1997 32¢ Clipper Ship
Issue Date: March 13, 1997
City: New York, NY
Printed By: Banknote Corporation of America
Printing Method: Engraved
Issued in conjunction with U.S. #3131, the Pacific ’97 commemoratives feature America's first triangle stamps. Intended to commemorate San Francisco's Pacific 97 Stamp Exhibition, the stamps feature a mid-19th century clipper ship and a U.S. mail stagecoach - both of which are historically associated with mail delivery in California. The ship design is based on an advertising card for the clipper ship Richard S. Ely, by American Harrison Eastman (1823-1886), who was the probable source for the U.S. mail stagecoach design.
Clipper ships, the most beautiful and romantic of the sailing ships, appeared on the high seas in the 1850s, just as the preindustrial era was giving way to steam power. Maximizing the power of wind with narrow hulls and multiple tiers of sails, traders raced to be the first to market with China tea and Indian spices.
Clipper ships earned their place in postal history with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. At the time, miners, mail, and supplies had three routes to California. They could go by stagecoach through hostile land, by boat and coach across the unhealthy Isthmus of Panama, or by sailboat around Cape Horn. Speed was vital to survival and often meant the difference between striking it rich or losing everything. Ships like Sea Hawk, Flying Cloud, and Lightening “clipped off” the miles between New York and San Francisco in under three months, half the time needed for the overland journey.
Both the stagecoach and clipper ship were products of preindustrial times. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and steam power, their days were numbered. For a while, mail went by both stagecoach and railroad, by clipper ship and steamer. But before completely giving way to newer methods of transport, they proved the value of scheduled service, efficiency, and speed.
First U.S. Triangle Stamps
On March 13, 1997, the USPS issued its first triangle-shaped stamps to promote the upcoming Pacific ’97 Stamp Show.
The world’s first triangle-shaped stamps came 144 years earlier. Issued in 1853, the British colony Cape of Good Hope’s very first stamps were triangle-shaped. They were reportedly created in that shape to help illiterate postal clerks easily identify the difference in letters that were mailed from within the colony from those that were mailed from other places.
Over the course of a decade, Cape of Good Hope would produce several more triangle stamps, totaling 12 by 1863. You can view some of these triangle stamps here. The next triangle stamps from another postal administration came from Newfoundland, then a British colony in 1857. These and many other early triangle stamps were imperforate. The first nation to issue perforated triangle stamps was Ecuador in 1908. Over the next several decades, more nations would join in the fun and issue over 1,600 triangle stamps.
In 1997, the US joined as well with a special pair of stamps promoting the upcoming Pacific ’97 Stamp Show. The two stamps were issued on March 13, 1997, at the New York Coliseum as part of the March MEGA Stamp Event. According to the postmaster general, “These innovative stamps represent our commitment to provide the philatelic community and the American public with exciting new designs and formats… Since 1847, when the first US postage stamps were issued, stamps have been rectangular in shape. We want the American public to know stamps aren’t square.”
The two stamps honored the brave settlers who opened the American West by land and sea. They picture a mid-19th-century clipper ship and a US mail stagecoach – both of which are historically associated with mail delivery in California. The ship design is based on an advertising card for the clipper ship Richard S. Ely. These small cards were handed out in Eastern cities to encourage people to travel to California by ship. The stagecoach design is based on a drawing by Harrison Eastman (1823-1886), who worked as a postal clerk in San Francisco until his art career took off.
A decade later, the USPS produced its second triangle issue, honoring the settlement of Jamestown. That stamp pictured the three ships, Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery that brought English colonists to America in 1607. Calling their settlement Jamestown, after England’s King James I, the colonists founded the first permanent settlement in the new world. The stamp commemorated Jamestown’s 400th anniversary and honors the colony’s first triangular-shaped fort.
See more great Pacific ’97 and triangle stamps below.