My Favorite Federal Duck Stamp – Part One

Yes, I know, I am one of the foremost persons crusading to change the way we refer to to these stamps and make it waterfowl rather than duck stamps. Waterfowl stamps is undeniably more correct, as the stamps have portrayed – and conveyed the right to harvest – various other waterfowl species besides ducks.

However, there is a reason for referring to them as duck stamps at the beginning of this post. You see, this particular story starts a long time ago when I did not know any differently; back to when I was only 11 years old. Everyone called them duck stamps back then. Besides, its just plain fun (even for me) to call to them duck stamps every once in a while, even today.

When I was a young boy of six, I started collecting stamps. This was not an unusual thing to do back in the 1960s and I shared this hobby with many of my friends. I was started and guided by my father who was a collector of many things besides stamps. When it came to stamps, however, my father was especially fond of duck stamps and back in the 1950s he even supported his income by actively buying and selling duck stamps for profit. He told me that it was easy to sell the beautiful oversized stamps as many collectors and wildlife enthusiasts enjoyed them.

They say the apple does not fall far from the tree and this was certainly the case with me. My father first introduced me to duck stamps and then helped to cultivate a passion for them which led me to become not just a collector but also an author, cataloger, exhibitor and dealer in this niche area of philately. My ensuing devotion has ultimately brought us to where we are in the present – this website and blog.

As I have written elsewhere on this website, my parents used to reward my scholastic achievements by giving me stamps from my father’s collection (I suppose in this day of child labor laws, another way to look at it would be to say they bribed me… but it worked for our family). When I was 11 my parents gave me a copy of the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp. Okay, the duck stamp, better known by its Scott Catalog number as RW8.

I guess I was a sensitive young man for I was instantly affected by the small piece of paper. I can remember developing real feelings of affection for this family of (Ruddy) ducks swimming across the stamp. I found it aesthetically pleasing and I was charmed by all the little baby ducks (the brood). Not just another fleeting crush, I have carried a torch for this stamp throughout my life (see Figure 1).



Figure 1. This is the copy of RW8 that my parents gave me when I was 11 years old. I still cherish it today.



My goal for this series of posts is to provide an example of one way to enjoy the hobby of fish and game stamps. That is, to select a specific stamp that speaks to you and build a specialized collection over time. As you narrow your focus, it allows you time to learn the fine points that can greatly elevate your appreciation for the object(s). Who knows, you may be come inspired to share your knowledge with others. I know many collectors who have done just that and they have all told me that the experience has truly enriched their lives. So here we go…



Edwin R. Kalmbach

As I got older and started dealing in duck stamps myself, I discovered that Edwin R. Kalmbach was responsible for creating the original artwork for my favorite stamp (see Figure 2). I later learned that Kalmabach was one of the chief architects of the federal migratory bird stamp program back in the 1930s and this allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for the stamp.



Figure 2. Edwin R. Kalmbach, circa 1961.



Edwin Kalmbach was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on April 29, 1884. His father, Godfrey Kalmbach, had a retail shoe store and his mother, Anna Steinecke Kalmbach, took care of the family home. Edwin was interested in birds and natural history from a young age and upon graduation from Grand Rapids High School in 1903, he immediately went to work for the Kent Scientific Museum (in Grand Rapids).

At the museum Edwin started as a taxidermist and then worked his way up to Assistant Director and, finally, to Curator. In the summer of 1907 Edwin organized a canoe trip down the Grand River, from Jackson to Grand Rapids. He spent two months collecting ornithological specimens, photographing wildlife and studying the bird life of the valley. It was one of the first scientific efforts to to identify and document the bird life in a specific area of the U.S.

In 1908 Edwin married Kathryn Arvilla Kalmbach and they eventually had three children together. On July 1, 1910. Edwin resigned from the Kent Museum to accept a position with The Bureau of Biological Survey in Washington, D.C. (forerunner to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). At this point it was still under the Department of Agriculture and Edwin started in the Division of Economic Investigations.

During the period he was employed at the Bureau, he was part of the most significant ornithology and wildlife conservation programs that were developed in the first half of the twentieth century. He was especially interested in crows and published his research in 1920 (see Figure 3). He rapidly rose through the ranks to Bureau Senior Biologist in 1928, the top scientific position at the time.



Figure 3. The Crow In Its Relation to Agriculture, published by E.R. Kalmbach in 1920.



Also in 1928, he was assigned to investigate one of the most serious and misunderstood problems involving western waterfowl, known as “western duck sickness”. It was Edwin’s research that proved the sickness to be caused by Type C Botulism and he subsequently helped develop an effective approach for dealing with avian botulism on general. In 1932, he was named Director of the Bureau’s nascent research laboratory in Denver, Colorado. While he was there, Edwin conducted and published important research on the relationship between crows and waterfowl.

During the 1930s, Edwin served under Ding Darling when The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act was passed on March 16, 1934. He subsequently played an important role in further developing the waterfowl stamp program for the Department of the Interior, which took over administration of the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1939.

In 1940 he helped to formally organize the Denver Wildlife Research Laboratory and served as its first Director. At this time he developed a new scanning device that was used to count waterfowl on enlarged aerial photos. This helped in establishing waterfowl hunting season lengths and bag limits.


The Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Ducks are native to North America. Ruddy ducks are compact thick-necked waterfowl with oversized tails that are nearly always held upright. During breeding season, males develop a bright coloration with a sky blue bill, a shiny white cheek patch and a gleaming chestnut colored body (see Figure 4). They court females by beating their bill against their neck so hard they creates swirls of bubbles in the water around their bodies.



Figure 4. Photograph of a brightly colored male Ruddy duck, taken during breeding season.



The bright colors and odd behavior of male Ruddy ducks drew attention from early naturalists, including Edwin Kalmbach. Ruddy ducks can be very aggressive toward each other and even other animals, especially during breeding season. They nest in marshes adjacent to lakes and ponds, primarily in the Prairie Potholes region of the northern Great Plains. Prairie Potholes are wetlands that occur in shallow depressions scraped out by glaciers.

In recent years, farmers have been reclaiming prairie potholes, especially in North Dakota, thereby reducing the Ruddy duck breeding habitat (see Figure 5). Hens lay big, white pebble-textured eggs that are the largest of all duck eggs in relation to their body size.The Ruddy duck egg embrios are unusually advanced and when the duckings hatch they are well developed and require a relatively short period of care.



Figure 5. Photo showing cropland encroaching on prairie potholes in North Dakota. The state’s energy boom has further impacted the Ruddy Duck’s breeding habitat.



Ruddy ducks dive to feed on aquatic invertebrates, especially midge larvae. They mostly feed at night and sleep during the day, with their head tucked under a wing and tail cocked up. While concentrated in the Central Flyway, Ruddy ducks winter in wetlands throughout the U.S. and Mexico.



The 1941-42 Federal Waterfowl Stamp

As a youth, Edwin Kalmbach worked on his high school newspaper where his drawings often graced the cover pages from 1901 through 1903. After graduating from school, Edwin combined his two biggest interests – wildlife and art – into wildlife (and especially bird) art. As a wildlife artist, Edwin painted and drew extensively and he also entered his work into a number of art exhibits throughout the U.S.

While working for the Bureau of Biological Survey, many of his paintings served as illustrations for Bureau publications. During his time at the Bureau, and more so after he retired in 1954, his art was featured in various books with such titles as Birds of Colorado, New Mexico Birds, Birds of Alaska, Knowing Birds through Stories and Alaska Bird Trails.

In 1941, his drawing of a family of Ruddy ducks was selected for the artwork to be featured on the 8th federal waterfowl stamp. The following unattributed quote has been repeated in many publications and can be found throughout the internet:


“Dr. Kalmbach chose the ruddy ducks for his duck stamp because it is the only North American specie in which the drake commonly stays with the female and ducklings during their downy young period. He featured the brood because it represents the purpose for which duck stamp funds are used: the perpetuation and enhancement of the species”. 


The medium used by Kalmbach for his painting was tempera with a black and white wash. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast drying painting medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder such as egg yolk (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. USFWS photograph of Kalmbach’s original art.



Once Kalmbach’s original art was finished, it was turned over to stamp designer Victor S. McCloskey at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The designer takes the original art and incorporates it into the actual stamp design, including frame lines, lettering and denomination (face value).

McCloskey studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., located just a few blocks north of the BEP. After completing an internship at the BEP in 1926, he joined its staff as an engraver. He became a designer in 1930 and one of his earliest assignments was Ding Darling’s federal waterfowl stamp in 1934 (see The First Fish and Game Stamp – Part One). McCloskey spent his entire career at the BEP, retiring in 1965 (see Figures 7 and 8).



Figure 7. Designer Victor S. McCloskey at work (seated) at The Bureau of Engraving and Printing.



Figure 8. Plate number block of the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp (RW8) signed Victor S. McCloskey Jr – DESIGNER, ex Jeanette Rudy collection.



Once McCloskey was finished designing the stamp, it was turned over to the Engraving Department at the BEP. For the 1941-42 waterfowl stamp, two engravers were assigned to produce die proofs. The Vignette (the artwork) was engraved by Charles A. Brooks. The frame lines, lettering and numerals were engraved by Axel W. Christensen. It was not not unusual for multiple engravers to work on a single stamp as each had a speciality.

The engravers carved McCloskey’s design into a metal plate (copper or steel) to create a die. Periodically, the die was inked, the excess wiped clean and the single stamp images were printed or pulled. These images are known as die proofs and were used to judge the quality of the die. Die proofs for engraved stamps are usually printed under great pressure onto a thin piece of paper (India) that is about the same size as the engraver’s die block. If the paper with the stamp image was mounted on a larger piece of card stock, these are known as large die proofs. Since they are printed from the master die, they are normally of very high quality (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. Large die proof for the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp. The punches at the top of the card were for inclusion in Charles Brooks’ portfolio. Note the small punch mark in the denomination tablet.



Alternatively, the paper which was originally the size of the engraver’s die block could be trimmed down to a much smaller size. These are known as small die proofs. All original small die proofs that I have examined have margins that are 5-6 mm. Some small die proofs were mounted on card stock roughly the same size as the paper (1934-1937 federal waterfowl stamps) and others were not (1938-1945 federal waterfowl stamps). Small die proofs are known for their intense, vibrant color (see Figure 10). Often small die proofs were created to mount in presentation albums for important government officials such as President Franklin Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector.



Figure 10. Small die proof for the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp, ex Rudy collection.



It was customary for engravers at the BEP to retain examples of their work (primarily large die proofs) in a portfolio. These portfolios were a source of great pride for the engravers. Rarely would a portfolio leave the family upon their death. They would be passed on to the next generation, which in many cases were also engravers. On rare occasions, the large die proofs would enter the collector market. Knowing this, BEP officials usually made sure they left the premises with a small punch mark to prevent them from being used in stamp production (see Figure 9).

The portfolio of Charles Brooks was sold by the stamp auction firm of Jacques C. Schiff, Jr. The Brooks portfolio was brought to the Schiff firm by another engraver who Brooks had mentored and to whom he had left his portfolio. It is the source for many of the large die proofs from U.S. stamps printed in the 1940s and 1950s, most of which are unique in collector’s hands. This sale was the source for the large die proof in my collection.

Once the die proofs were approved, the die was copied many times to create large printing plates of 112 subjects. Often, two or more different printing plates were created in this way and were used to produce the total number of stamps ordered. At this point a plate proof would have been made of the entire sheet. However, I am unaware of any legitimate plate proofs of early federal waterfowl stamps ever reaching the collector market.

Once the sheet of plate proofs received final approval, the plates were inked and the excess ink wiped off by hand. I have noticed that two different shades of ink were used to print the 1941-42 issue; most stamps tend to be more brown in coloration (see Figures 1,11 and 12) while others have some carmine mixed in (see Figure 8). The latter are more similar to the approved proofs.

Regular sheets of 112 stamps were printed, gummed and perforated. The large sheets were then cut down into four panes of 28 for easy distribution to post offices. Each pane was imprinted with a plate number in the top or bottom selvage to indicate which plate was used to produce the larger sheet it was cut from (see Figure 11).



Figure 11. Complete pane of 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamps. Note this is the lower right pane from the original sheet of 112 stamps. The plate, number 146282 as indicated in the bottom selvage, was one of two used to print Kalmbach’s stamp. Ex Bill Webster collection.



The panes of 28 stamps were packaged and shipped to post offices around the country. The first day of public sale for the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp was July 1, 1941 (see Figure 12).



Figure 12. Block of four cancelled on the first day of issue, July 1, 1941. Note the block was signed by the Postmaster of the Rockville Station Post Office. Ex Henry Tolman II collection.




Continue to part Part Two

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