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2 posts from January 2017

27 January 2017

Founding Mothers (I): Postage Stamps depicting women’s contributions towards the formation of the United States of America

As state sponsored government art, stamps offer an incredibly rich visual resource for gender studies, a fact most apparent when looking at how women have been commemorated on postage stamps issued by the United States of America. This first article will illustrate some of the stamps depicting women from the earliest British colonial settlements up until the American Revolutionary War. What immediately becomes apparent is that during the course of the twentieth century, the American Postal Authority recognised and honoured the central role women played in the nation’s formative history.

From the very first waves of British migration to the New World during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women accompanied their husbands and families to form settlements. Some settlements were successful, others less so. The first English child born in the United States was a girl named Virginia Dare, born in August 1587 at the ill-fated “lost” colony of Roanoke in modern Dare County, North Carolina.  Since the colony mysteriously vanished soon after her birth, Virginia’s fate is unknown.  However, she subsequently became an icon in American folklore and politics being referred to in poems, books, comics and films. Although little is known about Virginia besides her historic birth, she has become famous enough to warrant her own commemorative postage stamp, depicted in Image 1. The stamp portrays Virginia as a baby being cradled by her mother Eleanor with her father Ananias standing close by.

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Image 1: United States of America, 18 August 1937 Anniversary of Birth of Virginia Dare, 5c stamp

 

Women also played a key role in the debates and military campaigns surrounding the American Revolutionary Wars (1775-1783) which resulted in the independence of Britain’s thirteen American settlements from colonial rule and the birth of the United States of America.  The founding mother of the United States, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) depicted on the United States Postage stamp in Image 2 was the wife and closest advisor of John Adams (1735-1826), a founding father and Second President of the United States. Her son John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) became the Sixth President of the United States.  A member of one of America’s first political dynasties, Abigail was also politically active corresponding on a variety of issues including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

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Image 2: United States of America, 14 June 1985 Abigail Adams Commemorative, 22c stamp

 

The first American flag, one of the most iconic symbols of America’s independence and national identity, is also credited to having been made by a woman named Elizabeth Griscom “Betsy” Ross (1752-1836), who presented it to General George Washington in 1776. The presentation of Betsy’s flag to George Washington has been depicted on the United States Postage Stamp issued for the bicentenary of her birth depicted in Image 3

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Image 3: United States of America, 2 January 1952, Birth Bicentenary of Betsy Ross (maker of the first American flag), and 3c stamp

 

Women’s contribution to the supply and production of essential military equipment during the American Revolutionary Wars has also been commemorated on the United States Postage stamp. Image 4 depicts a female seamstress producing military uniforms for Washington’s Continental Army.

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Image 4: United States of America, 4 July 1977 American Revolution Bicentennial “Skilled Hands for Independence” issue, 13c stamp

 

Finally the United States Postage Stamp overprinted “MOLLY PITCHER” depicted in Image 5 was issued in 1928 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. The overprint “Molly Pitcher” refers to a nickname given to Mary Ludwig Hays (1754-1832), she was purported to have provided much needed supplies of water to help keep American cannon from overheating, in addition to loading cannon herself during the battle’s height under heavy enemy fire. Now regarded more as folklore than history, the nom-de-guerre is widely regarded as a symbol representing the brave and selfless acts of heroism and patriotism conducted by countless women during the American Revolutionary War.

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Image 5: United States of America, 20 October 1928 2c., carmine stamp overprinted “MOLLY PITCHER.”

 

Richard Scott Morel

Curator, Philatelic Collections

 

Source: Images from the British Library, Philatelic Collections UPU Collection

10 January 2017

Buffalo Bill, 1846-1917

Today - 10 January 2017 - marks 100 years since the death of William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who perhaps more than any other figure shaped British perceptions of the American West.

Born in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846, Cody apparently got his first frontier job at 10 years of age, riding a mule and carrying messages between wagons for a party travelling to Utah. He later rode for the Pony Express, hunted buffalo, fought for the Union (in 1854 his father had been stabbed while speaking out against slavery), and worked as a civilian scout for the US Army.

On 22 May 1872 Congress awarded Cody the Medal of Honor for gallantry as an Army scout in the Indian Wars. Later that same year – following endless hectoring by publicist Ned Buntline – he agreed to play himself on stage. Arriving in Chicago on 12 December, he learned that with less than a week before opening the play had not been written and the cast has not been chosen. Nevertheless, six days later Scouts of the Prairie opened at Nixon’s amphitheatre. As Cody froze in front of two thousand punters, Buntline (who was also on stage), apparently asked Cody: ‘Where have you been, Bill? What has kept you so long?’ (1). Cody took the cue, wowed the audience with his (sometimes tall) tales of life in the Wild West, and his stage persona was born.

In 1883, after a decade combining scouting and performing, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Four years later this extravaganza crossed the Atlantic for its first tour of Great Britain.

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John M. Burke. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: America's National Entertainment. [1887]. Shelfmark 10408.g.25

For Cody, the show was always about entertainment and education. It celebrated the skills of hunters, horseback riders and sharp shooters (including Annie Oakley) through demonstrations and sometimes hair-raising re-enactments. Yet for many the highlight was the inclusion of nearly 100 Lakota Sioux men, women and children. Inevitably, they starred in scenes such as ‘Attack on a Settler’s Cabin’ or ‘Attack on an Emigrant Train’. Yet in ‘Phases of Indian Life’ they showcased aspects of their own culture. Indeed, some later shows highlighted them being ejected from their homeland, and apparently Cody always insisted they were the first group to enter the stadium after him. Astonishingly, more than 2.5 million people are believed to have attended the show’s first run at Earl’s Court, including Queen Victoria who was celebrating her Golden Jubilee and was given two command performances.

The British Library holds a wide variety of contemporary items detailing the show’s British and American tours, including national and local newspaper reports, posters, programmes and sheet music. It also holds Cody’s autobiography, scores of biographies (including one by Buntline), and dime novels either written under Cody’s name or inspired by his exploits.

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Buffalo Bill. The Redskin Detective: or, the gold buzzards of Colorado. London: J. Henderson & Sons, 1903. Shelfmark 12604.i.

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May Ostlere. Buffalo Bill Polka. London: Metzler & Co., [1887]. Shelfmark: Music collections h.3645.(3.)

For more images relating to the American West, see the Eccles Centre’s The American West through British Eyes, 1865-1900.

1. Ronald A. Reis, Buffalo Bill Cody. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010, p. 53.