The Story Behind a Stamp: Create Your Own "Lickable Art"

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The first U.S. postage stamps labeled "Wildlife Conservation" appeared in 1956. These three-cent stamps presented the wild turkey, pronghorn antelope, and king salmon — three animals that wildlife biologists had struggled to save. The first three wildlife conservation stamps were so popular that a fourth stamp followed in 1957. That stamp featured one of the country's most endangered species, the Whooping Crane. Do you see it on this envelope?

On July 19, 1957, four months before the stamp was issued, the Washington Post reported that the whooping crane population stood at 31 — the highest it had been since 1950, when 34 whoopers were counted. Thanks to decades of joint efforts between U.S. and Canadian conservationists, the wild whooping crane population has grown to more than 200 in the original flock, and a brand new flock was begun in the Eastern U.S. in 2001. Still, the whooping crane remains one of the rarest species in North America and one of the most endangered crane species in the world.

An Artful "First"

This beautiful whooper stamp helped carry the conservation message around the country. It also marked one of the first times more than one color was used on a stamp! Unlike previous wildlife stamps, this one sported three colors: blue for water, green for grasses, and orange for the two fuzzy whooping crane chicks. Fine engraving embellished the drawing done by Bob Hines, an artist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Activity: Create Conservation Stamps

  • Create your own wildlife conservation stamps. Begin by choosing a favorite animal from your state or province to feature on your stamp.
  • Design and color your stamp, working with your preferred stamp size and art medium.
  • If you like, include your own conservation pledge on the envelope.
  • Create a classroom or hallway display to spotlight everyone's wildlife conservation stamp designs and pledges.

Digging Deeper
  1. Watch for new postal stamps being issued. Start your own "first issue" collection complete with postmark.
  2. Compare engraved stamps to those done on off-set printers. Engraving like you see on the whooper stamp is a painstaking and dying art. Only a few commemorative, limited-edition stamps use engraving. These include the Spanish-American War stamp issued in March 1998 and the Pacific '97 stamp issued in 1997. Today, most stamps are printed in full color, the artwork scanned onto a computer that digitally generates four-color film. The film negatives are exposed on photosensitive plates (offset printing plates). Each plate prints a different color. Offset printing is popular because it produces bright stamps. The stamps, however, lack the fine-lined etching characteristic of engraved stamps. Visit the post office or talk to stamp collectors (called philatelists) to locate, then compare and contrast stamps made by engraving with those made by offset printing.
  3. Find out what's new in wildlife stamps today. As the environment and wildlife became hotter topics, more wildlife stamps rolled off the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing's presses.

    • A 1963 stamp honored pioneer bird painter John James Audubon.

    • A 1966 stamp commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty.

    • Dozens of wildlife stamps have been issued by the USPS since the 1970s, including blocks of stamps dedicated to coral reefs, state birds and flowers, mammals, hummingbirds, and owls.

    • A 1996 series of stamps featured photographs of endangered species, ranging from the Wyoming toad to the West Indian manatee.

    Does anyone you know own some of these stamps?

  4. Find wildlife stamps from other countries. Many countries produce animal stamps. Canada's very first stamp, issued in 1851, portrayed a beaver. Other early wildlife stamps include an1866 Peruvian stamp depicting llamas and an 1879 Guatemalan stamp depicting its national bird, the resplendent quetzal. Can you find pictures of these stamps to share with other interested students?
  5. Take a survey. Have everyone collect the stamps that come into their mailboxes at home for a week. Graph results to find out which stamps are currently the most popular.
  6. Imagine you are a Whooping Crane and write A Whoop of Thanks. Use the background information above and your own ideas and research to write letters describing appreciation for the help that saved your species.