Picture This: Frances Benjamin Johnston Puts Her Stamp on Documenting Work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Frances Benjamin Johnston Puts Her Stamp on Documenting Work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
By Melissa Lindberg

Finding written documentation to provide context for images in the collections is not something we can always bank on, but when that information does exist it can be a real luxury. Happily, soon after Frances Benjamin Johnston took photographs of work in the Stamp Division at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, she wrote "Uncle Sam as a Stamp-Maker," an illustrated article for the June 11, 1895 edition of Harper's Round Table, a magazine for children. In the article, Johnston provides a lively step-by-step narrative of the postage stamp production process, framing the story as a tour taken by excited children, all stamp enthusiasts.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Stamp Division. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1889 and 1890. http://bit.ly/2Wi3b8k

Johnston explains that the children "watched with breathless interest" the noisy printing work. In the above image, which Johnston captioned "Taking Sheets of the Presses" in her article, two workers are taking a newly-printed sheet of stamps off of what appears to be one of the Bureau's hand presses, which were used along with more automated steam presses.

Having watched to their entire satisfaction the various movements of the great presses, the children began to feel that the object of their visit had been realized, and that there was nothing more to see. They were therefore somewhat surprised to learn that the printing of the stamps was merely the beginning of the work upon them…

Worker prepares gum for postage stamps in the Stamp Division at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1895. http://bit.ly/2DMXU1n

After being dried and pressed out, the sheets of stamps were then gummed with glue that was mixed in large vats using what appears to be a long stick, or possibly a paddle.

The photographs themselves prompt further examination of exactly how the equipment operated, and how the work progressed. For example, in the image below the woman at left is resting her feet on a box in a semi-reclined posture (does this indicate she's been there for awhile?), oil cans are resting on top of a flat surface at right (to grease the belts?), and the clock on the back wall faces the backs of most of the workers in the room (how closely did workers track time during the work day?). Workers had an incentive to work diligently, as Johnston emphasizes that "the work of each of the hundreds of employees is so carefully checked and recorded that even the most insignificant error is readily traceable."

Workers in the postage stamp gumming and drying room in the Stamp Division at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, ca. 1895. http://bit.ly/2WllrOb

After another round of drying and pressing, the stamps were then handed over to the workers responsible for perforating the sheets, making it possible to easily tear an individual stamp off from a multi-stamp sheet. Before the perforation method was adopted, workers had to use scissors to cut out each stamp by hand, prompting Johnston to comment: "Imagine a postmaster in these busy days supplying his customers by the scissors method!"

Women perforating sheets of stamps in the Stamp Division at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, ca. 1895. http://bit.ly/2UZJIrw

The striking white paper hats worn by women responsible for operating the perforation machines may have had dual purposes: while Johnston states that the women "wear fantastic caps of paper to shade their eyes, as the sheets must be fed into the machines with absolute accuracy," the catalog record for the above image states that "women wear paper hats to protect them from airborn dust." Post-perforation, the stamps were cut apart in sections, trimmed, and then counted.

At the turn of the 20th century, stamp collecting was extremely popular, so much so that Johnston referred to collectors' "stamp fever." Through her pictures, and her written work, Johnston helps us to decode a few of these sometimes mystifying images, and to provide some insight into the stamp collecting craze that seized the imaginations of many children and adults alike during the period.

But of course stamps were also practical. When Johnston made these images, more than a decade before transcontinental phone calls became possible, physical mail was still a primary means of communicating. And in order to communicate this way, people needed access to stamps as a requirement for mailing. Johnston's images show how much labor — and skill — was required to produce these ephemeral objects that entertained so many and enabled people to stay connected.

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Published May 03, 2019 at 09:36AM
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