Whenever a list of 100 books is polled for the most popular, Little Women by Louis May Alcott consistently wins. And in contemplating a group of 1940 stamps to honor Famous American authors, Alcott did make the cut.
But it was Samuel L. Clemens (alias Mark Twain) who jump-started the philatelic project that led to the five-stamp Famous Authors section of the larger seven-part, 35-stamp Famous Americans series of 1940.
Figure 1a. The box label to a version of the Game of Authors published in the 1890s by J.H. Singer of New York. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was the only author in the Famous Americans stamp series to appear on a game box. Ironically, this version of the game didn’t feature portraits of the authors, and Twain wasn’t included at all.
Figure 1b. Instruction card for the first Game of Authors in 1861, published by G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith in Salem, Massachusetts.
A Missouri congressman requested a stamp to honor Twain in 1934, to no encouragement. But Michael L. Eidsness Jr. took up the idea of honoring famous Americans who weren’t in politics or the military. Writing in Stamps magazine in 1935, he singled out authors: “Napoleon Bonaparte was correct in his judgment that writers, like military characters, devote themselves to ideal service. No citizen who is familiar with the chronicle of his country can forget the obligation he owes to the literary class.” Combining poets, novelists and journalists, he came up with a list of 54 men and 12 women (citing Turkey, which had honored famous woman on stamps).
The idea acquired traction – Robert E. Fellers, Superintendent of the Division of Stamps, at a joint meeting in Chicago of the Gateway Philatelic Society and the North Shore Philatelic Club, on November 16, 1936, promised, “We realize that recognition must soon be given to outstanding men of arts; Mark Twin deserves a place in stamp history, and many others in the arts will be recognized.”
Thereafter, there were rumors of stamps to honor heroes of peace, then one for Stephen Foster, then one for Frances E. Willard. The Post Office Department was apparently awaiting the results of a series of popular polls to select candidates for 10 stamps. Results of the polls appeared in Stamps and on the weekly radio program sponsored by the National Federal of Stamp Clubs and National Broadcasting Company. The responses had been overwhelming, and so the new plan – announced by Capt. Tim Healy on radio, July 8, 1939 – was for seven classifications of fame, with five stamps issued for each.
Figure 2. Right, an envelope for the set of author cards published by Walter J. Conrath. Left, the 1-cent Conrath photograph of Washington Irving. Conrath took photos of the stamps as shown here to embellish stamp albums.
Postmaster General James A. Farley announced on July 18, 1939, the names of the 35 individuals to be honored in the categories of authors, poets, artists, educators, inventors, composers and scientists. The author honorees were the top five recorded in the National Federation of Stamp Clubs poll. The individuals chosen in the other categories came from the top 10 in the poll. The poll’s results happened to match Eidness’ short list of authors and poets from 1935, but now they were ratified by ordinary Americans (or at least those who listened to station WEAF and NBC’s Red Network).
Would the public today choose Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel L. Clemens, as well as Alcott? Doubtful, but who would we choose? The Game of Authors has several decades of candidates to choose from, including our Famous five – and a bounty of collectible cards besides.
The Game of Authors (Figure 1) is one of the original Go, Fish style of games, invented by “a coterie of bright young ladies” of Salem, Massachusetts, and published in 1861 by A. Augustus Smith (in partnership with G.M. Whipple). That first game included cards for just one of the “Famous American authors,” Washington Irving. And, over time, he proved to be the evergreen choice. In a sampling of 38 publishers of the game from 1861 to 1987 (representing more than 100 editions), Irving was included by 30 of the companies. Second was Cooper who was chosen by 26; but the next most popular was Twain, who was chosen by 17 publishers; then Emerson, 16; and last was Alcott, 14.
Not all versions of the game had portraits of the authors, but beginning in the 1870s most did. And it is instructive that the images chosen to represent the authors were often derived from the same sources as the Famous Americans stamps (Figure 2). We showcase here images of the actual stamps (which were issued and denominated in birth order) with the original photos that the portraits were based on, and cards from the Game of Authors.
Figure 3. The 1-cent Washington Irving stamp; a Washington Irving card from The Improved Game of Star Authors (1887) by McLoughlin Brothers, New York; the 1861 Matthew Brady photograph of an earlier daguerreotype by John Plumbe, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The 1-cent green stamp appeared January 29, 1940, and featured Washington Irving (1783-1859), a leading figure in the Knickerbocker Group, the first school of American authors (Figure 3). The group took its name from the character Dietrich Knickerbocker in Irving's A History of New York. Other Irving works include Life of George Washington and the popular short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Irving’s portrait was engraved by Leo C. Kauffmann, after an 1861 photograph by Matthew Brady of a circa 1855 daguerreotype by John Plumbe.
Figure 4. The 2-cent James Fenimore Cooper stamp; A “James Fennimore [sic] Cooper” card from The Improved Game of Star Authors (1887); the Matthew Brady photograph of Cooper, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The 2-cent rose carmine, appearing the same day, was of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), best known for his descriptions of the early American frontier (Figure 4). He wrote The Pioneers in 1823. His most enduring and endearing works are the Leatherstocking Tales featuring the character Natty Bumppo: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841).
Cooper’s portrait was engraved by Harry B. Rollins, from an 1850 daguerreotype by Brady.
Figure 5. The 3-cent Ralph Waldo Emerson stamp; two Emerson cards, the first (right) from the 1897 Game of Authors published by Parker Brothers, of Salem, Massachusetts, and one (above) from the Improved Game of Star Authors (1887); the Warren photograph of Emerson.
The 3-cent red purple, offered for sale February 5, was of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a leading light among the transcendentalists, a primarily New England-centered group that strove to combine religion, philosophy and nature in a uniquely American body of literature (Figure 5). Among Emerson's many essays were “Nature” and “Self-Reliance.”
Emerson’s portrait was engraved by Gilroy Roberts from a photograph taken in Boston at the Warren studio. The second card shown in Figure 5 is from the Improved Game of Star Authors (1887), which apparently used a photograph, perhaps from the same Warren photo shoot, but reproduced as a lithograph in the 1885 biography by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Figure 6. The 5-cent Louisa May Alcott stamp; an Alcott card from the McLoughlin 1887 Game of Star Authors, clearly copied from the Warren photograph, with the cross at her throat emphasized, and her head turning more to profile; the Warren’s Portraits of Boston photograph of Alcott, circa 1870.
The 5-cent blue appeared the same day as the 3-cent stamp honoring Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) whose most famous stories are the semi-autobiographical Little Women and Little Men (Figure 6). Another of her published works is Hospital Sketches, a recollection of her experiences as a nurse in the American Civil War. She also worked tirelessly for the temperance and women's suffrage movements.
John Eissler engraved the portrait, which was taken from a photograph of Louisa May Alcott, circa 1872, by George Kendall Warren, 465 Washington St., Boston – changing the direction of her head, and replacing a cross at her collar with a cameo broach.
Figure 7. The 10-cent Samuel L. Clemens stamp; a Clemens/Twain card from the McLoughlin 1887 Game of Star Authors, using a well-known photograph of a much younger man, perhaps from an 1871 session in the Library of Congress Brady-Handy photograph collection (see the image on J.H. Singer’s Game of Authors in Figure 1); the Ciaron photograph of Twain.
And, finally, on February 13, Mark Twain got his stamp. The 10-cent brown pictures Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), possibly the most popular author in his time (Figure 7). His many works include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the non-fiction book Life on the Mississippi.
Charles A. Brooks engraved the portrait, using a half-tone reproduction of a photograph found in the Washington D.C. public library, identified as taken by A. Ciaron, Florida. The pose is very similar to one taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907.
Because the Author stamps were issued in 1940, some of the interesting uses include war-time restrictions and the development of international airmail. First day ceremonies were arranged at places that connected with the lives of the authors. Shown is a sampling of interesting covers featuring our famous wordsmiths (Figures 8-12).
Figure 8. Walter J. Frey, a druggist in Cincinnati, mailed a letter February 19, 1940, from Saint Bernard (an independent community within greater Cincinnati) to an exporter and importer in Gibraltar. To make the 5-cent UPU surface rate, he chose two Irvings and an Emerson. Note the Gibraltar censorship, March 7, 1940. Britain had been at war with Germany since September 1939. British overseas censors examined the letter, gluing on a label at left.
Figure 9. A single Cooper provides the 2-cent local rate within Albany, N.Y. on September 5, 1941 – an envelope that probably held an insurance policy payment.
Figure 10. A New Yorker addressed a letter to Seattle, Washington on October 3, 1940, specifying “airmail” – a hand stamp to that effect was added, with 2 Emersons that would fly the mail from coast to coast, postmarked October 3, 1940.
Figure 11. A hand-painted first day of issue cachet dated February 5, 1940, from Louis May Alcott’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. It features Alcott’s house that was at the time maintained by the Concord Women’s Club. The design was by George G. Schelter of Clearwater, Florida and Rochester, New York (Art Cover Exchange number 213).
Figure 12. Jacobus F. Frank mailed a business letter to the George Wehry & Co. in Batavia, Netherlands from New York City’s Wall Street Station, March 5, 1940. A 10-cent Clemens joins a 50-cent Trans-Pacific Air Mail, and a 10-cent Prexie to reach the Netherlands East Indies via Hong Kong. The Dutch firm exported tea. Frank would, in 1944, become a qualified tea trader under the War Food Administration.
Kaplan, Stuart R. The Game of Authors Compendium Book (U.S. Game Systems, 2021).
The collection of boxed games at the Strong Museum of Play, Rochester NY. www.museumofplay.org.
The Ephemera Society of America Inc., www.ephemerasociety.org.
Notes on Ephemera
A postage stamp is an example of ‘classic’ ephemera – something created for a single purpose and then discarded, a “minor transient document of everyday life.” Once a postage stamp is saved it becomes something else - an icon of time and place.
Postage stamps were collected as soon as they were issued. James Grimwood-Taylor calls philately the unintended consequence of Postal Reform. Vince King’s fine exhibit of “Timbromanie” was the basis for the lead article in the latest issue of The Ephemera Journal (24-2, January 2022). The serious collecting of ephemera as such began in 1975 with the first dictionary entry to link ephemerality with a type of collectible, and with the founding of The Ephemera Society in Great Britain.
The Ephemera Society of America (ESA) was founded in 1980; American Philatelic Society’s Affiliate #256. There has always been cross-pollination between the hobbies. Art Groten, whose philatelic exhibits have won the top awards both nationally and internationally, is a past president of ESA and founder of the Poster Stamp Collectors Club. His long series of articles on what he terms “Paraphilately” has been gathered in the first volume of Amazing Paraphilately and Ephemera (2021). ESA’s immediate past president, Dick Sheaff, was responsible for the design of over 500 postage stamps when he was with the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.
Several ephemera collectibles are naturally close to philately, as they resemble postage stamps: poster stamps, charity seals, Cinderellas. The best ephemera reference is a comprehensive encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Ephemera, written over many years by the founder of the Ephemera Society, Maurice Rickards, and edited by Michael Twyman, who helped establish a Center for Ephemera Studies at Redding University in England. The book was published on both sides of the Atlantic (and contains entries for American ephemera) and is available on the Ephemera Society of America’s web site: www.ephemerasociety.org. Other references can be found on the site as well.
Philatelic stories are naturally plotted with ephemera, adding context, range – and collector excitement. Vince King’s exhibit is a good example of how ephemera added color (literally), and context to understanding the beginning of our hobby. Not surprisingly, the attendees at GASS 2021 awarded it the most popular exhibit.
Robert Dalton Harris, a PhD theoretical physicist, turned his hobby into his livelihood in 1973. After her car broke down in a snowstorm and he rescued her, Diane DeBlois joined him as a partner in business and life. Together, for 15 years they published PS, a quarterly journal of postal history. Together they have edited the Postal History Journal since 2000. Together they were awarded the highest award of the Ephemera Society in 2008; and the Luff Award for philatelic research in 2016. They are in the ASDA dealer’s hall of fame, and in the APS writer’s hall of fame. They have presented at national and international conferences on postal, economic, and business history.