Willa Cather 8 cent stamp

50 Years of the Centennial Willa Cather Stamp

The process—and celebration—of a commemorative stamp

In 1969, the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors pursued a series of postage stamps to commemorate the 1973 centennial of Willa Cather’s birth; the goal was to have the first stamps offered for sale in Red Cloud on December 7, 1973. What resulted four years later was a single 8 cent stamp with Cather’s likeness. Following are excerpts of that process gleaned from past newsletters. [Scroll down to read what was entered into the Congressional Record in 1969 by the two Senators from Nebraska.]

It Began With a Letter Writing Campaign

The WCPM newsletter urged “loyal Cather admirers” to write on behalf of the Commemorative Stamp to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee in Washington.

In the Fall of 1971, there was another appeal by the Foundation to letter writers to keep the project alive: 

“Selection of stamps to be issued in 1973 is made in 1972 by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. This Committee is not swayed by hundreds or even thousands of form letters that all say the same thing. Nor is the Postal Service. However, they are definitely influenced by individual letters expressing personal interest. Won’t you please help keep the project fresh and alive by using your influence?”

In the winter 1972 newsletter it was noted that plans were going forward for a statewide celebration of the 1973 centennial of Willa Cather’s birth, chaired by Robert Knoll, of the University of Nebraska, Department of English. One more appeal was issued for letters to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee who “soon will be selecting subjects for commemorative stamps to be issued in 1973.” 

A Successful Four Year Campaign

In the summer 1973 newsletter, it was announced that an eight-cent stamp, honoring Willa Cather in the centennial year of her birth (1873-1973), would be issued September 20, 1973, at Red Cloud, Nebraska.

The Philatelic Release announcing the stamp included the following note on the work of Willa Cather: 

“‘There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before,’ wrote Willa Cather in O Pioneers! and she practiced what she preached. Miss Cather (1873-1947) echoed in many of her novels the same theme—the spirit and courage of pioneer life, which she knew so well. Usually this was life in Nebraska, but she turned also to Canada and the southwest for Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Upon graduation from the University of Nebraska, she worked on a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, newspaper, and later for a magazine in New York, deciding in 1912 to devote her time to novel writing. Her Pulitzer prize-winning novel in 1922 was followed a year later with A Lost Lady. This one made her famous. In 1931 she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton. In 1944 she received the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.”

50 Volunteers, 34 Extra Postal Workers, 11 Nebraska Towns, a Crowd of 500, and 600,000 Stamps

And finally, the news that the First Day of Issue of the Cather Commemorative Stamp took place September 20, 1973, in Red Cloud. A crowd of 500 gathered for the First Day Ceremonies to hear Regional Postmaster General Clarence B. Gels speak about Willa Cather. Also in the audience were relatives of Willa Cather, Memorial Board members, and postmasters from many other cities. The Fall 1973 newsletter commented:

“First Day of Issue sectors and Willa Cather admirers were out in full force for the program and for a stroll along the streets of Red Cloud, looking for souvenirs and visiting the Cather Museum and the Cather House. Red Cloud Postmaster Tom F. Wackerla employed 34 extra workers to help his regular staff handle the 600,000 First Day of Issue stamps. Ten Red Cloud organizations and almost fifty volunteers from eleven Nebraska towns helped the Memorial with First Day activities and with handling orders for the thousands of cachets, maximums, and programs that have been mailed."

The following Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletters were referenced for this article and can be downloaded in full.

  • Fall 1969, Vol. 13, No. 2
  • Fall 1971, Vol. 15, No. 2
  • Winter 1972, Vol. 16, No. 1
  • Summer 1973, Vol. 17, No. 3

Want to catch up on “all the things” at the Willa Cather Foundation? Enjoy browsing past issues HERE (this early Willa Cather Foundation Newsletter eventually became the scholarly journal, Willa Cather Review) and issues of the informational News from Cather Country HERE.

IMAGES: Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection, Willa Cather Foundation Collections  and Archives at the National Willa Cather Center, Red Cloud, Nebraska — Browse our digital collections HERE.

Willa Cather stamp First Day of Issue (postmarked envelope with stamps)

Stamp Artistry

One of four in the American Arts series

The Cather stamp was one of four in the American Arts series, for Novelist Willa Cather, Composer George Gershwin, Painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Poet Robinson Jeffers. All were designed by Mark English. The stamp was printed by gravure on the Andreotti press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and its issuance by the United States Postal Service culminated four years of effort by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, members of the Nebraska Congressional delegation, other governmental officials, and many friends. Board Member Virginia Faulkner was in charge of the program for obtaining the centennial stamp. 

IMAGE: Willa Cather stamp First Day of Issue postmarked envelope, with stamps—September 20, 1973

For the Congressional Record (May 27, 1969): Senator Carl T. Curtis of Nebraska

For the purpose of requesting Willa Cather stamp, a bill (S. 2279) was introduced May 27, 1969, jointly by the Honorable Carl T. Curtis and the Honorable Roman L. Hruska, Senators from Nebraska.

In his remarks to the Senate as reported in the Congressional Record the Senator Curtis said: 

“I need not tell the Members of this distinguished body the importance that Miss Cather holds in American and world literature. It is eminently appropriate both that her achievements be recognized by a commemorative stamp and that her Nebraska associations be recognized. Therefore, the bill provides for first-day covers to be issued at Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent her formative years and where she found the setting for many of her writings.”

He added: “One renowned literary historian has written that the three most famous literary villages in America are the Concord of Emerson and Thoreau, Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Mo.; and Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, Nebraska. At Red Cloud the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation has been established. Under the presidency of Mrs. Mildred R. Bennett, the foundation has moved a long way toward fulfilling its fourfold aim.

Thousands of people come to Red Cloud every year to visit the Willa Cather Museum, the restored Cather home and other historical sites connected with her work. In letters to friends, and in talking with friends and reporters, Miss Cather stressed repeatedly that the prairies of Nebraska were her country. It was there that she grew up, received her education, wrote and published her first work and began her professional career; Before her name became established in the east. She had become known as one of Nebraska’s leading newspaper women and had be- come recognized throughout the West as an outstanding drama critic.

She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton University. She also held honorary degrees from California, Creighton, Columbia, Michigan, Nebraska, Smith, and Yale.

The passage of this bill would pay tribute to the memory of perhaps the finest woman novelist that America has produced.”

For the Congressional Record (June 2, 1969): Senator Roman L. Hruska of Nebraska

Senator Roman L. Hruska in the June 2, 1969 Congressional Record commented further on the Willa Cather Commemorative Stamp:

“Few writers receive the widespread acclaim of literary critics and the general public. Such recognition is limited to only the best. That Miss Cather was one of the best is evidenced by the following facts: 

  • First. She enjoyed widespread circulation of her works among the general reading public.
  • Second. She was awarded, among other honors, the foIlowing: the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours; the French award, Prix Femina Americaine for Shadows on the Rock in 1931; the Mark Twain Society Silver Medal in 1934 for My Ántonla; and the Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters.
  • Further evidence of Miss Cather’s greatness is found in the fact that all of her works are still in print and selling even though it is over 22 years since her death.
  • Miss Cather’s works, which are widely studied in schools throughout the country, have always been popular in other countries.

In view of Miss Cather’s accomplishments it is only proper that we honor her memory by issuing a stamp marking the 100th anniversary of her birth which was December 7, 1873. Although Miss Cather was greatly admired and loved by people throughout the Nation and world, she holds a very special place in the hearts of Ne braskans, because she was one of us.

Miss Cather’s strong feeling for our State is reflected in the fact that six out of her 12 novels were set in Nebraska. Mr. President, I respectfully urge that all Senators join with us in this effort to honor a great American, a great Nebraskan, and a great lady on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth.”

Picnic on Stamp Day

A Vigorous Letter Writing Campaign

Plea to "Teachers of English"

“Every single letter is important. The Stamp Advisory Committee relies almost totally on the NUMBER of letters received when making its selection of commemorative stamps. If you have written before, please write another letter encouraging them to issue a stamp in honor of Willa Cather. Teachers of English and government: writing such a letter would be good practical experience for your students not only in letter writing—composition and form but also in the application of the democratic process—the individual citizen’s right and obligation to voice an opinion.”

IMAGE: A picnic for volunteers and dignitaries was held on Willa Cather stamp First Day of Issue, September 20, 1973. More than fifty volunteers helped to process the festivities and mailings in celebration of the Willa Cather stamp. 

Mildred Bennett Addresses Crowd

Mildred Bennett Addresses Crowd

"To the enthusiastic volunteer list, add yourself and all those like you..."

"To the enthusiastic volunteer list, add yourself and all those like you who, since 1969, have worked on the project encouraging the issuance of the postage stamp honoring Willa Cather. As a result, every newspaper in the country printed at least one item about Willa Cather. (Have you sent the Memorial a copy of what appeared in your area yet?) Great publicity. A Cather stamp on the letter you mailed to the Memorial during the past month is a vote of confidence saying not only that you are proud of your association with the Memorial but also that you approve of what the Memorial is doing. Like everybody else, we need to know our efforts are appreciated.”

IMAGE: Mildred Bennett addresses the crowd on Willa Cather stamp First Day of Issue, September 20, 1973.