Sunday, October 26, 2014

October anniversaries: Happy Birthday, USS "Constitution"

October 21 is the anniversary of the launching of the USS "Constitution," which earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" during the War of 1812, whose bicentennial we are still marking. The "Constitution," as Mass Moments reminds us, is the "oldest commissioned warship in the world." (basic story here)

• Date of issue: Oct. 21, 1947
• Place of issue: on the deck of the Constitution, Boston Naval Yard
• Printing: 131,488,000

The average person would never guess from looking at it that this rather understated stamp could give rise to controversy, but that's just what happened when some naval aficionados and historical enthusiasts first laid eyes on it. As Arago, the online resource site of the US Postal Museum, explains, experienced Boston Naval architect Andrew Hepburn "designed the stamp after considerable historical research." And yet:
The stamp received criticism for ignoring the ship's grandeur and thereby under-representing the role it played in building America. While many stamp designs have been challenged and criticized over the years, the uproar over Old Ironsides was one of the loudest ever. Typical of the very strong criticisms was that of Elmer C. Pratt, the stamp columnist for Camden, New Jersey's Courier-Post. "The idea of showing that great fighting hero as a mimbly-pimbly boat sailing along in a light wind . . . when all her life she was a fighting ship full of fight. She should have been shown in a heavy wind, with full sails set, in a heavy sea, going someplace where she should be going, often did and as a rule won the day-into a well fought and victorious battle."
The controversy notwithstanding, the stamp was quite popular with the public. Arago tells us that first-day sales amounted to "An unusually high" figure of 4,700,000, including almost 700,000 first-day covers.

The storm over the stamp was of course a tempest in a teacup compared, as an earlier post shows, with the competition between New England cities to claim the title of birthplace of the US Navy. In addition, the ship itself poses some interesting problems of historic preservation. On that subject: more in the next post.

Previous and related stories:

• (2010) 21 October 1797: Launching of USS Constitution; the need for preservation and interpretation continues
• (2011) July Anniversaries: Wooden Whaling Ship "Charles W. Morgan" Celebrates 170th Birthday, 21 July

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