Affordable communication is so fundamental to democracy that the United States Post Office actually predated the United States. Visionary Benjamin Franklin saw the importance of creating a system to allow residents of the thirteen colonies to write to each other, and the new nation led the world in the creation of postal delivery.
Previously the powerful sent servants to deliver messages, but in the United States, ordinary people could put their ideas on paper and send them thousands of miles away. The nation’s founders considered this so valuable that postmaster general was one of four positions in George Washington’s Cabinet – along with the secretary of war, the secretary of state, and the attorney general.
Women were postmasters (or “postmistresses) from the beginning of the postal system. The first in a major city was Mary Katherine Goddard, who ran Baltimore’s post office from 1775 to 1789; as publisher of the Maryland Journal. More notably, she printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers’ names. After the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant rewarded Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew by making her postmaster of Richmond, the former Confederate capital. Hundreds of other women ran post offices in smaller communities – including dress reformer Amelia Bloomer, who was assistant postmaster of Seneca Falls, New York, in the 1840s.
Initially letters were redeemed by the recipient, who paid the delivery cost. If the intended recipient did not do so, the cost went unpaid – and post offices soon required senders to pre-pay. Stamps were developed to indicate various costs by the weight of the item, and because a variety of stamps were needed, an opportunity for varying images arose. Other nations emulated the American postal system, and monarchs were especially likely to be portrayed on early stamps. Queen Victoria, who assumed the British throne in 1837, led a number of trends – including Christmas trees – and her popularity played a role in the hobby of stamp collecting, which had developed worldwide by the 1860s.
The number and nature of female images on stamps thus has become an excellent way to measure the status of women. This exhibit will chronicle the first seventy-five years of the history of American women on stamps – as best as can be done at this point. Like much of women’s history, consistent records are not easily accessible, as even Post Office sources are contradictory. We can say, however, that less than two hundred women have been honored on stamps, with most occurring since the revival of feminism in the 1970s. In recent decades, women have been especially likely to be featured in stamp series that honor a category of achievers, such as aviators or musicians or sports figures.