Famous Americans Series Begins 

U.S. #859 was issued on this day in 1940.

On January 29, 1940, the US Post Office Department issued the first stamps in the Famous Americans Series.

In 1938, the Post Office Department announced plans for a series of stamps recognizing 10 famous Americans and invited the public to submit recommendations. The response was so great that it was decided to increase the number from 10 to 35. This required an unexpected level of organization by the Post Office Department for this series.

Seven categories were decided upon – authors, poets, educators, scientists, composers, artists, and inventors. Each category of five has the same set of denominations – 1¢, 2¢, 3¢, 5¢, and 10¢. And each rate had a valid use. The 1¢ stamp paid for a letter that was dropped off at a post office to someone who had a box at the same office. The 2¢ was for local delivery. The 3¢ paid the normal non-local mail rate, and the 5¢ and 10¢ were used in combination for heavier letters and special rates. The denominations also shared a consistent coloring scheme: 1¢ is bright blue-green; 2¢ is rose carmine; 3¢ is bright red violet; 5¢ is ultramarine; and 10¢ is dark brown.

U.S. #859 – Washington Irving First Day Cover.

Each category has its subjects arranged with the oldest birth date going on the 1¢ stamp, down to the most recent birth date on the 10¢ stamp. Plus each category has its own dedicated symbol in the engraving – a scroll, quill pen and inkwell for authors; a winged horse (Pegasus) for poets; the “Lamp of Knowledge” for educators; laurel leaves and the pipes of the Roman god Pan for composers; and inventors had a cogwheel with uplifted wings and a lightning flash to symbolize power, flight, and electricity. The artists and the scientists have multiple symbols. Artists have a paint palette and brush (for painters), while the sculptors have a stonecutting hammer and chisel. Scientists had the classical symbol of their particular profession.

The first two stamps honoring Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were issued on January 29, 1940. Subsequent stamps in the series were issued every few weeks until the final stamp, honoring Alexander Graham Bell, was issued on October 28.

Click here to get the complete set and save.  Or click here for individual stamps (and covers).

Or get the Famous Americans by category:

U.S. # 859-63 – American Authors
U.S. #864-68 – American Poets
U.S. #869-73 – American Educators
U.S. #874-78 – American Scientists
U.S. #879-83 – American Composers
U.S. #884-88 – American Artists
U.S. #889-93 – American Inventors

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. These are among the first stamps that I ever collected when I was a teenager. I like the concept, the design, and the colors. It always puzzled me that Thomas Edison wasn’t included as on of the American inventors in the original series. An Edison stamp did come out a few years later (#945, 1947) with the same design and color scheme.

  2. Collecting commemorative stamps became an important part of my early education as a young boy coming from a working class background in Brooklyn New York. Where could you learn the names of countries, the important inventors, artists and composers? Stamps provided this information and it was fun sticking them in my Scott Stamp Album. I wish more boys and girls especially from disadvantaged areas could learn about the joys of stamp collecting.

  3. An interesting comment on the first stamp in this series. George Washington, as President, was out for a stroll in New York City when he was stopped by Washington Irving’s maiden. She wanted to introduce the six year old to the man for whom he was named. Little did The President know that this young boy would eventually write his biography.

  4. I never knew that the subjects in each set were arranged by age. A very interesting nugget of information about a great series.

  5. I never knew about the dedicated symbols representing the various categories. Always something interesting at Mystic Stamp.

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