The first United States stamp to show the U. S. flag-four of them-was issued in 1869. It is Scott 121, the 30¢ of the set, and the Flags shared the small space (21mm X 21mm) with a shield and an eagle. The flag is printed in blue. A flag stamp doesn’t appear in multicolor until 88 years later, in 1957. It is Scott 1094 and it is the sole subject of the stamp. This and other stamps discussed in this article are shown in Figure 1.
In the first 100 years that stamps were issued in the United States no postage stamp featured the flag. Other patriotic symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Minute Man, and the eagle appeared on stamps but not the flag. Nor is the flag featured on revenue and other back-of-the-book stamps. It is the sole subject on stamped envelopes but that doesn’t happen until 1995, (Scott U633 and U634). In 1987 a postal card, Scott UX177, had the Stars and Stripes as its only design element.
The eagle appears on many Match and Medicine stamps but the flag is absent. Postal Savings stamps show the flag, but it is in the background partially blocked by the erect figure of the Minute Man. There aren’t any proofs or essays where the flag was proposed and rejected. In summary, the subject of our National Anthem was not used to promote patriotism during the first century of stamp production–not even during the four wars that the U. S. engaged in during that time.
U. S. flags do appear on stamps but they are hard to discern. On Scott 288, John C. Fremont is waving a flag as he reaches a summit in the Rocky Mountains on the 5¢ Trans-Mississippi of 1898. Under 30 times magnification one can see stripes on the flag. Is it a United States flag? No. It is Fremont’s personal flag that was designed for him by his wife Jessie. It has stars, stripes, and an eagle.
On Scott 372-373, the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Issue, we see Robert Fulton’s steamship “Clermont.” It is flying a United States flag. You can’t tell that from the stamp. You have to find other normal-sized pictures of the Clermont to recognize the flag.
Scott 537, the 1919 Victory stamp, shows the flag behind the statue of Victory. It is a prominent part of the background on this purple stamp.
The Battle of White Plains, Scott 629, and the souvenir sheet, Scott 630 (1926), clearly show the thirteen star flag, although it is an ornament surrounding the battle scene. Casimir Pulaski, Scott 690 (1931) has two flags behind his portrait. One is a 48 star American Flag and the other is that of Poland, which is white on the top half and red on the bottom half. Scott 909, the first stamp of the Overrun Countries Issue of 1943-44, shows the Polish flag in multicolor. The “red” is different on 690 and 909.
The 48 star flag appears on the Michigan Centenary Issue of 1935, Scott 775, and on the souvenir sheet, Scott 778. The flag and that of the State of Michigan flank the state seal in the center of the stamp. You can tell that it is the Michigan Flag because it says “Michigan” on the bottom of the furled flag.
One can hardly see the flag flying on the ships pictured in the 1936-37 Navy Issue, Scott 790-793, but they are surely there. With magnification the flag can be seen on two of the four stamps in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Issue of 1945 and 1946, Scott 930-933. The flag flies at the entrance to Hyde Park on the 1¢ and over the White House on the 3¢. No ocular assistance is needed to see the flag on Scott 929, the 1945 “Raising of the flag by the Marines on Mount Suribachi,” on Iwo Jima.
Both the 48 star United States Flag and the Texas state flag appear on Scott 938, the 1945 stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of Texas statehood. On this stamp, the flags are the central theme. Nothing else is pictured on the stamp to attract your attention away from the flags. However, the U. S. Flag is behind and partially covered by the Flag of Texas. This stamp is monochromatic (blue) as was the case with all previous stamps except the 30¢ in 1869.
Monochromatic flags continue to appear, next on the 1946 3¢ Kearny Expedition, (Scott 944), the 1947 3¢ U. S. frigate Constitution, (Scott 950), the 3¢ White House, (Scott 990), and of course the 3¢ 1947 Francis Scott Key (Scott 962). On that stamp Key is surrounded by two different U. S. Flags, that of 1814 and the flag of 1948. It is the only stamp portraying two different federal flags. The flags shown on the 30¢ 1869 are all the same.
The first United States flag is shown on the 1952 3¢ stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Betsy Ross (Scott 1004). She is shown presenting the newly created flag for review to George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross. Many of you may be familiar with George Ross, the right hand man of Donald Trump. But the George Ross on the Betsy Ross stamp was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was John Ross’s uncle. John was the husband of Betsy. John and Betsy were married in 1773 by William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son.
A 3¢ 1952 commemorative (Scott 1010) shows the Marquis de Lafayette flanked by the American and French flags. It is the last monochromatic stamp showing a flag before the 48 star flag (Scott 1094) which was issued on July 4, 1957. The latter is the first time that the United States flag is shown by itself in full red, white, and blue colors.
On July 4, 1959, the United States issued a 4¢ stamp (Scott 1132), showing the 49 star flag. On July 4, 1960 a 4¢ stamp was issued, (Scott 1153), with the 50 star flag. The additional stars represent the admission into the Union of Alaska (January 3, 1959) and Hawaii (August 29, 1959). These stamps were not issued solely to promote patriotism but principally to show the new national flag very soon after each new state was added.
The last stamp of the 10-stamp 6¢ Historic Flag Series, Scott (1345 – 1354), shows the First Navy Jack. This is the flag that shows an uncoiled snake and has the printed words “Don’t Tread On Me.” On May 31, 2002, the Secretary of the Navy issued a directive to all ships to fly the Navy Jack during the Global War on Terrorism. The Navy Jack thus replaces the Union Jack which, except for brief periods, had been flown along with the U. S. flag on naval vessels.
About three-quarters of the stamps which show the complete flag prominently in the foreground have been issued in the past 25 years. This means that three times as many flag stamps have been issued in the past 25 years as had been in the first 134 years of stamp production. The differentiable “G” stamps alone account for 15 of the over 75 flag stamps, counting coil and booklet stamps, issued since 1981.
Some stamps have facts about them written on the back. Until 2003 flag stamps did not have anything but the picture and labelling on the front of the stamp to tell the story. Nor is there anything about the design written in the margins of the sheets.
This changed in 2003. In that year the United States Postal Service (USPS) issued an “Old Glory” prestige booklet. Many countries have issued prestige booklets since the 1970’s. Originally stamp booklets were developed to provide a safe way of carrying stamps in a wallet or purse. In addition to protecting the stamps, the prestige booklet provides many pages of information about the subject.
Figure 2 shows a page from the “Old Glory” booklet. It shows patriotic postcards and describes their extraordinary popularity from the 1870’s to the 1940’s. The text says, “The Fourth of July was celebrated with increased extravagance…and even the holidays of Easter and Thanksgiving were made into flag-waving events.”
The “Old Glory” theme was repeated in April 2003 when the USPS issued an “Old Glory” postal card booklet. Figure 3 shows the back cover of the booklet. The booklet contains twenty 23¢ postal cards; for each of the five different designs from the prestige booklet. The postal card designs are shown along the top of Figure 3.
Figure 3 Back cover of “Old Glory” postal card booklet showing the pictures on the postal cards in the booklet and a keepsake from 1860 with the words of all four stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner.
The image corresponding to the stamp shown on the front of the postal card is without the value or the initials “USA,” The Liberty Flag on the “Uncle Sam peddling a bicycle” stamp design is cut off on the front of its postal card (Figure 4). Figure 3 also shows (on the Postal Card booklet cover) a patriotic printed keepsake of the 1860’s which has all the words of the Star Spangled Banner.
Although flags have figured prominently in the history of our country, the first 100 years of stamp production and the first 1093 postage stamps issued by the USPS did not reflect that prominence. The flag has been subtly shown on buildings, ships, riverboats, being carried by explorers, and on the shoulder patches of astronauts. The flag has been shown as background on the 20¢ 1984 Hispanic American stamp, is part of the design of the moon landing stamps, the semi-postal “Heroes of 2001”, and the 1989 Universal Postal Union Futuristic Mail Delivery air mail stamps.
In the last 50 years the U. S. flag has been given prominence as the primary or sole subject of stamps and stamp booklets.
This movement began with the 4¢ 1957 Flag commemorative which also marked the beginning of single plate-multicolor (Giori Press) printing. Once the flag appeared in color on the 5¢ Flag Over White House definitive of 1963, that was the beginning of “Flag Over” definitives. Now the public has come to expect that full color flags will always be part of the inventory, and the USPS has been quick to satisfy that need.
Published in U. S. Stamp News, March 2007