2016 Funded Research Projects
Indigenous Representation at United States Post Offices in Oklahoma: A Case Study
PhD Candidate, Native American Art History
University of Oklahoma, Norman
Between 1934 and 1943, the United States Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture administered a program of mural painting in post office buildings. Murals painted for post offices in Oklahoma that represent Native American culture were painted by both Native and non-Native artists.
With more indigenous-painted post office murals than any other state, a study of the murals in Oklahoma is critical for gaining a better understanding of Indian painting at a time when Native-made art was experiencing a Renaissance due in part to the support of the United States government and a shift in Indian policy away from the strict guidelines of assimilation designed to eliminate Indian culture to policy that valued Native-produced art. Many supporters of these paradigm shifts in policy believed that Indian art was a representation of a “true” American art form, making the study of the murals painted by Native Americans a critical part of the study of indigenous art in the first half of the twentieth century. The study of paintings by non-native artists, but which depict Native Americans and indigenous culture, are critical for comparison of the perceptions of Native American culture during this time period in both Oklahoma and nationally.
Moreover, public responses to these Native and non-Native representations can also be studied. The post office, as a frequently visited space, was (and remains) an important center for social interaction among citizens living in the small, rural towns of Oklahoma. The works of art installed in these communities served and continue to serve the purpose of bringing art to the people as originally mandated by the Treasury Department’s art programs implemented during Roosevelt’s New Deal Era.
Learn more at www.postalmuseum.si.edu/indiansatthepostoffice/
Stamp of the Century
Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher
In the spring of 1918, airmail looked almost like a stunt among all the headlines screaming about draft resistance, defiant labor unions, Russia’s withdrawal from the war, torpedoed ships, and businesses closing to save coal. The U.S. government was desperate for good news, but instead the Senate Committee for Military Affairs launched an investigation to find out why the War Department was defaulting on its promise to turn out thousands of airplanes and pilots. This all-too-public examination swirled with accusations of graft, corruption, and widespread incompetence. President Wilson was forced to reorganize the military air services even as he pushed to get production up to speed for what everyone thought would be a lengthy involvement in World War I.
The Post Office Department’s idea to launch regularly scheduled airmail was a rare bright spot. Politicians accustomed to funding requests for post roads in the form of streets, telegraph lines, steamship routes, and railroads were sympathetic to the idea of post roads in the air. Special postage rates would generate income. Pilots would practice flying cross country before going to war, and the romance of flight would distract the public for a bit.
A new 24-cent stamp would cover the cost of sending a letter by aeroplane, starting May 15, 1918, between New York and Washington, D.C., with a refueling stop in Philadelphia. Once Postmaster General Albert Burleson authorized a special two-color stamp featuring a carmine frame around a blue Curtiss JN-4 bi-plane, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing quickly moved to design, engrave, and print the stamps in time for the first airmail flights.
The day before the first scheduled airmail flight, one of the best-known events in philatelic history took place when D.C. cashier and collector William Robey stepped up to the post office window to purchase a sheet of the new stamps. Robey looked over a few sheets, and then the clerk finally slid him one in which the airplane in the center was upside-down on all 100 stamps. Though he later said “his heart stood still,” Robey quickly scooted out the door, already scheming to parlay his find into the sale of a lifetime. The Inverted Jenny was on its way to infiltrating the mythology of America.
The very act of purchasing the Inverted Jenny has intersected American history in countless ways in the past hundred years. Stamp of the Century covers the start of scheduled airmail, the creation of the famous stamp and its error variation, and the historic contribution of those who have bought, sold, and sometimes manhandled the Inverted Jenny to finance, government, business, inventions, crime, and gossip columns.
Publication of Stamp of the Century is planned for spring 2018 to coincide with the 100th anniversaries of airmail and the discovery of the Inverted Jenny. Learn more at www.stampofthecentury.com.
Material Culture and the Making of American Identity in the U. S. Overseas Possessions
PhD Candidate, History
At the turn of the twentieth century, the imperial question—whether the United States should keep the colonial empire it had just won from Spain, comprised of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and the newly annexed Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa—was the hottest political issue of the day. Territorial expansion was hardly new to the United States, but the question of holding territories in perpetuity without the promise of statehood was. Politicians, journalists, and legal scholars debated what it would mean for the United States, a nation that had formed its identity in opposition to British colonialism, to hold colonies of its own.
The imperial question soon faded from the front pages of newspapers, and for many Americans living in the mainland United States, the overseas territories were out of sight, out of mind after those first years of the twentieth century. And yet, a curious transformation was happening in the territories themselves: colonial inhabitants began saluting the American flag, enlisting in the U.S. armed forces, and using American money and stamps. Mainland Americans may have been confused about whether these people were part of an American nation, but territorial residents had no such confusion. The material culture of daily life was binding them to the United States.
Historians have long been preoccupied with the question of how a group of people transforms into a national community—how they come to feel themselves as part of a nation. One of the ways that historians have sought to understand nationalism is to look at the “banal.” Nations are an abstraction based on ideologies and ideas, but they also have physical manifestations in ordinary material objects. You know you are in the United States because if you need to mail a letter you will use your U.S. dollars to purchase a U.S. stamp and you will see the American flag flying outside the U.S. Post Office. Indicators of national identity are present in mundane activities.
My dissertation seeks to understand what it means for the American nation and American national identity that people living in the overseas territories, many of whom were legally denied citizenship, still interacted with the same American national symbols in the material culture of their everyday lives. The study of the circulation of these symbolic material objects also allows us to understand how the presence of U.S.-marked material objects shaped colonial subjects’ perceptions of their relationship to the American nation.