Notes from the Past

Women Designers and Engravers - Part I

The first woman designer of an American postage stamp was Esther Richards who produced the model for the 10 cent value in the National Parks series of 1934.  Her short association with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was not a felicitous one as some of the then engravers were far from overjoyed with the idea of working with a woman.  Whilst one can criticise the then Postmaster General for producing the "Farley Follies" he nonetheless opened the Bureau to new influences and she was one of the first.  Much of the freshness of design, marking the definitive escape from the Huston era with its cacophony of acanthus running riot and kitsch miniaturised depiction's was due to her initiatives.

The second woman designer was Elaine Rawlinson, the artist, who won the contest for designing the new definitive series of 1938.  She produced the 1 cent stamp featuring a bust of George Washington and this served as a model for the entire series.  Her style was copied by William Schrage, Robert Miller, William
Roach and Victor McCloskey the principle BEP designers of the time.

We have a much greater problem dealing with women engravers many of whom were active even in the colonial period (like Elizabeth Vandine the excellent counterfeiter of currency and Anne Green who succeeded her husband and actually set up her own engraving company:  Anne Catherine Green and Son, also Anne Franklin the sister-in-law to Benjamin Franklin who petulantly refused to employ her on the grounds that engraving was "not women's work").  Engraving was highly skilled work as as such regarded as a totally masculine preserve. However, women did engrave.  On the whole they tended to be daughters, nieces and wives of prominent engravers.  Much of the work was farmed out to them and that work was often attributed to the spouse, father, uncle, brother etc., because the engraving consortia were not particularly fond of the idea of women invading a highly skilled area.  Some of the operatives who worked at the BEP were actually engravers but could and would not have been employed as such.

Indeed, the only area to which women were recruited in the BEP were as assistants to printers, gummers, wetters etc., (good examples are Delia Russell who decided to resign in disgust and more importantly Alice Cooney never rising above the rank of engraving-prover in the 35 years she laboured for the American   Bank Note Company).  This was extremely tiring work, extremely badly paid and accidents occurred quite frequently.  Until very late in the day there was no compensation worthy of the name which was quite dreadful given that the women started their careers at a very early age and often had to retire whilst they were still in their 20's.  The Bureau also advised incoming female employees that they would be well advised not to marry as it would "distract them from their work".  If it sounds like the "maquiladora" industry in third-world countries one is not far from the truth.  Conditions only improved with the introduction of the newer Rotary presses and the arrival of James Farley in 1933.

Today there are several women designers, like Esther Porter the wife of the engraver Joseph Creamer and the most prominent engraver is probably Armandina Lozano (Mexican born) who has engraved several USA stamps and Deborah Alexander.

(To be Continued)

- Professor Charles Posner
adapted from eBay Stamps Board Post
Posted April 1, 2000
Posted May 22, 2000

Author's Note:  It would be extremely useful if someone could thoroughly research this area as what I am writing is only very, very tentative. I am sure there is sufficient scope for an historian to produce an important contribution.

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