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A Postage Stamp History Of The U.S. In The Twentieth Century

July 2024
4min read

Here is the federal government’s own picture history of our times—and it tells us more than you might think

FEW ARE AWARE of a major publishing project that has been sponsored by the federal government and some of our leading citizens over the past eight decades. It is a lavishly illustrated history of the United States in our times and it comes in parts—on postage stamps, to be precise. The story it tells may say as much about how we see ourselves as about what we’ve done since 1900.

There are some fifteen hundred stamps in the national album, more than three-quarters of them issued in the last half-century. From the very first issue of two stamps in 1847, until 1893, they carried portraits of Presidents, Founding Fathers, and military men. (Seven 1869 stamps showed contemporary and historical scenes, but they were considered vulgar and were replaced within a year.) In 1893, to mark the Columbian Exposition, sixteen stamps were issued depicting scenes from the life of Columbus. They were the first “commemorative” stamps and they inaugurated our age of numerous issues.

New issues increased yearly from then until Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, when they soared. FDR was an avid stamp collector and he made the Post Office do his bidding: he liked lots of stamps, attractive stamps, stamps of his own design, and he was the first to use stamps for immediate propaganda purposes (such as the one that hailed the National Recovery Act). Stamp policy has remained essentially the same—a mixture of officially approved events and personages depending on historic importance and political concerns.

The stamps on these pages are arranged in order of what they commemorate—historical order. But if they were arranged by the year of issue (which is shown in parentheses at the end of each caption), they would reveal that we tell our history differently in different eras. Some notable events aren’t commemorated at all—Benedict Arnold’s treachery is, of course, unmentioned—and some only after passions have cooled and attitudes mellowed: the nation hailed the Union generals of the Civil War as they died, but left Robert E. Lee in limbo until 1937.

Historical women were slow to appear on our stamps (see box, page 59), American Indians and blacks slower still. While our postage now admits all ancestors, no matter what their origins—so long as their deeds are distinguished and respectable—it still remembers the past selectively. Stamps tell the best of history: they recall atoms for peace but not the atomic bomb, and they forget the Korean War entirely but celebrate the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY opened with the conclusion of our bitter war with the Philippine people and the assassination of William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition. McKinley was memorialized, as are all Presidents after their death, and the war was forgotten. The Great War was marked a year after it ended, but Woodrow Wilson’s lost cause—the League of Nations—is forgotten along with Borah and Lodge, his adversaries in the Senate. Nor do we commemorate the proclamations of the Sixteenth Amendment (allowing a national income tax) or the Eighteenth (forbidding liquor).

Setting the Stage


Wilson’s successor in the White House was either venal or weak. But when Harding died in office, he was promptly memorialized with, of course, no hint of the malfeasance in his administration. The entirely honest Calvin Coolidge waited five years before the Roosevelt Post Office mourned his passing. The Great Depression is marked obliquely by Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act stamp (page 55), which was said by the suspicious to malign business by showing its representative out of step with forwardstriding working men and women. Other reminders of our troubled economic times are depictions of the huge public works of the decade.


Roosevelt issued three National Defense stamps in 1940 showing Liberty, an antiaircraft gun, and the Torch of Enlightenment. On July 4, 1942, they were followed by stamps depicting the Four Freedoms, the Nations United for Victory, and an eagle with “Win the War” emblazoned on its breast. When Roosevelt died, he was memorialized on no fewer than four stamps. We celebrated the fledgling United Nations but passed over the Nuremberg Trials. John Foster Dulles steered us sternly through a perilous world and was commemorated at his death. Adlai Stevenson gained honor as the loyal opposition. Joseph McCarthy passed unmourned.

THE generation just past began with another foreshortened Presidency. John Kennedy was cut down and memorialized. Five years later his brother Robert and Martin Luther King, Jr., both fell to assassins; they were honored ten years after. We commemorated our achievements in space with dozens of issues. We commemorated the war in Vietnam with two: in 1970 with a remembrance of POWs and those missing or killed in action and in 1979 with an appreciation of Vietnam veterans.

Because so many of the actors in our recent past are still alive, we can only guess at the judgment awaiting them in the Post Office. We know that Richard Nixon will join his fellow Presidents eventually. Sam Ervin, his most popular scourge, may be elevated. We can be certain, however, that John Dean and Spiro Agnew will not.

1900 to 1920: Era of Growth and War


American Associations

The first two decades of the century witnessed a growing spirit of boosterism throughout the country. With business booming and the standard of living rising, more people found time to draw together in volunteer organizations, which, they were confident, would better society. Americans formed clubs for everyone from boys and girls (Scouts) to their businessmen fathers (Rotary). Here is how the Postal Service honored them:


1920 to 1940: Good and Bad Times



Aviation took off with the Wrights, and World War I accelerated development: regular airmail service started flying between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York only a few years later, and then from coast to coast. Airmail has its own stamps—among them some of our most beautiful. The first airmail issue showed the plane that carried it—new models of planes appeared on stamps as soon as they became part of everyday life.


1940 to 1960: Victory and After



The stamps of World War II were issued before, during, and after the conflict. Roosevelt put the National Defense theme on our mail shortly before Pearl Harbor and marked the defense of Corregidor and the capture of Iwo Jima before Japan surrendered. A thirteen-stamp issue honored the occupied countries. All the services were celebrated, and veterans were honored the year after the war, gold star mothers two years later.


1960 to 1980: An Acceleration of Events



When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott opened the fight for women’s rights in 1848, women worldwide were excluded from business and had virtually no legal standing. Susan B. Anthony championed the cause into this century but didn’t live to see Woman Suffrage written into the Constitution. Women have now matched men in achievement, but there is no indication we will soon see a stamp for the Equal Rights Amendment.


Illustrations for this article were provided by John W. Salomon of the Dumont Stamp Company, New York, with additional help from Stampvest International, New York.

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