FDR’s Stamp Design Funds Trip to Antarctica, Inspiring Hope Along the Way

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A 44-cent stamp can carry a letter to the other side of the world. But can a stamp get a man to Antarctica and back?

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought a special stamp might stoke public support for the expensive expedition. In fact, Roosevelt, who was an avid stamp collector, was so convinced of it, he even put pencil to paper and drew out a design for the stamp himself. The president's sketch, all squiggles and dashes, eventually became the 3-cent Byrd Antarctic Expedition II stamp, commemorating Rear Admiral Richard Byrd's exploration of the South Pole by plane.

In the fall of 1933, stamp makers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing presented FDR with four different designs for the Byrd stamp. Roosevelt rejected all of them. The president knew stamps. He began his own collection at the age of eight. And even as president, he managed to set aside at least 30-minutes of his day to tend his stamp albums. During his presidency, stamps became an important communication tool to impart hope and optimism.

"Studies had revealed the impact on color on mood," explains Smithsonian curator Cheryl Ganz, "and FDR applied this knowledge in the colors he chose for stamps." Over the course of his presidency FDR would sketch out designs for five other stamps and had a direct influence on the artwork of every stamp issued (more than 200) between 1933 and 1945.

FDR's rough sketch for the 1933 3c Byrd Antarctic Expedition II Stamp will be on view through June 2010, along with a rotation of the five other FDR sketches and stamps in a new exhibit, "Delivering Hope: FDR and Stamps of the Great Depression," at the National Postal Museum. Highlights include some of FDR’s prize pieces from his stamp collection, as well as a number of his specialty tools that the hobby called for and more original sketches by FDR.

I spoke with Ganz about FDR's stamp collecting habits.

Was this the first time a president had ever become so engaged in the making of stamps?

Yes, there were other presidents who were stamp collectors. For example, Herbert Hoover was a stamp collector. But FDR was the first president who took such a strong, personal interest in the postage stamp. And as a result, his postmaster general James Farley made sure that FDR approved every single stamp design before it went into production. So, he’s the only president, that I know of, who has ever done that for every single stamp.

How did FDR's enthusiasm for stamps change the world of stamps and stamp collecting?

FDR had an incredible impact on stamps in multiple ways. First of all, what images would be on stamps, as well as, the design of the stamps. Everything from streamlining or simplification of design, to a lightening of color of design, and to how a stamp design was arranged in its graphic. So his affect on stamps was multiple. And he used stamp designs to sell his programs and to reinforce his role as president during this difficult time of the Great Depression.

Was this a good thing for the presidency?

Yes I think it was. He used stamp collecting as his stress buster. So first of all, in a very, very difficult time, very much like today, when we had so many problems at once, and no easy answers. After a demanding day, FDR would spend a half hour every night before he went to bed working on his stamp collection to just clear his mind before he’d go to sleep. So his hobby was incredibly useful so that he remained fresh at all times. And it also helped him as a life long learner. When we went into World War II, just from collecting stamps he knew every island in the Pacific—its location, its size, its population, its strategic importance. So as a life long learner the stamps added to his understanding of many, many things.

What's the most intriguing stamp story of the FDR period? Did he have a significant impact on philately (the study of stamps)?

I don’t know if I have one intriguing story, but here’s one that I really like. He would put things on stamps to help people understand the programs of the new deal. For example, there is a stamp with Boulder Dam on it —today we know it as Hoover Dam. If you look at this stamp showing this huge dam, the first thing you think of is, oh my goodness, it put a lot of people to work to build that dam. But then you realize. oh my goodness, it's creating electricity. So there are factories and businesses all able to benefit from this, and oh my goodness, it created irrigation for farmers so it’s helping the farming business out, too. It was a regional economic stimulus package much like the Tennessee Valley Authority at that time. While that may not be the most intriguing stamp story, I think it’s a good example of stamps coming in your mail and reinforcing all the positive things that the government was doing for you at that time.

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