On March 16, 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law. The primary purpose of this Act was to generate badly needed funding for waterfowl restoration and conservation purposes. The main feature of the Act produced colorful historical artifacts directly tied to waterfowl conservation (the stamps themselves) and provided the origin for the hobby that we enjoy today – the collecting of waterfowl stamps and fish and game stamps in general.
Earlier in the year, Roosevelt had selected Jay Norwood Darling to head up the U.S. Biological Survey, forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now Darling was picked to design the first federal waterfowl stamp, to be issued for the 1934-35 seasons. The stamp, featuring a pair of mallards in flight, is commonly known to collectors as RW1. This is due to the stamp having been assigned that catalog number in the 1935 Scott Specialized Catalog of United States Stamps, for Revenue Waterfowl #1.
It seems appropriate to use Darling’s stamp to illustrate an overview for the collecting possibilities for federal waterfowl stamps, so here we go. First the artist, in this case Darling, executes a series of pencil sketches until he is satisfied with his design. At this point, a more “finished product” is developed. In the case of Darling, he chose brush and ink for his medium. The next step is for a designer to take the original artwork and incorporate it into the actual stamp design, including borders, lettering and denominations (commonly known as face values).
Through 1958-59, all federal stamps were engraved. Therefore, the next step would require one to three engravers to take the completed design and etch it into a metal plate. Often the artwork was done by one engraver and the lettering and denominations were done by different engravers. During the engraving process, die proofs were made periodically for approval by officials at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. In the early days of the federal waterfowl stamp program, it was common practice to allow each engraver to each take home one proof as a sample of his work and a memento.
This is how virtually all of the federal waterfowl stamp die proofs have entered the collector market. Eventually, the engraver himself or a family member subsequently sold them to a collector or dealer to generate some extra income. This was perfectly legal. There are two kinds of die proofs, large and small. Both types feature a single impression made from the engraved metal plate.
The difference is basically the size of the white paper margins surrounding the stamp design. Large die proofs have large margins and small die proofs have small margins, rarely exceeding 5-6 mm. One can generalize and say that in addition, most large die proofs were mounted on a larger piece of card stock and small die proofs were not mounted. However, some large die proofs were not mounted and some small die proofs were.
Knowing that the proofs may eventually be sold, most (but not all) of the large die proofs in collector’s hands today have been defaced by a small punch mark intended to prevent their use for reproduction. Small die proofs exist in smaller numbers than large die proofs (with each having only one or two examples recorded) so it is more difficult to generalize. However, I am unaware of any federal small die proof with a punch. Small die proofs are known for their intense, vibrant color (see Figures 1 and 2).
Once the the final die proofs were approved, the die was multiplied to create large plates of 112 subjects. There would have then been an imperforate plate proof made, consisting of 112 subjects with even smaller margins than the small die proofs (similar to the spacing on a perforated pane).
I am not aware that any early federal waterfowl plate proofs have ever entered the collector market. However, an incident occurred a number of years ago whereby a set of imperforate federal stamps made it’s way into the collector market from a National wildlife refuge. It was reported that sets of imperforate stamps had at one time been distributed to seven different refuges for public display. The origin of these stamps is not clear. It is possible they were cut from a large multiple of plate proofs. A more likely scenario would be that imperforate sheets of regular (as issued) stamps from the BEP archives were cut up and distributed to the refuges.
Once the sheet of plate proofs was approved, regular sheets of 112 stamps were printed, gummed and perforated. The large sheets were then cut into four panes of 28 for easy distribution to post offices. The first federal waterfowl stamps were to be put on sale to the general public on August 24, 1934.
Two days prior, on August 22nd, Darling was allowed to purchase stamps from a special pane that was released early. The occasion served to publicize the new stamps and photographs were made of Darling purchasing the first stamp from the pane. I have heard from several different sources that he purchased 25 of the 28 stamps on August 22, 1934 and that most were affixed to federal Form 3333 and signed by him on the reverse.
Federal officials were worried that hunters would share stamps and Form 3333 was devised to help prevent this from happening. For 1934-35, the law stated that no federal waterfowl stamp could be sold unless immediately affixed to the hunter’s license or (in cases when no hunting license was present) the blue card. This law was in effect until two weeks prior to the stamps being taken off sale and destroyed in 1935. Less than half of the Form 3333s from Aug 22, 1934 can be accounted for today. Many were given to friends and politicians as favors and it is assumed they were subsequently discarded (see Figures 3 and 4).
In the early 1930s, A. C. Roessler was one of the biggest promoters of first day covers in the U.S. A first day cover is an envelope, often bearing a related design at the left known as a cache, with a stamp affixed and bearing a cancelation from the first day it is made available for sale to the general public. For decades first day covers, thanks in large part to Roessler’s efforts, were avidly collected. Upon learning of the new federal waterfowl stamp, Roessler sent in an unknown quantity of covers and asked that they be cancelled on August 24th. Unfortunately, this did not happen and the covers were cancelled on August 27th – three days late (see Figure 5).
There does exist, however, at least three 1934-35 federal waterfowl stamps on Form 3333 with the August 24th cancellation. These are considered some of the most historic and important items in the waterfowl stamp hobby (see Figure 6).