Debating Identity and Origins in Early 20th-Century American Commemoratives




Brennan, Sheila A.

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Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press


Patriotic commemorations flowered following World War I in the United States, as did campaigns for securing limited- issue federal postage stamps. Beginning in 1920 with the Pilgrim Tercentenary issue, commemorative stamp subjects were moving away from solely advertising world’s fairs as the U.S. Post Office Department (USPOD) celebrated battles, anniversaries, and individuals that were part of greater cultural trends that sought to define Americanness in post–World War I America. Because of the acces- sibility of American commemoratives, both in size and through imagery, these stamps served to reinforce and naturalize an exceptionalist and triumphalist vision of the Ameri- can past that obscured the complicated legacies of conquest and inequality. This article examines imagery from a few commemorative stamps from the inter-war years and the circumstances of their printing that celebrated regional anniversaries held in Plymouth Rock, Mayport, and Minneapolis, as well as stamps honoring Polish military heroes Casimir Pulaski and Theodore Kosciuszko. Conversations revolving around these stamps, in correspondence or in the public media, demonstrate how the USPOD became a powerful institution that legitimized and distributed historical narratives and one that allowed ordinary citizens to engage with its government. Knowing of the postal service’s power to circulate interpretations of the American past to millions of people, some citizens sought commemoratives as part of grander strategies fighting for social and political equality while others wanted stamps to perpetuate a romanticized view of colonial America. These debates over commemorative subjects reflected contemporary struggles over immigration restrictions, constructions of race, and definitions of citizenship in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.



Collectors and collecting, Federal government. United States. History, Collecting


Brennan, Sheila A. "Debating Identity and Origins in Early 20th-Century American Commemoratives" in Winton M. Blount Postal History Symposia: Select Papers, 2010–2011, Thomas Lera, editor, 27-34. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Scholarly Press, 2012.