A Unique Father/Son Achievement in U.S. Postage Stamp Art (USA)

One of the most challenging—and beautiful—achievements in U.S. postage stamp artwork is  the “50 State Bird and Flower” stamps issued in 1982. The imagery is exquisite, with each stamp deftly composed and different from every other. Each bird/flower combination has a  naturalness of appearance that seems inevitable. And each is beautifully silhouetted with white space.

What makes these stamps unusual is that they were the first U.S. stamps created by a Father and Son artist team: Arthur (1917-1990) and Alan (1950- ) Singer.

There were creative challenges. Each stamp had to be distinctly different, not to mention visually appealing, and yet several states had the same state bird. For example, the Cardinal would appear on seven stamps, and the Western Meadowlark on six. As for state flowers, the Apple Blossom and Magnolia appear twice and the violet three times. And yet looking at the sheet of 50 stamps, those multiple renderings of bird or flower aren’t noticed because each presentation is unique.

Father and son were up to the challenge. Arthur was a noted avian illustrator having published Birds of the World and Guide to the Birds of North America. In his words, “There are many illustrators who are only concerned about portraying birds—or other animals—accurately. While this is, of course, very important, I try to make my work artistically good as well as accurate.”

It was Arthur’s practice to begin work in the early morning in his Jericho, New York, studio and continue to late at night. Father and son worked together on separate drawing tables. Arthur would position the bird on his art board and indicate to son Alan the approximate position of the flower. Alan would then sketch the flower art on the board. Father and son first made rough sketches of their subjects and then proceeded to greater detail, at times using pastels for color. When they deemed their sketches satisfactory, the drawings were transferred to art board in paint. The process was smooth, with each artist achieving his vision.

Those final paintings were five to seven times the size of a stamp. The artwork required intense focus, and stamina as well, to achieve the graceful lines, minute detail, and vibrant color that would reproduce well at stamp size.

The result: 50 beautiful and engaging miniature works of art—a high point in U.S. postage stamp creativity.

In the Spring of 1982, Charles Kuralt happened into a post office to buy some stamps and emerged with a sheet of the State Birds and Flowers stamps which in turn led to a segment on CBS News Sunday Morning expounding on the work of the Father and Son artists. Take a look at this unique artistic achievement:

Morning Glories (Australia, Hungary, Pitcairn Islands, Tuvalu, USA)

  One of the highpoints of the early morning walks my wife and I take is a stretch of chain link fence that hosts Morning Glories in different shades. The fence bounds part of the scenic school property I mentioned in a previous post about a Horse Chestnut tree. Earlier this summer the crew that tends the grounds cut down the Morning Glories, but thankfully they bounded back.

Wikipedia notes that Morning Glory is the common name for over 1,000 species of flowering plants in the family Convolvulaceae, whose current taxonomy and systematics are in flux. Not in flux, however, are the tributes paid to this beautiful flower on stamps from around the world.

Now it’s late September, and as Summer slips into Autumn, nights and mornings are growing cooler. The photos shown above were taken about three weeks ago, and now the blossoms are turning in on themselves. I’ll miss that abundance of color we saw on Summer mornings.

From Over 26 Billion 3-Cent Washington Stamps of 1932 I’ve Picked Three. (USA)

On July 6, 1932 the cost to mail a first-class letter increased from 2 to 3 cents. To meet the need for 3-cent stamps the U.S. Post Office issued a purple stamp reproduced from the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. It’s incredible to me to think how many copies of this stamp were eventually printed in panes of 100 (25,270,435,500) and as vending booklet panes of 6 (1,301,359,560). That’s over 26 billion—a number I find hard to fathom. 295,730,000 of those stamps were precancels.*

The design was derived from the red 2-cent stamp of the Washington Bicentennial Issue of 12 stamps that were issued on January 1. It was established policy to have our first president appear on stamps paying the first class letter postal rate, which on July 6 changed from 2 to 3 cents.

Shown above are three used copies of the 3-cent Washington that drew my attention because of the essential differences between them. The first stamp (left) bears the traditional wavy cancellation in common use at the time. I suspect there were billions cancelled this way. The second stamp (middle) is precanceled with CHICAGO ILL appearing on two lines with a horizontal black rule above and below the words. Precancels were issued to speed mail processing. The third stamp (right) has the same precancel marking but is also a perfin, a stamp with holes punched through it in a unique design by private business and governmental agencies to discourage theft and misuse. In this case the CC perfin design indicates use by the City of Chicago.

So there you have it, a very, very common stamp but here are three varieties that illustrate unique sides of its personality.

* Griffith, Gary, United States Stamps 1927-32, Linn’s Stamp News, 2001 (Thank you to the American Philatelic Research Library for providing print quantities noted above.)

More Intriguing Bicolors: Pan-American Exposition Issue of 1901 (USA)

On August 3, 2018 I wrote about “Beautiful British Bicolors!” These stamps were favorites of mine as a young collector in the 1950s because of their beauty, availability and inexpensive cost. They’re still favorites, but recently sorting through a box of U.S. stamps I came across some damaged, but still beautiful, U.S. bicolors from the Pan-American Exposition set of 1901.

As a boy, most of the U.S. bicolors were beyond my means, and by the time I had some “means,” U.S. stamps were no longer a main collecting focus. But I still appreciate some of the early bicolors like the higher values of 1869 and especially the commemorative series of 1901 promoting the Pan-American Exposition. This set of six stamps featured both exquisite decorative frames and classic black engravings of period transportation.

A ride on the “Empire State” Express (2¢ stamp), a flagship of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, would have been a thrill—engine smoke and all. It initially ran between New York City and Buffalo, and later its route lengthened to Cleveland. In its early days it was the first train with a schedule speed of over 52mph.

I’d love to hop up on the raised driver’s bench of the electric car (4¢ stamp). I wonder how fast it could travel—probably not fast at all, especially considering the roads of the time. This particular car was passing in front of the Capitol, and I think it would be fantastic to experience Washington at that time.

The 10¢ Fast Ocean Navigation stamp features the steamship St. Paul, a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, with smoke billowing from its twin funnels. The cloud-like cancel at the top center of the stamp seems like even more billowing smoke, but not so. The ship was launched in 1895, but was chartered for U.S. Navy service in 1898, and it again saw military service during World War I. But I wonder what it would have been like to cross the Atlantic in one of its initial voyages as a luxury liner.


The Beauty of Cancelled Stamps (USA)

To be clear, I collect predominantly cancelled stamps. Since my first “stamp” experience: my Mom giving me at age 4 or 5 the envelopes from incoming mail and letting me cut the stamps off (primarly 3¢Jeffersons) and paste them in rows on cardboard (think “busy work”), I’ve been attracted to used stamps vs. mint. To each his own, of course, but that extra cancel layer for me can add immeasurabley to the visual appeal of a stamp, not to mention the fact that stamps were made to be used. (Call me a purist…or crazy.)

Rooting through a box of used U.S. stamps, the cancellations on the three stamps shown here called out to me. The purple Iowa Territory Centennial issue of 1938 is cancelled with the classic numbered shoe-print killer. One look makes it clear why this cancel is called a killer.  The barred elliptical mark cancel was invented by John Goldsborough of Philadelphia, and his device, first used in 1875, became the most widely used in the U.S. It’s actually one part of a duplex cancel with part of the circle defining the other portion of the cancel seen on the left side of the stamp. That circle contained the name of the post office where the stamp was cancelled as well as the date. The information is too light to see clearly here, but for me the visual appeal is the powerful black shoe-print killer overlaying the deep purple stamp.

The second stamp that drew may attention was the green 1951 Centennial of the Settlement of Nevada stamp. The cancel doesn’t have the visual appeal of the Iowa Centennial stamp, but the slogan is spot-on  appropriate for the scene that includes forested mountains in a rugged western landscape: “Remember Only you can PREVENT FOREST FIRES.” That slogan was adopted by the Smokey Bear campaign in 1947 and continued more than five decades.

Finally, there’s the 2¢postage due stamp from the 1984-95 Bureau of Engraving and Printing series. The strong PHILADELPHIA PA precancel overlaying the rich intricate claret design is for me a thing of beauty. Though the stamp is nicked along the top edge, it’s the visual power of the stamp/cancel combination I find so satisfying.

Your thoughts about cancellations and philatley?

Airmail in Green (USA)

Sometimes a cover with no unusual philatelic worth attracts me simply because of its visual appeal. This “green” airmail cover is a good example. The six-cent airmail rate is paid with six one-cent stamps from the 1941 National Defense Issue. Normally the carmine 6-cent airmail stamp from the Transport Plane Series would have been used for this kind of letter, but other stamps or combinations were regularly used as well.

What struck me about this cover was its beautiful overall green appearance. Did the mailer intentionally choose to use the six green one-cent stamps to compliment the green envelope, or were these stamps simple at hand? I tend to think the former, though we’ll probably never know. In any event, this green-on-green cover caught my eye when I was examining a box of miscellaneous U.S. covers. So, almost 80 years after this cover flew from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, it’s landed in my collection of visually pleasing covers.

The National Park Service Isn’t Just Parks! (USA)

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, the USPS issued a sheet of 16 stamps, each associated with a particular NPS location—parks, seashores, and even an aquatic garden. I confess, my preconceived notion of another series of park photographs caused me to give the sheet just a cursory look. Big mistake!

This year, ordering stamps for my mailing needs, I included the NPS sheet in my order. Examining the stamps, three years after issue, I was struck by the Bandelier National Monument stamp. “What an unusual photograph,” I thought, “such unusual colors.” Then, looking closer and reading the back of the sheet, I discovered the image wasn’t a photo at all, but a pastel-on-paper by Helmuth Naumer, Sr. (1907-1990). (This is a humiliating confession by a supposed “serious” philatelist.) And there were two paintings among the stamps as well. “Why,” I thought, “would a sheet of scenic stamps include three rendered as art and 13 as photographs?”

Back to the Naumer pastel, Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon (1935-1936), which I originally thought a highly unusual photograph. Naumer used pastels so as not to lose time mixing oil paint, because of “the fleeting effects of sky and water and our own New Mexico landscapes with fast changing colors sweeping rapidly across it…” And Naumer has captured, at least for me, the sensations of those changing colors and the movement of light and clouds across the landscape.

He was born in Germany and 1907, and in 1926 moved to the U.S. motivated by stories of cowboy life he had read about in novels. In 1932 he settled in Santa Fe and began working with pastels. Naumer said that, “…coming to the Southwest was like coming home.“ He was commissioned by the National Park Service to create artwork for newly built visitor centers constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 and 1936 he created fourteen pastels for Bandelier National Monument, which remain in the museum’s collection.

So, having failed to initially notice the artwork content of the NPS centennial sheet, Naumer’s pastel introduced me not only to a unique artist but to the fact that the National Park Service is not just parks. In fact, of the 419 park sites spread across the U.S., 385 have museum collections—from fossils to fine art—all specific to the mission of the individual park. That museum system is the largest in the world, with individual park collections ranging in size from less than 100 objects to over six million—all focused on the natural and cultural heritage of the U.S.

And to answer my earlier question of why three artworks and 13 photographs: the National Park Service is parks…and much more!

Trees and Houses…I just like ’em. (Great Britain, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, USA)

Why do I collect stamps? The images! Many collectors want to delve into the meaning behind those images—to explore. I do that too, but oftentimes it’s simply the imagery that excites and satisfies me.

I always look closely at stamps featuring houses and trees. Why? I’m just interested in the amazing variety of structures people build for themselves.

And trees—they don’t entice like flowers, but the simplicity of their appearance—trunk, branches, leaves—has more affinity for me. And maybe it’s their size too. Maybe it’s because I climbed so many as a boy and could hide in the cover of their leaves—watching all from above. And maybe too it’s because we children could play with our little cars and soldiers and cowboys in the raised roots of the fat old oaks behind our house.

Perhaps I’m a topical collector. I haven’t organized a collection of either houses or trees, but when I’m ready, my first stop will be the American Topical Association. There I’ll find others who share my interests, as well as the ATA’s comprehensive topical stamp checklists.

Let me know what your favorite stamps are that picture houses and trees.



A friend called last night. He was extremely agitated. He’d made a mistake at work. His job requires working six and seven days a week. He isn’t able to exercise regularly. His sleep is impaired. Yes, my friend made a mistake at work, but what about his superiors who have allowed overwhelming responsibilities to be part of my friend’s job? He has to find balance in his life. I’ve been there. Daily I’m still there…trying to find balance. Some days I’m more successful than other days.

In 1709 Alexander Pope’s poem, “Essay on Criticism, Part II,” included these well known lines, “…To err is humane; to forgive, divine.” (In the early 18th century, “humane” was the accepted spelling for “human.”)

A pressman made a mistake in 1918, hence the Inverted Jenny. What reprimands did he receive when the discovery was made? And yet that mistake has had a divine influence on stamp collecting ever since.

And who was responsible for perforating Spanish stamps from 1865 to 1950 (That’s 85 years!) when the majority of those stamps were rather poorly centered? Who cares? The hunt for well-centered examples is an exciting challenge for collectors. And for me, those off-kilter stamps are simply fun to look at. Do you agree?

I hope my friend is feeling a bit better today. He’s an extraordinary individual, probably the most intelligent person I know. I hope he finds some of the joy that’s simply another dimension of our off-kilter mistakes. “…to forgive, divine.”

Transportation Stamps Move Mail

In the late 1980s and 1990s it was common for charities to solicit donations using direct mail campaigns that included pre-stamped return envelopes. The transportation coil stamps on the envelope above paid the then current 25-cent first class letter rate. This fund-raising tactic using ‘real’ stamps naturally grabbed my attention. It seemed new, different…and risky!

Looking through an accumulation of collection material recently, I came across a very similar, but much older, use of a ‘real’ stamp (the 2-cent “Empire State Express” issue from the Pan-American Exposition series) to pay for the mailed reply to another solicitation. Interestingly, a transportation stamp was also provided to cover mailing costs in the very early 1900s.

I’d be interested if anyone can provide additional information about this “Profitable Advertising” sample.