Carol Gordon was a different kind of cachetmaker, a professional graphic artist capable of exquisite subtlety and understated elegance who could also imbue her cachets with bold images and thought-provoking words. She created distinctive covers that we can appreciate for their artistry and for their social awareness.
From the beginning Gordon derived inspiration for her cachets from a wide range of times and cultures. In a 1981 letter to Richard A. Monty, Carol wrote “I produced my first First Day Cover cachet for the Indian Masks issue of September 25, 1980 … because of a long standing interest in folk art.” Although folk art continued to be a major source of design inspiration, her sources soon expanded to include nearly every aspect of human culture, especially history, science and the fine and performing arts.
Carol was born Carol Louise Thompson in Los Angeles on November 28, 1938. She received her B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, before moving to New York to study art history at The Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. While there, she married Gregory ‘Greg’ Gordon at Niagara Falls in 1965. She and Greg were active in the American First Day Cover Society (AFDCS) in the 1980s; together she and Greg regularly coordinated AFDCS activities at West Coast shows including STAMP EXPO ’82 and ’83. Carol was instrumental in founding the Southern California-based Claude C. Ries Chapter 48 of the AFDCS and served as its first president. Members fondly described Carol as a free spirit, almost hippie-like, quiet and soft-spoken. Perhaps she let her covers speak for her.
Figure 1. One of Carol’s notices to subscribers announces a set of cachets featuring 50 state birds: “The Bird in Nature and Imagination,” published April 14, 1982. Cachets draw inspiration from sources as varied as Greek coins, a 14th century playing card, Plains Indian drums, and more.
In 1980, Gordon began selling her first day covers (FDC) under the name Covers by Carol Gordon from her base in Santa Monica, California. She advertised extensively, placing ads in hobby publications, sending lists of available and upcoming editions and mailing notices to subscribers for special sets (Figure 1). By January 1985, she was doing business as Carol Gordon Cachets and offered a subscription service. With a $25.00 deposit, you could receive each issue as soon as it became available, plus updated lists of available covers and advance notice of special limited combinations and unofficial cancels. After a brief move to Toledo, Ohio, from late 1987 to 1989, Carol returned to California for the remainder of her career.
Figure 2. Eleanor Roosevelt (Scott 2105) with Adlai Stevenson (Scott 1275), United Nations (Scott 928) and Dag Hammarskjold (Scott 1203). Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission after World War II and inspired it to adopt the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” whose text appears on the cachet. Four portraits of Eleanor, superimposed on the Declaration, complete this basic design, typical of early 1980s cachets.
Carol’s earliest and most basic cachets consist of a bold but simple and relatively conventional graphic design. Carol researched each issue extensively, then hand-lettered facts and narratives on the front and back of each cachet. Each cover was offset-printed in one or more colors in a limited edition of 100 or fewer. Most were then signed, named and numbered on the reverse side. The cachet usually included a title, some simple text with her initials ‘CG’ discreetly integrated into the design, and little to no hand coloring. Most of her cachets from the early 1980s reflect this unadorned basic style. By the mid-1980s, Carol was experimenting with a simple mix of images and text of an historic or celebratory nature with minor hand coloring (Figure 2). By 1992 most of her covers were printed only in black with color added by hand, usually in colored pencil.
From the beginning of her career, Carol’s covers stood out for their unusually large sizes and hand-crafted quality. She made her own envelopes, generally from natural white paper, although she used pink, tan, blue, and gray envelopes on occasion. Carol used an unorthodox size of 5¼ x 7¼ inches to accommodate larger U.S. Postal Service stamp formats and size varieties, including oversize blocks of four, commemorative booklets, and plate blocks. But she also created many cachets on custom-cut cardstock measuring 7 x 9¾ inches or larger.
Figure 3. Frida Kahlo (Scott 3509) combination with Georgia O’Keefe (Scott 3069), Louise Nevelson (Scott 3381) and Alexander Calder (Scott 3200). Gordon copied the main image from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Roots, a 1943 painting in which Kahlo depicts her torso opening up like a window and giving birth to a vine. It is her dream of being able to give birth as a childless woman. Also depicts the temple at Teotihuacán and an Aztec mask found there.
Carol loved to create combinations of official first day of issue (FDOI) and unofficial (UO) cancellations and combinations of U.S. and foreign stamps (Figure 3). While many of the stamp combinations were planned in advance, she often put together a limited number of ad hoc combinations at the last minute. Carol was equally fond of mixing FDOI and UO cancels, especially in the 1980s. She obtained the cancels in person, from USPS Fulfillment Services or in cooperation with other cachetmakers and collectors.
Gordon’s Golden Age
Figure 4. Published in the late 1980s, this subscription notice for Carol Gordon Cachets describes Carol’s philosophy towards her cachetmaking: “Each cover is a new and unexpected experience . . . No pre-conceived formats. Each cover combines the enduring qualities of good design, concepts based on extensive research, low production, and careful servicing.”
Figure 5. Billie Holiday (Scott 2856). Gordon’s most disturbing and thoughtprovoking cover appears simple but has a complex story. It features a portrait of Holiday based on a 1936 photograph by Robin Carson with a vignette of Ku Klux Klan members and a burning cross. However, it is the backdrop that shocks: four African Americans lynched from a tree, inspired by Harry Sternberg’s 1991 woodcut Strange Fruit: Lynching by the KKK and the poem Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol (1937) that protests the lynching of African Americans. The poem was subsequently set to music and first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. The cachet title “let me convert your soul” comes from “Preachin’ the Blues,” music and lyrics by Blues great Bessie Smith.
The 1990s witnessed the creation of Carol’s most creative, complex, and thought-provoking cachets. Her goal was to provide an “alternative to the typical mass-produced cachet” and bring “a critical perspective to what the Postal Service celebrates” rather than create pretty pictures (Figure 4). Many of her cachets began to display a powerful social conscience, using words and images to express strong opinions about people, places and contemporary subjects. Human rights (Figure 5), Women’s issues (Figure 6), environmental advocacy (Figure 7), and anti-war sentiments (Figure 8) crystallized as major themes that recur throughout the second half of her career.
Figure 6 (top-left). Breast Cancer Awareness (Scott 3081). This cachet is a reimagined health poster illustrating the causes of breast cancer and the effects of environmental pollution. The words at the top are from the last two lines of the chorus in the popular song “I Am Woman”: “If I have to I can face anything/I am strong/I am invincible/I am woman.”
Figure 7 (top-right). Endangered (Scott 3105). Gordon expressed her vision of mutualism — a relationship between two species of organisms in which both benefit from the association. Using a Day-of-the-Dead-inspired skull, she reminds us that when one of the species disappears the other may become extinct as well. One cover from a set of five.
Figure 8. World War II (Scott 2981). Gordon created six cachets for this series. The 1995 cover features a skeleton holding a cross that chronicles events and people of 1945. She drew on many sources for the cachet. Quotes from the poet Saito Sanki and from Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, form the border. The black and white figures are from a 1919 lithograph by Kathe Kőllwitz titled Mothers. Hieronymus Bosch’s Messenger of the Devil from his painting The Temptation of St. Anthony (c.1500) appears in the lower right corner.
Figure 9 (bottom-right). United Nations 50th Anniversary (Scott 2974). Gordon’s haunting images in “Postcard from the Global Village” commemorate the United Nations’ efforts to provide relief to civilian victims of civil war in Somalia.
Noted collector Robert Lewin believes that Carol may be the most significant cachetmaker of at least the last 25 years, not for her artistic talent but for the content of her cachets. He wrote “that there are fairly few cachets that are more substantive … Carol had no fear and spoke her mind through her art, and comments... on the reverse [side of her covers], without hesitation or reservation.” It only takes one look at her cachet for the anniversary of the United Nations (Figure 9) to realize that Carol had found her voice.
(Photo courtesy Michael Luzzi of the Ries Chapter of AFDCS.)
Carol produced her final cachets in 2004 — a set of four covers for the Cloudscapes issue. During the course of her 25-year career Carol — a prolific cachetmaker and fascinating artist — created over 600 different cachets, encompassing roughly 1,100 U.S. stamps. She died on February 19, 2014, in Los Angeles, California, age 75.
Carol’s son Chris remembers that his mother had a great sense of both her audience and her mission. In 2019, he wrote “I know she sometimes felt that she did obscure work within an obscure branch of a specialized hobby, but always hoped to reach a larger audience through the scope and quality of her work.”
Thank you to Chris Gordon and Robert Lewin for sharing their reflections on Carol Gordon and her legacy.
Further Reading and References
American First Day Cover Society. “Carol Gordon” file, c. 1985. Retrieved from the American Philatelic Research Library.
Benson, Paul H. “Carol Gordon Cachets,” First Days, 55, no. 8 (2010): 62-65.
Bergen, Edward B. “Hand Crafted, Limited Edition Cachets for the $2.40 Priority Mail Stamp,” First Days, 39, no. 7 (1994): 530.
Gordon, Carol. “Among the Saguaro — First Day in Tucson,” First Days, 27, no. 3 (1982): 338-339.
Gordon, Carol. “Cachetmaker’s Positive Experience’ in ‘Birds and Flowers II,” First Days, 28, no. 4 (1983): 654–657.
Gordon, Carol. “Citius, Attius, Fortius…Olympic First Day Ceremony,” First Days, 28, no. 7 (1983): 1082–1083.
Jones, Susan. “A Tribute to Carol Gordon.” The Ries Chapter, AFDCS. Modified in 2018. www.rieschapterafdcs.com/carol-gordon-tribute.html.
Jones, Susan. “Carol Gordon’s Death Reported,” First Days, 63, no. 6 (2018): 69.
Jones, Susan. “Science and the Cachetmaker: Carol Gordon,” Topical Time, 70, no. 1 (2019): 49–56.
Sumpter, William A. “The West Coast Connection,” First Days, 33, no. 3 (April 15, 1988): 370, 372–374.
Editor's Note: The “Carol Gordon, Cachetmaker” article was published in the March 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - stay tuned for more columns and articles from 2020, and read the full March issue here. Happy Women's History Month!