Stamp Stories: The Nursing Commemorative Stamp

I recently pulled out my ancient stamp collection, dusted it off, and thought, “Man, what’s the story behind this one?” on several of them. To that end, I’ve added a “Stamp Stories” section of this blog now.

Also, today is National Nursing Day, May 6th, an appropriate day to start of this series by presenting the 1961 commemorative NURSING stamp issued almost 55 years ago. The photo shows the one in my collection but a quick Google and eBay search reveal that there are many available for not too much money.


1961 Nursing Commemorative Stamp

The idea behind the stamp started with a Letter To The Editor that appeared in the December 1947 issue of The American Journal of Nursing written by Agnes M. McWilliams, an R.N. from New Jersey [1].

Stamp Honoring Nurses

Dear Journal:
For several years Mr. John H. Olsen, Superintendent of Richmond Memorial Hospital, Prince Bay, Staten Island, N. Y., has been promoting the idea of a stamp honoring nurses. So far nothing has materialized, partly because nurses have not been very enthusiastic and because, during the war years, few new stamps were issued. However, several new stamps have been issued recently, and now is the time for us to try again to get a nurse stamp.
A stamp was issued this year honoring the medical profession, and they had first-day covers on the first day of the AMA convention.
At least once a day I hear over the radio an appeal for girls to enroll in nursing schools. Perhaps a stamp might stimulate enrolment[sic] later. Each year hospitals have “open house” on May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. That would be ideal for a first day cover, and it would probably take just about that long to make arrangements to have a stamp issued by that time.
A stamp honoring all nurses should be our aim, not one for the Army or Navy, Red Cross or public health, private duty or general duty, but one covering the whole field of nursing or, as Mr. Olsen once suggested, a series of stamps depicting well-known figures in nursing.
If each nurse would write a letter to her senator, congressman, and the Postmaster General, perhaps we could have our stamp by May 12, I948. -AGNES M. MCWILLIAMS, R.N., New Jersey.

Prior to 1957 the issuance of commemorative stamps was largely a political process subject to the whims of those with influence among Congressional leaders. Then Congress established the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) with members to be appointed by the Postmaster General. CSAC’s task is to select subjects for future stamps based on public input and to pass along recommendations to the Postmaster General [2].

The momentum gathered over the decade following Agnes’ letter helped place the idea of a nursing stamp among the list of subjects under consideration for the newly formed CSAC. A large letter-writing campaign also preceded its selection. From approval to design and actual issuance took 4 years.

First date of issuance of the 4-cent stamp was December 28th, 1961 [3], and commemorated 100 years of modern nurse training. Florence Nightingale established the St. Thomas’ Hospital nursing school in London in 1860. The stamp depicts a student nurse lighting a candle during a traditional pinning ceremony, a symbolic “passing the flame” from the first modern nurse, Florence Nightingale, to each new nurse. It was designed by Alfred Charles Parker (1906 – 1985), an American illustrator known as a founder of modern glamour aesthetic in post-depression, post-war mid-century America.

Panes of 50 stamps each were printed on a Giori press, itself a new piece of post-war printing technology that allowed for 2- to 3-color designs to be printed in one pass. The initial run of 100,000,000 stamps soon sold out and another printing was authorized. In total, 145,350,000 stamps were printed.

[1] Agnes M. McWilliams, The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 47, No. 12 (Dec, 1947), p. 833
[2] The process is described here with great information if you have an idea.
[3] Postal Bulletin Vol. 82, issue 20280, 16 Nov. 1961


Amateur photographer, cyclist, and beer brewer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.