A centennial oil stamp commemorating the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry is issued on August 27, 1959, by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who proclaims: “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry. It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.” 

Centennial Oil Stamp

With 120 million stamps to follow the first day of issue on August 27, 1959, the petroleum stamps serve “as a reminder of what can be achieved by the combination of free enterprise and the vision and courage and effort of dedicated men,” declares the U.S. Postmaster.

As the sesquicentennial of America’s 1859 first commercial oil discovery neared – a special committee sought U.S. Postal Service approval for a commemorative stamp for 2009.

The committee and other petroleum historians twice petitioned for a commemorative U.S. stamp similar to one issued 50 years ago for the petroleum industry’s centennial.

More than 120 million of the four-cent, 1859-1959 “Petroleum Industry” stamps were printed.

However, despite the best efforts of the Oil 150 Steering Committee of Oil City, Pennsylvania, and many others, the U.S. Postal Service Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee rejected creating a stamp to recognize the 150th anniversary of the petroleum industry in America.

Oil 150 co-chair Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.) noted that the stamp committee rejected the requests based upon “unfavorable public impressions of the modern oil industry.”

It wasn’t always so.

On August 27, 1959, U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, the keynote speaker at “Oil Centennial Day” in Titusville, Pennsylvania, dedicated a four cent commemorative postage stamp. At the time, gasoline cost 30 cents per gallon – and the accomplishments of the petroleum industry were cause for national celebration.

At the Drake Well Memorial Park in Titusville, popular NBC “Today” show host Dave Garroway broadcasted live as thousands of guests crowded the grounds.

His morning program included an oil well “shooting” demonstration at the park. Featured speakers that day included Pennsylvania Governor David Lawrence and Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Gen. Ernest Thompson.

Centennial Oil Stamp

Pennsylvania artist Robert Foster submitted several designs for the 1959 commemorative stamp.

According to the Titusville Herald, more centennial speeches followed the ceremony, and more than 400 guests attended a luncheon at the Titusville High School cafeteria. That evening, a 50-minute fireworks displayed capped several days of celebrating the petroleum industry – and the man who struck oil exactly 100 year earlier, forever changing America.

Although known as “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake in his day, the title originated with executives at the Seneca Oil Company. They thought it would add prestige to their speculative drilling venture.

As part of the ceremonies 100 years later, the Pennsylvania National Guard formally commissioned Drake a colonel. His grand-daughters, Mrs. Marie Drake Carver and Mrs. Grace Drake Kilch, accepted the commission certificate.

A year earlier, in 1958, the seven members of the newly formed Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee had finally responded to the tenacious efforts and recurring calls from a local citizens group formed as the Oil Centennial, Inc.

With support from the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Colonel Drake Philatelic Society, and several Pennsylvania oil companies, the Post Office Dept. announced the commemorative stamp in November. It was to be one of only five commemorative stamps issued that year.

Artist Robert Foster was chosen to design the stamp’s vignette. Foster, best known for his stainless steel sculpture of Mercury on the Ford Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, submitted several designs. The TitusvilleHerald noted that one of his original designs included a representation of the Drake Well. Foster noted, “Being an artist (and a Pennsylvanian), I was so familiar with the Drake Well that I could draw it from memory, without even looking at pictures.”

Centennial Oil Stamp

A Norman Rockwell illustration accompanied the issuance of four-cent stamps commemorating the petroleum industry’s centennial. Collectors prize first-day cachets like the one above from Titusville, Pennsylvania.

The final design used a more modern drilling rig image, the Herald article noted, “because of its higher recognition value,” since many people may not know the Drake Well, but they would “recognize a modern-looking oil derrick when they see one.”

Postmaster Summerfield selected the final design and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced four plates for the stamps. The plate numbers – 26416, 26417, 26419, and 26431 – appear on blocks of the commemorative issue, known to philatelists as the plates that produced all the petroleum centennial stamps and identified as “Scott (Catalog number) 1134.”

“We look to this stamp as more than a commemorative symbol. With more than 120 million stamps to be issued, it will go throughout the world as a reminder of what can be achieved by the combination of free enterprise and the vision and courage and effort of dedicated men,” declared Postmaster Summerfield.

The first day of issue saw 801,859 of the stamps mailed from and cancelled in Titusville, including many with a special cachet illustration “Born in Freedom, Working for Progress” created by artist Norman Rockwell.

Summerfield concluded his remarks to the crowd in Titusville by declaring the stamp “will serve as a worldwide tribute to all who have brought the oil industry to its present greatness – and to its leaders who are moving with confidence to meet the challenge of the future.”

centennial oil stamp

Ten Muppets commemorated with stamps in 2005.

2009 Petroleum Stamp Rejection

Public perceptions may have changed greatly since 1959, but not the significance of the 1859 discovery of Edwin Drake, father of the American petroleum industry.

Although the Postal Service Stamp Advisory Committee turned down requests for one 150th anniversary oil stamp design, it earlier granted stamps to Kermit and nine other Muppets.

The failed attempt to commemorate the petroleum industry is not unique. In 1934, efforts to recognize the industry’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee, did not succeed.

In 1949, Senate Bill 1098 provided for issuance of a 90th anniversary commemorative stamp. It did not pass. These setbacks have not inhibited Titusville and many other “oil patch” communities celebrating their petroleum heritage.

Oil centennial stamp images courtesy of the American Philatelic Research Library, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

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