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Have you ever entered a contest, only to wonder what became of your entry once it was processed? Did you wonder who the winner of the contest was? Half a century ago artists across the country were pondering these very questions. They had entered the 1962 Battle of Gettysburg stamp design contest. The contest closed October 1, 1962. In the months that followed, contestants anxiously wrote to the Postmaster General’s special assistant of public relations and philately, James F. Kelleher, for any information on the outcome of the contest.
The inspiration for the Battle of Gettysburg design contest was the culmination of several compelling factors. For decades, the Post Office Department (POD) had been petitioned by customers to create a commemorative stamp of the Civil War.
While a quote from The Gettysburg Address had been included in a 1948 stamp, as the centennial of the war drew near, the POD had not yet planned a stamp memorializing it. Thus, in 1958, a 41-stamp program was proposed to the Centennial Civil War Commission and Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC). The Commission approved the program. CSAC, however, found the size of the program to be impractical and the commemoration of battles to be unwise. Instead, they recommended the creation of a stamp that emphasized “‘unity through sacrifice.’”¹ The program was shelved.
Meanwhile, a call for improved design in U.S. stamps was gaining momentum. American art had recently contributed Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism to the international dialogue. Critics wished to raise the caliber of design in the stamp program, as well. Among the suggestions for improving the designs were an open design competition – encouraging a wider pool of talent and a closed design competition – involving a group of pre-screened artists.²
In January 1961, a new Postmaster General, J. Edward Day, took office. Keen to appease political and public demands, he immediately revisited the Civil War commemorative stamp program. He and Kelleher swiftly whittled the program down to five stamps, one stamp for each of the five centennial Civil War years. They selected the first and last battles of the war and one significant event for each of the intervening years. With a reduced program, they easily won the approval of CSAC. An embroiled Centennial Civil War Commission* had little choice but to agree to the program. Day and Kelleher, then, turned to improving stamp design.
In May 1962, Postmaster General Day announced the competition for the design of the third stamp in the series, Battle of Gettysburg. The contest was open to artists and art students in the United States. A general news item was sent to all newspapers, the philatelic press, the American Association of Museums and American Institute of Architects. Posters advertising the contest were placed in postal lobbies, art societies, college art departments, and technical schools. Letters were mailed to those on the Post Office Department’s philatelic mailing list. After taking all of these measures, one employee stated that any designer who had not heard about the contest at this point “would have to be a complete hermit.”3
All those interested in competing, were instructed to request the official contest rules, by writing to Kelleher. The rules gave technical specifications and offered tips on entering a successful piece. One rule gave the dimensions required of the art. Another rule suggested that the contestants should, “familiarize themselves with the Battle of Gettysburg.” A third rule stated, “[A] sealed envelope containing the contestant’s name should be affixed to the back of each entry.” According to the pamphlet, multiple submissions were allowed. There were twenty-two rules in total.
Approximately 3000 Contest Rules pamphlets were distributed. 955 completed entries were submitted.4 When CSAC convened for its fall session, it deliberated on the submissions. After the difficult task of choosing ten final pieces, the winning image was a grey Confederate soldier clashing with a blue Union soldier. When they opened the attached envelopes, it revealed the winner, Roy Gjertson, had submitted, not one, but two of the final pieces. Finalists of this contest were asked to compete in a closed competition for the fourth design in the Civil War series, entitled The Wilderness.5
On February 10, 1963, the Post Office Department ran an article in This Week Magazine, a Sunday newspaper supplement, asking the American public to vote on their favorite design. The final design selected by CSAC, although second in the public poll, garnered only half as many votes as the depiction by Russell Hill of a hat on a battle-strewn field.6
News of the winner leaked on February 14 – three days before the official announcement date. The next day, articles criticized the misspelling of “centennial” on the piece. The Post Office Department responded, “the design was chosen for the artistic merit, and not for the correctness of the inscription.”7 Roy Gjertson’s intention was to “portray the unheroic face of war, to show war as a dirty business in which winner and loser are indistinguishable after a battle.”8 Still, as CSAC had earlier predicted, an illustration of the battle, upset many. Nevertheless, the stamp was printed, with spelling corrected, and the first day of issue ceremony occurred at Gettysburg on July 1, 1963.
Gjertson’s final stamp design, along with 299 more Battle of Gettysburg designs, soon traveled to contemporary stamp shows as well as postal lobbies though out the country. Over the years, designs from this contest have been exhibited over and over. When not on exhibit, they were stored in the stamp archives at the Post Office Department (later United States Postal Service). Today, the designs reside within the Postmaster General’s Collection or in the Stamp Design Files of the Third Assistant Postmaster General's Office at the National Postal Museum. Some entries still have a sealed envelope on the back—an artist waiting to be discovered.
*The Centennial Civil War Commission had come under fire for its failure to schedule functions in non-segregated facilities. Because it was under such scrutiny, the Commission was, therefore, willing to agree to a reduced stamp program where it had once staunchly advocated for the 41-stamp program.
1) Faries, Belmont. “The Wilderness.” S. P. A. Journal Volume 27. Issue 1 (October, 1964): 99-105. Print.
2) Berdanier, Paul F., Jr., Designs For U. S. Stamps. New York: Stamp Specialist, 1941, 4. Print.
3) From a note entitled “How to publicize the Contest.” Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
4) Personal note, “Gettysburg Competition (Background)” folder. Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
5) Faries, Belmont. “The Wilderness.” S. P. A. Journal Volume 27. Issue 1 (October, 1964): 99-105. Print.
6) From a memorandum written on February 14, 1963, by Brian S. Butler and Alan I. Goldstein, documenting the votes tabulated. Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
7) "Name Winner of Design for Commemorative G-burg Stamp." The Gettysburg Times 15, Feb. 1963: 1+. Print.
8) Piggin, Julia R. “The Gettysburg Winner.” This Week Magazine 17 Feb. 1963: 5. Print.
“Name Winner of Design for Commemorative G-burg Stamp.”The Gettysburg Times 15, Feb. 1963: 1+. Print.
Berdanier, Paul F., Jr., Designs For U. S. Stamps. New York: Stamp Specialist, 1941. Print.
Faries, Belmont. “Gettysburg Design Finalists.” The Sunday Star 10 Feb. 1963: C-7. Print.
Faries, Belmont. “The Wilderness.” S. P. A. Journal Volume 27. Issue 1 (October, 1964): 99-105. Print.
Piggin, Julia R. “The Gettysburg Winner.” This Week Magazine17 Feb. 1963: 5. Print.
Sopkin, Charles. “Which Stamp Wins ‘The Battle of Gettysburg?’” This Week Magazine 10 Feb. 1963: 10+. Print.
Personal note, “Gettysburg Competition (Background)” folder. Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
From a note entitled “How to publicize the Contest:.” Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
From a letter to This Week Magazine editor, George Kabusk, from James F. Kelleher, January 23, 1963, discussing a potential leak. Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.
From a memorandum written on February 14, 1963, by Brian S. Butler and Alan I. Goldstein, documenting the votes tabulated. Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design files, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library.