With the release today, July 4, 2018, of the “O Beautiful” pane of 20 se-tenant stamps, the United States Postal Service is unleashing another beautiful set in a year full of them. I can’t recall another recent year so full of attractive stamps. It also seems that they are being issued at a more or less “reasonable” rate rather than too many all at once.

This particular set sees the Postal Service commemorating the beauty and majesty of the United States through images that correspond with one of the nation’s most beloved songs, “America the Beautiful.” The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, and the music was composed by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. The two never met.

In 1893, at the age of 33, Bates had taken a train trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to teach a short summer school session at Colorado College. Several of the sights on her trip inspired her, and they found their way into a poem she called “Pike’s Peak”, including the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the “White City” with its promise of the future contained within its gleaming white buildings; the wheat fields of America’s heartland Kansas, through which her train was riding on July 16; and the majestic view of the Great Plains from high atop Pikes Peak.

Plaque commemorating the song, "America the Beautiful" atop Pikes Peak. Photo taken on July 1, 1999.
Plaque commemorating the song, “America the Beautiful” atop Pikes Peak. Photo taken on July 1, 1999.

On the pinnacle of that mountain, the words of the poem started to come to her, and she wrote them down upon returning to her hotel room at the original Antlers Hotel. The poem was initially published two years later in church periodical The Congregationalist to commemorate the Fourth of July. At that time, the poem was titled “America” for publication. It quickly caught the public’s fancy. Amended versions were published in 1904 and 1911.

The first known melody written for the song was sent in by Silas Pratt when the poem was published in The Congregationalist. By 1900, at least 75 different melodies had been written. A hymn tune composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward, the organist and choir director at Grace Church, Newark, was generally considered the best music as early as 1910 and is still the popular tune today. Just as Bates had been inspired to write her poem, Ward, too, was inspired. The tune came to him while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island back to his home in New York City after a leisurely summer day and he immediately wrote it down. Supposedly, he was so anxious to capture the tune in his head, he asked fellow passenger friend Harry Martin for his shirt cuff to write the tune on. He composed the tune for the old hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem”, retitling the work “Materna”. Ward’s music combined with Bates’s poem were first published together in 1910 and titled “America the Beautiful”.

Historical marker at Grace Church in Newark where Samuel Ward worked as organist, and wrote and perfected the tune "Materna" that is used for "America the Beautiful".
Historical marker at Grace Church in Newark where Samuel Ward worked as organist, and wrote and perfected the tune “Materna” that is used for “America the Beautiful”. Photo taken on September 24, 2016.

Ward died in 1903, not knowing the national stature his music would attain since the music was only first applied to the song in 1904. Bates was more fortunate since the song’s popularity was well established by the time of her death in 1929.

At various times in the more than 100 years that have elapsed since the song was written, particularly during the John F. Kennedy administration, there have been efforts to give “America the Beautiful” legal status either as a national hymn or as a national anthem equal to, or in place of, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, but so far this has not succeeded. Proponents prefer “America the Beautiful” for various reasons, saying it is easier to sing, more melodic, and more adaptable to new orchestrations while still remaining as easily recognizable as “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Some prefer “America the Beautiful” over “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to the latter’s war-oriented imagery. Others prefer “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the same reason. While that national dichotomy has stymied any effort at changing the tradition of the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” continues to be held in high esteem by a large number of Americans.

"America the Beautiful" sheet music (page 1 of 3), 1917. Image from the Library of Congress
“America the Beautiful” sheet music (page 1 of 3), 1917. Image from the Library of Congress.

According to the USPS announcement, each of the 20 stamps on the O Beautiful! pane features a photograph that helps illustrate one of five phrases from the song’s famous first verse: “Spacious Skies” (top row), “Waves of Grain” (second row), “Mountain Majesties” (third row), “The Fruited Plain” (fourth row), and “Sea to Shining Sea” (bottom row). Art director Ethel Kessler designed the pane using existing photographs taken by Timothy T. De La Vega, Kevin Ebi, Larry Michael, David Muench, Sean Ramsey, Benjamin Williamson, Gary Crabbe, Tim Fitzharris, Yva Momatiuk, and John Eastcott. Ashton Potter (USA) offset printed the stamps in Williamsville, New York, on the Mueller A76 press. A total of 60,000,000 self-adhesive stamps were printed.

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