A More Perfect Stamp: Designing the USPS's Emancipation-Proclamation Art

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The stamp for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's freeing of the slaves was made with modern graphic concepts but antique printing methods.

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USPS/Antonio Alcalá

Lincoln's presence in theaters and awards-season conversation makes the U.S. Postal Service's issuance this month of a stamp celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation all the more timely. But stamps being, as they are these days, "forever," the art for it had to stand for its own. And Gail Anderson's striking design, which resembles—and was created in the same manner as—a 19th-century wood type poster, certainly does.

This is not the first Emancipation Proclamation stamp. In 1963, the 100th anniversary was commemorated with Georg Olden being the first black American designer to design a U.S. stamp. So, the USPS team "felt it was important that another black American design this issue," explained USPS Art Director Antonio Alcalá in an email to me. Alcalá selected Anderson, whose flair for making vintage typography look contemporary earned her an AIGA Lifetime Medal, and whose parents were born in Jamaica.

Anderson chose to quote the actual language of the Proclamation—"HENCEFORWARD SHALL BE FREE"—because, she said, "it just felt right."

Yet even before the designer was in place, discussions at the USPS ensued over whether the focus should be on the actual document as an artifact, or on historical paintings from the era, or whether the stamp should be a conceptual illustration of the import of the proclamation. "Our research support team provided lots of reading material including scholarship highlighting the contributions of black Americans as a significant influence in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation," Alcalá said. But whichever direction was tried, he told me, there was one overriding design rule to be followed: no chains!

At the outset, Alcalá was agnostic about having a 19th-century design style. In 1995, to commemoratethe anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, April Greiman used a postmodern, computer-generated design approach that was very effective. Alcalá's inclination was to follow that example and "search for a more contemporary take on the subject." In response, Anderson produced colorful, celebratory prototype designs that Alcalá calls "very positive in spirit." Some employed modern typography, and a few reflected the times of The Emancipation Proclamation. Complex visual metaphors and references to Lincoln submitted by Anderson were rejected in favor of two solutions Alcalá presented to the USPS's Citizens Design Advisory Committee: a contemporary illustrative approach and the woodtype broadside-inspired solution. "I would have been happy if either was approved," he says. The committee preferred the broadside.

For this iteration Anderson chose to quote the actual language of the Proclamation—"HENCEFORWARD SHALL BE FREE"—because, she said, "it just felt right," adding that she hoped it was not "too obvious a solution." Next she pieced the words together using actual wood type samples from her scrap files, but was unsure how to achieve more verisimilitude in the final result. The original was digitally constructed and would have been a strong "product." But Alcalá thought the artwork deserved to be prepared in a manner that reflected the content.

"I only dreamt about creating a more authentic letterpress final product," Anderson said. So when Alcalá suggested approaching Jim Sherraden, proprietor of Hatch Prints, a famous Nashville poster printer that was founded in the late 19th century and known for its original wood type printing for books, records, and much more, Anderson "was completely on board." Happily she made a pilgrimage to Nashville carrying a large top-secret print of the stamp design to use as a template. "Jim let us loose in the shop to set the type ourselves while the rest of his crew cranked on other projects (they were sworn to secrecy)," Anderson said. "He checked in and made the occasional suggestion about every half hour, and made us feel completely at home." After pulling a variety of test prints for Alcalá to bring back to Washington, they played around with louder, more playful versions of the initial design just to see what would happen using big stars, gradients, and suns in the backgrounds.

Committee approval of any kind is often a designer's nightmare, but this sailed through easily. "I gave a mini-lecture about why this design was appropriate to the topic," Alcalá said, "and finished by pulling out the broadside proof. Everyone loved seeing the letterpress printing and the design got unanimous approval."

In addition to the stamp, a limited edition poster was produced that was outside the original "scope of work." To print a letterpress broadside, using materials similar to those used in the mid-19th century, at a shop that has been printing this way since 1879, was a rare opportunity to get the form and content perfectly matched with the medium.

The stamp was produced as a collaboration, which Alcalá said involved "no egos." What's more, to be given full access to the Hatch Show Print wood type and presses was a rare and special treat. "It felt like spending time with close friends in your clubhouse," he said. Anderson had a different highlight: "Getting to follow in Georg Olden's footsteps was a genuine honor, and a lot to live up to. His original stamp is iconic, and it was hard not to want to mimic it."

"As a child of Jamaican immigrant parents, I am awed by the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and am humbled to have been part of the 150th anniversary celebration," she added. "As one speaker mentioned during the First Day of Issue ceremony, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation is one of our nation's most important and transformative documents. If the stamp can remind people of what the Emancipation Proclamation helped accomplish, then it is very important."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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