Stamps in Context: An Investigation into the 1987 North American Wildlife Issue
By Hannah-Claire Allgood, Education Intern, August 13, 2018
In Historic Preservation, students and professionals are asked to find the context and original purpose of a structure. Without that understanding, there is too much room for error and confusion in the preservation treatment process. The building’s background is its foundation for creation. Similarly, a stamp’s foundation is the context it was designed in. Applying my background in Preservation, I began investigating stamps and the years surrounding their release, looking for connections.
Just over 30 years ago, the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled The North American Wildlife Issue at the 1987 Canadian Association for Philatelic Exhibition (CAPEX). This 50 pane series features the work of renowned wildlife artist Chuck Ripper and with beautiful accuracy showcases the diverse wildlife populations in North America. It commemorates and highlights the animals that make our National Parks and backyards a stunning and lively landscape.
Stamps have a long history of honoring subjects of importance. In the beginning, they depicted founding fathers but their topics rapidly grew to include landscapes, events, and focuses of national discussion and value. Three years prior to The North American Wildlife Issue’s release, Stephen Kellert and The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy released the study “American Attitudes Toward and Knowledge of Animals: An Update.” This study surveyed over 3,000 Americans across 49 states, excluding Hawaii, and found that the survey group’s knowledge and understanding of issues around wild and domesticated animals had a number of gaps. The researchers’ test covered a series of topics including animals that inflict human injuries, pets, basic biological characteristics, domestic animals other than pets, predators, taxonomic distinctions, and invertebrates. The mean score of these knowledge questions was 52.8% and when asked about their “perceived familiarity with or awareness of eight relatively prominent wildlife issues,” over half of the survey group felt that they lacked understanding.
While this study cannot be directly linked to the creation of The North American Wildlife Issue, it does show that its release was timely and, when compared to the survey results, relevant to the American people. Each wildlife stamp is capable of sparking curiosity in their recipient and can prompt research, investigation, and ultimately increased awareness.
USPS and The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) originally hoped to represent the State Animal of all 50 states. However, many states do not have a State Animal or share a State Animal with another state. Instead, USPS and CSAC opted to include avifauna, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates from across the continent. The majority of the pictured creatures are arguably cute and unintimidating; however, predators like the Alaskan brown bear, the mountain lion, and the coyote carry a controversial note. The threat to human life and more often livestock had made them targets of hunting. In fact, in 1982, five year prior to the 1987 North American Wildlife Issue’s release, a New York Time’s article labeled coyotes as “plague” to farmer’s and their livestock and in 1986 a temporary ban was placed on hunting mountain lions to avoid further decimation of their populations. This issue of stamps gives these negatively viewed animals a moment of good publicity.
All 50 stamps are designed and painted by artist Chuck Ripper in his dynamic and photorealistic style. Each frame appears like a portrait snapped from the wild and is environmentally and anatomically accurate due to Ripper’s devoted research practices. He poses each creature with poise and monumentality and surrounds them with fauna customary of their home landscape. Since his start in Nature Magazine, Ripper’s illustrations have been featured in numerous field guides and texts, and his work adorns the walls of museums and environmental societies alike. The North American Wildlife Issue is only one of many in Ripper’s extensive philatelic work, his exquisite stamps can be spotted in numerous collections.
The extraordinary artistry of these stamps was exactly the kind of imagery North America’s wildlife needed in 1987. While it is unclear if these stamps were intentionally released to spark awareness and their overall effect on wildlife comprehension similarly undeterminable, the historical context of the series is interesting. Regardless they are a delightful addition to any stamp collection.
This fall, Hannah-Claire Allgood will be returning to the Savannah College of Art and Design to finish her B.F.A in Preservation Design and minor in Interior Design. She is excited to graduate and utilize the creative problem solving skills and principles of design she has learned in college, as well as the insights she has gained through her internship with The National Postal Museum to tackle questions in Historic Preservation.
Fitzhugh, E Lee, and W Paul Gorenzel. “Biological Status of Mountain Lions in California.” Twelfth Vertebrate Pest Conference , 1986, pp. 336–346. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska, digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=vpc12.
Kellert, Stephen R. “American Attitudes Toward and Knowledge of Animals: An Update.” International Journal for the Study of Animal Problem, 1984, pp. 177–213. Animal Studies Commons.