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Postage Stamp Design

A postage stamp is, after all, only a tiny bit of paper, imprinted with a design and representing an obligation by the country of origin to perform a specified postal duty. What contains so much interest, hardly known to the average collector, is the method of arriving at the design to be used.

The writer, though seriously interested in stamps as such for well over twenty years, accepted each as a finished product, until the day he was entrusted with the designing and production of certain Liberian stamps. Then the hundreds of problems involved in each stamp design became strikingly apparent. Take one example, the Roosevelt issue of Liberia. The decision to issue a set of stamps for the visit to Liberia of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt was simple enough. Just so is it simple for any stamp issuing nations to hit upon the occasion. It is the follow through that is complicated. In some instances, after an idea is found acceptable it is necessary to have stipulated resolutions or decrees drawn up. In the case of Liberia the approval of the topic by the Postmaster General was sufficient. Mr. Roosevelt, on his way home from a conference at Casablanca, stopped off at Liberia to inspect a detachment of American Negro Army engineers. That was the first time an American president had ever visited Liberia, and it was felt the occasion should be marked philatically.

The first problem was the selection of the picture to be used. It was decided to show Mr. Roosevelt in a jeep reviewing the troops. That was, of course, easy enough since several pictures had been taken, but the question was which picture would prove the best for a stamp design. A diligent search uncovered one belonging to the Office of War Supply (U.S.) which filled the bill. Then it was necessary for the Liberian Government to secure permission to use this design on a stamp. This was done without a hitch.

Then came the presentation of the subject. The original photo showed Mr. Roosevelt in the jeep, unaccompanied except for the driver, and with the troops off to the right. It was readily agreed that the President of the United States should never have been left unaccompanied, and so an aide was added behind the driver. Then, the soldiers were too far away to be included in the design, so reduced photographs of two wore made and moved in right next to the jeep. This portion of the design was then blocked out from the rest of the photograph.

Next it was necessary to prepare a suitable frame. The first five suggestions were vetoed, and the sixth (a design of palm trees and the torch of Liberty) was adopted with some modifications. Thus the jeep, its occupants and the soldiers being reviewed were enlarged somewhat; palms in the adjacent border were reduced, and some inscriptions and the border scrolls reversed. A value tablet was added in the lower left, and the stamp design became a reality.

Next came the problems of how many stamps should be in the set, their individual values and colors, on what paper should they be printed, and how many should there be to a sheet. Each of these problems, when met, made for a set of stamps as received by collectors and recipients of Liberian mail.

After the Roosevelt issue, Liberian postal officials desired to mark the completion of the harbor facilities at Monrovia. To some this might appear as an unimportant project, and not worthy of a stamp, but all things are relative, and to Liberians the harbor was the answer to many problems. If you had arrived at a destination and had to stand off at sea with all your baggage, and wait for tenders to take you off, you'd feel rather peeved. This happened in Monrovia all the time, because there was no good harbor, and consequently, no good docks. The war in at least one respect was good to Liberia. When all of Europe was lost by the Allies and the Germans were in control of much of North Africa, anxious glances were cast toward Liberia, as an Allied nation, as a stepping off point. Thus the harbor project got under way and was completed several years later.

When the postal officials there decided to mark the inauguration of the project, two photographs were selected, with the request they be superimposed to make a design showing a large derrick dumping a load of rocks on the beach. One photo showed the dump flat and the other showed it at an angle after it had dropped its first load of rock.

Following instructions, the printing firm prepared a sketch with five characters at the extreme right, and a small load of rock. One of the people at the right looked like the "little man who wasn't there," so all five were eliminated. Further, the load looked insignificant, so more rocks were added. Finally, though the inscription at the top called to mind the occasion, there was no commemorative date, so that had to go in as another revision.

The stamps were finally printed a 5-cent for postage and a 24-cent for airmail. They saw use and were well received, but then the international airmail rate was dropped from 70-cents to 25-cents and stamps of that denomination were needed in a hurry. The only way to do this was to eliminate the commemorative inscription, change the color of the 5-cent postage value, and the color and denomination of the airmail.

This done, Liberia had for itself a new regular 5-cent postage value, and a new regular 25-cent airmail-all in the minimum necessary time. There is one point collectors and dealers seem to overlook. No matter how short the period between announcement and issuance, stamps are slowly produced, and all are labors of love, insofar as production is concerned.

Design is an important factor in stamps. When it is conceded that the tiny postage stamp is a miniature work of art, with its component parts supposed to represent a balance, a basis is set for discussion.

Every stamp contains a central theme-be it a portrait, a view or a number-frequently set off by an appropriate frame, with a designation as to the country of issue, postal purpose, postal value and descriptive text. There are, naturally, exceptions to some of these basic points but, in the main, stamp designers follow the traditional approach. A central theme is followed in every instance. In regular postage adhesives, the central design, or vignette as it is frequently called, is a portrait, or view, or both. Today, with so much emphasis on attractive design, the portrait is frequently relegated to a side or corner and some scene or subject is stressed.

The frame is usually ornamental, and there have been instances where there is more story in the frame than in the vignette. The trend seems to be toward the elimination of frames, all or in part, particularly in issues of the United States-examples being the recent Boy Scout and Washington Sesquicentennial issues (1950).

An instance of the full use of a frame, plus the other component parts of a stamp design, is a recent French issue of semi-postal stamps honoring persons famed for their part in the French revolution. Although six stamps comprised the set, and each depicted a different person, the frames were identical except for values, and therefore only one need be described here to emphasize the point. One of the persons included in the issue was Lazare Carnot, the French general who is considered the real organizer of victory for the revolutionary armies. A full-face portrait was used by the artist-designer, Cheffer, with Carnot's name and years of birth (1753) and death (1823) printed in a tablet toward the bottom. The frame in generally oval form, bears the fasces topped by the cap of Liberty, with the flags of the revolution and cannon at the bottomboth "at rest." In the upper portion of the design is the country designation, Republique Fyanfaise, and the value-hough not truly in a "tablet." Finally, in the central portion of the frame, above the head, is the use-Postes or Postage. In the case of the Ecuador Cocao stamp the vignette, or central design, shows the cultivating of the cocao plant, while the frame shows the plant itself. When Cuba marked the sixth Pan American Conference in 1928, maps of North and South America were used in the side frames, most appropriately.

The United States, too, has made excellent use of the frame to enlarge upon the story told by the center design. Some instances are the Arkansas, Oregon, Famous American and Pony Express issues.

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