FDR & Stamps of the Great Depression

The Stamp Collector in Chief Video

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Chief Curator of Philately Cheryl Ganz explains President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's passion for stamp collecting in the video, Stamp Collector in Chief, produced by Smithsonian.com.

FDR was a stamp collector his entire life. And he didn't just collect stamps, he collected a lot of other things too. But as he collected stamps they were a way he could learn all about the world, and geography, and history, and culture.

When he got polio that offered him a great opportunity to study his stamps when he was bedridden and couldn't do much else.

As he became an adult the stamps took on a new meaning because now he could use them as a stress buster. So every night a half hour before he'd go to bed, even when he was in the White House, he would go and work on his stamps, empty his mind of all his troubles of the day and be able to sleep comfortably. This methodical method of taking this pile of stamps that are in total chaos and putting them in order was a very relaxing thing for him to do. Here we had a man taking a world in chaos because of the depression, because of the war, and able to put it in order as well.

Herbert Hoover was a stamp collector. Gerald Ford was a stamp collector. But for FDR his stamp collecting was a true passion. So it became a big part of his life. That's part of why it was incorporated into so much of his presidency.

And he used his postage stamps to help sell his New Deal programs, to help reinforce his role as president against his critics, and to reach out to all kinds of voter bases using postage stamps.

When Postmaster General James Farley brought four designs to the president for a Byrd Expedition stamp—and this was to honor the arctic explorer Richard Byrd who was planning an expedition to the South Pole—FDR looked at these four designs he says, “no, no, that's not gonna work.” And he grabbed a piece of paper, drew a map. And then on that map with the continents, drew dotted lines that showed the routes of all the Byrd expeditions. And he said, “do something more like this.” So they went back and the artists at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing created a new model, brought it back to FDR for approval. And FDR goes, “nope, you got one of those dotted lines wrong. That's not accurate for the way his route was.” They went back and checked and sure enough, FDR had been right all along.

In 1934 they issued a three-cent stamp honoring Mother's Day. It started out with the idea to be a stamp to honor the famous artist James Whistler. At the same time some women were lobbying that they wanted a Mother's Day stamp. FDR said, “let's combine the two.” FDR draws a sketch showing the Whistler mother basic design and said, “this will honor mothers in America and we'll issue it just before Mother's Day so everybody can use the stamp on all their cards and letters to their mothers.”

FDR was very strong about the idea that he wanted a stamp to honor the first British colony in the United States on its three hundred and fiftieth anniversary. He also not just designed the concept of what should be on the stamp but he clearly said, “I want it to be a square stamped the first stamp created as a square stamp.” And he wanted it to be baby blue. At that time it was incredibly unusual for a stamp to be such a soft, soft color. But under FDR he required that a lot of stamps be lighter in color. And the idea of all of that was to kind of lighten the load during the Great Depression.

In 1938 Farley had a campaign called National Airmail Week. The idea was every town in America should send airmail and have a special design on envelopes that would promote their hometown. And tied to that was a new airmail stamp. FDR designed that stamp. And he considered it to be his one true stamp design where he got the entire idea himself from scratch. He took the American eagle, drew it and put a box around it, and he required that it be in red, white and blue for the national colors.

In 1939 four states, Washington, Montana, North and South Dakota, all wanted their own stamp to honor their statehood. FDR looked at that and said, “gee they're all in the same region.” He got a piece of paper and he drew the four states on one stamp. He says, “do a map and show all four states at the same time.” They gave each state some recognition by themselves because each one got their own first day of issue ceremony.

President Roosevelt and James Farley worked together to portray their New Deal programs on postage stamps in a way that would give a positive message of hope and optimism to the people. They would show things like the Boulder Dam on stamp, that was a major Works project. And there was a series of stamps for the 75th anniversary of the National Parks.

They had a special stamp for the National Recovery Administration. When we were in World War II, he would have all his generals talked to about the war in the Pacific. He knew every island, name of the island, where it was located, how large it was, what was the population, what they produced. And he knew all of that because of stamp collecting.