Inside Story of the Wildflowers of 50 States

by George Amick

Table of Contents

  1. The 50 Wildflowers Stamps are Placed on Sale
  2. Flowers on U.S. Stamps: A Long Tradition
  3. The Origin of the Wildflowers Stamps
  4. Developing the List of 50 Flowers
  5. The Design: Something Different
  6. Ashton-Potter America is Selected to Print the Stamps
  7. The Wildflower Stamps are Unveiled
  8. About Writer George Amick
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. About this Article

The 50 Wildflowers Stamps are Placed on Sale

July, 1992, had been a month of heavy rains and flash flooding in Columbus, Ohio, and on the morning of Friday July 24, it rained again.

But to the great relief of U.S. Postal Service officials and several hundred other people assembled at the Radisson Hotel North in Columbus that day, the rain had stopped by 11 a.m.

At that hour, on schedule, USPS held a ceremony in an outdoor courtyard of the Radisson to dedicate a pane of 50 29-cent commemorative stamps, each depicting a different native American wildflower.

Columbus was chosen for the honor because it was the site of the six-month AmeriFlora '92 International Floral and Garden Exposition. The stamp ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the American First Day Cover Society's national convention at the same hotel.

But every square inch of indoor meeting space was occupied, and there would have been no place to move the first-day ceremony if the rain had continued.

"If that happened," said Michael O'Hara of the Postal Service's Stamp Product Development Branch, "we would have just given out programs and dispensed with the ceremony."

Happily, events took place as scheduled, beginning with musical selections and the National Anthem sung by the Columbus Division Postal Gospel Choir.

Tom Foust, president of the American First Day Cover Society, gave the welcome. Tom Fontana, who had recently resigned as general manager of AmeriFlora, invited the audience to visit the flower show in Columbus' Franklin Park, a few miles from the hotel.

Then Gordon C. Morison, assistant postmaster general, dedicated the stamps.

"I believe these resplendent wildflowers depicted on our stamps rank among nature's most precious jewels," Morison said. "Starting today, millions of Wildflowers stamps will begin blooming in the upper-right corner of cards and letters. As these stamps blanket the postal landscape, they will carry two messages.

"One is the personal message written on the card or letter inside the envelope. The other is the message of the stamps themselves--that our nation's wildflowers add natural beauty and grace to our lives."

The Wildflowers stamps would be among the most beautiful and popular ever issued by USPS, Morison predicted.

"That is good news for the hobby of stamp collecting," he said. "It is our intention to cultivate new collectors by giving them more of what they like--bright colors and interesting subjects.

"Animals and flowers rate high on the popularity list mentioned by our customers. It is our hope that the Wildflowers will help budding collectors to blossom into full-fledged philatelists."

After the ceremony, officials stayed to autograph covers and panes for members of the audience. Perhaps the most sought-after signature was that of Karen Mallary, the designer of the 50 stamps, who had flown across the continent from her home in Anacortes, Washington, to be present.

Inside the hotel, in a small room reserved by USPS, 12 clerks from the Columbus Post Office spent the rest of the day applying the Columbus date stamp and first-day cancellation to covers presented to them by collectors.

The Wildflowers pane wasn't the first pane of 50 different stamps to be issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Previous panes had depicted the 50 state flags (1976), the 50 state birds and flowers (1982) and American wild animal life (1987). But this one was unique in several ways.

It was the first 50-stamp pane to be printed by a private contractor. The previous ones had been products of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) in Washington.

It was the first commemorative stamp issue--and the first first-class stamp issue in modern times--to be printed completely by offset lithography. In the past, the Postal Service has felt that offset alone, despite its many advantages in terms of quality and cost, didn't provide sufficient security against counterfeiting. However, USPS now believes that other materials and techniques used in stamp manufacture can provide the necessary security for offset-printed products.

It was the first U.S. stamp to be printed in two different printing plate layouts: 200-subject plates, divided into four 50-subject panes, and 300-subject plates, divided into six panes. This in turn led to another innovation: the provision of a small diagram printed in the selvage of each pane next to the plate number. The diagram showed from which position, on which size plate, the pane came.


Flowers on U.S. Stamps: A Long Tradition

The first depiction of identifiable flowers on U.S. stamps came with the three-stamp series of 1920 commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth, Mass. The flowers, which formed part of the frame design that was common to all three stamps, were mayflowers. This was, of course, a visual tribute to the Mayflower, the ship on which the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The blossoms on the left were hawthorns, which is the English mayflower, and those on the right were trailing arbutus, the American variety.

For the next few decades, floral references on U.S. stamps were few and far between. A vase of carnations was placed in a corner of the 1934 Mother's Day stamp that reproduced a portion of James A.M. Whistler's famous painting of his mother; it was a design enhancement that offended art purists. The 1948 stamp honoring Moina Michael, founder of Poppy Day, displayed, appropriately enough, a bouquet of poppies. And generic flowers were incorporated into the allegorical design of a 1958 stamp commemorating the garden clubs of America.

The installation of a series of new intaglio, offset and gravure presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, beginning in 1957, opened the era of multicolor stamp printing in the United States--and thereby made it possible for flowers to be effectively featured as a prominent part of stamp designs. Many such commemoratives followed. The first, in 1960, was a joint U.S. stamp issue with Japan commemorating the centennial of the treaty of 1860, and it showed the pink Japanese cherry blossoms of Washington, D.C., against a background of the Washington Monument.

In subsequent years, stamps commemorating the statehood anniversaries of Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming depicted, in full color, the official flowers of those states, the sunflower, magnolia, camellia, columbine, dogwood, pasqueflower and Indian paintbrush, respectively. (The columbine had also been shown, in monochrome, on an earlier Colorado statehood stamp, in 1951). In addition, a flower common to Arizona, the giant saguaro cactus, was shown on that state's 50th anniversary stamp.

A single commemorative in 1966 and a se-tenant block of four in 1969 publicized the campaign to beautify America that was launched and promoted by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson. These showed crowds of colorful flowers: cherry blossoms again, this time framing the Jefferson Memorial; azaleas and tulips, with the U.S. Capitol in the background; daffodils beside the Potomac River; poppies and lupines along a highway, and blooming crabapple trees lining a residential avenue. A similar block of four later in 1969 marked the convening of the 11th International Botanical Congress in Seattle, Washington. Its flowering subjects included a lady's slipper, an ocotillo and a Franklinia.

Four stamps in a se-tenant block in 1979 depicted endangered flora: persistent trillium, Hawaiian wild broadbean, Contra Costa wallflower and Antioch Dunes evening primrose. In the 1980s, two other "blooming" blocks of four made their appearance. The first, which depicted a rose, a camellia, a dahlia and a lily, had been specifically requested by President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. (Ironically, it wasn't issued until April 1981, more than two months after Mr. Carter was succeeded in the White House by President Ronald Reagan.) The other featured various American orchids: wild pink, yellow lady's slipper, spreading pogonia and Pacific calypso.

A 1981 se-tenant block showing desert plants included two with prominent red flowers, the barrel cactus and the beavertail cactus, and a single commemorative marking the 50th anniversary of the International Peace Garden in 1982 depicted red roses.

Among special-purpose stamps and definitives, the Christmas stamp issues of 1964 and 1985 displayed the red petal-like leaves of the poinsettia, and red and yellow roses were featured on a 15-cent stamp issued in booklet form in 1978 and the two Love stamps of 1988. On a 1988 booklet stamp, a rose-breasted grosbeak was shown perched on a branch of flowering dogwood; a coil stamp of the same year showed a honeybee sipping nectar from a clover blossom.

When the first-class postage rate rose to 29 cents in 1991, USPS was ready with billions of pre-printed sheet, booklet and coil stamps bearing the denomination designation "F." Because "F" stands for flower, a single red tulip blossom was selected as the design subject. Later in the year, the design was re-used on a more permanent definitive, but with "29" replacing the "F."

Two of the first three 50-stamp panes issued by USPS gave generous attention to flowers. The most lavish floral display of all--until the Wildflowers pane of 1992, that is--blossomed forth on the 1982 pane that featured the state bird and flower of each of the 50 states. This pane was the artistic work of a father and son team, composed of the late Arthur Singer of Jericho, N.Y., who painted the bird portion of each stamp, and his son Alan Singer, who did the artwork for the flowers. And on the 1987 pane depicting American wildlife, several of artist Chuck Ripper's paintings of animals included identifiable flowers as part of the creatures' natural settings.

Another Ripper-designed set of stamps, the Hummingbirds booklet issued in 1992 less than six weeks before the Wildflowers pane, contained five designs, each showing a different hummingbird hovering over a favorite flower.

Graphic, generic flowers have been shown on several postal items, including a 1980 stamp that promoted letter-writing, the Love stamp of 1982 and the Special Occasions booklets of 1987 and 1988.


The Origin of the Wildflowers Stamps

Unlike the first three 50-stamp panes issued by USPS, the Wildflowers pane wasn't originally planned in that format. In fact, the subject matter wasn't even defined as wildflowers at first.

The first seeds were planted in 1986 when Karen Mallary, an Anchorage, Alaska, artist and illustrator, submitted some samples of her work to USPS and asked to be considered for future stamp design assignments.

Mallary, a native of San Francisco, learned the basics of art in high school. She lived for several years in Spain, where she studied the masters at Madrid's Prado Museum. In 1965 she and her husband, Chuck, an oil industry engineer, moved to Alaska. Here they raised their two children and she pursued her career in art, specializing in flowers done in watercolor. She paints originals by commission, and her published works include limited-edition prints, posters and book covers. A thumbnail biography prepared by her agent described her approach to her subjects as "solid and positive ... (one) that focuses more on nature's strength and resiliency, rather than the fragility of a single blossom."

"I was between jobs," Mallary recalled, "and a stamp on a letter caught my eye, and I sat there and thought about it and wondered who designed stamps, and how. So I went to the library and found the address of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) and sent off a request for consideration, including samples of my published work. Then I went back to my freelancing and forgot about it."

Although USPS didn't respond immediately, her submission went into a "bank" of unsolicited art samples which the CSAC Quality Assurance Subcommittee considered promising. She didn't know it, but the fact she was a female artist would work in her favor; only a small percentage of U.S. stamp designers are women, a situation which USPS is working to change.

On January 19, 1988, Joe Brockert, then a philatelic design program manager for USPS, forwarded the Mallary samples to Derry Noyes,a Washington, D.C., designer who serves as an art director for CSAC. At that time CSAC had on its list of possible future topical issues a multiple featuring garden flowers, either in block of four or booklet format, and Brockert suggested to Noyes that Karen Mallary might be a candidate for the assignment--although he raised some questions about whether her watercolor work ("a risky medium") would translate effectively to stamp design.

Noyes liked the samples, too, and wrote to Mallary asking if she was still interested. She was. "I telephoned immediately," Mallary said. "Derry told me that they would like to see a resume and some original artwork. She said they had a flower assignment in mind, but she indicated that it was strictly preliminary. She cautioned me that normally they didn't like to work with watercolorists, because on the whole our work tends to be rather 'washed out' and doesn't reproduce too well on stamps.

"I think what saved me was the fact that I like 'hard edge' and I like bright colors, and the material that I sent them showed that my originals reproduce quite well. At the time I was publishing myself, and with each limited-edition print I created a small promotional card that reproduced the flower image, reduced way down. I think that helped me with the Postal Service. To create a large painting, 22 by 30 inches, for example, and then to reduce it down to only one inch by two or three inches on the card,showed that my work held its effectiveness in reduction."

In April 1988 Mallary was asked to prepare concept sketches for a block of four garden flowers of her choice. As it happened, she had just completed a major commission for the Sohio oil company to paint 16 wildflowers found on the north slope of Alaska, and she had wildflowers on her mind and had assembled a file of information, So, instead of garden flowers, she chose to do wildflowers. Because USPS had asked for four, it seemed an obvious idea to use the four compass points so that the whole continental United States would be represented. She chose Jacob's ladder, for the North; fragrant water lily, for the South; large flowered trillium, for the East, and California poppy, for the West.

Mallary submitted these four sketches, in colored pencil on paper. CSAC had no objection to her proposed switch from cultivated plants to wildflowers, and gave its approval for her to do finished artwork. At about the same time, the committee began thinking in larger terms.

The coincidental fact that there are 50 states in the United States and 50 stamps on a standard pane of commemorative-size stamps has led CSAC to look for subjects that can be assigned to 50-variety panes in such a way that every state can identify with at least one stamp. The committee has considered such state-specific subjects as state capitols, state seals and automobile license plates, along with more general subjects such as the fauna that graced the 1987 American Wildlife pane. Fifty-variety panes appropriately can be issued every four or five years, the committee believes, and its search for subjects is one of its higher priorities--so much so that Dr. C. Douglas Lewis, CSAC vice chairman, told a forum at World Columbian Stamp Expo '92: "We're desperate for things that come in multiples of 50."

"It turned out," said Joe Brockert, "that wildflowers were on a list of things that the committee's Topical Subcommittee had approved as possible subjects for a multiple--a block or a booklet or even a pane of 50. But we hadn't gone very far because we didn't know whether it was a practical possibility. I had a telephone conversation with Karen and said: 'If we were to propose doing a pane of 50 wildflowers, do you believe you could come up with enough geographic diversity, enough different good-looking flowers with enough color variety, to make it work?'"

Mallary answered in the affirmative. On the understanding that the 50-stamp pane was still only a tentative project, she was told to begin compiling a list. At the same time, she was asked to do concept sketches,followed by finished art, for six more stamps. These she delivered in September, 1988. The additional flowers she chose were columbine, chicory, plumeria, fireweed, marsh marigold and shooting stars.

Meanwhile, CSAC, a bit wary of assigning what was potentially a large multiple stamp issue to a brand-new artist, asked a second artist to submit some wildflower illustrations as well, for comparison purposes. But after looking over the additional submissions and giving the matter further thought, the committee decided to stay with Karen Mallary.

In recent years USPS has used increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques to help plan its stamps. Now it turned to those techniques to determine whether a 50-stamp pane depicting wildflowers would be popular with the public. "We wanted to make sure that we had the best possible subject before we bought 50 pieces of artwork and went through everything else that's required for a project of that magnitude," Joe Brockert said. At the request of the Stamps Division, the Postal Service's Market Research Division had contracted with Total Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J., to conduct a series of focus groups at which a large number of proposed stamp designs would be tested. Karen Mallary's 10 flower images were added to the assortment.

Total Research convened six focus groups in three cities, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Seattle, on Aug. 30, 31 and Sept. 1, 1988. Each city had two groups, one made up of "casual" stamp collectors and the other consisting of non-collectors. Afterward, the company reported to USPS that, of all the proposed stamps, the multiple issues had received the most positive responses from collectors and non-collectors alike. Stamps showing wildflowers were "regarded favorably" and viewed by the groups as "educational as well as attractive." "Appeal for these designs is broadbased," the company concluded, "and is considered to be appropriate for both business and personal correspondence."

Thus reassured, in late March of 1989 CSAC gave its formal approval to the project. By now Mallary had produced a list of 50 proposed flower varieties for the pane. CSAC proposed the pane for the 1991 stamp program, and it was approved as part of that program by Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank.

Thereafter, Mallary did her artwork in groups of 10 stamps, submitting concept sketches, getting approval of the sketches by CSAC with, in some cases, requests for revisions, then sending the finished artwork back to Washington.


Developing the List of 50 Flowers

As it had done with the American Wildlife pane of 1987, the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee specified that at least one flower on the pane must be an identifiable inhabitant of each of the 50 states. However, as with the 1987 pane, CSAC decided early on that state names would not be used on the stamps. Wildflowers don't respect arbitrary boundaries such as statelines, as Karen Mallary pointed out, and many of the flowers that would appear on the pane grow over wide portions of the country. The committee felt that nothing would be gained by labeling each flower with the name of a state in which it grows.

Among the reference works Mallary used in developing her list of proposed flowers were the Audubon Society's field guides to North American wildflowers ("lifesavers," she called them), the Smithsonian Institution's "Wildflowers of America," "Wildflowers Across America," published by the National Wildflower Research Center, and a wide assortment of nature and horticultural magazines.

"I'm sure there were better ways to do it," Mallary said, "but my method was to sit on the floor surrounded by all my reference books and just look at flower shapes. Shapes are what turn me on; shapes and elegant lines and clean color."

"Color wasn't a problem here. It doesn't matter which flower you're looking at; the color is always exquisite. So first I looked for shapes. I wanted to make sure I had rounds and oblongs and so on. Then I broke it down into colors and groups of colors. I knew I had 50 stamps to work with, so I wanted a range of pinks and reds, and I wanted some yellows and oranges and purples and blues and whites, to cover all the bases."

"And, of course, the geography was essential. All 50 states had to be represented. I decided I wanted as few flowers that grew throughout the entire nation as possible. Those I would keep in reserve, because I knew that as I proceeded and got down to the last few selections I was going to have a problem, running out of certain shapes or colors. So I would need some flowers that grew nationwide that I could turn to if I had to."

The selection process took many days. Mallary developed a cross- filing system, using index cards and listing her candidates by state, color and shape.

As the project developed, CSAC decided that all 50 flowers should be unquestionably native to the United States, with none having been brought in by explorers or others from Europe or Asia and none having migrated north from Latin America. So it now became necessary to reexamine Mallary's preliminary list and, in some cases, drop flowers for which she had already done finished artwork.

For expert assistance on this and other questions, Mallary and the Postal Service turned to the most authoritative source they could find: the National Wildflower Research Center (NWRC), near Austin, Tex., of which she had been a member for several years.

NWRC is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to stimulate and carry out research on the propagation, cultivation, conservation and preservation of wildflowers and to serve as a clearinghouse to spread the resulting knowledge to developers, park managers and private citizens. It was founded Dec. 22, 1982, by Lady Bird Johnson, widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who celebrated her 70th birthday on that date by giving 60 acres of land on the Colorado River outside Austin and $125,000 in seed money to establish the Research Center. Mrs. Johnson is still co-chair of the board of trustees -- actress Helen Hayes is the other co-chair -- and the executive director is David Northington, one of the nation's leading experts on the nomenclature and ecology of wildflowers and other native plants.

Why wildflowers? Mrs. Johnson gave some of the reasons in the book "Wildflowers Across America," which she co-authored. "The bounty of nature is ... one of the deep needs of man," she wrote. Besides their beauty, wildflowers offer practical benefits. "Today in an era when water tables are dropping and the costs of maintaining public landscapes like city parks are soaring, we need the gallant persistence of these plants that demand less attention than thirsty hybrid grasses and garden exotics. Texas alone is yearly pumping 5.7 million acre-feet more water out of our aquifers than nature refills. Wildflower landscapes can help us save water. Wildflowers also can save time and maintenance money. They may even bring money to cities and states. Wildflower trails and flower festivals improve local pride and bring in tourists ..."

Despite the encroachment of spreading development, Mrs. Johnson continued, "we can ... plan to keep some of nature's bounty in suitable places, if we have the knowledge and foresight. Public areas are natural locations for planting wildflowers and native plants. The rights-of-way along the roadsides, public parks and parklands, historic restorations, campuses and school grounds are excellent candidates for wildflower plantings, as are private lands such as residential developments, corporate parks, churchyards, and our own homes."

In seeking NWRC's help, Karen Mallary was under an unusual constraint. USPS insists that no pending stamp project be disclosed before the Postal Service is ready to announce it. This requirement prevented her from telling NWRC staffers whom she was working for or why she needed the information. Nevertheless, they agreed to review her master list.

Among the flowers that were deemed not to be native American wildflowers--or whose status was at least questionable--were two that the artist had painted among her first 10. One was the plumeria, which would have represented Hawaii on the pane. Mallary was disappointed--plumeria was "one of my favorites, and such fun to design," she said--but it was obliged to yield to the ohi'a lehua, a tree-borne flower native to the Hawaiian islands. The other dropout from the original 10 was chicory, replaced by Jack-in-the-pulpit. In other changes, salsify was traded in for scarlet gilia, which in the end would be identified by its other name, standing cypress; day lily was dropped in favor of Indian pond lily, and rose mallow was replaced by passionflower.

CSAC played a much less active role in the development of the list of subjects for the Wildflowers pane than it had assumed in determining what creatures would be shown on the American Wildlife pane of 1987. Mary Ann Owens, chairman of the committee's Topical Subcommittee, explained why:

"The feeling among committee members had been much stronger toward the animals. With the animals, we all had our little pets that we wanted; I insisted on the ladybug, for instance, and other members worked to get their own favorites onto stamps. There were also creatures on that original list of 50 wild animals that some members didn't particularly care for.

"So we were much more vocal then. With the wildflowers, there was no such passion. All we wanted this time was a lovely pane of 50, and most of the committee members couldn't have cared less which specific flowers were on it."

One of the final changes came after Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank had reviewed the finished artwork. He asked for replacement of the Indian pipe, a mostly white plant which Mallary had placed in the center of the pane. Indian pipe is a member of the heath family, related to the blueberry and the rhododendron. It has no chlorophyll and obtains all its nutrients from the forest floor rather than through its leaves. Living in symbiosis with a certain type of fungus, the Indian pipe can parasitize roots of living plants or feed on decaying vegetation. The postmaster general thought its odd appearance and lack of color made it an aberration.

Its departure was a disappointment to Mallary, who had chosen the plant precisely because it represented such a contrast to the others. "It had such an interesting shape, and an interesting color," she said. "It wasn't completely white - it had rust stains; it was fun to research and to paint. But we went with something else."

That something else was Dutchman's breeches, an Eastern woodland flower with small, white, pantaloon-shaped blossoms. "It was easy, because I knew I needed something basically white, and I was thumbing through the book and saw these," Mallary said. "They're charming and delightful little flowers, and they do look exactly like what they're called, so I chose them."

The final list, as it appeared on the pane of 50, was as follows:

  • First row: Indian paintbrush, fragrant water lily, meadow beauty, Jack-in- the-pulpit, California poppy, large-flowered trillium, tickseed, shooting star, stream violet, bluets.
  • Second row: Herb Robert, marsh marigold, sweet white violet, claret cup cactus, white mountain avens, sessile bellwort, blue flag, harlequin lupine, twinflower, common sunflower.
  • Third row: Sego lily, Virginia bluebells, ohi'a lehua, rosebud orchid, showy evening primrose, fringed gentian, yellow lady's slipper, passionflower, bunchberry, pasqueflower.
  • Fourth row: round-lobed hepatica, wild columbine, fireweed, Indian pond lily, Turk's cap lily, Dutchman's breeches, trumpet honeysuckle, Jacob's ladder, plains prickly pear, moss campion.
  • Fifth row: bearberry, Mexican hat, harebell, desert five spot, smooth Solomon's seal, red maids, yellow skunk cabbage, rue anemone, standing cypress, wild flax.
  • For some of these flowers, it was a repeat appearance on U.S. stamps. The Indian paintbrush, California poppy, common sunflower, sego lily and pasqueflower are all state flowers (Wyoming, California, Kansas, Utah and South Dakota) and as such had been shown on the 1982 State Birds and Flowers pane. The sunflower and pasqueflower had also appeared prominently on the Kansas and South Dakota statehood centennial stamps of 1961 and 1989, respectively, and a mountain meadow containing Indian paintbrush, along with purple penstemon and yellow buckwheat, was depicted on the Wyoming statehood centennial stamp of 1990.

    A field of California poppies decorated the Highway Beautification stamp of the 1969 Beautification of America block of four. The yellow lady's slipper was shown on one of the four Orchids stamps of 1984. Finally, Chuck Ripper used two of the flowers as backgrounds on stamps of the 1987 American Wildlife pane: the o'hia lehua, with the iiwi, a Hawaiian bird, and the trumpet honeysuckle, with the luna moth.

    Many of the 50 flowers would be unfamiliar to the average American stamp buyer, but if that buyer took the trouble to learn something about them--taking advantage of the "educational" feature of the pane which the market research focus groups had cited--he or she would find them fascinating.

    For example:

  • Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a Western plant whose brightly colored floral leaflets (bracts) look as if they had been dipped in red paint. The flowers are inconspicuous green-yellow tubes.
  • Fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata). Like other water lilies whose flowers and leaves float on the surface of ponds, it has its leaf pores that absorb carbon dioxide on the upper surface rather than on the underside, as on most land-based plants.
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). An inhabitant of swamps and wet woodlands of the East, this plant features a hood of green or brown bracts (the "pulpit") enclosing a cylindrical structure called the spadix (the "jack").
  • Harlequin lupine (Lupinus stiversii), a member of the pea family that grows from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the mountains of southern California, gets its harlequin name from its unusual multiple coloration of rose, yellow and white.
  • Rosebud orchid (Cleistes divaricata), a lovely pink specimen, native to the Southeast, whose three petals form a tube rather than a spreading, open flower.
  • Fringed gentian (Gentiana crinita), which grows in the Northeast, but is increasingly rare. "Fringed" refers to the delicate structure of its petal, which is designed to collapse at a touch and thus prevent crawling insects from disturbing the flower.
  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). This strange-looking Southern flower gets its name from the perception that parts of it are related to the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, namely, a crown of thorns; nails (the stigmas); wounds (the stamens) and 10 of the disciples (five sepals, five petals).
  • Desert five spot (Malvastrum rotundifolium), a Southwestern flower whose five rose-pink petals each display a large red-purple spot. When light passes through the distinctive globe-like corollas, they resemble glowing lanterns.

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    The Design: Something Different

    From the beginning, USPS knew that it wanted the flower stamps to be commemorative size, vertically arranged. Beyond that, the Postal Service left it to Karen Mallary to suggest the design treatment.

    Mallary, who frequently places her flower paintings against black backgrounds, decided to do the same with these flowers. "I wanted these stamps to be really bright, and I wanted them totally different from anything I had seen before," she said. "I had gone through the Scott catalog, and used other stamp reference works at the library, and I dug out a stamp collection I had had as a child. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever used black as a background for flowers; nobody had ever had them falling out of an imaginary frame. That makes sense to me, I thought, and it was my design format from the beginning."

    Her supervisors at USPS liked the treatment. The black backgrounds gave the flowers "punch," said Derry Noyes. And Joe Brockert noted that the spillover design technique "tends to make the stamps, when they're removed from the pane, look bigger than they are."

    For this assignment, Mallary decided, she would aim for something other than the sharp-definition realism she customarily achieves in her flower paintings. She wanted the paintings to be as "clean" as possible, without excess detail--leaves, stems, tiny floral parts--that might create visual clutter. She wanted to be able to emphasize the blossoms themselves, and de-emphasize the accessory elements.

    Another reason Mallary found for avoiding literalness was the fact that in most cases she had to work from photographs that other people had made.

    "Having lived in Alaska for so long a time, I had never actually seen many of these flowers," she said. "In my regular work I prefer to paint only things that I can hold in my hand, and turn around, and look at from all sides. But that wasn't possible in this case. So most of the images I worked from were images that I had unearthed at the University of Alaska library or from my own library of reference books.

    "I had to be extremely careful not to step on somebody else's copyright. That's why I chose to paint these flowers in a very stylized way."

    One of the ingredients of her stylized treatment was the use of blacklines to outline not only the flowers but also the details in the interior of the blossoms, leaves and stems. As Derry Noyes, the art director, pointed out, the interior linework looked somewhat heavy in the finished paintings, which were five times stamp size, but when reduced to stamp dimensions they lost their heaviness and gave the artwork a helpful clarity.

    "I didn't set out to create a field guide," Mallary said. "The stamps aren't meant to be identifiers. They're not botanical drawings, and were never meant to be. They are--if I can wax poetic here--a celebration of nature's color and diversity and abundance, represented in a very stylized manner."

    To avoid creating too literal a copy of whatever photograph she was using as a source, Mallary would study all the pictures she had on a specific flower, then close the books and draw it from memory. She would also change the viewing angle of the flower, or alter it in other ways. Once she had made her sketch, however, she would return to the reference material to make certain her memory hadn't betrayed her into erroneous representations.

    Mallary decided early on that it would be futile to try to paint all 50 flowers to the same scale. "The pane would have been a nightmare," she said. "If the twinflowers had been shown at the same scale as the giant sunflower, they are so tiny and delicate that you would have seen nothing but black background. In fact, in some cases I was asked to repaint the flower because the postmaster general, looking at the original, felt there was too much black showing, and the flower itself should be enlarged." Everyone agreed that because the stamps were intended to be used individually on letters, not viewed as a 50-stamp bouquet, each one should be shown to its own best advantage.

    On the basis of art "mechanicals" sent to her by Derry Noyes, Mallary created her paintings within an arbitrary rectangle 4 1/4 inches across by 6 1/4 inches deep; no portion of a flower protruding out of the black background could extend outside those dimensions. When the preliminary sketches would come back from Washington, D.C., with CSAC's approval, Mallary would make a pencil tracing and transfer that tracing lightly to illustration board. She would then paint the finished artwork, applying her watercolors with a sable brush. Because she dislikes pencil marks that show through watercolor, she created just enough of a pencil line to guide her, but not enough to be detectable in the finished product.

    The amount of time required to complete a single painting varied." Some of them took forever," she confessed. "I had fits over them. They just wouldn't come. But that's the nature of the creative process. Sometimes you feel like working, sometimes you don't. You've got to work whether you feel like it or not, and sometimes it comes easy and sometimes it doesn't. It's always a challenge. I always knew what my deadline was. I always knew I would get my work finished ahead of the deadline, because I pride myself on always meeting deadlines. I've never been late.

    "Sometimes I'd do the black background first, sometimes I'd do the flower first, sometimes I'd do the leaves first. I had no set way of doing it; I'd do whatever appealed to me at the time. If the color was one that I really liked, or if it was going to pose a problem, I'd do that color first, because if I messed up I might as well know early on, and that would allow me time to re-do and still meet my deadline."

    The typography, chosen by CSAC's veteran typographer and design coordinator, Bradbury Thompson, was Galliard, a 20th-century typeface designed by Matthew Carter and based on the 16th-century work of printer Robert Granjean. Galliard, which Thompson had frequently used before, is a graceful type with strong open spaces that resist filling in with ink when the type is dropped out of a dark background, as was done with the "USA 29" on the Wildflowers stamps.

    Mallary asked that this latter element be placed at the bottom of the black background square of each stamp "because as an artist I like to see work weighted on the bottom." That request was readily agreed to, but she found it a little more difficult to convince Derry Noyes and CSAC that the location of the typography shouldn't be the same on all the stamps, but should vary between the lower right and lower left corners. Noyes pointed out that this approach had never been used on a 50-stamp pane; on the three previous panes, State Flags, State Birds and Flowers and American Wildlife, the typographical elements were in fixed locations.

    "I said, 'Well, then it's time to do something different,'" Mallary recalled, "because I wanted a balance without absolute conformity. To my way of thinking, having the USA and the denomination at the lower right on some stamps and the lower left on others would make the whole pane much more interesting. The flower wouldn't be coming out of the same corner on every stamp."

    The very bottom of each stamp was reserved for the name of the flower. The names were very small, black on white, and in upper-and-lower case type, which Bradbury Thompson prefers because it is more readable. In most cases the names fit comfortably, but a few, such as the showy evening primrose, crowded the available space. Though some previous U.S. stamps depicting flowers had used the Latin names, CSAC's eventual decision for this issue--one endorsed by the artist--was to keep the use of wording to a minimum by using only the common names.

    However, in the process of arriving at the final nomenclature for the stamps, the creative team almost always made the names more specific. Thus, what had been "poppy" in the early version became "California poppy"; "skunk cabbage" became "yellow skunk cabbage"; "lady's slipper" became "yellow lady's slipper"; "harlequin" became "harlequin lupine"; "sunflower" became "common sunflower"; "bluebells" became "Virginia bluebells"; "primrose" became "showy evening primrose"; "bellwort" became "sessile bellwort"; "hepatica" became "round lobed hepatica"; "Turk's cap" became "Turk's cap lily"; "honeysuckle" became "trumpet honeysuckle"; "prickly pear" became "plains prickly pear"; "mt. avens" became "white mountain avens."

    In some cases, Mallary changed her artwork between concept sketch and finished painting, or even after the painting was completed. Upon re- examining her original blue flag many months after she had submitted it, she decided it didn't please her, and she painted it over. She revised the Virginia bluebells at the request of Postmaster General Frank, who didn't like the original composition. The postmaster general also asked for a re-painting of the rosebud orchid; Mallary obliged, and found she liked the second version much better than the first--and was surprised when in the end the Postal Service used the first version after all. The Mexican hat underwent a minor change, but not by the artist; with her permission, a piece of an adjoining flower which USPS officials considered extraneous was removed in the modeling process.

    Complicating the project for Mallary was the fact that in 1989, in the middle of it, her husband took early retirement from the oil industry, and the family moved to Anacortes, Washington, on Puget Sound north of Seattle. But she continued with her long-distance stamp design work--communicating with Derry Noyes and Joe Brockert, mailing preliminaries in groups of 10, receiving CSAC approval, then doing the finished art-- without missing a beat (or a deadline).

    Arranging the stamps on the pane was Karen Mallary's last major task. She worked with small color photocopies of the individual stamps, moving them around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Her principal concern was to achieve a balanced distribution of colors, so that stamps of one color were properly separated from each other. She also wanted to make certain that there was no clustering of stamps with the denomination and "USA" all on the same side. After she had submitted her recommended layout, USPS officials reviewed it and accepted it without change.

    Distributing the colors in an even way across the pane was of aesthetic importance, but it was more than that. It improved the chances for a successful printing operation. Printers doing multicolor work prefer to be able to apply the ink uniformly across the inking rollers, without having too strong a concentration of color in one spot.


    Ashton-Potter America is Selected to Print the Stamps

    In August 1990 USPS announced its 1991 stamp program, with top billing going to the 50-stamp Wildflower pane. However, on Dec. 17, 1990, the Postal Service announced a change of plan; the Wildflowers would be postponed until 1992. "The design of the Wildflowers stamps could not be finalized until the new first-class rate is announced in January (1991)," the news release said. "In addition to this, with the large number of stamps needed to support the rate change, the stamps could not have been issued until late summer. Since that would not be the best time of year to issue the Wildflowers stamps, the decision was made to defer them."

    This postponement turned out to have a major impact on the choice of printer, and printing method, for the Wildflowers.

    Since 1894, the great majority of U.S. postage stamps have been produced by the Department of the Treasury at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Southwest Washington. However, in recent years USPS has sought to expand the number of private printers to whom it contracts stamp work. Among its reasons are its projected need for more stamps than BEP has indicated it can produce, and its desire to reap the advantages, in price and technological innovation, which can accrue from competition among printers.

    However, when the 50-stamp Wildflowers pane was approved, USPS officials expected that they would give the job to BEP. They wanted the fine- screen detail and precision of printing that the offset method could give, in order to fully exploit the color of the subjects and the contrast between flowers and black backgrounds. They assumed, however, that they would be required to add an intaglio element--even if it was only the typography--to ensure security. BEP was the only printer which was already in the business of producing offset-intaglio combination stamps.

    The decision to move the Wildflowers' issue date back to 1992 gave USPS some welcome flexibility. For several years, Stamps Division officials had been thinking that if they could justify the printing of stamps by offset only, they could not only save production costs but widen the field of potential competitors for the business. In 1988 they introduced the first Official Mail stamps printed solely by offset, on the assumption that nobody would be tempted to counterfeit these items, which are used exclusively by federal agencies. The next step came in 1991, when USPS ordered offset lithography production of three low-value definitive stamps, a nondenominated "make-up rate" stamp that sold for 4 cents and 1-cent and 3-cent denominated items.

    Now, however, USPS took a major plunge. In mid-1990, Joe Brockert sent a memo to the Prevention and Countermeasures Branch of the USPS' Postal Inspection Service, asking clearance to print the Wildflowers commemoratives by 100 percent offset. Brockert, who at that time was serving briefly as acting manager for the Stamp Product Development Branch, pointed out that the Wildflowers issue would have some inherent security features.

    For one thing, there would be 50 different multicolor designs to a pane. For another, the paper used would be prephosphored--meaning it would contain as an integral part the phosphor taggant, which post office facer- canceller machines rely on to "read" the location of the stamp and turn the envelope the right way. Officials reasoned that counterfeiters would find it difficult to obtain paper that would emit a phosphor signal on the very discrete wavelength of stamp papers.

    In August 1990 Brockert received a memo from the Postal Inspection Service granting approval for offset-only production of the Wildflowers stamps on an experimental basis. The memo stressed, however, that the paper must be prephosphored rather than phosphor-coated, which the inspectors considered less secure.

    "This is one of the payoffs from prephosphored paper that we've known was coming," said Donald M. McDowell, director of the USPS Office of Stamp and Philatelic Marketing. "In the future, when we add intaglio to offset it will be because it can add value aesthetically to the stamp. It will be because it's the best production solution for interpreting the design, and not just an added security requirement."

    In August 1990 USPS had no outside contractors qualified to do 100 percent offset work, and they still anticipated that their Wildflowers printer would be BEP. But near the end of 1990, when they knew that the Wildflowers stamps would be delayed until 1992, they began to explore the possibility of finding a private printer for the job. A request-for- proposal was publicized, but when the responses came back they were all from foreign firms.

    One of the firms was a Canadian concern, Ashton-Potter Limited of Concord, Ontario, near Toronto. Ashton-Potter produces some 85 percent of Canada Post's stamps, and obviously had the expertise and experience to do the job for USPS. But, as it turned out, it would have been impossible for the Postal Service to contract for the stamps to be printed in Canada.

    That was because, in the spring of 1991, USPS was hit by a bombardment of criticism from members of Congress and segments of the philatelic press for allowing one of its prime stamp contractors, Stamp Venturers, to subcontract the printing of the 35-cent Dennis Chavez stamp in the Great Americans series to the Canadian Bank Note Company of Ottawa. The critics expressed shock and horror that a U.S. stamp should be printed outside the U.S. borders, and to mollify them Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank gave his assurances that it wouldn't happen again (with the exception of one additional Stamp Venturers subcontract that was already in the pipeline).

    USPS contracting officials made it known that only if a foreign firm were to establish a U.S. branch for the actual production of the stamps could it hope to land the Wildflowers job, or any other stamp printing assignment. Coincidentally, Ashton-Potter's management was already considering setting up a subsidiary in the United States, in order to better compete in the U.S. commercial printing market and better serve the customers it already had south of the border.

    The firm acquired the use of a one-story building in an industrial park a few miles east of the U.S.-Canada border in Amherst, New York, a northern suburb of Buffalo. On Dec. 12, 1991, the newly-minted U.S. firm, named Ashton-Potter America Inc., received a contract under which it would produce 550 million Wildflowers stamps. Of that total, 92.3 million would be "select" or philatelic stock.

    Ashton-Potter America moved into its new quarters in February 1992 and began hiring a U.S. workforce that by mid-1992 would number 65. Pre- press work--color separations and platemaking--began early in March. Color proofs were approved by USPS March 4; printing followed immediately, and was completed the first week in May. In making the color separations, Ashton-Potter used two different size line screens to create the dot patterns which make up the printing surfaces: 250 and 300 lines to the inch. "Some of the flowers, such as the sunflower, had very 'busy' images, and on these we used the coarser screen," said Barry Switzer, vice president and general manager of Ashton- Potter. "On flowers with simpler contours, such as the stream violet, we used a higher line screen, to bring out the details."

    Ashton-Potter printed the Wildflowers stamps on pregummed, prephosphored paper supplied by the U.S. Paper Corp. of New York. The press was a sheet-fed five-color offset press capable of handling a 40-inch wide sheet. It turned out between 6,000 and 7,000 sheets an hour.

    Four of the color stations applied the standard process colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, in that order. The black ink was not the normal process black, however, but was enhanced with the addition of a purple tone. The fifth color station--actually the first one--was used to condition and clean the sheets, removing paper dust and other minuscule contaminants, before the actual printing took place. As in all process work, the four inks were applied in various combinations to create the full spectrum of colors shown on the stamps.

    One late--and minor--stamp design change came after the first batch of plates had been made. On the o'hia lehua stamp, the flower name had originally been hyphenated. After a series of consultations with the National Wildflower Research Center, USPS officials dropped the hyphen. Then, after examining plate proofs from Ashton-Potter, they decided to capitalize the "L" in the name line to make it consistent with the other flower names of two or more words, all of which were capitalized.

    The company asked and received the Postal Service's permission to use two different size plates in order to cut down the time required for the job. Obviously, more stamps could be made in the same amount of time if part of the press run was printed on 300-unit plates rather than the standard 200-unit plates. The 200-unit (four-pane) sheets were printed first, followed by the 300-unit (six-pane) sheets. A total of 1.25 million sheets of each of the formats, "six-up" and "four-up," was printed, making 625 million stamps in all, which included a normal allowance for spoilage and a reserve.

    The plates were laid out in a way that was unusual for U.S. stamps. Normally, on a 400-subject or 600-subject plate made for sheet stamps, all the stamps line up in the same direction. With the Wildflowers, however, the upper panes--two on the 400-subject plates, three on the 600-subject plates--were upside down in relation to the lower panes.

    This was done to accommodate Ashton-Potter's stroke comb perforator, which perforates two rows of stamps at a time and creates the bullseye perfs (perfs that intersect perfectly at the corners of each stamp) that USPS prefers. Arranging the upper panes on the plate head-to-head against the lower panes allowed the printer to leave a strip of blank paper between the panes that was exactly the width of a row of stamps. This strip became the selvage for the upper panes, wide enough to accommodate the inscriptions which USPS wanted to print in the selvage but not so wide that an excessive amount of paper would have to be trimmed off and thrown away in order to cut the panes down to standard post-office size.

    This wide selvage that contained plate numbers and other marginal markings was at the top of the panes on panes from the top half of the plates, and at the bottom on panes from the bottom half of the plates. Each pane bore a plate number in its selvage, consisting of four digits, one for each color, preceded by the letter "P" (for Potter) in black. The six-pane sheets were printed from even-numbered plates and the four-pane sheets from odd-numbered plates, which meant that an observer could tell, by looking at the plate number, which size plate it came from. The plate numbers appeared in the selvage opposite one of the corner stamps: upper left, upper right, lower left or lower right, depending on which position on its plate the pane had occupied.

    But USPS officials decided to add an extra method of identification. Adopting an idea credited to Assistant Postmaster General Gordon C. Morison, they created the small diagram by which the buyer of a pane of 50 stamps could tell not only which size plate his pane came from, but what was its position on the plate. The diagram--designed by Terrence McCaffrey of USPS on his Macintosh computer--was printed in the selvage immediately adjacent to the plate number, and it consisted of four or six hollow rectangles with one of them marked: "This plate position during printing."

    Increasingly, USPS has been using the selvage of its stamp panes to convey extra information to postal customers and stamp clerks. Sometimes it's information about the subject matter of the stamps, and sometimes it's advertising for related philatelic products. The selvage inscription on the Wildflowers pane contained both types. The initial paragraph announced that "Each of the 50 United States can lay claim to one (or more) of the lovely wildflowers shown on this pane of stamps." The inscription then went on to describe and give ordering instructions for a 64-page illustrated Wildflowers Album which USPS offered, along with a mint set of the stamps (face value $14.50), for $21.95 plus a 50-cent handling charge.

    (One basic requirement that USPS impressed on Ashton-Potter was that the selvage was to be left on all panes shipped from the plant. The company was accustomed to producing stamps for Canada Post, which requires selvage on philatelic stock only. For stamps that go to Canadian post offices, Ashton-Potter cuts off the selvage before shipping.)

    The printing of the stamps was followed by the most labor intensive, time-consuming phase of the operation: finishing. All steps were done manually. First, the stamps were perforated, a few sheets at a time, on the company's stroke comb perforator. Then, in larger stacks, the perforated sheets were guillotined into panes and the excess paper sliced off.

    Finally, each pane was individually inspected for printing and perforating quality by a team of 32 employees, seated four to a table in a brightly-lit room. The panes were then packaged for shipping.


    The Wildflower Stamps are Unveiled

    The first limited disclosure of what the stamps would look like came in a color booklet called the 1992 Stamp Marketing Preview, issued by the Philatelic and Retail Services Department of USPS late in 1991 for internal circulation. The Preview contained color reproductions of many of the stamps planned for 1992, and among them was a small-scale reproduction of the pane of 50 Wildflowers stamps--so small that the names of the flowers on the individual stamps couldn't be read.

    The illustration wasn't a literal depiction of the pane as it would later come off the presses. It was intended only to give USPS field personnel a general idea of what the stamps would look like, and it had been assembled with scissors and paste by Joe Brockert from individual color photocopies of Karen Mallary's artwork--including, in a few cases, her early concept sketches. "It was laid out, basically, in the order in which the designs were done," Brockert said. He created this simulated pane before Mallary had decided upon the final arrangement of the 50 stamps, and so the arrangement it showed was altogether different from what the public would eventually see in the issued pane. And because it was put together well in advance, it contained several "stamps" whose subjects would later be replaced, such as the rose mallow, chicory, plumeria, day lily, salsify and Indian pipe.

    The 1992 stamp program was formally announced to the public Dec. 11, 1991, at a ceremony in Decatur House in Washington, D.C. For the first time, USPS simultaneously revealed the designs of the scheduled stamps. The Wildflowers were shown, this time in the form in which they actually would appear, with the names of the flowers visible on the illustration. Other multiple stamp issues with topical themes, such as hummingbirds and zoo animals, were also unveiled. USPS was increasingly selecting stamp subjects such as these not so much for their significance but "just for sheer fun and beauty," Postmaster General Frank told reporters. No issue date for the Wildflowers was given, but USPS said they would appear some time in June or July.

    Later information came in installments. In March USPS told cachet makers that the stamps would be issued July 15 in Columbus, site of AmeriFlora'92. Early the following month, the Postal Service announced publicly that the stamps would be printed by Ashton-Potter America Inc. At about the same time, Douglas Kelsey, executive director of the American First Day Cover Society, met with Assistant Postmaster General Morison and Donald McDowell and suggested that they move the ceremony's date back nine days so it would coincide with the AFDCS convention, also in Columbus. The postal officials agreed, and a May press release reported the change of date. This press release also contained a description of the two different plate layouts that were being used on the stamps and the unique diagrams in the selvage of each pane.

    Full details came in mid-June in a press release headed "Wildflowers to Bloom in Columbus." "Fifty colorful, blooming native plants dot the philatelic landscape on the new Wildflowers commemorative stamps to be issued July 24 in Columbus, Ohio," the release proclaimed. A list of the 50 flowers was included, technical details and creative credits were given, and collectors were instructed how to order first-day covers.


    About the Author

    George Amick is a journalist and stamp writer from Trenton, N.J. He has been collecting the stamps of the United States for nearly 50 years.

    He is editor of the editorial page of The Times of Trenton. During his career with the newspaper, he has also been Washington correspondent, state capitol correspondent, metropolitan editor, state editor and Sunday editor. In 1968-69 he was a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University, studying urban problems.

    He writes the annual U.S. Stamp Yearbooks published by Linn's Stamp News, and has contributed scores of articles on a wide range of subjects to philatelic publications. His book Jenny! (also published under the title: The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania) tells the complete story of the most famous of stamp errors, the U.S. 24-cent inverted center airmail of 1918.

    He also wrote The American Way of Graft, a study of political corruption, published in 1975 by the Center for Analysis of Public Issues and used as supplementary reading in several college political science courses.

    He is married and the father of three grown children. His wife, Donna, is a journalist and desktop publisher.



    This is to convey my thanks for their generous assistance to Donald M. McDowell, Joe Brockert, Frank Janaczek and Michael O'Hara of the U.S. Postal Service; Derry Noyes of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee; Ray Jacobs of the Columbus, Ohio, Post Office; Hugh Ashton and Barry Switzer of Ashton-Potter America, Inc., and Karen Mallary, the designer of the Wildflowers stamps.


    About this Article

    This article was written in and appeared in printed form in 1992. © 1992 by Fleetwood, a division of Unicover Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the

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