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Tracing The Postage Stamp-Sized History of the National Park System


Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park was one of the scenes captured by the 1934 series of U.S. Postage stamps bearing national park settings.

You could call it a postage stamp-sized history of the National Park System, but the history of park scenes on U.S. postage is really quite colorful and carries a few stories with it.

Now, this June the latest edition of postage stamps bearing national park images will arrive. As we previously noted, on June 28 we'll see the first-day issues of an international airmail stamp (98 cents) featuring Grand Teton National Park, and an international stamp (72 cents) for mail to Mexico that features Zion National Park.

Those two are just the latest in a remarkable philatelic history of America's national park movement, a colorful one at that.

Before we get to the stamps, though, some "prehistory" involving mail and the parks. Back in 1912, during the 23rd Trans-Mississippi Commercial Congress, the chairman of the Great Northern Railroad made the suggestion that instead of honoring dead men on postage stamps that the Postal Service should feature scenery. Of course, at the time the railroads were trying to drum up passenger traffic, and it made sense for the Great Northern RR to push such a marketing campaign.

While Lewis Hill, whose railroad had a vested interest in luring traffic to Glacier National Park, met with little success that year, in 1916 the postmaster in Colorado gave Rocky Mountain National Park some PR by creating a cancellation that read, New Rocky Mountain National Park Opens May-1st 1916. Six years later the cancellation was a tad more detailed, stating that Rocky Mountain opened on June 15th and closed on Oct. 1.

It wasn't long before other post offices located close to other national parks launched similar cancellations.

Now, in 1925 Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, suggested that national parks be featured on U.S. postage, but nothing came of his request. In 1933 a little more pressure was exerted, this time from the editor of the Greely (Colorado) Tribune Republican,, who noted that, "While the (Eastern) seaboard flocks to Europe on vacations, Uncle Sam misses a great opportunity by not issuing series of pictorials on the National Parks. It would be Federal advertising paid for many times over by philatelists."

Not long after, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes tried some lobbying for national park stamps, in part by announcing that 1934 would be viewed as "National Park" year. When January 1934 rolled around, Secretary Ickes met with both the White House and the Postmaster General and succeeded in getting a promise that a parks series of stamps would be authorized.

Soon thereafter Postmaster General James Farley approved an edition of 10 stamps featuring national parks. The stamps carried settings from many of today's national park icons -- Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rainer, and, of course Yellowstone. They were gorgeous and colorful stamps in hues of red, green, dark blue, black, sage green, orange, violet and brown.

The first stamp in the collection depicted Yosemite's El Capitan. It carried a 1-cent denomination and was green. Not long after debuted stamps featuring:

* the Grand Canyon, a 2-center, red, issued on July 24, 1934

* Mount Rainier, a shot of Rainier with Mirror Lake in the foreground, it cost 3 cents, was violet, and issued on August 3, 1934

* Mesa Verde, featuring Cliff Palace, this 4-cent stamp was brown and issued on September 25, 1934

* Yellowstone, featuring, naturally, Old Faithful, this blue-hued stamp cost 5 cents and was issued on July 30, 1934

* Crater Lake, depicting a shot of the lake, the stamp was dark blue and cost 6 cents

* Acadia, this stamp, in black, featured Great Head, cost 7 cents, and was issued on October 2, 1934

* Zion, featuring the Great White Throne, this 8-cent stamp was sage green and issued on September 18, 1934

* Glacier, reddish-orange, this 9-cent stamp featured an image of Mount Rockwell with Two Medicine Lake in the foreground. It was issued August 27, 1934

* Great Smoky Mountains, the last in the 10-stamp edition, this featured Mount Le Conte, was gray-black, sold for 10 cents, and issued on October 8, 1934.

Now, while all these stamps depicted actual national park settings, when the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service arrived in 1966 the Postal Service responded with a disappointing and bland 5-center that challenges your mind for interpretation. Officially, the three overlaid triangles represent the three park categories -- natural, historical, and recreational, according to the Postal Service. For good measure, there are three black dots in the middle of the triangles that represent cannon balls in honor of Gettysburg National Military Park, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, and Independence National Historical Park.

Perhaps recognizing that mistake, the Postal Service took a run at honoring another milestone of the national park movement, this one the centennial of "national parks" themselves in 1972. For that commemorative series the Postal Service released a 2-cent stamp featuring Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 6-center in honor of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, an 8-center with Old Faithful, and a 15-center carrying a rugged and captivating setting of Mount McKinley (aka Denali).

Now, naturally, there is a side story to the 1934 national park stamps. Apparently Postmaster General Farley had a habit of having the post office print up special (and large in number) editions of stamps that were ungummed and lacked the perforations around the edges. These he would give to the president and friends in the Cabinet and political circles. This did not, however, sit well with stamp collectors, and there was a huge outcry.

To quiet the criticism, Farley authorized that the special edition of national park stamps be sold to the public, also in ungummed sheets of 200 stamps that also lacked the perforations around the edges, along with ungummed sheets of 120 stamps, also without perforates. While the postmaster general's practice of issuing these "special editions" quickly came to an end, it was not before they were labeled "Farley's Follies".

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Funny the article starts with "colorful" and showing a monochrome stamps :)

I have several of the national park stamps (the 1934 year ones) and I was just wondering what would they be worth if I was to sell them? Also, I have several president stamps that I was wondering wether they were worth anything? Is there a website that tells you how much your stamps are worth? I hope you will respond back. Thanks for your time.


Dawn, I'm afraid I don't know of any websites where you can gauge the worth of your stamps, other than Ebay. In the past I've been told to take them to a stamp dealer to evaluate. But I believe that might require a fee. The only other suggestion I have is to check out this website and see if it offers any leads.

Good luck!

You could go to your local library or book store and check the values of your stamps in a Scotts Stamp Catalog. Keep in mind that the catalog value is for very fine condition and well centered, plus most dealers would only pay a small percentage of the value. Most US 19th century stamps are readily available for purchase in mint and used conditions.

Very nice article. I enjoy the National Park series of stamps both past and present.

Rather interesting research. I'm curious though, were the images photographs and if so who took them?

I had a realtive in the department of the interior when the parks stamps were comissioned and I have the origional photographs that the stamps were cropped from. I was wondering how to find out the value of the photos. the origionals had people in two of them that were omitted from the stamp. the stamp of hover dam was an artists depiction and not a photograph of the site.

I recently visited the following website, which gives values for both mint and used:

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