Maine on Stamps
Over the years, the Postal Service has provided thumb-sized tutorials in the history of the Pine Tree State.
This just in: Breaking news from the world of Maine philatelists. After a twenty-two-year drought in the stamp-collecting world, no less than three Maine-related commemorative stamps were issued last year. And among philatelists, a trifecta year is pretty close to a grand slam in a somewhat more popular American pastime.[For the rest of this story, see the September 2008 issue of Down East.]
Exactly why Maine’s fortunes have picked up in the quasi-political world of commemorative U.S. postage stamps is anyone’s guess. “It probably helps to be connected, so to speak,” suggests Dan Goodwin, who is one of Maine’s top stamp collectors and serves on the Maine Philatelic Society’s board of directors. The sixty-year-old North Berwick resident has been collecting stamps since he was seven and speculates that perhaps someone on the current commemorative stamp advisory board has a special fondness for Maine. So who decides who and what belongs on a stamp? Not the people you expect. A recent list of the luminaries who make these choices runs the gamut from actor Karl Malden and former vice presidential First Lady Joan Mondale to Yale School of Art critic Jessica Helfand and sports commentator Donna de Varona.
With such dignitaries deciding what makes it onto a postcard and what doesn’t, it is perhaps little surprise that famous Maine sons and daughters have been relatively rare on stamps since 1847, which was the first year the antecedent to the U.S. Postal Service started honoring famous people, places, or events. (George Washington and Ben Franklin were the first to be so venerated.) In fact, it wasn’t until 1934 that the first Maine-related commemorative stamp was issued. And even that stamp didn’t offer kudos to a Maine native but instead honored Acadia National Park — perhaps not coincidentally at a time when President Franklin Roosevelt was promoting his government-sponsored work programs in the national parks. Several other national parks also were honored at that time, somewhat diluting the commemorative uniqueness of that earliest Pine Tree State stamp.
Acadia National Park (1934) Maine’s first shot at commemorative stamp fame came with a seven-cent issue, which was officially introduced at an October ceremony in 1934 at Bar Harbor. At the time, the park had been going through something of an identity crisis and up until 1929 had been known as Lafayette National Park. Earlier, at its founding in 1916 and for three years thereafter, it was known as Sieur de Monts National Monument. In any case, Acadia lovers today would recognize that first Great Depression era monochrome engraving as quintessentially Mount Desert scenery: tall granite cliffs with ocean waves crashing at their base. Depicting the nation’s second most-visited national park has remained popular and other multicolored Acadia stamps have been issued since the Roosevelt-era edition.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1939) As the nineteenth century’s most popular American poet, Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was also the first Mainer commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, although Massachusetts philatelists may dispute his pedigree since he was born in 1807, when Maine was still officially part of the Bay State. A graduate of Bowdoin College (class of 1825), Longfellow spent the early part of his literary career as a professor and translator at his Brunswick-based alma mater. But his most famous writings came while he was a professor at Harvard University, where he penned such immortal poems as “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Village Blacksmith” in the years during which he was being drawn into a prominent role in the antislavery movement. He continued to write until his death in 1882, including publishing the famous verses of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the epic ”Evangeline.” The first Longfellow stamp issued was for one cent in postage. A second, thirty-nine-cent Longfellow stamp was issued in 2007.
Virginia of Sagadahock (1957) After a nearly twenty-year drought of Maine-related stamps, a popular issue came out in 1957 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of shipbuilding in America. Today that three-cent “Virginia stamp” is even more popular among Maine philatelists because last year marked the four-hundredth anniversary of shipbuilding. Depicting an artist’s concept of what the first American-built seagoing ship looked like in 1607, the stamp notes that the pinnace Virginia was built by Popham Colony settlers at the mouth of the Kennebec River. A more complete history of the ship is a bit less glorious, though. After a miserable, near-fatal first winter in the New World, the English colonists determined their only means of survival was to build the fifty-foot, thirty-ton ship and find help, either from other newly established English colonies or sail back to England. The colony was subsequently abandoned, and Virginia left with the settlers. But 150 or so years later, shipbuilding on the Kennebec resumed and has continued right up to today, most notably at Bath Iron Works, some eight miles upriver from the original Popham Colony.
Cape Elizabeth Light (1970) Surprisingly, Maine’s numerous and architecturally appealing lighthouses didn’t make it onto a stamp until Edward Hopper’s The Lighthouse at Two Lights, good for six cents postage, ended another Maine commemorative stamp drought on the 150th anniversary of Maine’s official statehood. Hopper, a well-known New York City-based artist, had recently died (1967) and also summered in Maine at least once in the 1920s. After that visit, he produced his somewhat out-of-character Maine lighthouse painting. Better known for stark urban depictions that strongly influenced the era of Pop Art, Hopper excelled in etchings, watercolors, and oils. Other Maine lighthouses, including West Quoddy Head Light, have since appeared on U.S. stamps.
Dorothea Dix (1983) Born in Hampden in 1802, Dorothea Dix lived a troubled childhood on the banks of the Penobscot River. She was raised in a strictly religious and poverty-stricken household in what was then termed “wilderness,” but left the “District of Maine” at age twelve, moving to Boston to live with her grandmother. Her ascent to widespread notoriety began in the 1840s when, as a Sunday school teacher, she worked at local prisons, which housed convicts along with mentally handicapped people who had committed no crimes, all in horrific conditions. Appalled, she began a lifelong crusade to bring more humane treatment and conditions to both convicted criminals and the mentally handicapped. In 1861 she was appointed superintendent of nurses for the Union Army, and she died in 1887 in a hospital she helped found in New Jersey. She was honored with a one-cent stamp.
Henry Knox (1985) Artillery and architecture were the claims to fame of Henry Knox [Down East, August 2008] when he died in 1806 at Thomaston. His seizure and removal of some sixty tons of British cannons at Fort Ticonderoga in New York, and then moving them all overland to Boston in the dead of winter, made him a living legend and eventually earned him the rank of brigadier general during the Revolutionary War. After the war, he became the new country’s first Secretary of War, retiring in 1795 to a sprawling estate in Thomaston. Wealthy and well known, he built the mansion Montpelier, employing many new building techniques and ideas in the process. A reproduction of Montpelier still stands in Thomaston. The commemorative Knox stamp is good for eight cents postage.
Stanley Bros’ Stanley Steamer (1985) Kingfield’s most famous twin brothers, Francis and Freelan Stanley, were inventors of more than just the well-known Stanley Steamer automobile in 1897. More than a decade earlier, Francis invented a very successful dry-plate photographic process, which the brothers together manufactured and distributed nationwide. Eastman Kodak eventually bought out their business. Both were also amateur violin makers, while Freelan was also a serious artist who marketed his own brand of drafting instruments. But their steam-driven automobile is what earned them a place on a twelve-cent stamp. The Stanley Steamer went out of production after nearly twenty years of fame, which included the 1906 land speed record of 127 miles per hour.
Margaret Chase Smith (2007) The belle of Maine’s Republican politics for more than three decades, Smith’s political career began with the death of her husband, U.S. Congressman Clyde Smith, in 1940. The Skowhegan-born former schoolteacher took over in a special election after her husband succumbed to heart problems. Congresswoman Smith eventually became one of two U.S. senators from Maine and gained national prominence in the early 1950s when she denounced the anti-Communist smear campaigns then being conducted by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others. She finally lost reelection in 1972 but maintained an influence on Maine Republicans until her death at ninety-seven in 1995. She was honored with a fifty-eight-cent stamp.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007) Although not technically a Maine native, Stowe is often claimed as a Pine Tree State luminary because she wrote nearly all of her groundbreaking book Uncle Tom’s Cabin while living in Brunswick. The 1852 book is credited with inspiring renewed vigor in the antislavery movement, which contributed to the start of the Civil War in 1860. The best-selling book was based on Stowe’s eighteen years worth of experiences and interviews with escaped slaves in slavery-prohibited Cincinnati, Ohio, directly across the Ohio River from the slavery-sanctioned state of Kentucky. She and her minister husband, Calvin, decided to move from Ohio to Brunswick when he accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in 1850. Once her first book became a success, and her husband left Bowdoin for a more lucrative position in Massachusetts, the Stowe family did not live again in Maine. Stowe’s likeness was included on a seventy-five-cent stamp.
For More Maine Mail
The U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee sifts through some fifty thousand or so suggestions for new stamps each year, ultimately deciding on just twenty-five new commemoratives. If you want more commemorative Maine stamps issued, you can write the fifteen-member council at 1735 North Lynn St., Suite 5013, Arlington, Virginia 22209-6432. Alternatively, you can make up your own commemorative stamps by using one of the many online services through which you can convert a photo into a legitimate U.S. postage stamp. Type the key words “photo stamp” into any Internet search engine and start commemorating Maine on your own terms.
- By: Ken Textor