Notes from the Past

Women Engravers and Designers - Part III

I am sorry that I couldn't remember the name of the designers of the stamp which we agreed was the most awful stamp issued during the 19th century -- the full-faced portrait of Andrew Jackson (Scott73, 2¢ black).  The designer was the talented James Macdonough (1820-1903) who was also an engraver as well as a painter and illustrator. He designed all of the stamps issued between 1861 and 1866 while the contract for the production of postage stamps was in the hands of the National Bank Note Company of which he was shortly to become the principal administrator (1876).  Along the way he obtained two patents for bank note improvement and for inking.

While his earlier designs have merit his later ones were rushed jobs because Macdonough the artist was soon in conflict with Macdonough the penny-pinching administrator.  The Andrew Jackson stamp is a good example of the decline of his artist application.  The engraving, however, is excellent.  The vignette is by Joseph Prosper Ourdan (1828-1881 formerly chief of the engraving division of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and the lettering and frame by William Nichols (1835-1880) both of considerable talent.

Nicholls left the National Bank Note Company because of disagreements with Macdonough who in some ways became the Nery Ford of stamp production designing a form of manufacture governed by the clock. It was he who began to employ young women on the printing machines (a point I will return to later).  As time went on Macdonough the business man triumphed over Macdonough the designer although flashes of good taste continued and he did have the foresight to employ people of the calibre of James Smillie.

In some ways Macdonough continued as an innovator.  He was responsible for the broad concept of the wonderful pictorial series of 1869 -so hated at the time.  In fact he designed four of the stamps himself largely because he was let down by other designers and the costs were rising fast.  (Again this is a point I will return to because it helps us work towards the solution of the problem of "E. Pitcher").  These were the 2 cent horse and rider, 3 cent train, and the two eagle and shield stamps respectively 12 cent and 30 cent.  All four stamps were rushed jobs.  Indeed, if any horse assumed the position of the horse on the 2 cent stamp would end up flat on his belly.  The eagle and shield stamps are in every way the least successful of the series as Macdonough remarked himself.

Macdonough rose to become president of the two American Bank Note Companies and along the way conceived the Columbian series in tandem with his good friend and business associate, the then postmaster general John Wanamaker.  Macdonough chose many of the paintings that were used and he and Wanamaker bought up a suspiciously large number of the dollar values of the series.   They claimed they did so because they were demonstrating their faith in producing so outrageously expensive stamps.  In fact, they accumulated a tidy profit for their progeny.  Macdonough"played the market" largely because the series did not sell well and the cutting back of the print run meant his company could have been out of pocket.  His sly ways were one of the reasons why it was finally decided that the printing of postage stamps should be taken over by the Bureau from 1894.

Returning to the mystery of the designer E. Pitcher.  I have maintained before that it appeared to me that the person did not exist. I now want to propose another totally unsubstantiated hypothesis.  Macdonough wanted to reduce costs and often farmed work out of house to designers.  Women designers had to
operate on the margins and accept work that was not necessarily open and above board.  Usually designers are known by their full names.  E. Pitcher is an exception because the Christian name is not revealed.  James Smillie, then in the employment of Macdonough, was in contact with a family named Pitcher. A daughter was a painter. Is it possible that E. Pitcher (perhaps Edith or Eleanor) did exist and was a woman?

- Professor Charles Posner
adapted from eBay Stamps Board Post
Posted May 3, 2000
Posted May 24, 2000

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

Note:  If the link isn't returned the first try, try again.

Comments? Send me an e-mail
Please include a reference to this item.