Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series
You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season.
Located in Gallery 6 on the lower level of the Museum, Beautiful Blooms: Flowering Plants on Stamps marks the first collaborative effort between the National Postal Museum and Smithsonian Gardens. Designed to commemorate the issuance of U.S. stamps featuring American botanicals, it displays 33 original pieces of conceptual art alongside the floral stamps they helped to develop.
The exhibit is colorful and uplifting and not only for the sheer beauty of the illustrations. Touring the artworks, I was struck by the decades of effort that have gone in to creating the stamps, for the sole purpose of raising awareness for our nation’s natural beauty.
Multi-color printing helped pave the way
Although the first U.S. stamps to depict flowers (as a frame) date back to 1920, flowers themselves appeared rarely in designs until the late 1950’s. This is when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing installed a series of new printing presses that enabled multicolor stamp printing.
Following the adoption of this revolutionary printing process, the U.S. and Japan in 1960 issued a joint stamp commemorating the centennial of the United States – Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The 4-cent stamp featured pink cherry blossoms with the Washington Monument silhouetted in blue in the background.
Flowers became a central motif in 1966 with the launch of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America. Under her initiative, the Johnson administration, through the U.S. Post Office Department, issued a series of floral stamps to raise awareness (and funds) for the beautification of public spaces.
To develop the stamp design, several artists submitted color concept drawings for staff to review. Lady Bird, herself, played a key role in selecting the final images.
Concept art for 1966 stamp publicizing Beautify America campaign
In 1969, following the success of the first Beautify America stamp, a series of 4 stamps was issued to draw attention to public spaces at all government levels, from the federal to the state and local. Expanding on the theme, the winning images drew on a wider variety of species, including such iconic American plants as daffodils, tulips and cherry trees.
Approved art for 1969 stamp series
As a result of Lady Bird’s efforts (and sales of the stamps), the United States added thousands of flowering trees and plants to public roadways and parks during this period.
Four Seasons of Garden Flowers
In 1992, the USPS issued a sheet of 50, 29-cent stamps, featuring wildflowers from each of the fifty United States. In dedicating the Wildflower stamps, then- assistant postmaster general Gordon Morison said:
“Starting today, millions of wildflower stamps will begin blooming in the upper right corner of cards and letters. As these stamps blanket the postal landscape, they will carry two messages. One is the personal message written on the card or letter inside the envelope. The other is the message of the stamps themselves – that our nation’s wildflowers add natural grace and beauty to our lives.”
The stamps turned out to be so popular that the service subsequently created the Garden Flowers series of stamps, one for each season, featuring flowers typically found in the American garden. The series ran from 1993 to 1996.
Conceptual art for the 1993-1996 Garden Flowers stamp series
Apparently the USPS is no stranger to the link between flowering plants and their pollinators. In 2007, artists submitted designs for a stamp representing the symbiotic relationship between the two. The beautiful image (below) was not chosen, but represents one of the conceptual drawings for the Pollination stamp.
Concept image for Pollinator stamp series
The final stamps, a stunning digital compilation of images, featured horticultural illustrations seen from two different perspectives; one with pollinators in the center and the other with flowers as the central motif.
2007 Pollinator stamp series
Birds in the Garden Series
The creators of the 1982 Birds in the Garden series were Arthur and Alan Singer, the first-known father and son team to develop art for a U.S. stamp series. Their conceptual designs drew attention to the integral role birds play in the garden in controlling pests, aiding in pollination and adding color and beauty to the landscape. Arthur created the bird designs and Alan created the flowers.
A stamp in the 1982 Birds in the Garden U.S. stamp series
At the time of their issue, the Birds in the Garden stamps were the best-selling stamps in U.S. postal history.
The launch of the Rose Series
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan designated the rose, one of the most common images found on stamps worldwide, as the official flower and floral emblem of the United States. In 1988, Illustrator Richard Sheaff developed this concept art (one of many) for the 25-cent Love stamp. He based his drawing on a series of photographs of roses.
Concept art for 1988 25-cent Love stamp
By the 1990s, the rose stamp was being issued in numerous formats, including books, panes and coils. Artist Gyo Fujikawa created the 3rd, 4th and 5th designs.
The Rose stamp continues to be one of the most popular images sold.
Flowering Trees Series
These beautiful pieces of concept art immediately call to mind the images of Audubon. The stamp series featured flowering trees native to different geographic regions of North America portrayed in an old-fashioned botanical print style.
Approved art for Pacific Dogwood stamp
Final 32-cent stamp
The Botanical Congress
I wasn’t aware that there was a Congress devoted solely to botanicals, but the International Botanical Congress (IBC) meets every six years to discuss plant sciences research and nomenclature issues. It is tradition for the country hosting the event to issue a stamp in its honor.
These developmental artworks commemorate the 11th IBC held in 1969 in Seattle Washington. It was the first time Latin names had been used on botanical stamps.
1969 Botanical Congress commemorative stamp
For more information on this lovely exhibit, click here for The National Postal Museum’s website. On view now through July 14, 2019. The Museum is located directly across from Union Station.