The National Defense Issue stamps were released for public use on October 16, 1940. Their date of issue coincided with the first day of registration for America’s first peacetime draft. A month earlier Pres. Franklin Roosevelt had signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 initiating this draft despite the United States’ declared neutrality in the European war begun by Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
The three, small format stamps of simplistic design declare their purpose “For Defense” and acknowledge Industry, Agriculture, Army, Navy, Security, Education, Conservation and Health as key to national well-being. These stamps served as regular issue stamps and were denominated 1-, 2- and 3-cents in the same colors as the current regular issues—green, red and violet respectively. Objects pictured are the Statue of Liberty (1-cent), an anti-aircraft gun (2-cent) and the Torch of Enlightenment (3-cent).
These stamps, printed in the billions for the Post Office Department, became major workhorses of wartime-era mail. The National Defense Issue, with a total production of 19,677,985,200 stamps, was the largest printing to that date of any postage stamp series issue in the history of the United States.
Classifying the 1-cent stamp, as well as the 2-cent and 3-cent stamps of the National Defense Issues, has always presented a problem for stamp collectors. Issued as propaganda stamps for World War II, the Post Office Department issued billions of them and asked postmasters to sell these denominations instead of the Presidential regular series stamps in circulation at the time.
Originally to be issued on October 12, 1940, in Washington, DC, the first day of issue was delayed until October 16, "National Registration Day." On that day over 16 million men and women registered their names in support of the "National Defense Program."
President Franklin Roosevelt sketched the first, rough concept for the 1-cent Liberty, and Bureau of Engraving and Printings designer William A. Roach developed FDR's concept further. The Bureau printed billions of these stamps, and in the process some of the perforating wheels became worn. It is thought that, since those who maintained the printing equipment properly were off fighting the war, post offices received stamps with partial perforations. Part-perfs and imperfs appeared in huge numbers in post offices around the country, and they became the twentieth century's most extensive errors or freaks ever delivered for retail sale at US post offices.
Steven J. Rod
President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew a pencil sketch for the 2-cent National Defense commemorative stamp, which features an image of the 90-millimeter anti-aircraft gun recently introduced by the War Department. The stamp honors both the navy and army. FDR also sketched images for the 1- and 3-cent issues. The approved models of all three stamps bear the notation, "OK, F.D.R," the initials of a president who recognized the value of these tiny gummed pieces of paper as effective promoters.
The Post Office Department informed postmasters that these 1-, 2-, and 3-cent stamps would fill all future requisitions and they were to be "offered for sale to the public in lieu of ordinary postage stamps in these denominations so far as post office stocks permit."
United States postage stamps are catalogued and classified into several categories, the two basic categories being commemoratives and definitives. These three National Defense stamps, which were pressed into service to be sold in place of the regular definitives stamps (those of the 1938 Presidential Series), have caused many collectors to question their being listed in the "commemorative" section of US postage stamp catalogues.
Postmaster General Frank C. Walker took office on September 11, 1940. Wanting to speed production, Mr. Walker approved the design of the three National Defense issues the very next day. On that same day, he announced, "The Post Office Department [will] issue three new postage stamps in connection with the National Defense program." The first day of sale was originally announced as October 12, Columbus Day, and then changed to October 16, which coincided with National Registration Day, the day of the nation's first peacetime draft registration.
Harry Rollins engraved the picture on the master die, and William B. Wells engraved the frame and lettering.
Johl, Max G. The United States Commemorative Stamps of the Twentieth Century. New York: H.L. Lindquist, 1947.
Steven J. Rod
An image of the "Torch of Enlightenment" appears on the 3-cent National Defense stamp, saluting "Security, Education, Conservation and Health." As with the 1-cent and 2-cent, the stamp's design began with a pencil sketch by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The stamps were issued October 16, 1940.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing artist William A. Roach prepared the final design. The stamp resembles the pencil sketch except for some decorative ribbons that the president had included in his original design.
The Post Office Department issued 8,384,867,600 of the 3-cent stamps, reflecting FDR's desire to use postage stamps to promote support for United States involvement in World War II. They were to be sold at post offices in place of the 3-cent Presidential definitive, at that time the workhorse of stamps used to meet the first-class postage rate.
Writing in the January, 1971, issue of The American Philatelist, E. Ellsworth Post described "an unusual inking oddity found on the US 3-cent Defense stamp." The article concluded with mention of the BEP's assessment that the "unusual markings are attributable to the incomplete wiping of extraneous ink matter on the printing plate."
The rapidity with which the BEP produced these billions of stamps contributed to many freaks and oddities and the largest number of genuine errors in US postage stamps (mostly imperforated varieties). Writing in the March, 1948, issue of the Bureau Specialist, Jesse L. Bogard noted, "The most important and beautiful part about the Defense errors was that no one party or group got or monopolized them as they were found from Maine to Texas, Washington to Florida. The average collector and stamp hunter had a crack at the errors as they were likely to be found in any post office, whether large or small."
In 1991, the late Henry W, Beecher, an expert on US postage stamp production, clarified the persistent myths that the perforation freaks and errors were caused by war-time shortages - for instance, shortage of the perforation machine's metal pins. He noted that controls of such materials did not begin until January 1942, when War Production was initiated. It was just the demand for unprecedented quantities and desire for rapid delivery to local post offices that, according to Beecher, caused the peculiarities in production.
George Linn, editor of Linn's Stamps, commented in the November 16, 1940, issue: "The National Defense first day covers set no records for speed. The covers trickled back as late as a full week. The other units of the defense program, we trust, are functioning in a more efficient manner." It is ironic to note, by today's standards, the return of first day covers in a week's time was quite speedy!
James R. Lowe engraved the vignette, and Edward H. Helmuth engraved the lettering and frame.