For less than a buck, Kansans can hold slices of the sweeping arc of Kansas history in their hands.
Iconic events, people and issues shaping the Sunflower State’s heritage are documented on tiny blocks of paper with colorful art on the front and a sticky substance on the back. On this, Kansas Day, the documentary nature of U.S. postage stamps opens a window to how well-known and obscure features of the state have been chronicled.
“They are mini history lessons,” said Blair Tarr, museum curator for the Kansas State Historical Society. “It’s interesting to see the people who get on stamps. Who would remember Hattie McDaniel?”
In 1939, McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role in “Gone with the Wind” and the first black Oscar winner on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006. Her birth in Wichita isn’t widely known.
A robust series of U.S. stamps has marked the imprint left by Dwight Eisenhower, who grew up in Abilene and served as supreme commander in Europe in World War II. He was twice easily elected president of the United States. The stamps captured Eisenhower’s deserved place in Kansas, national and world history.
Stamps also illuminated fragments of Kansas history that raise disturbing facets of the past while simultaneously serving as inspiration for the future.
In a recent speech, Gov. Sam Brownback said too few appreciated the Kansas angle of Tuskegee Institute botanist George Washington Carver’s life.
He was born into slavery in Missouri and prevented from enrolling at Highland College in Kansas once the school’s administrators realized he was black.
Carver staked a claim to land in Ness County, where he maintained a conservatory of plants. Hard years on the plains may have motivated him to earn college degrees and build a career as a scientist, Brownback said.
“A lot of people don’t know that he homesteaded in Kansas,” he said.
Bradbury Thompson, a giant of 20th century graphic art and designer of about 90 U.S. postage stamps, was born in Topeka in 1911 and graduated from Washburn University. He was responsible for 16 Christmas issues replicating religious paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“A stamp is something like a poster,” he said in an interview. “You have to make it very simple, clear, direct and for a small space, while a poster has to be strong, simple and big, so it can be viewed from a distance.”
Dean Mitchell, while living in Johnson County, put brush to canvas in 1995 to produce stamps of American jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Erroll Garner, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins.
Hawkins, a jazz tenor saxophonist, attended Topeka High School and studied music for two years at Washburn College.
“I’m really about celebrating human life and humanity,” Mitchell said in an interview when the stamps were printed. “I want to create paintings that make people think and feel.”
In 2011, Mitchell returned to the foreground in Kansas by painting a stamp for the state’s 150th anniversary. It encapsulated the state’s ingenuity through farm windmills used to pump water from underground reservoirs for railroads, ranchers and residents. In the background stand modern wind turbines that create electricity for the masses.
In 2005, Topeka was in the spotlight with issuance of a stamp for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring separate schools to be unconstitutional. In 1999, a 33-cent stamp captured the appeal of Super Chief, an engine of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway running from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Devin Zell, president of the Lawrence stamp club, said Kansas had been fairly represented in U.S. postage. There is no person or event that stands as a glaring oversight by the board responsible for selecting stamp subjects, he said.
“We get a fair shake,” he said. “There are a lot of great people and places in this nation.”
The 100th anniversary stamp of the Kansas territory was issued in 1954. In 1961, the centennial of Kansas statehood — first-day postmarked in Council Grove — emerged. It was a dull brown stamp decorated with sunflowers.
“It’s really not that good in terms of artwork,” said Tarr, of the state historical society.
In 1982, the U.S. issued a 50-state flower and bird set that represented Kansas with the official state flower, the sunflower, and official state bird, the western meadowlark.
Pulitzer Prize winner William Allen White, the “Sage of Emporia,” made his way onto a stamp in 1948. The editor of the Emporia Gazette wrote the 1896 editorial, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Writer Langston Hughes, part of the Harlem Renaissance, was mainly raised in Lawrence. His portrait was on a 2002 stamp.
Atchison-born aviator Amelia Earhart’s bold spirit was captured in a 1963 air mail issue placing her image on a red background. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, but was lost in the Pacific in 1937. The postal service’s exploration of American film paid tribute in 1999 to “The Wizard of Oz.”
In 1988, a commemorative came out for Knute Rockne, the University of Notre Dame coach who died in 1931 in an airplane crash near Bazaar. Jim Thorpe, who attended Haskell Institute in Lawrence and won Olympic gold medals in track, was on a stamp in 1984.
In 1964, a stamp marked the 100th anniversary of James Naismith’s birth. The inventor of basketball coached at the University of Kansas. Wilt Chamberlain, who played collegiate ball at KU, was placed on two unusually tall stamps in 2014.
“When it came to determining the first NBA player to be honored on a stamp, Wilt Chamberlain was a slam dunk,” said Tom Marshall, executive vice president of the U.S. Postal Service.