In the United States today, most people identify themselves, first and foremost, as “Americans.” Though not often reflected upon, the interplay of numerous forces has shaped that sense of distinctiveness. A common language, overarching legal and political structures, the national monetary system, the flag and national anthem, the postal system . . . all unite us in fundamental ways and help forge the way we think about ourselves as a people.
During the nineteenth century, political and military leaders worldwide consciously strove to forge national identities, and in addition to the above devices, they used works of art to help inspire that ideal. Postage stamps, as tiny works of art that citizens handled frequently, proved particularly effective. The heroic figures commemorated on stamps clearly shaped the ways people thought about themselves and their nation. The appearance of the first U.S. commemorative stamps during the 1890s, a period distinguished by high levels of foreign immigration, fits into this framework of national identity building.
Columbus in Sight of Land, the 1-cent Stamp
To produce the sixteen-stamp Columbian series, which transformed Columbus lore into an epic national drama, American Bank Note Company officials selected images from an array of fine artwork. Postmaster General Wanamaker decided that the lowest denomination stamps—the most frequently used—would feature the most familiar aspects of the Columbus saga. Engraver Charles Skinner used a painting by William Powell (1823-1879) as his model for the 1-cent issue, “Columbus in Sight of Land.” The sighting of what is now the Bahamas occurred on October 12, 1492, and Columbus called the island “San Salvado.” The 1-cent stamp paid the postcard rate at the time. D.S. Ronaldson engraved the frame and lettering.
Landing of Columbus, the 2-cent Stamp
The “Landing of Columbus” 2-cent stamp, the most common of the series because it paid the basic letter rate and because 72 percent of all Columbians printed were this value, was based on a painting by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) that was commissioned for the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1837. This painting also inspired the 1869 15-cent definitive. The stamp’s first sheet was printed on November 5, 1892. Third Postmaster General A.D. Hazen and J. MacDonough, president of the American Bank Note Company, signed the sheet. Alfred Jones and Charles Skinner engraved the vignette, and D.S. Ronaldson engraved the frame and lettering.
Flag Ship of Columbus and Fleet of Columbus, the 3-cent and 4-cent Stamps
Models of 15th century Spanish ships held at the Smithsonian Institution inspired the images of Columbus’s ships featured on the 3-cent and 4-cent stamps, though none of the ships is an exact replica. The Santa Maria appears on the 3-cent stamp, “Flag Ship of Columbus.” The fleet’s three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, appear on the 4-cent stamp. Robert Savage engraved the vignette of the 3-cent stamp, and Charles Skinner engraved the vignette of the 4-cent stamp. G.H. Seymour engraved the frames and lettering for each.