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Collecting Used Federal Duck Stamps – Part One

In the last post, we saw one approach to collecting federal duck stamps, in mint graded condition. Thanks again, to Bob Budesa for sharing his fabulous collection of jumbo stamps with all of us. Today we begin a new “show and tell series” that focuses on the opposite end of the duck stamp spectrum – used stamps, signed by hunters.

By searching for used stamps with small, unobtrusive signatures, you can still experience an exciting thrill of the hunt adventure that is quite challenging and yet surprisingly affordable. The vast majority of these stamps can be acquired for $5 to $15 on Ebay or from just about any dealer in U.S. stamps. There are hundreds of thousands of used federal duck stamps out there and some (admittedly small, depending on the time period) percentage of them can be found with very small signatures.

As we will see, these used stamps can still be very pleasing to the eye – if not downright impressive. Often, when a hunter took such care to neatly sign his / her name, they carried the stamp without it being affixed to their license. Therefore, in addition to an unobtrusive signature, the stamps may also retain their full original gum. Collectors who choose this path truly get a lot of “bang for their buck.”

Michael Jaffe and I have joined together to present this series which features some of the very best examples from our combined collections of these little gems. We will see used singles, plate number singles, stamps used on license by themselves and also used in combination with various state and local fish and game stamps.

For those who are not already familiar with all of the possibilities for hours upon hours of escapism and great fun in 2020 (and beyond), this series may be an eye-opener and, perhaps, even the start of something new!




The federal duck stamps are the longest running series in U.S. stamp history. On March 16, 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law and the first stamps were placed on sale to the public on August 24, 1934. The 1934-35 issue, commonly known by it’s Scott Catalog number as RW1 –  for Revenue Waterfowl [Stamp No.] 1 – were not required to be signed by hunters.

Although government officials were worried that hunters might share stamps, the current law stated that no federal waterfowl stamp could be sold unless immediately affixed to the hunter’s license or (in cases when the hunter was exempt from buying a license by state law or no hunting license was otherwise present) a special blue card prepared for this purpose, labeled “Form 3333.”

In either case, the stamps would be affixed to a government-issued document that was signed by the hunter or stamp owner and thus deter the sharing of stamps (see Figures 1-3).



Figure 1. Unsigned 1934-35 federal duck stamp affixed to a 1934 Colorado Resident Combined Fishing and Small Game Hunting License. Note the license is signed by the hunter in ink.



Figure 2. Unsigned 1934-35 federal duck stamp on Form 3333, cancelled October 1 at South Haven, Michigan.


Figure 3. Owners signature on the back of the Form 3333 shown above.



This law was in effect until two weeks prior to the stamps being taken off sale and destroyed in 1935. It seems that stamp collectors had taken a strong liking to the new oversized stamps that featured artwork by famed cartoonist (and current Director of the Bureau of Biological Survey) Jay N. Darling. Collectors were buying a lot of stamps affixed to form 3333’s and wanted to buy unused stamps too (see Figures 4-6).



Figure 4. Officials holding Jay N. “Ding” Darling’s original artwork for the first federal duck stamp (click to enlarge).



Figure 5. Article which appeared in The Bismarck Tribune on September 1, 1934. Note the last paragraph.



Figure 6. 1934-35 federal duck stamp on Form 3333, cancelled September 7 at Kansas City, Missouri. You can bet this superb top plate number single with jumbo margins was purchased by a stamp collector!



As the primary purpose of the duck stamps was to raise badly needed revenue to fund migratory bird conservation and restoration programs, the government was not about to turn a deaf ear to stamp collectors and their dollars. When the law was lifted on June 17, 1935, many collectors and dealers purchased plate number blocks and complete panes of the beautiful stamp (see Figure 7).



Figure 7. 1934-35 federal duck stamp (RW1), complete pane of 28 unused stamps from the lower left (LL) of a sheet. Photo courtesy of Richard Prager.



This was all well and good; however, it created a new problem for the Bureau of Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). If unused stamps were allowed to be sold to the general public – what would prevent unscrupulous hunters from sharing stamps?

The answer was an amendment to the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act made on June 15, 1935 (two days before the unused stamps went on sale). This amendment would have a profound affect on the future hobby of fish and game stamp collecting and read:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That no person over the age of sixteen years of age shall take any migratory waterfowl unless at the time of such taking he carries on his person an unexpired Federal Migratory-bird hunting stamp validated by his signature written by himself in ink across the face of the stamp [my emphasis] prior to his taking such birds…”

At this point the stamp was not required to be affixed to a license or card, just as long as it was signed by the hunter (see figure 8).



Figure 8. Article which appeared in the September 27, 1935 issue of The Coolidge Examiner.



The Early Period: 1935 – 1945

Although hunters were not required to sign their stamps for the 1934-35 season, both Michael and I have seen a number of signed examples. Michael has a RW1 that is signed and dated 11-6-34, during the hunting season and – well before the law went into effect (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. Used RW1, dated November 6, 1934.



For the purpose of organizing this series of posts, we have divided the set into several different time periods. The first or Early Period extends from the time the law went into effect, on June 15, 1935, through the 1945-46 season. This division is not arbitrary and was based on the following:

First, the twelve duck stamps issued from 1934-35 through 1945-46 (RW1-12) were the only ones printed on a flat bed press without an inscription on the back, so it makes sense to discuss them together. They were produced in large sheets of 112 subjects, which were subsequently cut down into four individual panes consisting of 28 stamps each. This was to facilitate distribution (shipping) to Post Offices and then, upon their arrival, storage and handling on the part of postal clerks.

The cutting process resulted in every stamp located along two adjacent sides of each pane having straight edges. This represents over one-third of the stamps and while a natural straight edge is not a defect per se, most collectors think it detracts from an aesthetic perspective (see Figure 7) and are not so interested in them when trying to put together a set with small signatures.

Duck stamp sales remained relatively low until the end of WWII, when servicemen returned to the states. They had now been trained to use guns and gravitated toward recreational or “sport” hunting. Sales of the 1946-47 stamp (RW13) surpassed the two million mark for the first time (2,016,841).

In fact, duck stamp collecting was not really “a thing” prior to the end of WWII. In the early period, the pretty oversized stamps attracted a lot of attention from collectors and wildlife enthusiasts, but until there was a dozen or so – there was not really enough different stamps to interest very many people in forming a collection.

The nascent duck stamp hobby was helped along by the promotion and collecting of limited edition prints by the artists who created the designs for the vignettes. However, in the beginning, neither Ding Darling nor Frank Benson produced prints from their artwork, which had been selected by a committee within the Bureau of Biological Survey.

Richard Bishop was the first artist to offer a duck stamp print, copied from his original art that was selected for the 1936-37 vignette (see Figure 10). Benson did not do the same until 1942 and Darling waited a couple of more years, finally making it possible to collect a complete set in 1944.



Figure 10. 1936 federal waterfowl stamp print (matted), by Richard Bishop.



For all of the reasons above, there were fewer duck stamps sold prior to the end of WWII and, more to the point, people did not view them in the same way as they would come to do so after the war. Therefore, in the early period as defined herein, fewer people took the time to carefully sign their stamps and they are accordingly more difficult to find with small signatures today (see Figure 11) .



Figure 11. RW2 on Form 3333, cancelled November 27 at Benjamin Franklin Station, Washington, D.C. Note this large randomly placed signature was typical (or better) for the period.



Even when a collector took great care to pick out a nice stamp and carefully signed it, often little attention was given to placement of the signature (see Figure 12). At this point, duck stamps were not generally accepted as miniature works of art.



Figure 12. Used RW2 top plate number single with signature obscuring the artwork.



That is not to say that this was always the case. In the following examples, the hunter took care not to obscure the artwork (see Figures 13, 14 and 15).



Figure 13. Used RW2 with a carefully placed, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 14. RW2 on Form 3333 cancelled October 31 (Halloween) at Poplar Branch, North Carolina.



Figure 15. RW3 on Form 3333 cancelled October 9 at Denton, Montana.



Retail prices for early period sound (no faults) used stamps with neat signatures typically run $20 to $75 and if you are fortunate enough to locate a nice RW2, it could easily run $100 or more. Small or very small signatures like some of those shown below would likely be priced at a hefty premium.

However, part of the fun in collecting this area is that a lot of sellers on Ebay and even many general U.S. stamp dealers do not really differentiate when it comes to pricing used federal duck stamps with small signatures – so there are always lots of opportunities to acquire eye-catching stamps for reasonable prices!

In his fabulous collection of federal duck stamps with small signatures, Michael Jaffe has all of the stamps from the early period with very small, unobtrusive signatures by the same hunter we believe was named C.H. Bry. The first initial is stylized, so we can’t be certain (see Figures 16 and 17).



Figure 16. RW3 with small signature by C.H. Bry.



Figure 17. RW4 with small signature by C.H. Bry.



Next we have an RW4 top plate number single used on an Iowa hunting license. The stamp has been carefully signed and dated 10-16-37 by the hunter, during the season (see Figure 18).



Figure 18. RW4 top plate number single used on an Iowa Resident Hunting License.



Next, three more stamps signed by C.H. Bry and a RW6 bottom plate number single; the latter with a small, unobtrusive signature (see Figures 19-22).



Figure 19. RW5 small signature gem by C.H. Bry.



Figure 20. RW6 with small signature by C.H. Bry.



Figure 21. RW6 bottom plate number single with small signature.



Figure 22. RW7 small signature gem by C.H. Bry.



Next we have a 1940-41 California Citizen (Resident) Hunting License with a stamp signed by the pioneer fish and game collector E.L. Vanderford. Van told me he always carried his federal stamp loose while hunting and did not affix or sign it unless stopped by a game warden.

He bought his first hunting license when he was only ten years old and purchased federal duck stamps from 1934 – 1987. In all of the years, he only had to sign his stamp four times – at the end of every other season, he added another carefully preserved mint stamp to his fish and game collection (see Figures 23, 24 and 25).



Figure 23. E.L. Vanderford’s First Hunting License –  Age 10.



Figure 24. E.L. Vanderford’s first BOY Hunting License – Age 15.



Figure 25. RW7 Signed by E.L. Vanderford.



Next we have two examples of my favorite federal duck stamp, the 1941-42 issue (RW8) whose charming Ruddy Duck artwork was created by E.R. Kalmbach. First, a used single with a small signature that largely fits in the lower border, between the edge of the design and the perforations. The second is a top plate number single (see Figures 26 and 27).



Figure 26. RW8 with a very small signature.



Figure 27. RW8 top plate number single.



Next we have an RW8 with a very small signature and a very unusual usage –  before signing his stamp the hunter affixed it to the inside of a 1941 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Regulations! (see Figure 28). Remember, we saw above that “it was not absolutely necessary for the duck stamp to be affixed to a state hunting license.”



Figure 28. RW8 used on a 1941 a copy of the 1941 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Regulations (click to enlarge).



Next we have a 1942-43 stamp (RW9) signed in a color of ink that closely blends into the design, followed by two more by C.H. Bry (see Figures 29, 30 and 31). The placement of Bry’s signature on the RW11 shows that he willfully sought to contribute to the overall aesthetic – to stunning effect!



Figure 29. RW9 with an unobtrusive signature.



Figure 30. RW10 with small signature by C.H. Bry.



Figure 31. RW6 with small signature by C.H. Bry.



To close out the early period, we have a 1945-46 stamp (RW12) signed by the noted duck stamp collector Alvin C. Broholm. Alvin collected and exhibited artist signed federal duck stamps. His real passion was for top plate number singles and in 1953, eight years after carefully signing this stamp, his exhibit won the Grand Award at the Trans Mississippi Philatelic Exhibition (see Figures 32-34). for more on Alvin Boholm, click here.



Figure 32. Alvin Broholm showing his exhibit to John L. Cooper, past president of the Cedar Valley (Iowa) Stamp Club, circa 1943.



Figure 33. In 1953, Alvin C. Broholm received the Grand Award at the 20th Trans Mississippi Philatelic Exhibition.



Figure 34. RW12 with a very small signature by A.C. Broholm.




Continue to Part Two



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