Poster, Not Postage, Stamps

Poster stamp from the Electrical Exposition held in New York City in 1912. Winterthur Library 03x093.15.

Winterthur Library first started collecting poster—not postage—stamps in 1995, and during the past 17 years, we have acquired about 1,800 of them. Among other purposes, poster stamps were used as advertising vehicles for products; to promote urban growth and settlement; to publicize fairs, expositions, and sporting events; and to advance political agendas. Diminutive in size just like postage stamps, they often contain highly artistic illustrations, much like those seen on posters. Hence, their name.

Poster stamps are wonderful visual resources that document life a century and more ago and are little known today. Because of their size, relative abundance when they were published, and since many were inexpensive, if not free, when they were issued, they were also a popular collectible during the nineteen-teens, easily fitting into the scrapbooks and albums of their time. Prominent artists lent their talents to designing poster stamps, including Edward Penfield and Maxfield Parrish, who both worked for the Funk & Wagnalls Company, and Rockwell Kent, who designed a poster stamp to commemorate the centennial of the state of Arkansas.

Poster stamp for Foster Rubber Company of Boston. Winterthur Library 96x003.42.

According to H. Thomas Steele, who wrote Lick ‘Em, Stick ‘Em: The Lost Art of Poster Stamps (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), poster stamps were first created in Germany in 1907. “Up until this time,” Steele writes, “the only stamps produced were revenue or postage, and those usually were intricate, single-color etchings or line engravings. Exhibition seals issued in the late 1800s were considered the forerunners of the colorful poster stamp, as were the earlier chromolithographic trade cards. The new poster stamp, with its vivid splash of brilliant colors, was a bold contrast to the drab black-and-white graphic landscape that was permissible at the time among most distinguished lines of business.”

Poster stamp advertising willow furniture sold by Joseph P. McHugh & Son in New York. Winterthur Library 95x12.05.

The library’s collection of poster stamps documents such things as the household and what was in it, clothing, architecture, recreation, food and drink, and gardening. Not surprisingly, the library’s furniture poster stamps are a strength. All kinds are represented, including chairs, desks, beds, bookcases, tables, and sideboards. Especially prized are the library’s stamps of willow furniture sold by Joseph P. McHugh & Son of New York.

As well, the library’s poster stamps advertise the Electrical Exposition of 1912 and a textile expo in 1918, both in New York City and both held at the now demolished Grand Central Palace, located on Lexington Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets. Foster Rubber Company of Boston promoted “Shoes for Milady” and stated: “Take care of your feet, and they will take care of you.” Capper & Capper was the Neckware House of America, and the Alderman Drug Co. claimed that it filled prescriptions accurately.

Capper and capper, The Neckwear House of America. Winterthur Library 8x43.34.

Poster stamps went by the wayside after World War I when magazine and radio advertising gained in popularity. Even so, anyone interested in seeing a selection of them can stop by at the library at Winterthur. Additionally, a number of Internet sites are devoted to or feature discussions about poster stamps:

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian. He  has served as president of the Ephemera Society of America, an experience that further enhanced his appreciation of printed ephemera and people who collect it.
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