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

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.

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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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