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Abraham Lincoln on Stamps – Regular Issues of the 1920s to the Early 1950s

Posted By on February 16, 2013

The study of Abraham Lincoln on stamps continues today with the examination of the Series of 1922 and the Presidential Series.  The previous parts of this study can be found in the following posts:  Early Postage Stamps Honoring Abraham Lincoln and Postage Stamps Honoring Abraham Lincoln – Bureau of Engraving and Printing to 1909.

The Fourth Bureau of Engraving and Printing Regular Issue is often referred to as the Series of 1922, although the stamps saw regular service from 1922 to the introduction of the Presidential Series of 1938.  Many technological changes were adopted during this period including the switch from flat-bed printing presses to rotary cylinder presses.  Also, stamps of this 1922 series were produced in rolls, also called “coils”, which met the needs of vending machine sales and bulk mailers who used machines to affix stamps to mailing matter

All of the stamps of the 1922 Series have horseshoe frame designs surrounding the central portrait.  They picture former presidents, other individuals, and scenes of America.

The 3 cent value of this series depicts Abraham Lincoln.  During the period of usage, the 3 cent stamp met the rate for an international post card, as is shown in the example below, a card sent to Novara, Italy, from New York City.


Also in this series, the $1 stamp depicts the Lincoln Memorial (shown below).

It should be noted that stamps of the 1922 Series ware also overprinted for the Canal Zone.  And, to prevent post office burglaries in the states of Kansas and Nebraska, post office stocks of stamps in those states were overprinted “Kansas” and “Nebraska” in 1929. Ironically, Kansas and Nebraska played a significant role in the prelude to the Civil War, but the overprints had nothing to do with those events involving the extension of slavery into the territories.  The 3 cent Lincoln stamps are found with all of the above-mentioned overprints.  The $1 Lincoln Memorial stamps is found with the canal Zone overprint.

One other interesting thing about this stamp series is that in addition to Abraham Lincoln, the only other presidents who were assassinated appeared on two values:  James Garfield was on the 6 cent stamps and William McKinley was on the 7 cent stamp – and as the most recent of the assassinated presidents, McKinley’s stamp was in the color black.

For most of the time that the 3 cent Lincoln stamp of this series was in general use, the domestic letter rate per one ounce was 2 cents.  But, because of the Depression, the rate was raised to 3 cents on 6 July 1932.  Although the Lincoln stamp was available for use in general postage, a new 3 cent stamp with the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was issued by the Post Office on 16 June 1932, and it was that stamp that bore the major usage burden until the next series of stamps was issued in 1932.  If politics has something to do with who is depicted on a nations stamps – and it more than often does – it should be noted that the Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, may not have wanted the image of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to appear on most of the nation’s mail.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was a stamp collector and often played a part, through his Postmaster General, James Farley, in what stamps were issued by the Post Office Department.  However, in the case of the 3 cent Washington, it must be noted that the decision was made to make this the “workhorse” stamp well before Roosevelt was elected and was made during his predecessor’s term, the Republican Herbert Hoover.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt did allow the Washington stamp to remain the main stamp for regular postal use from 1933 through 1938.

Part of the story of the collaboration between Farley and the president in the issuance of stamps is told in the Wikipedia article on James Farley.


The next order of business for the Roosevelt administration was to replace the entire Series of 1922 with a series of stamps that Franklin D. Roosevelt had a hand in designing – the Presidential Series of 1938.  It may have been Roosevelt’s idea to create the Series of 1938, which honored all the deceased presidents, or someone else’s idea, but it is certain that Rooselvelt himself submitted rough sketches of the design that was eventually adopted.

The Presidential Series depicted presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, and was unique in that the value assigned to each of the presidents through William McKinley represented the number of the presidency of that individual.  Thus, the first president, George Washington, appeared on the one cent stamp;  the second president, John Adams, appeared on the two cent stamp; and so on up to the 22 cent value which depicted Grover Cleveland.  No 23 cent value occurs in the series, and the 24 cent stamp depicts the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.  The decision to do this probably had more to do with confusion over how to number the presidents (Cleveland is now “officially” considered ” both the 22nd and 24th president), than with the need for a 24 cent stamp over the need for a 23 cent stamp.  In any event, beyond the 25 cent value, the face value of the stamp does not reflect the number of the presidency, but the presidents depicted on the higher values are in the correct order in which they served.  The only living former president in 1938 was Herbert Hoover, and since it was the policy of the government not to honor living individuals, Hoover was not included in the Presidential Series.

The stamp recognizing Abraham Lincoln was the 16 cent value, and was issued in the color black.  It was first issued on 20 October 1938 in Washington, D.C.  In its time of usage, it met a variety of unusual postage rates, but it was never commonly seen on ordinary mail.

Three stamps of this Presidential Series do not depict presidents:  the 1/2 cent value is for Benjamin Franklin; the 1-1/2 cent value is for Martha Washington; and the 4-1/2 cent value is of the White House, the only stamp in the series that does not match the other designs.  All the individuals portrayed are facing in the same direction, all are “bust-type” depictions,” and, for the presidents, the years of the presidency are given beneath their name.

Also, during the Roosevelt-Farley years a popular way of collecting stamp issues came into its own – the First Day Cover – an envelope on which the newly-issued stamp was affixed and to which a cancel was applied in the city in which the stamp was first issued.  These First Day Covers became an enterprise within the collector market as individuals and companies designed elaborate “cachets” (complimentary designs on the left side of the envelope) that supported the stamp issue.  Individuals lined up at post office counters in the appointed first day city to purchase the new stamps, affix them to envelopes (many with the printed cachets) and get a postal clerk to apply the first day cancel.  The hand cancel shown below was applied in Washington, D.C. on 20 October 1938, the official first day of issue for the 16 cent Lincoln stamp.  The cachet shown below is one of more than 50 different known commercially produced designs for the Presidential Series, some provided for all 32 stamps.


All of the stamps in the Presidential Series were engraved and printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Most were printed on rotary presses, but the dollar values were printed on flat plate presses and, because they were printed in two colors, required two separate passes through the presses.

The Presidential Series became one of the most popular stamp series ever issued by the United States government.  The stamps saw general use from 1938 through World War II and into the mid-1950s when they were gradually replaced by the Liberty Series.  Two short-series regular issues to meet the letter rates of the war years supplemented the Presidential Series – the National Defense Issue of 1940 and the three values issued in 1942-1943 which had as their subjects, “Win the War (3 cents),” “Allied Nations (2 cents)” and “Four Freedoms” (1 cent).

This series of blog posts continues on Tuesday, the day after President’s Day, and instead of focusing on stamps related to Abraham Lincoln, will look at the former presidents who were alive during all or part of the Civil War.  Then, in about two weeks, the Lincoln stamp issues will continue with an examination of the Liberty Series and the Prominent Americans Issues which saw service from mid-1950s through the mid-1970s.


Much of the information for this post was taken from Abraham Lincoln on Postage Stamps, privately published in 2000 as a companion to a stamp collection and exhibit that was displayed at a county historical society in Pennsylvania in conjunction with the 135th Anniversary of the Lincoln Assassination.


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