Shirley Chisholm forever. (“Forever” stamp, that is.) The House Collection contains examples of stamps, both singles and sheets, related to the people and places of the House—including the New York Congresswoman.
An 1847 law created the first official postage stamp of the United States, dictating “that, to facilitate the transportation of letters in the mail, the Postmaster-General be authorized to prepare postage stamps, which, when attached to any letter or packet, shall be evidence of the payment of the postage chargeable on such letter.” Until that point, senders would bring letters to the post office, where the postmaster would note whether the sender had paid for postage or the recipient should pay upon delivery. With a printed design and consistent cost—plus the assurance that a recipient wouldn’t have to pony up for a letter she wasn’t expecting—postage stamps standardized payment for communications across the country.
For their first nine years, stamps bore only two designs: a 5-cent Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent George Washington. Over time, new designs multiplied. Congress, which authorized the creation of the postage stamp, also became a subject.
A 1923 stamp featured the Capitol. A designer from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving fashioned the image from a photograph, and three different engravers created the vignette, text, and decorative border. Printed in dark blue ink, the stamp cost $2 (equivalent to around $30 today). At the time, it cost two cents to mail a one-ounce letter—so the $2 Capitol was 100 times more expensive than an everyday stamp when the Post Office Department, as the United States Postal Service was known at the time, first issued it.
In 1950, the Post Office Department celebrated the 150th anniversary of Washington, DC, as the U.S. capital by issuing four commemorative stamps, each listed at three cents. Two of the four spotlight the Capitol: a view of the building, printed in pink-purple ink, and a closeup of the Statue of Freedom, printed in blue ink. The dotted lines of the engraving make it seem as if the statue is shining brightly. The Capitol appears on other stamps in the House Collection, including a 9-cent view of the dome from 1976 with the text “Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble” curling around the left side of the stamp, as if echoing the dome’s curve.
In addition to the iconic spaces of Congress, postage stamps have depicted some important people from the history of the House. The House Collection contains a sheet of Sam Rayburn stamps with 50 perforated panes. The Post Office Department released a commemorative stamp honoring the House Speaker in 1962, less than a year after his death. The stamp shows his head and shoulders, printed in brown, in front of a blue Capitol dome, reflecting a spot of sunshine on the left.
Five years after the 4-cent Rayburn, the Post Office Department issued a Davy Crockett stamp as part of a series of American folklore stamps. The artist depicted Crockett, who represented Tennessee in the House, as a hunter and backwoodsman. Before printing the portrait and text in black ink, printers added two different shades of green to make the pine trees in the background pop out.
Congresswomen Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm have appeared on commemorative postage as part of a Black Heritage series. Jordan, a Texas Representative, became the first African-American Congresswoman to grace a stamp in 2011. The stamp cost 44 cents when released, but as a “Forever” stamp, the value changes as the price of postage increases. Against a reddish background, the stamp shows a frontal view with the Congresswoman smiling at the viewer.
Issued three years later, the Chisholm stamp uses a similar composition, with a tightly cropped portrait of the Representative’s face, posed against a bright purple background. With light reflecting off her glasses as she gazes directly at the viewer, Chisholm’s face looks composed and serious.
From its earliest days, Congress has addressed important issues of how residents communicate with each other. Legislation authorized the postage stamp, and in turn, stamps have delivered commemorative images of the Capitol and its Representatives.
Sources: An Act to Establish Certain Post Routes and for Other Purposes, 9 Stat. 188 (1847); Politico, 11 September 2011; Dorothy Ganfield Fowler, Unmailable: Congress and the Post Office (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977); “African American Subjects on United States Postage Stamps,” United States Postal Service, February 2019, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/african-american-stamp-subjects.htm; “Arago: People, Postage & the Post,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed 16 January 2020, https://arago.si.edu/index.html; Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed 16 January 2020, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/; “The United States Postal Service: An American History, 1775–2006,” United States Postal Service, 2012, https://about.usps.com/publications/pub100/welcome.htm; “U.S. Postal Service Honors Shirley Chisholm,” United States Postal Service, 31 January 2014, https://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2014/pr14_005.htm.Follow @USHouseHistory