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Artistic License – The Duck Stamp Story

Mallard hen with two ducklings
 Mallard hen with two ducklings

Introduction

The Federal Duck Stamp program is one of the most successful conservation programs ever devised. Since 1934, revenues from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps have been used to acquire millions of acres of natural habitat for America's waterfowl in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Artistic License exhibit, formerly on display in the Jeanette Cantrell Rudy gallery at the National Postal Museum, explores the history of rare and collectible Federal Duck Stamps created as a result of this extraordinary conservation program. 

This exhibit is made possible through the generous support of Jeanette Cantrell Rudy. 

A morning's work—duck hunters, Lake County, California, 1906
photo of three duck hunters, Lake County, California, 1906

Bringing Back the Birds

In 1934, our nation discovered its natural bounty had limits. The continental population of waterfowl reached its lowest point in recorded history—approximately 27 million birds. 

Through the Federal Duck Stamp Program, conservationists, artists, hunters and the federal government joined forces to conserve our country's natural resources. Together, they found a way to save our migratory waterfowl for future generations.

The First Federal Duck Stamp

Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling (1876-1962), the designer of the first Federal Duck Stamp, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Des Moines Register. His greatest enthusiasm was for conservation. In the 1930s, he answered a call from Washington to aid the migratory waterfowl crisis. He served as a member of two committees that examined the crisis, and also was chief of the U. S. Biological Survey, 1934-35. He was one of the leading advocates of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.

stamp design with 2 ducks

Stamp Design

Ding Darling's etching Mallards Dropping In became the design of the first Federal Duck Stamp issued in 1934. Haunted by the inadequacies of this hastily composed artwork, Darling sketched variations and gave them to friends for more than twenty years after the issuance of the stamp. 

The 1934 Federal Duck Stamp graces this North Dakota hunting license. For the first time, all waterfowl hunters over the age of 16 were required to purchase a Federal Duck Stamp and affix it to a state hunting license.

painting of four ducks on the water and one flying into frame
Courtesy of an anonymous lender.

Art In the Service of Conservation

The Federal Duck Stamp is the only U. S. stamp whose design is traditionally chosen through an art contest. Each year, hundreds of wildlife artists from all over the country enter the Federal Duck Stamp Design Contest. The winning design appears on the following year's stamp. 

Although the winner receives no money from the federal government, the artist can expect to earn hundreds of thousand of dollars, mostly from the sale of limited edition prints of the original artwork.

Accomplished wildlife artist Bob Hines was chosen to created the 1946 Federal Duck Stamp. Until 1949, the stamp was designed by an artist appointed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1947, Hines was hired to administer the program, a position he held for 32 years. 

The original artwork for the 1946 Federal Duck Stamp, an ink drawing by Bob Hines, shows a male Redhead Duck landing amid a small swimming flock. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned Hines' first attempt, requesting that he take out a second flock of ducks.

Fulvous Whistling Duck painted by Burton Moore
Fulvous Whistling Duck painted by Burton Moore. This southern species had never been featured on a Federal Duck Stamp until this 1986 issue. Courtesy of an anonymous lender

Remarques 

Artists create special collectibles called remarques by painting or drawing an image on one of the duck stamps they have designed. The image can either mirror the design of the stamp or be a different pose of the same species. A tribute remarque results when an artist creates an image on a stamp designed by another artist. 

The evolution of Federal Duck Stamps can be seen in this series, which includes a stamp from each decade. The stamps signed by Ken Michaelsen are tribute remarques to deceased artists on the stamps they created. Michaelsen designed the 1979 Federal Duck Stamp.

Ding Darling and Maynard Reece

Artists, Conservationists and Friends 

Perhaps the two most significant artists in the history of the Federal Duck Stamp Program were Ding Darling and Maynard Reece. The two duck stamp artists, hunters and Iowans seemed destined to become close friends. 

As a hunter, Reece knew duck stamps were, but he found out about the Federal Duck Stamp Design Contest from Darling. Darling critiqued the aspiring wildlife artist's paintings and offered advice. Reece improved to the level where Darling felt he could not longer teach him. "He was wrong," Reece said. "He helped me until the day he died." 

Links

For more information on the Federal Duck Stamp, visit the website of the Federal Duck Stamp Office.

For more information on collecting Federal Duck Stamps, visit the website of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society.

Additional Imagery

  • Cartoon of injured ducks following a sign To Extinction above. cartoon of ducks flying into a pond next to a sign that says Game Management below
    This cartoon on conservation typifies the many created by Ding Darling. Courtesy Ding Darling Foundation 
  • $1 red duck stamp with 3 ducks by artist Frank Benson, 1935
    Artist Frank Benson, 1935

  • $1 red stamp with four ducks on the water and one flying in by artist Bob Hines, 1946
    Artist Bob Hines, 1946
  • $2 stamp with three ducks flying by artist Stanley Stearns, 1955
    Artist Stanley Stearns, 1955

  • $3 colorful duck stamp by artist Claremont Pritchard, 1968
    Artist Claremont Pritchard, 1968
  • $5 colorful duck stamp by artist Lee LeBlanc, 1973
    Artist Lee LeBlanc, 1973

  • $7.50 stamp with Fulvous Whistling Duck by artist Burton Moore, 1986
    Artist Burton Moore, 1986
  • $15 stamp with Spectacled Eider by artist Joe Hautman, 1992
    Artist Joe Hautman, 1992

  • Reece created these remarques of the five Federal Duck Stamps he designed
    Reece created these remarques of the five Federal Duck Stamps he designed. 
  • photo of Maynard Reece
    Maynard Reece became one of the greatest duck stamp artists. Between 1949 and 1971, he won the Federal Duck Stamp Design Contest five times, a feat no other artist has matched. Courtesy Maynard Reece Gallery.

  • $1 blue duck stamp with tribute remarque to Ding Darling
    Tribute remarque to Ding Darling.
  • It was a privilege to make this remarque on J.N. 'Ding' Darling's stamp, as he was my close friend and mentor for over 20 years until his death in 1962. He induced me to begin entering the duck stamp contest in 1948. I am happy to present this art work to the Jeanette Cantrell Rudy Exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum as a tribute to 'Ding'. Sincerely, Maynard Reece
    Reece's letter explains his tribute remarque to his longtime friend Ding Darling.

  • photo of Ding Darling
    Courtesy Ding Darling Foundation.
  • photo of Ding Darling sketching
    Jay N. "Ding" Darling, 1876-1962. Courtesy Ding Darling Foundation.