Walter A. Weber: Winner of the First Federal Duck Stamp Contest – Part One

Today we will start to look at the life of Walter Alois Weber, a very talented artist who holds the distinction of becoming the first person to design more than one federal waterfowl stamp. In the process, Walter was the winner of the first ever federal duck stamp contest, held in 1949.

Although fish and game collectors know him for the two federal stamps – and that will be our primary focus in this series of posts – Walter is probably better remembered by a much larger segment of the population for his illustrations that were featured in The National Geographic Magazine for three decades starting in 1939 and for the images of his paintings that appeared on some 250 stamps printed and distributed by the National Wildlife Federation (see Figure 1).



Figure 1. American Merganser by Walter. A. Weber.



Walter Weber was capable of creating the kind of wildlife art that stirred powerful emotions in the viewer. There was a softness about this work that has been variously described as “breathtaking”, “evocative” and “romantic” by art critics.


Early Life and Career

Walter Alois Weber was born in Chicago on May 23, 1906 to Antoinette Kreml Webber and Jacob Weber. By all accounts, his parents were poor immigrants who barely managed to care for their family of eleven children.

With regard to his skills as an artist, Walter was what they call “a natural” and showed great promise when he was quite young. By age nine he was taking classes at the the Art Institute of Chicago on weekends. It was at the Art Institute that he met and studied under renowned animal artists such as Allan Brooks and Carl Rungius.

In time, Walter would become known for his realistic drawings of creatures of all kinds and for the authentic backgrounds in which he placed them.

One of the most ubiquitous Walter Weber stories involves a ten year old boy who would frequent a local tavern, doing drawings and sketches of animals for bar patrons in exchange for sodas. He also used the money to buy art supplies.

According to the Stearns and Fink biography on Walter Weber in Duck Stamp Prints, “… there were three teachers in particular who recognized Walter’s talent and encouraged him to study art… One was Miss Miller who taught him in the fifth grade – another was Mrs. Jessie Thompson, his seventh grade teacher; the third was Dr. Clarence Holzman at Waller High School, who later introduced him to Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood, then head of the Zoology Department at the Field Museum where Mr. Webber was eventually to be a staff member”.

After graduating from high school, Walter attended the University of Chicago. His interest in plants, animals and birds and his talent in drawing them led him to combine a major in zoology and botany with the study of art at the university. In 1927 he graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in zoology and botany. During and after his time at the university, Walter continued to study art at the Art Institute.

From 1928 to 1931, Walter worked at the Field Museum of Natural History (now the Chicago Museum of Natural History) as a field collector and artist. After leaving the Museum, Walter took a position as biologist and artist for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Century of Progress International Exposition (see Figures 2 and 3).



Figure 2. Poster for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.



Figure 3. Souvenir sheet issued to commemorate the American Philatelic Society Convention, which took place in Chicago during the International Exposition.



Although the Exposition opened on May 17, 1933, Walter was involved in extended preparations for a two-year period leading up to the huge event.

After his work at the Exposition came to an end, Walter became a free lance commercial artist for a couple of years. During this period his art appeared in many books, including Birds of Minnesota by T.S. Roberts, Traveling With the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton and Homes and Habits of Wild Animals by Karl Schmidt (see Figure 4).



Figure 4. A color plate from Homes and Habits of Wild Animals, illustrations by Walter Alois Weber.



Starting in 1936, Walter started working as a field artist with the National Park Service. In 1937 he became the National Park Service’s chief scientific illustrator in Washington, D.C.

It was while working for the National Park Service, in 1939, that Walter’s work first appeared in The National Geographic Magazine. In the October issue, Walter wrote and illustrated a piece titled “Antlered Majesties of Many Lands” (see Figure 5).



Figure 5. Rusa Stag by Walter A. Weber.



In 1941, he left the Park Service and was employed as an ornithologist at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, administered by the Smithsonian Institution.


Artwork Selected for the 1944-45 Stamp

In 1943, Walter returned to doing freelance work, full-time. It was in this year that his painting of White Fronted Geese was selected as the artwork for the 1944-45 federal waterfowl stamp. The medium he chose for the painting was a black and white wash (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. The original black and white wash painting created by Walter A. Weber. Photo courtesy of Richard Prager.



A wash is a watercolor term for a flat layer of very diluted color (in this case black) laid across the paper. It can either be an even layer of color or a graduated layer of color which gets lighter.

The dilution is accomplished by using relatively little paint and a large amount of solvent. Paint consists of a pigment and a binder which allows the paint to adhere to the support. Solvents dilute the binding strength of the paint and, therefore, a combination of a gum arabic wash with a highly absorbent paper is often used to create the desired effect and also enhance long term stability.

As we saw in part three of The Making of an Icon, prior to the annual duck stamp contest, noted wildlife artists were first invited to submit waterfowl artwork by the Department of the Interior. Then a special committee appointed within, initially, the Bureau of Biological Survey and then its successor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, selected the art to appear on the next stamp.

In 1943, It would have been a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committee that made the selection of Walter’s White Fronted Geese.


1944-45 Stamps Issued

After the artwork was selected by the committee, it was sent to designer William K. Schronge. Schronge took Walter’s artwork and used it for the central vignette. He then designed the finished stamp, complete with frame lines, lettering and denomination (see Figure 7).



Figure 7. 1944-45 federal waterfowl stamp, top plate number single signed W.K Schronge – DESIGNER and Walter A. Weber – artist.



Once Schronge was finished designing the stamp, it was turned over to the Engraving Department at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Two engravers were assigned to produce die proofs. The vignette was engraved by Mathew D. Fenton, while the frame lines, lettering and numerals were engraved by George L Huber (see Figure 8). For a detailed discussion on metal dies and die proofs, see My Favorite Federal Duck Stamp.



Figure 8. Small die proof for the 1944-45 federal waterfowl stamp, ex Rudy collection.



Once the die proofs were approved, the die was copied many times to create large printing plates of 112 subjects. For Weber’s stamp, two such plates were created, numbers 155590 and 155603. At this point plate proofs were created and approved. Finally, regular sheets of 112 subjects were then 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 metal plate was used to produce the larger sheet it was cut from (see Figures 9).



Figure 9. Complete pane of 1944-45 federal waterfowl stamps. Note this is the lower left pane which was cut from the original sheet of 112 stamps. The plate, number 155603, was one of two used to print Weber’s stamp.



The panes of 28 stamps were packaged and shipped to post offices around the country. The first day of public sale for the 1944-45 federal waterfowl stamp was July 1, 1944 (see Figure 10).



Figure 10. Block of four cancelled on the first day of issue, July 1, 1944. Note the block was printed using the other plate, number 155590, and signed by the Postmaster of the Rockville Station Post Office. Ex Henry Tollman II collection.




Continue to Part Two



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