Series of 1908-09 1¢ Franklin
Issue Date: December 1, 1908
Quantity issued: 5,300,000,000 (estimate)
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Method: Flat plate
Watermark: Double line
Stung by criticism of the previous ornate stamp series, the Post Office Department looked for cleaner, simpler designs for the Series of 1908-09. However, they continued the 57-year-old tradition of using a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, taken from Houdon’s bust, as the basis of the 1¢ stamp design.
The 1¢ Franklin stamp satisfied the postcard rate and also was used in combination with other stamps on heavier letters.
Series of 1908-09
When the 1902 series was issued, the Post Office Department received numerous complaints from collectors, as well as the public, concerning the stamps’ poor designs. One particular gentleman, Charles Dalton, even wrote to his senator! He severely criticized the Stuart portrait of Washington currently in use on the 2¢ stamp and suggested the profile, taken from the bust by Jean Antoine Houdon, be put back into use.
He also recommended that this portrait be used on all U.S. issues. To support his idea, he used the example of Great Britain’s stamps, which all carried the profile portrait of King Edward VII. After careful consideration, the Postmaster General and Department officials adopted Mr. Dalton’s suggestions for the new 1908 series. The decision was made to keep Benjamin Franklin on the 1¢ stamp; however, his portrait was also to be in profile, modeled after Houdon’s bust.
A simpler and more modern-looking border design was selected to be used on all denominations. The simplicity and uniformity of the new design greatly reduced production costs and extended the life of the steel printing plates. Due to lower international rates and higher weight limits per unit, the need for the $2 and $5 stamps diminished. When the 1908 was released, these issues were discontinued.
Issued during the American Industrial Revolution, the series of 1908 was released in an age when machines were being developed to do anything man could and more. These inventions ranged from automated manufacturing plants and flying machines to the horseless carriage and slot machines. These slot or vending machines first appeared in the late 1880s to sell chewing gum on New York City train platforms. By the twentieth century, they also dispensed products such as candy, cigarettes, and souvenir postcards.
These vending machines were so successful that the companies that manufactured them were constantly seeking new items to market. Their attention was soon turned to postage stamps. Not only would this venture prove profitable for the manufacturers, it could also save a sizable amount of money of the government.
On November 24, 1905, a committee was appointed to investigate the possibility of using vending machines to see stamps. The committee was to determine whether or not this would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Postal Department to undertake. After examining the merits of these machines they reported, “...that the adoption of automatic machines for the sale of stamped paper would not, for the present, be advantageous.” The idea was abandoned until 1907.
Birth of Jean-Antoine Houdon
Renowned sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was born on March 25, 1741, in Versailles, France. He sculpted a number of high-profile figures during his life, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Fulton, Napoleon Bonaparte, and more.
Houdon’s father was a servant who worked in the home of a high-ranking aristocrat. In 1749, that home began hosting the newly created Élèves Protégés, a special school for people who received the Prix de Rome. As a result, Houdon grew up surrounded by the day’s best crown-sponsored artists. He apprenticed with sculptor Michel Ange Slodtz and then won the Prix de Rome himself in 1761, enabling him to study at the Élèves Protégés.
Houdon enjoyed his time in Rome, studying classical sculptures. In fact, the students were tasked with copying famed marble sculptures that would be displayed in the royal gardens in France. Houdon returned to Paris in 1768 and was invited to show his work at the prestigious Salon. While his work was widely praised by many, he didn’t impress the director of major crown commissions. However, Houdon’s 1771 terracotta bust of French philosopher Denis Diderot earned him significant attention, particularly from foreign nobles and other high-society figures. Houdon created several busts of author Voltaire that inspired valuable commissions for seated Voltaire sculptures.
In the 1770s and 80s, Houdon befriended a number of American dignitaries living in Paris, including Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and Thomas Jefferson. He sculpted each of these men and Jefferson encouraged him to go to America to sculpt George Washington. Houdon spent weeks in 1785 at Washington’s Mount Vernon home and studied him carefully. On one occasion, Washington became angry about a horse trader’s prices and ordered the man off his property. At that moment, Houdon found the expression of pride and strength that inspired a nation. Houdon set off to capture the expression in his sculpture. The artist prepared a clay bust and a plaster life mask of Washington before returning to France to complete his work. Houdon’s bust of Washington is regarded as the most accurate representation of George Washington’s face in existence.
Houdon was commissioned to sculpt a wide variety of figures – magicians, magistrates, ministers, and the royal family. He also created plaster models of statues that he hoped would impress patrons to pay for them to be made in bronze or marble.
In 1786 he got married and had three daughters. His sculptures of them are considered some of his finest works picturing children. During the French Revolution he fell out of favor because of his connections to the royal court. But after the war, he again held a prominent position in the art community and worked on the Column of the Grand Armée. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1804. He completed his final American commissions the year before, depicting inventor Robert Fulton and poet Joel Barlow. He also did his last commission for imperial Russia of Czar Alexander I. Houdon died on July 15, 1828.
Read more about Houdon’s life and work and view photos of his sculptures.