplanned intersection with cold war politics.  The Association had booked the Waldorf Astoria for their celebrations, but the day before their event, they received a call from the City asking if they would relinquish that space so the City could hold a luncheon in honor of the visiting Soviet Premier Khrushchev.   The Association refused to give up their space, a stance warmly supported by Vice-President Nixon, who was a featured speaker at their event.  Probably a wise choice.   Remember, this was a time when many thought that fluoridation of water was a communist conspiracy.  If the ADA had yielded publicly before Khrushchev it would have given the lunatic fringe more fodder.

American Dental Association

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Postmuse 2010/02/06, 16:49

    I got an envelope with lots of these postage stamps this week and a note to look here for more detail. I use lots of vintage postage on my outgoing, though I am not a collector. I enjoyed reading about the postage here, especially the Soil Conservation.

  • cynthia 2010/03/21, 23:29

    hello my name is cynthia and i found an envelope full of stamps
    they look pretty aged and it looks just like the pictures i just seen on this website i want to know if it is worth anything and i am not a collector…. so whats its worth>?

  • Rob 2010/03/22, 22:06

    @cynthia, generally US postage stamps of this age — 50 years old — are not worth much. They were produced in massive quantities and there were many collectors at that time, so many were preserved.

  • kc 2010/09/15, 05:39

    any body have idea on how to value a stamp 1959 oregon trail on a envelope stating first day of issue

  • Rob 2010/09/15, 08:56

    @kc, those are called “First Day Covers” or FDC’s. They are stamped on the first day of issue, and at a post office that has a special connection to the subject of the stamp. Often they were mass-produced with special thematic art work on the envelope and were sold to the public via mail order. But because of the volumes created, FDCs from that time period are worth only $1 or $2.

    My opinion is that anything created for the benefit of collectors has little value to collectors. This is ironic.

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