Figure 1. The U.S. Postal Service issued its first Love stamp, reproducing Robert Indiana’s iconic 1966 “Love” sculpture as an 8¢ stamp in 1973, Scott 1475.
Looking back today, 18 years later, it seems almost too obvious. If we must have Love stamps — and we must; they’ve proven very popular with postal patrons — then how could the U.S. Postal Service overlook the very letters that are its livelihood?
The first Love stamps dedicated to love letters were introduced in 2001, 28 years after the USPS issued Robert Indiana’s iconic “Love” design as an 8¢ stamp in 1973 (Scott 1475 - Figure 1). But in fact the best U.S. stamps concerning the power of the letter were released 27 years earlier: eight 10¢ stamps issued in 1974, just the year after that first Love stamp, in conjunction with the centennial of the Universal Postal Union.
This block of eight, Scott 1537a, includes images by distinguished artists including Michelangelo, Gainsborough and Goya underscoring the theme that “Letters Mingle Souls” [Figure 2]. That line was coined by the English poet John Donne, in the opening to his poem To Sir Henry Wotton: “… more than kisses, letters mingle souls, / For thus, friends absent speak…”
It is in precisely that spirit that the letters of John and Abigail Adams were the perfect subject of the 2001 Love Stamps. To gauge their importance in the lives of these remarkable people, visit the website of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where 1,160 of the letters they now curate may be viewed and their transcriptions read at leisure.
Figure 2. This block of eight 10-cent stamps released in 1974 for the centennial of the Universal Postal Union, Scott 1537a, underscores the theme that “Letters Mingle Souls.”
Mystic Stamp accurately says of these writings, “Frequently separated, John and Abigail Adams stayed connected to one another through witty, newsy, passionate letters.”
That is true, though most of the passion was over affairs of state, deeds and misdeeds of influential men, and current events at the farm. John regarded Abigail not only as a loving spouse upon whose support he relied, but as an astute adviser on matters political as well, and the two corresponded as eyewitnesses to most of the events of their age. Their marriage endured more than 50 years, with the last letters sent between them in1801, as John left the White House.
There were, indeed, a few letters between John Adams and Abigail Smith in which love played a role during their courtship of 1762-64, beginning with the first and oldest in the collection, this brief note (with the original underlining included) from 1762:
Dr. Miss Jemima
I have taken the best Advice, on the subject of your Billet, and I find you cannot compell me to pay unless I refuse Marriage; which I never did, and never will, but on the Contrary am ready to have you at any Time.
I hope Jemima’s Conscience has as good a Memory as mine.
The reference to “Jemima” is Biblical. “Jemima was one of three beautiful daughters (as Abigail was), of Job, named in the Bible as given to him in the later part of his life, after God made Job prosperous again. Jemima, along with her sisters, were described as the most beautiful women in the land.” The “Dr.” – perhaps an abbreviation for “Dear” – also may have been John’s honorific, implying his abiding respect for Abigail, for her wisdom and ability to hold her own with him, even in disagreement, a loving, lifelong talent that is formidably displayed throughout the rest of the archive.
As for the stamps of 2001, the back-story on them was best laid out by George Amick in Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbook 2001 (pages 160-169), published by Linn’s Stamp News. The extensive quotation that follows is published here by the kind permission of Amos Media Co.:
“The designs for the 2001 Love stamps emerged from a lengthy process involving Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland, [then] one of the Postal Service’s part-time art directors, and a former associate, Lisa Catalone, who now operates her own firm, Catalone Design Co., also in Bethesda.
The USPS honored prolific letterwriters President John Adams and wife Abigail on Love Letters stamps in 2001. Their signatures appear on 22¢ U.S. stamps including one from an Ameripex Presidential sheet, Scott 2216b, and Abigail’s 1985 stamp, Scott 2146.
“Catalone is a stamp collector, and thus Kessler felt it would be particularly appropriate to call on her for help to fill an ongoing Postal Service need: a need for designs for… Love stamps.
“‘The Love stamp is a perfect place where people can play with ideas a little bit and feel free in terms of what techniques they use,’ Kessler said. ‘I knew Lisa had an appreciation for stamps and for the scale of them, and she’s a terrific designer. So I gave her the challenge of working on a Love stamp.’
Figure 3. Because the amount of the rate increase was unknown until less than two weeks before the stamps were issued January 19 in Tucson, this “USA First-Class” Love Letter convertible booklet stamp (Scott 3496) was printed without its value, which is 34 cents.
“Among the approaches tried by Catalone was a montage in which objects associated with love and romance — hearts, wedding rings, seals, ribbons — were incorporated in the word ‘LOVE’ as replacements for the ‘O’ or the ‘V,’ all photographed against a background of calligraphy.
“‘When I presented that direction to the [Citizens’ Stamp Advisory] Committee, they were interested, but they wanted the writing to be more legible,’ Kessler recalled. ‘Well, the copy Lisa used wasn’t meant to be readable; it was meant to be background texture. But one of the members said something about how frustrating it was not to be able to read it, and it was suggested that Lisa get something that one could read, something handwritten.’
“‘And then, all of a sudden, it made all the sense in the world. It was one of those group light bulbs going off. Love letters!’
“Among those who suggested using the [John] Adams − [Abigail] Smith letters [between the future President and his First-Lady-To-Be] were Virginia Noelke, chair of CSAC, and Louis Plummer, a co-owner of PhotoAssist, the Postal Service’s research firm. Ethel Kessler believes that the idea was validated in her own mind because she had met author David McCullough at the first day ceremony for the Library of Congress stamp in April 2000 and learned that he was completing a biography of John Adams that would be published in 2001. ‘Definitely, there was a cosmic coincidence there someplace,’ she laughed."
A brief quote at the Catalone Design website encapsulates Lisa’s experience with the Love Letters stamps: “Patience can be a virtue when it comes to love, and this was certainly the case with Catalone Design’s contribution to the U.S. Postal Service’s Love stamp series. It took three years from the initial conversations about the stamp to its eventual release.” As Kessler herself conceded, “It was a far more complicated little project than it might seem.”
Letters were selected not for significance or historical importance, but strictly for legibility. Transparencies of readable letters from the MHS archives were printed on heavy paper to replicate as accurately as possible the look of the originals, and sections were examined and selected for readability at the intended scale of the stamps. On these were superimposed “L VE” and the photograph of the red rose in place of the “O” by Renee Comet of Washington, D.C., manipulated so as to cast apparent shadows on the letters behind them.
Sadly, after all the trouble taken to acquire authentic letters from one of America’s first power couples, no note was made of it on any of the stamps. Text on the convertible booklet covers mentions only the USPS website. As Catalone lamented, “It’s too bad that people don’t know they’re historic letters.” Those that did probably were collectors or historians.
Banknote Corporation of America (BCA) printed the vertically formatted stamps on its Goebel 670 offset press. The “USA First-Class” stamps (Scott 3496) were released January 19 at the ARIPEX 2001 stamp show in Tucson, Arizona (Figure 3). The lack of a specific denomination came about because the new 34¢ letter rate was announced on January 7, and designs displaying the new value could not be prepared, printed and delivered in only 12 days. Some 25 million 20-stamp convertible booklets of these non-denominated stamps were printed.
Figure 4. Denominated 34 cents, these Love Letter stamps from convertible booklets (left, Scott 3497) and vending booklets (Scott 3498) were issued on Valentine’s Day 2001.
Figure 5. Issued in Lovejoy, Georgia, was this horizontally formatted 55¢ Love Letter stamp (Scott 3499) with a detail from a letter from Abigail. This two-ounce first-class stamp was ideal for overweight wedding invitations with enclosed RSVP cards and return envelopes.
Figure 6. When a rate hike July 1, 2001, raised the two-ounce letter rate by 2 cents, the USPS printed this 57¢ Love Letter stamp, Scott 3551, in a grayish shade.
On February 14, 2001, three other Love Letter stamps were released in the town of Lovejoy, Georgia, population at that date about 2,500. Also printed by BCA, these included 1.5 billion 34¢ stamps in convertible booklets of 20 (Scott 3497) arranged five across and four down; 80 million 34¢ stamps in vending booklets of 20 (Scott 3498) arranged in two panes of four and two panes of six within an 11-inch-long booklet (Figure 4); and 180 million horizontally configured 55-cent stamps (Scott 3499) paying the two-ounce rate frequently required for wedding invitations that include RSVP cards and envelopes (Figure 5).
Figure 7. This printed 34¢ Lovebirds stamp appeared on No. 6. and No. 10 stamped envelopes, Scott U647, also issued on Valentine’s Day 2001 in Lovejoy.
After that rate increased on July 1, 2001, 100 million 57¢ stamps were printed by BCA on a MAN Roland 300 offset press (Scott 3551) with gray added to the color mix to differentiate it from its 55¢ predecessor (Figure 6). It was issued November 19, at Lovejoy, Georgia. In all, 2.36 billion of these Love Letters stamps were printed, more than 12 times the number of UPU Centennial stamps of 1974.
In addition, No. 6. and No. 10 envelopes with a stamped offset-printed violet and purple 34¢ Lovebirds design, Scott U647, were produced by Westvaco in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania (Figure 7). Some 15 million of each size were manufactured and shared the first-day spotlight on Valentine’s Day 2001 in Lovejoy, Georgia. The design was regarded as so selfevident that the word “Love” was not needed. I’d like to think John and Abigail would have agreed.