1940 5¢ Walt Whitman
Famous Americans Series – Poets
Issue Date: February 20, 1940
First City: Camden, New Jersey
Quantity Issued: 22,207,780
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Rotary Press
Perforation: 10 ½ x 11
Called the “Father of Free Verse,” Walt Whitman’s controversial style captured the imagination of his readers. Featured on U.S. #867, Whitman spent years constantly updating his best-known work – the masterpiece poetry collection called “Leaves of Grass.” His poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” gave voice to a nation’s grief following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Whitman had an intense personality. Legends and stories of his wandering lifestyle were so compelling that nearly a century later they influenced the “Beat Generation” of American writers in the 1950s and 60s. Whitman’s forceful physical presence inspired his friend Bram Stoker to use him as a model for the character Dracula.
In 1938, the Post Office Department announced plans for a series of stamps recognizing 10 famous Americans and invited the public to submit recommendations. The response was so great that it was decided to increase the number from 10 to 35. This required an unexpected level of organization by the Post Office Department for this series.
Seven categories were decided upon – authors, poets, educators, scientists, composers, artists, and inventors. Each category of five has the same set of denominations – 1¢, 2¢, 3¢, 5¢, and 10¢. Each rate had a valid use. The 1¢ stamp paid for a letter that was dropped off at a post office to someone who had a box at the same office. The 2¢ was for local delivery. The 3¢ paid the normal non-local mail rate, and the 5¢ and 10¢ were used in combination for heavier letters and special rates. The denominations also shared a consistent coloring scheme: 1¢ is bright blue green; 2¢ is rose carmine; 3¢ is bright red violet; 5¢ is ultramarine; and 10¢ is dark brown.
Each category has its subjects arranged with the oldest birth date going on the 1¢ stamp, down to the most recent birth date on the 10¢ stamp. Each category has its own dedicated symbol in the engraving – a scroll, quill pen and inkwell for authors; a winged horse (Pegasus) for poets; the “Lamp of Knowledge” for educators; laurel leaves and the pipes of the Roman god Pan for composers; and inventors had a cogwheel with uplifted wings and a lightning flash to symbolize power, flight, and electricity.
The artists and the scientists have multiple symbols. Artists have either a paint palette and brush (for painters), and the sculptors have a stonecutting hammer and chisel. Scientists had the classical symbol of their particular profession.