Among the most interesting of the new U. S. stamps released in 2019 are those shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. New Post Office Mural forever stamps as of March 6, 2019. These have been referred to as “Post Office Lobby Artwork,” presumably after someone pointed out that the 1936 “Kiowas Moving Camp” image in the post office at Anadarko is actually just one of 16 variously sized tempera-on-canvas panels depicting native life in Oklahoma.
The five stamps commemorate post office murals created during the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The artists for these wonderful original works of Americana were paid to create them during the Great Depression under a special program administered by the Treasury Department. The murals depicted on these new stamps and the post offices for which they were painted include “Kiowas Moving Camp” (1936) Anadarko, Oklahoma; “Mountains and Yucca” (1937) Deming, New Mexico; “Antelope” (1939) Florence, Colorado; “Sugarloaf Mountain” (1940) Rockville, Maryland; and “Air Mail” (1941) in Piggott, Arkansas, where the five stamps are being issued. Art Director Antonio Alcalá was the designer for these new USPS forever stamps, and they are being released as a pane often.
The murals selected for the new stamps were among some 1,400 commissioned for federal post office buildings in more than 1,300 cities across the United States during FDR’s New Deal efforts to combat the Great Depression. The works themselves were typically to be in the form of large size oil paintings on canvas, about 12 feet wide by 5 feet high, so that they could be easily viewed, with the goal being to depict American culture, everyday life and scenery in a realistic manner appropriate for each local community. Post offices were selected for displaying this art as being the government buildings that were most often visited by the public.
Figure 2. “The Stamp Collectors” was the title of this 1954 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover painted by Stevan Dohanos, who went on to design 40 U.S. postage stamps and serve as design coordinator for the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.
So what about the artists engaged to create these works? Among these was Stevan Dohanos, a talented young artist then in his late 20s. Dohanos would later go on to fame as a painter of over 125 iconic Saturday Evening Post covers, including the stamp collecting-themed magazine cover in Figure 2. Interestingly, he was also the designer of some 40 U.S. postage stamps and ultimately became design coordinator for the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.
Dohanos seems to have had a delightful whimsical streak, since among the 24 hand-painted essays he submitted for the 1937 5¢ Army-Navy stamp design competition were some that featured an Army mule and Navy goat!
Figure 3. Exterior and interior views of the post office in Piggott, Arkansas, the latter showing how the “Air Mail” mural enhanced the entrance to the Postmaster’s office.
Having said something about the art, what about the post office buildings where it is currently housed? A good example of the many post offices constructed during the New Deal is the one built in Piggott, Arkansas during 1937. This is shown in Figure 3 along with an interior view showing the wonderful “Air Mail” mural used for one of the new stamps.
So how do we know that FDR had such a strong personal interest in post offices around the country? For one, few people realize that, among other things, as president he was very involved in selecting the design for the new post office building in Hyde Park, New York which employed a Dutch Colonial style.
Figure 4. FDR’s personal collection of 138 covers mailed to him commemorating U.S. Post Office Dedications from 1934 to 1942 as offered in Lot 403 from the H. R. Harmer February 5, 1946, auction of FDR philatelic material.
There is also evidence in the auction catalog entries describing his extensive stamp collection. This was sold in four H. R. Harmer sales during 1946 after his death. Among the lot descriptions related to post offices is the one shown in Figure 4 from the first part of the sale.
As a specialist collector of the FDR era, I feel fortunate in having a number of items from his personal stamp collection, including the cacheted cover shown in Figure 5. This cachet is for the 157th anniversary of National Post Office Day and the cover was mailed to FDR while he was still the Governor of New York State on July 26, 1932, from New London, Connecticut. Note that it was the postmaster of New London who was the sender, as indicated by the autograph above the circular date stamp.
Figure 5. A National Post Office Day cover sent to FDR on July 26, 1932, from New London, Connecticut.
Figure 6. A first day cover to FDR for a new post office in Henderson, Nevada.
A later example of a cover concerning post offices is one sent to FDR by airmail on January 10, 1944, as shown in Figure 6. The cachet indicates that this is a “first day” cover celebrating the opening of a new post office for Henderson, Nevada, “home of the world’s largest magnesium plant,” which produced a key strategic material used in World War II aircraft production. The elaborate address on the cover to FDR appears to have been created using one of the fancy engineering lettering sets that were popular back in the day when slide rules reigned supreme.
Finally, there is other documentary evidence of FDR’s interest in post offices, such as the June 28, 1933, letter from Louis McHenry Howe on official watermarked White House stationery shown in Figure 7. In the letter Howe thanks a Mr. Kinicke on FDR’s behalf for sending “the cachet which was made in connection with the new post office building at New Kensington,” Pennsylvania.
Figure 7. A signed White House letter of June 28, 1933, from Louis Howe, from the author’s collection.
By way of background, Howe was FDR’s oldest and closest political advisor, with an official title of Secretary to the President, a role equivalent to White House Chief of State today. In fact, Howe lived in the White House, occupying the Lincoln Bedroom, and was a very colorful figure in his own right. For example, he was often accused of being FDR’s Svengali, and due to his small stature (5 foot 4 inches and less than 100 pounds) and pockmarked face, his nickname was the “Medieval Gnome.” Having a robust sense of humor, Howe would sometimes answer his White House telephone “this is the Medieval Gnome speaking” and had business cards printed up that read “Colonel Louis Rasputin Voltaire Talleyrand Simon Legree Howe.”
Once, when the New Deal’s strong support for public art and artists was called into question, famed WPA administrator Harry Hopkins famously responded that “artists have got to eat just like other people.” Today we are all beneficiaries of the generous attitude toward public art fostered by FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, many of these post offices and the public art they contain are under threat, so when possible, please make an effort to locate one of the New Deal-era public murals in a post office building near you and pay it a visit . . . or at least consider purchasing some of these wonderful new Post Office mural stamps.
For further information on New Deal projects, visit https://livingnewdeal.org
Editor's Note: The “F.D.R. Would Have Loved the New Post Office Mural Stamps” article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.