This article was originally published in 1955 and contains valuable information about the engravers of early American stamps.
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Although we may not possess any, the magnificent line-engraved U.S. stamps of the 19th century are familiar to all of us, but many of us know little of their history.
What of the men who made these stamps? What do we know of them? Who were the artists responsible for this delicate work? Today I propose to tell you a little about the some of these engravers.
Stamp engraving and banknote engraving are inextricably mixed, and except in the minds of philatelists, the stamps are comparatively a by-product of the great banknote engraving companies, be they private or government concerns.
Banknote engraving is a profession of fine traditions requiring great talent, both technical and artistic. Frequently several members of the same family follow this craft, and in the period which we are considering, many were the sons and grandsons of the great 18th century gold and silversmiths.
1847: 5 cent featuring Benjamin Franklin (left) and 10 cent featuring George Washington (right).
The man to whom banknote engraving, and therefore stamp engraving, probably owes the most is one Jacob Perkins born on July 9, 1776, at Newburyport, Massachusetts. During his youth he was employed as a goldsmith, and such was his ability and initiative that, on the death of the proprietor, although only fifteen ears of age, he took charge of the business. When twenty-two he engraved the die for the copper coinage of the State of Massachusetts’ Later he invented a machine known as the Transfer Press, which revolutionised ban note printing of the period. By this process vignette dies engraved on separate pieces of steel could easily be transferred from a flat piece of steel to a steel cylinder which, after hardening, could rolled to ay desired position on the plate. Another of his inventions was the process of hardening steel without damaging the engraved surface of the plate. To complete the business, he also invented a roller, whereby the ink could be spread evenly over the engraved plate,
In 1818 Perkins went abroad and settled in England where, with the Heath family and Fairman, he established a banknote printing firm, under the name of Perkins, Fairman and Heath. In 1822 Fairman returned to the United States and firm’s name changed to that so familiar to philatelists all over the world: Perkins, Bacon and Co. The first British stamp was issued by this firm in 1840, and in 1847 the first general issue of the United States postage stamps was produced by the well and favourably known New York banknote and engraving firm of Rawdon, Hatch and Edson, using the same process.
It had been the hope and intention of the Government that the stamps would be available at the principal post offices on day on which the Act was to take effect, July 1, 1847, but actually they were only delivered to one office, that of New York City, Boston received a supply the next day and any offices had hem before the end of the month.
The engraving and designing was carried out under the charge of James P. Major, who was later head of the department of the American Bank Note Company. The blocks used for the 5 and 10 cents were the stock dies and had already appeared on banknotes. Who designed them I do not know.
It is interesting to note that there is a letter extant from Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson addressed to W.J. Brown, 2nd Assistant Postmaster-General and dated March 31, 1847 reading as follows: “We beg leave to vary the proposals made by us to furnish the Post Office stamp as follows, viz: in addition to our formal proposal, we will print the figures “5” and “10” on the face of the respective stamps, in red ink, in such manner to render them distinct, and not obscure the heads. This combination of colours would add greatly to the difficulties of counterfeiting the stamps. We will furnish the stamps printed in two colours, as above, at the rate of 25 cents per thousand stamps; or we will furnish them printed in one colour (the ‘five’ and ‘ten’ stamps each in a different colour, if desired, by way of readily distinguishing them) at the rate of 20 cents per thousand stamps.”
In the margin against the latter half of the last sentence has been written, “This bid accepted.” This letter proves that the idea of bi-coloured stamps is hardly modern.
The four-year contract of Rawdon, Hatch and Edson expired on June 30, 1851, after which the Philadelphia firm of Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear, and Co, produced U.S. stamps for the next 10 years. Some years later this firm was merged into the American Bank Note Company.
1851-1857: 3 cent (left) and 12 cent (right) both featuring George Washington.
Now the brothers Durand come into the picture. These two, Asher Brown Durand and Cyrus Durand, sons of a French silversmith, were born at South Orange, New Jersey. At an early age the brothers were assisting their father engraving monograms and watchcases. Asher, however, was more content drawing animals and human figures, or copying woodcuts and vignettes on banknotes than doing this work. When he was fifteen a Mr. Enos became interested in his welfare and talent, and arranged for him to be apprenticed to Peter Maverick, a prominent writing engraver living in New Jersey. His progress was rapid and he soon became the chief assistant of his master. And at the end of his apprenticeship in 1817 became Maverick’s partner, and soon became the principal member of the firm. His ability to engrave oil paintings on steel so impressed the celebrated painter Colonel Turnbull that he engaged him to engrave his “Declaration of Independence.” This work took three years and was so successful that at the age of 27 he had a national reputation.
Cyrus Durand was a mechanical genius and perfected the geometrical lathe, by which delicate and intricate lines were engraved on steel. In 1824 Cyrus and his brother formed a partnership under the name of Durand and Co. for the “engraving and printing of banknotes of a superior quality.” Twenty-six years later they were called upon by Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear and Co. to produce some of the stamps of the 1851-56 issue. The 5 cents, 10 cents and 12 cents issue were the work of the brothers Durand, Asher Brown engraving the portraits and Cyrus the frames with their delicate lathe work.
Eventually Asher Brown Durand forsook engraving completely and became one of America’s outstanding landscape painters, and the founder of the American National Academy. He lived o the ripe old age of ninety, and died on September 17, 1886.
Here it is interesting to note that John Casilear, of Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear and Co., who was first apprenticed to Peer Maverick and then studied under Durand, also gave up his commercial interests and became a prominent painter of the Hudson River School. His son, George, however, stuck to engraving. He won a silver medal for his art at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and designed the Government engraving from the inception of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving until 1893.
At the expiration of the contract with Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear and Co. the National Bank Note Co. appears on the scene. The newly-formed company with its offices in Wall Street, New York, obtained the contract according to the report of the Postmaster-General, dated 2/12/61, “ upon terms very advantageous to the Department, from which there will result an annual saving of more than thirty per cent in the cost if the stamps.”
1861-1862: 3 cent (left) and 10 cent (right) both featuring George Washington.
Now we need to consider the Smillie family, probably the most outstanding in the history of American banknote engraving. On November 23, 1807, there was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, James Smillie. One of eight children, his father was a silversmith, and early in his life James showed his interest in engraving. When twelve years old he apprenticed himself to James Johnson, of Edinburgh. His work was interrupted by the decision of his family to go to America. They sailed to Quebec in the brig “Neptune”, the journey taking 48 days. Finding it almost impossible to find instruction in engraving, James, with the help of Lord Dalhousie, finally managed to return to England, and studied with some English engravers. After a short time he returned to Quebec. At the age of 23 he went to New York, where he met Asher Brown Durand, who asked him to undertake some work. For many years Smillie worked as a freelance for the great banknote companies. Then in 1861 he accepted an offer made to him by the National Bank Note Co. At that time his sons James Smillie and William Maine Smillie were working for the rival firm the American Bank Note Company. His brother William C. Smillie, was also engaged in the work of engraving banknotes and stamps. A younger member of the family, G.F.C. Smillie, was chief engraver of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing from 1894- 1924.
The original vignettes of James Smillie are regarded as some of the finest examples of line engraving ever produced by an American. He continued engraving until his death in 1885.
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