On August 18, 2012, the United States Postal Service issued a Forever Stamp featuring USS Constitution, the first in a series of stamps commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The stamp depicts an 1803 painting attributed to Neapolitan artist Michele Felice Cornè – the earliest known image of “Old Ironsides.” It’s a fitting tribute, according to U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors Vice Chairman Mickey Barnett. “What better way to salute the nation’s longest serving commissioned warship than with a commemorative stamp depicting the oldest known painting of the USS Constitution,” he said. “Giving this stamp its ‘Forever’ status means the stamp will always be accepted to serve as a lasting tribute to a cherished American icon.”
Despite the ship’s iconic status, Constitution has surprisingly graced only one other stamp in its 215-year history. For decades, many individuals and patriotic organizations solicited the Postal Service and members of Congress to issue a USS Constitution stamp. On September 15, 1947, the Post Office Department officially announced that it would issue a 3-cent Constitution stamp on October 21 on board “Old Ironsides” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ship’s launch.
The approved stamp was the work of a local architect named Andrew Hepburn, who used ship models, plans, and original sources for his design. On the stamp, USS Constitution is shown starboard-side sailing in a light breeze, flanked by two cannon, under an arch of sixteen stars representing the sixteen states of America at the time of the ship’s launch in 1797.
Although the ship has only appeared on two stamps, Constitution nevertheless has a longstanding reputation in the philatelic world. In 1931, Constitution and a crew of 81 sailors, officers, and Marines set off on a three-year, three-coast tour of the United States. This goodwill mission, now known as the National Cruise, was a public thank you to the men, women, and children, who, from 1925 to 1931, donated monies and materials to support the ship’s 1927 restoration.
With 70 stops along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the United States over three years, the National Cruise sent the philatelic world into an uproar. Thousands of individuals, collectors, and dealers created cachets commemorating Constitution’s voyage. They mailed the cachets to the ship, or brought them in person, to be canceled by Harry Moore, the Naval Postal Clerk assigned to the voyage. By the end of the first year alone, Moore estimated that he had canceled half a million cachets and letters!
Not all cachets that came through Moore’s office were canceled, however. As the National Cruise was a “thank you” to the American public, Commander Louis Gulliver was adamant in upholding his orders: “We have one thought only, and that is that no collector, or any kind of person, shall use this ship for the purpose of a profit.” Cachets found to be “not in harmony with the mission of the ship, which has been the creation of good will” were returned to sender, without cancellation.1
1 Louis J. Gulliver to H.S. Groat, December 19, 1933. Ship’s Papers, 1931-1934. Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library, USS Constitution Museum.
Matthew Brenckle Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.
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