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Are Stamps Art? Katzenberger Art History Intern Luke Tokman answers in his own words.

Posted on Jul 2, 2018 by in The OFI Blog |

2018 Katzenberger Art History Intern, Luke Tokman

The National Postal Museum is pleased to host its very first Katzenberger Art History intern Luke Tokman. Luke is working this summer on a project with Winton M. Blount Research Chair Dr. Susan Smith, titled “Are Stamps Art?” Luke authored the below post: 

This summer I’m compiling a bibliography of every reference to postage stamps as art or design objects since 1840 (when the Penny Black – the first stamp – was released). We’re hoping to better understand how stamps have been discussed over time by the philatelic, art, and design communities. Ultimately, our goal is to inform how postage stamp design or art stories can be told at the National Postal Museum, i.e. how could looking at postage stamps as “art” or design objects impact research, exhibitions, and visitor experience overall?

“A stamp may be a work of art to just as full an extant as any other” –Sheldon Cheney[1]

One of my favorite discoveries so far is this pamphlet (aptly titled Art and the Postage Stamp). It’s relatively tiny compared to the other books I’ve been reading, although there’s an even smaller leaflet– The Art of the Postage Stamp by Montgomery Mulford — which I keep on my desk like a pet. The author, Sheldon Cheney, was an art historian who several books on modern art, including A Primer of Modern Art first published in 1924, around the time he wrote this.

“The Art of the Postage Stamp” with inset

This is one of the earliest texts I’ve found discussing postage stamps as a unique art/design genre worthy of scrutiny. Cheney wrote this manifesto for an American stamp design “revolution”[2] because he felt snubbed by Postmaster General Harry S. New, who wouldn’t reply to Cheney’s advice on how to improve American stamp design.

book detail with stamp image

In Cheney’s opinion, the stamps he hand-glued into these pamphlets were “the best that the world has accomplished”[3]. He probably purchased these during his European tour (in preparation for writing A Primer of Modern Art). Cheney printed and self-published only 93 of these pamphlets, making each surviving copy unique.[4]

“93 copies” detail


stamp detail

“An offense to the eyes of everybody in any degree sensitive to aesthetic values in design” –Rockwell Kent (on American postage stamps in 1937)[5]

At the end of Art and the Postage Stamp, Cheney specifically cites Rockwell Kent (famous for his Moby Dick illustrations) as an ideal candidate to design stamps for the USPS. Interestingly, Kent himself had strong opinions on American stamp design. A decade after Cheney’s pamphlet, Kent (who designed an airmail stamp for Greenland in 1935) sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times and the Postmaster general eviscerating the USPS’ commemorative stamp design for the Ordinance of 1787 sesquicentennial. Fortunately, the American Art Archives at the Smithsonian holds Kent’s papers, so I was able to read the 81 year old postage stamp drama myself.

These lively documents show an early (and now largely forgotten) interest in stamp aesthetics and design in the broader arts community. Finds like these are important for my project because they chronicle evolving stamp design debates.  It’s fascinating to see our collections at the National Postal Museum enrich collections at other Smithsonian departments and vice versa.



[1] Cheney, Sheldon. Art and the Postage Stamp: Being an Excursion into One of Our Humbler Philistinisms, Sleepy Hollow Press, Scarborough-on Hudson, 1925. 6.
[2] Ibid. 9
[3] Ibid. 4
[4] Ibid. 11
[5] Rockwell Kent to James Farley. July 26, 1937.