On August 2, 1923, during the return leg of a voyage to Alaska and the American west, Warren Gamaliel Harding suffered a heart attack and became the sixth U.S. president to die in office. Harding had been popular despite the charges of corruption and cronyism that tarnished his brief administration, and the Post Office Department (POD) rushed a 2¢ black mourning stamp into production. The National Postal Museum owns a specialized collection of this stamp that was assembled and exhibited in the 1940s by Howard A. Lederer of New York City. Lederer's collection documents the stamp's hurried production and chronicles the two philatelic crazes it spawned: first day covers and precancels.
One of the earliest preproduction items in the Lederer Collection is an August 15, 1923 draft press release boasting that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) would “break all existing records...in the engraving and in the production of these stamps.” This was not an exaggerated claim. Clair Aubrey Huston, a twenty-one year veteran of the BEP, designed the stamp in one day—August 16—using a modified version of the Fourth Bureau Issue frame and a copperplate etching of the late president. The Lederer Collection contains a copy of the etching signed by its artist, Frederick Pauling, and inscribed “To Howard Lederer / Harding Memorial Stamp was Engraved after this Portrait.”
Reportedly this etching was Harding's favorite and his widow suggested its use; in reality it was chosen for expediency. Because Pauling was a Bureau employee, his work was readily available. It also had the advantage of being a profile, minimizing the chance that postal clerks or customers would confuse the Harding stamp with the 7¢ black McKinley already in circulation. Huston's design was quickly approved and the Pauling etching ran in newspapers almost immediately.
There has been some confusion as to which BEP employee actually engraved the vignette. Beverly S. King and Max G. Johl contend that “E[dward] M[cClellan] Hall engraved the master die,” but this must refer only to the lettering since Hall was a specialist in that area. Gary Griffith in United States Stamps 1922-26 credits the vignette to Pauling himself. Two items in the Lederer Collection argue strongly in favor of Pauling: a pen sketch by him on celluloid appears to be a study or tracing for the vignette, and there is an imperforate block of four signed in the margin by “F. Pauling, / Engraver.”
Pauling must have slept little and worked at breakneck speed since only six days elapsed from design until the stamp went to press. Two large die proofs were pulled and approved on August 21; the first plates, #14853 and 14852, were certified and went to press the next day. Modern experts believe that approximately eighteen die proofs were ultimately printed, and two of these reside in the Lederer Collection: one purchased in the February 4, 1946 Harmer auction of the Franklin D. Roosevelt collection and another bound in morocco leather and inscribed by Postmaster General Harry S. New to U.S. Army Colonel Frederick R. Chamberlain, Jr.
The first printing of 300,000,000 stamps was released on Saturday, September 1 at Marion, Ohio (Harding's home town) and Washington, D.C. Two hundred people were in line when the Marion office opened at nine o'clock, and by the time it closed its entire allotment of 200,000 Harding stamps was sold out. The Washington Post reported that in the first week, $58,250 worth of the stamps—or approximately 3 million copies—had been purchased at Marion and Washington alone! Recognizing that the first printing would not satisfy the public demand for the stamp, the postmaster general ordered another 1.3 billion copies.
A dizzying array of varieties soon became available to collectors: the original, perf. 11 flat-plate stamps issued on September 1 (Scott #610); the perf. 10 rotary press printing released September 12 (Scott #612); and the flat-plate imperforate variety issued on November 15 (Scott #611). In addition, the Black Hardings produced two important twentieth century rarities: the rotary press stamps that were perfed 11 on the flat-press perforator (Scott #613); and the Schermack Type III coils, created when the Mail-O-Meter company of Detroit pasted together strips of the imperforates and privately perforated them for use in vending machines. Although the Lederer Collection is lacking Scott #613, the Schermack coils are well-represented: there is an unused pair, an unused strip of three, and a single used on cover—one of very few known examples.
All of these varieties, though interesting and visually appealing, were even by 1923 the stuff of traditional, respectable philately. The Black Hardings' appearance, however, gave a boost to two fledgling collecting specialties: first day covers and precancels.
First day cover (FDC) collecting in the modern sense was not really possible until the early 1920s. In December 1921, a Philatelic Agency was established at Washington, D.C. to cater especially for collectors. At roughly the same time, the POD began communicating information about new stamps to the philatelic and national press in advance of their release. For the first time, average collectors could know when and where stamps would be issued and prepare their own envelopes to be cancelled on the first day.
Ohio philatelist George Ward Linn seized just that opportunity with the Harding issue. On September 1, he mailed himself about 200 envelopes franked with the stamps and cacheted with the typeset inscription “IN MEMORIUM [sic] / WARREN G. HARDING / TWENTY-NINTH PRESIDENT / BORN / NOV. 2, 1865 / DIED / AUG. 2, 1923.” He advertised the resulting covers, today widely regarded as the first modern FDCs, for 50¢ postpaid in Mekeel's, Collectors Club Philatelist, Weekly Philatelic Gossip, and his own publication, Linn's Stamp News. Others copied Linn's example over the next decade, and cachetmaking finally exploded into a full-fledged industry during the 1930s.
The Lederer Collection has numerous first day covers serviced by pioneer collectors Philip H. Ward, Edward Chauncey Worden, and Charles E. Nickles. Many of them are on official mourning stationery of federal departments, including an envelope from the White House. The use of black-edged mourning stationery was rapidly declining by 1923, so all such first day covers for the black Hardings are scarce; White House mourning stationery, however, is exceptionally rare, making this cover a showpiece despite two damaged stamps and a large glue stain where Lederer once overlapped another cover.
Precancelled stamps (stamps cancelled before being used, typically by overprinting) were intended to eliminate the facing and canceling of individual mail pieces at the post office. Although the practice began informally during the 1870s, the POD, concerned that precancelled stamps could be easily reused, did not officially sanction them until 1903. A variety of methods were used to create precancel overprints, including typesetting, hand stamps, and even mimeograph machines. The Black Hardings were only the fourth non-definitive series to be widely precancelled, and this attracted a great deal of attention from collectors; the philatelic writer Herman Herst once compared “the Harding craze of 1923-1925” to the tulipomania that swept the Netherlands in the 1630s. Throughout late 1923 and early 1924, extensive lists of reported Harding precancel varieties ran in the Weekly Philatelic Gossip , as did advertisements seeking and selling them. Precancels are well represented in the Lederer Collection, including a variety of typefaces, positions, and colors.
As the first mourning stamp for a sitting U.S. president since the 15¢ Lincolns of 1866, the Black Hardings captured the public imagination. Although they were only distributed to post offices for ninety days, they were promoted more heavily than any previous stamp and gave impetus to two new philatelic specialties. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that the Black Hardings' release ushered in the modern era of U.S. philately, which attained its golden age under another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Die - the original engraving of a stamp design, usually recess-engraved in reverse on a small, flat sheet of soft steel. In traditional intaglio printing, a transfer roll is made from a die, and printing plates are made from impressions on the transfer roll.
First-day cover - a newly issued stamp affixed to an envelope and postmarked on the first day of sale at a city designated by the Post Office Department or Postal Service.
Precancel - a stamp cancelled prior to affixing on mail matter or before being deposited at the post office which allows the item to bypass the usual canceling process
Vignette - the primary design area of a stamp
Facing - identification mark which consists of a series of vertical bars read by automated postal equipment that identifies, orients, and separates various classes of mail.
Mourning stamp - a stamp issued on occasions of national bereavement such as the death of a president or king. The stamp might be a special issue printed in black with a black edge, or it might have the borders of existing stamps printed in black.
Private Perforation - a perforation applied by individuals or companies instead of being officially perforated by the issuing authority. Some companies use special perforations to operate more efficiently in their vending and mailing machines.
Griffith, Gary. “The Black Harding.” United States Specialist 66 (1995): 431-438.
_____. United States Stamps 1922-1926. Sidney, OH: Linn's Stamp News, 1997.
Herst, Herman. “Remember the Harding Precancels? Stamps Don't Always Go Up.” SPA Journal 44:5 (January 1982).
Johl, Max G. and Beverly S. King. United States Postage Stamps of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. New York: H. L. Lindquist, 1934.
Mosher, Ernest A. “The U.S. Harding Mourning Stamp and M[ourning]C[over]s.” Chap. 57 in Mourning Covers: The Cultural and Postal History of Letters Edged in Black.Topeka, KS: Published by the author, 2003.
Mueller, Barbara R. Precancel Primer. Cincinnati: B.F. Deitzer, 1961.
“Many Harding Stamps Sold in Day at Marion.” Washington Post, September 8, 1923.
Newton, Barry. “The 50th Anniversary of Modern FDC Advertising” Parts 1 and 2. First Days 19:3 (May/June 1974), 12-14 and 19:4 (July/August 1974), 52-57.
Written by Daniel Piazza