Lady Bird Johnson: Her Legacy and Her Stamps

06.22.2018
Blog

By Calvin Mitchell, Assistant Curator of Philately 

Reflecting on her years in the White House, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, wrote in her diary: “…Using the White House as a podium---hopefully---to thank, to applaud, to advertise, to rally citizens to action in improving our environment, gives me joy.” This statement characterizes her style and political determination which she cultivated over decades alongside her husband while he served in the U.S. Congress, as Vice President, and as President.

Although Lady Bird left the White House 49 years ago, her legacy continues to flourish through her multiple beautification initiatives involving public spaces located along our interstate highways and public parks found at the federal, state and local levels. Her passionate desire for natural beatification through the use of native trees and flowering plants was lifelong. Early in her position as First Lady, she was involved in political activities that would further her initiatives. For example, she created and oversaw the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, which brought together wealthy philanthropists, local civic leaders, and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (whose department oversaw the National Park Service). She participated in White House legislative sessions and met with members of Congress to discuss her beautification and wildlife conservation objectives. Her first and most significant accomplishment resulted in the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which was derisively referred by the legislation’s opponents as “Lady Bird’s Act.”

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1965 combination commemorative cover. Source: Private Collection.

This combination cover shows the inauguration day postmark for Lyndon Johnson and the digital color postmark issued for Mrs. Johnson’s centennial birthday stamp. Her advocacy as an environmentalist, conservationist, and an architect of a national beautification program was an integral part of her husband’s Great Society domestic program and presidential initiatives.

The issuance of five stamps honoring her tremendous work as an environmentalist and conservationist has also contributed to her enduring legacy. The success of her policies were supported by two Postmaster Generals who were close friends of the Johnson family at the time the “Beautification” stamps were released in 1966 and 1969. Larry O’Brian, who had previously served as Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign manager, was appointed 57th US Postmaster General in 1965. During an internal postal meeting about proposed 1966 new issues held on November 4, 1965, the attendees discussed the possibility of a stamp celebrating landscape gardening. O’Brian advocated instead for a stamp to promote Mrs. Johnson’s beautification initiatives and celebrate passage of the Highway Act of 1965, which imposed limitations on billboards and encouraged the planting of native flowers and plants along interstate highways. Her close relationship with O’Brian also afforded Mrs. Johnson the opportunity to review, comment on and approve the preliminary stamp designs. The stamp quickly became very popular with the general public, particularly with gardening and flora interest groups. The initial printing of 120 million stamps did not satisfy the demand for the stamp and subsequent printings were required.

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1966 “Beautification of America” stamp; U.S. #1318.

Issued on October 5, 1966, the first “Beautification of America” stamp was designed by Gyo Fujikawa and was considered one of the most attractive stamps issued in 1966. The stamp carried the legend “Plant for a more Beautiful America,” which was clearly a reference to public participation in Mrs. Johnson’s “Natural Beauty” campaign. The stamp shares similarities with the “Gifts of Friendship” series that was issued in 2015.

Following the popularity of the 1966 issue, the colorful “Beautification of America” set of four stamps were released on January 16, 1969. These stamps honored the accomplishments of Mrs. Johnson’s initiatives, which encouraged involvement from government and local community organizations. These stamp were proposed and shepherded through the design process by William Marvin Watson, who had succeeded O’Brian as the Postmaster General. Prior to the appointment, he served as Lyndon Johnson’s Chief of Staff, as well as the White House Appointments Secretary. Watson finalized the stamp issue only after Mrs. Johnson first saw and approved the draft designs. After her review, Mrs. Johnson’s final request to the Post Office Department was to have the stamps ready before she left the White House. The stamps also proved popular with the general public and the initial printing of 120 million stamps had to be increased to 170 million. The developmental artwork used in the design of the 1968 and 1969 stamps is currently on display at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in an exhibition titled Beautiful Blooms: A Portrait of Flowering Plants on Stamps. The pieces on are loan from the Postmaster General’s Art Collection.

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1969 “Beautification of America” series; U.S. #1367.

The set of four stamps were designed by Walter Richards. The top left stamp offers the encouragement to “Plant for more Beautiful Parks” and depicts a field of daffodils along the Potomac River with the Washington Monument in the background. The top right stamp “Plant for more Beautiful Cities,” shows pink and red azaleas and white tulips with the U.S. Capitol in the distance. The lower left stamp reads “Plant for more Beautiful Streets” and is flush with rows of blooming crab apple trees along a paved suburban road. The lower right stamp is a scene of yellow and blue wildflowers along a highway with the caption “Plant for more Beautiful Highways.”

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2012 "Lady Bird" Johnson centennial souvenir sheet.

On November 30, 2012, USPS released a stunning souvenir sheet to honor Lady Bird Johnson’s Centennial Birthday and included a reprise of the five engraved stamps issued in 1966 and 1969. This sheet is a gorgeous commemoration of her legacy as an environmentalist and as an architect of a beautification program that has endured beyond her years as a First Lady.

This centennial birthday sheet represents the first time a souvenir sheet was issued for a First Lady and was approved by Patrick R. Donahoe, the Postmaster General appointed by President Barack Obama. The sheet honors Lady Bird Johnson’s continued accomplishments after leaving the White House. For example, on her 70th birthday, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center (renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center). The single stamp on the right of the sheet features Lady Bird Johnson’s official White House portrait, an oil painting by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. The first day of issue ceremony was held at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which continues to be very active in ecological research, horticulture, and native plant conservation.