Centennial Oil Stamp Issue
“No official act could give me greater pleasure than to dedicate this stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry. 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.” – U.S. Postmaster Arthur Summerfield, August 27, 1959
In late 2007 — as the sesquicentennial of America’s 1859 first commercial oil discovery approached — a special committee sought U.S. Postal Service approval for a commemorative stamp — similar to one issued for the petroleum industry’s 1959 centennial. More than 120 million of the 1959 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 twice rejected attempts to create a stamp recognizing 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.
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.”
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 Titusvilleby 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.”
Perceptions may have changed since 1959, but not the world-changing significance of the discovery of Edwin Drake, father of the American petroleum industry.
Editor’s Note – The failed attempt to issue a special stamp commemorating 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 did not – and have not since – inhibited celebrations in Titusville, Oil City, and many other U.S. communities proud of their petroleum heritage.
Oil centennial stamp images courtesy of the American Philatelic Research Library, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
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