1936 Anthony Stamp First Day of Issue Cover.
Designs in connection with postage stamps and coinage may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors on national taste.
– William Butler Yeats
Back in the social media Dark Ages, when people still wrote letters, one of the greatest honors that an American could receive was to have their face plastered on a US postage stamp. Of course it was a posthumous honor given that, until recently, federal law required that you had to be dead for a few years before you could appear on that little piece of sticky paper.
As to who the US Postal Service bestows that honor on, given that any survey of the Most Important Women in American History would surely rank Susan B. Anthony at the top, and considering that last February 15 was her 200th. birthday, it’s surprising to note that the Post Office failed to observe that event by issuing a stamp in her honor, even though stamps are being bestowed this year on lesser luminaries such as Arnold Palmer and Bugs Bunny; attractions such as “The Grand Island Ice Caves”; and generic offerings for “American Gardens” and “Fruits and Vegetables.
Apparently the Post Office has taken the view that a “Women Vote” stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th. Amendment (to be issued in Seneca Falls on Aug. 26, the date the amendment was ratified) is sufficient and that it would be redundant to honor both the amendment and the women who pushed for its passage for over 50 years.
But it wasn’t that way back in 1936.
Starting at the beginning, in the nine decades after America’s first postage stamp was issued in 1847, the only women who had made an appearance on them were Martha Washington, Pocahontas, Anna McNeill Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”, the stamp commemorated Mother’s Day) and, even more far-fetched, Queen Isabella of Spain. Her Most Catholic Majesty being the first woman to be so honored in 1893, not just once, but on seven stamps. Not until 1936, with the issuance of a postage stamp featuring Susan B. Anthony did the Post Office finally recognize a woman for what she had accomplished, rather than simply for being famous for being famous.
An Anthony stamp had been sought for several years, with women’s groups such as the National Woman’s Party heading up the lobbying. Meeting with Post Office officials in 1934 and 1935, the response they received was that stamp collectors, a core constituency of the Post Office, would not be interested in an Anthony stamp. Indeed, at an American Philatelic Society convention in 1934, a postal representative went out of his way to downplay rumors that a “women’s stamp” was being considered.
Then, at some point, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became interested and, although the subsequent chain of events is obscure, it can be assumed that she had a conversation with her husband, Franklin. Reversing their previous position, in July 1936 the Post Office unexpectedly announced that “in response to thousands of requests received by the Post Office Department during the past 2 and one-half years”, a three cent first class mail stamp honoring Susan B. Anthony and commemorating women’s suffrage would be issued on August 26 (as previously-mentioned, the anniversary date of the ratification of the 19th. Amendment). Their press release stated that, not only was the stamp intended to honor Anthony because she, “was a leader in every movement which had to do with equal rights for women”, but that it also was being issued, “in recognition of women’s share in the development of this country and their social and economic responsibilities in our national life.” The announcement ignited a mini-political firestorm in certain quarters.
Conservative newspaper pundits complained that honoring a woman who many still regard as a radical (Martha, Isabella, Pocahontas and Whistler’s Mother apparently weren’t seen as threats), could lead to stamps being issued for all sorts of unthinkable subjects, like blacks and gangsters (a stamp honoring Booker T. Washington was issued four years later. No stamp for Al Capone or John Dillinger has been issued to date). Others decried the stamp as a blatantly cynical move by the Roosevelt administration to curry favor with women voters. Given that FDR was running for re-election in 1936, that it was the 16th. anniversary of the 19th. Amendment’s ratification and that 16th. anniversaries are seldom subjects for commemoration, there was probably more-than-a-little validity to that particular claim.
Wrote one skeptical commentator, “Our Postmaster-General, ever on the alert, recognizes the value of the women’s goodwill, and with Presidential balloting nigh at hand, suddenly announces a stamp to honor the memory of Susan B. Anthony….what could be a more opportune year to salute the ladies (of legal age) than 1936 with a National campaign in the offing.”
Such criticisms notwithstanding, the project went forward with the Post Office presses rolling out the pale rose stamp featuring an engraving of Anthony, and to make clear the two-fold purpose of the stamp, the banner “SUFFRAGE FOR WOMEN” in large print. Once released, even the printing style generated controversy, albeit of a more dubious nature. Some Americans complained that the stamp showed Miss Anthony in the unladylike pose of smoking a cigarette, the result of over-active imaginations misinterpreting part of the stamp’s background design.
For those of you who aren’t philatelists…OK, stamp collectors, when the Post Office issues a new stamp, it traditionally authorizes a special First Day of Issue cancellation to be used at the post office in a city selected for having a direct connection to the person or event being honored, with sales of the stamp to the rest of the country commencing the following day. When the Anthony stamp was announced, the Democrat and Chronicle, the Rochester Rotary, and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters immediately contacted the Postmaster- General staking out Rochester’s claim to First Day honors by virtue of the fact that Anthony had lived there from 1845 to her death in 1906, with her entire career working for women’s suffrage having been spent in that city.
But within a few days a dispatch was received from postal authorities telling Rochester it was out of the running and that the stamp would be issued in Washington, DC. The rationale being that, although Anthony would be featured on the stamp, ratification of the 19th. Amendment was the primary reason for its issuance. That being the case, the nation’s capitol, where the amendment had originated in Congress and ultimately been ratified, was the more appropriate city for the First Day of Issue. Rubbing salt in Rochester’s wounded pride, the tiny post office in Adams, MA, where Anthony had been born in 1820, was given permission to sell the Anthony stamp a day ahead of Rochester and the rest of the country.
The August 26 First Day of Issue ceremony in Washington featured a large crowd of women parading up the steps of the main post office, dressed in white and waving the purple, white and gold banners of the National Woman’s Party. That day 782,577 Anthony stamps were sold in Washington.
When the Rochester post office opened the next morning, hundreds were lined up to purchase the stamp. By the end of the day 60,000 had been sold. However, this was a let down for William Hunt, Rochester’s postmaster, who had initially ordered 600,000 Anthony stamps, and then added another 400,000 fearing that he wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. (This does seem overly optimistic at a time when Rochester’s population was just 325,000.) How long it took local post offices to dispose of a million stamps isn’t reported. But by the time the Anthony stamp went out of print, a total of 269,522,200 had been sold nationwide.
Over the next 20 years, the Post Office slowly, very slowly, picked up the pace of authorizing stamps to honor women. Between 1936 and 1955, 12 such stamps were issued, paying tribute to, among others, Jane Adams, Clara Barton, and in 1948, a single stamp for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt and Lucretia Mott, commemorating the “100 Years of Progress of Women” since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
Then, in 1955 Rochester got a second shot at philatelic glory. (1) Starting the year before, and extending through 1965, the Post Office began issuing the “Liberty Series”, a set of 24 stamps designed to honor the “guardians of freedom”, ranging in value from ½ cent to $5.00. (2) The 50 cent stamp it was announced would feature Susan B. Anthony, the only women to be included in the series.
This time Rochester brought out a Big Gun to battle for the city’s First Day of Issue designation. Congressman Harold Ostertag, whose district included half of Monroe County, contacted the Postmaster General requesting the honor for Rochester on the grounds that, “Many, if not most of the events which projected Miss Anthony into fame took place in Rochester, NY, where she spent most of her life. Her achievements and character still are very much a living force in Rochester and her memory is greatly honored.”
The flabbergasting response from the postal authorities was that Louisville, KY had already been selected as the First Day of Issue location, with the stamp to be released on August 25. And the reason for picking Louisville? Because the annual convention of the Society of Philatelic Americans was being held there! A far cry from the Post Office’s claim two decades earlier that stamp collectors weren’t interested in a stamp with a woman on it.
And since the August 25 date fell a day before the anniversary of the 19th. Amendment, what was the reason for picking it? Subsequently it was claimed that August 25, 1955 was the 50th anniversary of a meeting between the 85 year old Susan B. Anthony (just months prior to her death) and President Theodore Roosevelt where she unsuccessfully lobbied for his support for the women’s suffrage amendment. Indeed, to this day, that’s the official line handed out by the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. The only problem is that the story is pure bunk. The Anthony-Roosevelt meeting, widely reported, didn’t take place until November 15, 1905. Indeed, on August 25, 1905, Roosevelt was floating around under the waves of Long Island Sound, the first president to take a ride in a submarine. (3)
However, Rochester did get some publicity out of the stamp’s release. In a letter to the Democrat and Chronicle, picked up by a few out-of-town papers, Mrs. George Howard, Chairman of the Anthony Memorial, predecessor to today’s National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, pointed out that the dress Anthony was wearing on the stamp was on display at her home on Madison Street.
There matters stood (or rather sat) for the next 15 years. Then, on July 25, 1970 The Democrat and Chronicle announced that a new six cent stamp commemorating the 50th. Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th. Amendment would be released in August and, although First Day honors would once again bypass Rochester (this time going to Adams, MA of all places), the stamp would feature her picture. Plans were announced for a gala celebration led by members of the Susan B. Anthony Memorial. Four days later came the splash of cold water. The paper had gotten its facts wrong. The designer of the stamp stated that as far as picturing Anthony on the stamp, “I had nothing like that in mind” and that the stamp would simply feature a group of generic women.
That blip aside, for almost seven decades nothing more has been heard from the Post Office about putting Susan B. Anthony on another stamp. Apparently Washington has forgotten she existed. Not that there haven’t been ample opportunities to honor her once more. From 1955 to date the Post Office has issued 211 stamps honoring specific women and commemorating women’s rights events. (4) Despite numerous recent instances where she would have been a logical candidate for inclusion on a stamp, there has been no mention of Susan B.
In 1995, the Post Office issued a 32 cent stamp commemorating the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th.Amendment. No mention of Susan B.
In 1998 the Post Office issued a 32 cent stamp recognizing the 19th. Amendment as a major event of the 1920s. No mention of Susan B.
Between 2001 and 2011, the Post Office issued eight stamps honoring Distinguished American Women. No mention of Susan B.
And getting back to 2020 and the lack of a stamp commemorating the bicentennial of her birth, clearly the Post Office has once again opted to stamp ON Susan B. Anthony rather than issue a stamp FOR her.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
1. Actually, Rochester had achieved philatelic glory on July 12, 1954 when it became the First Day of Issue city for a stamp honoring George Eastman. Since then it’s also been the First Day of Issue site for stamps for prominent Americans Chester Carlson and Robert Panara, and such less notable subjects as ice boats and railroad handcars.
2. In a move that must have raised some eyebrows in the 1950s, and would be unfathomable today, among the other “guardians of freedom” included in the Liberty Series was Robert E. Lee on a 30 cent stamp!
3. Smart ass that I am, I couldn’t resist contacting the Smithsonian, asking why they were using a patently incorrect explanation for the August 25 date in their website write up of the 50 cent Anthony stamp. So far, no response.
4.The US Postal Service’s listing of Women Subjects on United States Postage Stamps can be found at:
UPDATE: An edited and reduced version of this article recently appeared in The Rochester Philatelic Association’s August-October 2020 newsletter.