United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1935) is the subject of the Prominent Americans 15-cent stamp. After graduating from Harvard University in 1861, Holmes enlisted in the Union Army, saw considerable action, and was wounded at Antietam and Fredericksburg. After the war, he returned to Harvard to study law, was admitted to the bar in 1866, and then practiced in Boston, his hometown. In 1870 Holmes became editor of the American Law Review. In 1882 he became a professor at Harvard Law School and a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. As chief justice of that court, Holmes became known for decisions that balanced property rights with the rule of the majority and his advocacy of workers’ rights to organize trade unions.
Theodore Roosevelt name Holmes to the United States Supreme Court in 1902. On that bench, Holmes was known for his pithy and often-quoted opinions. He was criticized for his allegedly elitist personal attitudes, though he himself chastised his colleagues’ unconscious biases regarding questions of economic policy. Holmes was a strong critic of the Supreme Court's 'liberty of contract' doctrine, which was frequently invoked to strike down progressive economic legislation.
Holmes was a strong advocate of freedom of speech, famously declaring that the First Amendment would not protect a person "falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." He formulated the “clear and present danger” doctrine to evaluate government speech restrictions in 1919’s Schenk vs. United States, the first notable First Amendment "freedom of speech" opinion in the Court's history.
Holmes retired from the Supreme Court in January 1932. At the age of ninety, he was the oldest serving justice in the Court’s history.
The 15-cent magenta Holmes stamp was issued on March 8, 1968, in the District of Columbia. The stamp was issued in sheet format printed from plates of four hundred and sold in panes of one hundred stamps with gauge 11 x 10.5 perforations. When the domestic first-class letter rate increased to fifteen cents a decade later, a smaller version of the Holmes stamp was issued on June 14, 1978, as a vertical booklet pane of eight stamps. At the same time a re-engraved image was used to produce additional sheet stamps and a new horizontal coil stamps. The Holmes design thus incorporates three different cataloged die types.
Richard Hurd based his design for the Holmes stamp on a National Photos photograph in the April 8, 1951, issue of The New York Times. Joseph H. Creamer engraved the vignette, and Howard F. Sharpless engraved the lettering. This was the first time Oliver Wendall Holmes had appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.
The 15-cent stamp initially paid the North, Central, and South American airmail letter rate and, later, the foreign surface letter and foreign air postcard rates and the return receipt fee. In 1978 the stamp was extensively used to pay the fifteen-cent domestic first-class letter rate.