How the United States Postal Service began circulating little works of art

How the United States Postal Service began circulating little works of art

With this summer’s reveal of a new run of forever stamps bearing the art of sculptor Ruth Asawa still fresh in our minds, we’re taking a look back at the perforated works that have captured our hearts and letters.

Stamps weren’t always this decorated, and for a bit of context as to how we got here, we’ll need to go back 180 years to Britain, where Sir Rowland Hill, the British postmaster general at the time, ushered in a new age of postal service.

No longer would the receiver of a letter have to pay the postage, which many folks would circumvent anyway by simply refusing to pay when the letter arrived. Instead, the sendee would pay to post their mail by affixing a small black piece of paper to the letter. Known as the Penny Black, the petite stamp had no perforations and featured an engraving of Queen Victoria. This was the first government-issued postage stamp and a major evolutionary step forward in the process of sending and receiving mail.

Eventually, the United States adopted this practice as well, but a question emerged: What to put on these stamps? At the time, the answer was simple: presidents and our first Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin.

Nearly three decades after the arrival of the Penny Black came the release of the United State’s 1869 Pictorial Issue, a set of stamps that forever changed the front of our letters as we know them. The set comprised 10 stamps, seven of which — for the first time — featured images that were not politicians. Stamps were no longer just for honoring dead white men, and the canvas had been blown wide open.

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A rendering of John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” was among the images included, as was an interesting bit of self-reflection by way of three stamps depicting means of delivering mail (horseback, rail and sea). The 1869 Pictorial Issue was not without its detractors, though; many found them frivolous, and they were so unpopular that some were even withdrawn from circulation.

But the idea endured, and to this day postage stamps remain not just a form of currency, but a canvas for expression. Below are just a few of the many artistic highlights from the United States Postal Service’s long outpouring of stamps.

Robert Indiana’s “Love” stamp, 1973

Robert Indiana's "Love" stamp, released Jan. 26, 1973. Photo: National Postal Museum Library.
Robert Indiana’s “Love” stamp, released Jan. 26, 1973. Photo: National Postal Museum Library.

American artist Robert Indiana was commissioned by the Postal Service in 1972 to turn his “Love” painting into a stamp, the result being this colorful horizontal work. As with the 1869 Pictorial Issue, not everyone loved the stamp, and as the National Postal Museum notes, some stamp buyers thought it resembled “something concocted on a hashish couch.”

Despite naysayers, the “Love” series continued, formalizing its name in 1982 and picking up fresh detractors along the way. In 1986, for instance, artist Saul Mandel’s stamp “Puppy Love,” the fifth released into the series, garnered criticism from The New York Times, which dubbed it “too cute” for adults to use. (As if.)


Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural series, 2004

Five 37-cent Isamu Noguchi commemorative stamps. The stamps features different works by Noguchi, left to right: "Figure," 1945; "Mother and Child," 1944-1947; "Margaret La Farge Osborn," 1937; "Akari 25N," circa 1968; and "Black Sun", 1960-1963. Photo: National Postal Museum.
Five 37-cent Isamu Noguchi commemorative stamps. The stamps features different works by Noguchi, left to right: “Figure,” 1945; “Mother and Child,” 1944-1947; “Margaret La Farge Osborn,” 1937; “Akari 25N,” circa 1968; and “Black Sun”, 1960-1963. Photo: National Postal Museum.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the Postal Service issued a set of stamps celebrating the work of this groundbreaking artist.


The Classic Collection, 1994–2002

"No. 12" by Mark Rothko. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.
“No. 12” by Mark Rothko. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.

In 1994, the Post Service began releasing sets of 20 stamps under their “Classic Collection” series, which would broadly highlight American themes. The first issue in the set was “Legends of the West” by artist Mark Hess. Others included were the iconic “Comic Strip Classics,” and the comprehensive “Four Centuries of American Art” — which features an array of art, including Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed,” John James Audubon’s “Long-billed Curlew, Numenius Longrostris” and Mark Rothko’s “No. 12.”


Grandma Moses, American Folklore series, 1969

6c Grandma Moses single. Photo: National Postal Museum Collection.
6c Grandma Moses single. Photo: National Postal Museum Collection.

This stamp featured “Fourth of July” by American folk artist Grandma Moses and was the fourth stamp issued in a series celebrating culture and folklore.


Booker T. Washington, 1940

10-cent Booker T. Washington single, 1940. Photo: National Postal Museum.
10-cent Booker T. Washington single, 1940. Photo: National Postal Museum.

This Booker T. Washington stamp was the first in the U.S. to commemorate an African American. The landmark issue was part of a series of 35 in the “Famous Americans” collection.


American Folk Art series, 1977–1995

22-cent duck decoys, block of four, 1985. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.
22-cent duck decoys, block of four, 1985. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.

This wide-ranging series of stamps highlights the many facets of American folk art and includes sets that highlight “Pacific Northwest Indian Masks,” duck decoys, Navajo blankets and Indigenous peoples of the Americas headdresses.


$1 Waves of Color, 2012

"Waves of Color" single, 2012. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.
“Waves of Color” single, 2012. Copyright United States Postal Service. All rights reserved. Photo: National Postal Museum.

In 2012, designer Michael Dyer created “the first completed abstract” stamp design, a wave of colors that leaves it up to the viewer to find meaning. For me, this stamp simultaneously evokes “amber waves of grain,” a flag caught in a gust of wind and a Sol LeWitt line drawing.

Top Image: Image of a United States Postal Service mailbox. Courtesy of Prettysleepy.