A Special Postage Stamp For Labor Day, 1956

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

Since the invention of the first postage stamps in the United Kingdom in the 1840, an innovation adopted by the United States since 1847, a veritable gallery of art and history in the form of a practically useful commodity has been available to the public for a few pennies. Nevertheless, only the true enthusiasts, collectors, and scholars of philately, the study of postage stamps, fully appreciate the beauty and value of these tiny scraps of paper.

An example of the art and history embodied in a postage stamp happens to link to an icon of our local history:  the three-cent, Labor Day issue of 1956.

When the U.S. Postal Service announced near the end of 1955 that it would issue a stamp honoring Labor Day in the following year, among the first to take note was Morris C. Rothblum, stamp editor for the Courier-Post and a member of the Camden Typographical Union.

As both a newspaperman and a union member, Rothblum undoubtedly remembered the ceremonies conducted just three years earlier, when a new monument was dedicated to the “father” of Labor Day, Peter J. McGuire, at his burial site, Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken. Labor and political leaders had gathered for the ceremonies, extensively covered in the press, to honor the labor leader who was also the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.

Peter J. McGuire had lived out the latter part of his life in Camden, while the offices of the U.B.C. & J. were located in Philadelphia. Why not have the new postage stamp issued to honor both Labor Day and its father make its debut from the Camden post office?

Rothblum went to work and very soon, the Typographical Union issued a resolution calling for the first day of sale to be held in Camden. Shortly, similar calls were made by the printers and the Central Labor Union of Camden and the Courier-Post.

A month before the issue of the stamp on Labor Day, Congressman Charles A. Wolverton and Senators H. Alexander Smith and Clifford P. Case of New Jersey announced the success of the campaign. Camden would have just its second first day of sale designation for the issuance of the new stamp. Previously, a stamp honoring Walt Whitman had also had its first day of sale in Camden, 16 years before.

This announcement resulted in a torrent of orders for first-day covers of the new stamps and a number of special initiatives to commemorate the occasion. The official, first public sales of the stamp in Camden would be made to Lillian McGuire and Kathryn Caya, the daughters of P.J. McGuire, at 7:00 a.m. on Labor Day, Monday, September 3, 1956. The Central Labor Union of Camden pre-ordered 3,100 first-day issue stamps to be placed on a brief account of the life and work of Peter J. McGuire titled “The Life Story of a Forgotten Giant—P. J. McGuire, Father of Labor Day.” This stamped pamphlet would be mailed to union members around the country, enclosed in an envelope with a cachet depicting the McGuire Memorial in Arlington Cemetery.

Other labor leaders and public figures sent in private orders for first-day covers of the Labor Day stamp, illustrating the esteem in which unions were held in that era, as well as the popularity of the hobby of stamp collecting. Among those ordering the stamps were labor leaders like George Meany, Walter Reuther, and John L. Lewis; the presidents of the United Steel Workers and the American Federation of Musicians; the Secretary of Labor; and from overseas, the General Secretary of the Kenya Federation of Labor. Business leaders, too, ordered the first-day covers honoring their workers, including leaders in the coal and steel industries, the general manager of the New York Yankees, and the president of the Beechnut and Lifesavers Company.

Among the public figures pre-ordering the stamps were the governors of nine states; Democratic candidates for President and Vice President Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver; former Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, the chairman of the Republican Party; former Vice President John Nance Garner; father and grandfather of presidents Senator Prescott Bush; Eleanor Roosevelt; Bernard Baruch; bandleader Vincent Lopez; and pioneer woman aviator Jacqueline Cochrane.

Perhaps the most unusual orders came for four stamps to be sent to J. Fred Muggs, the celebrated television chimpanzee and also his friend, Dave Garroway.

A special postage stamp honoring Labor Day and the efforts of labor icon Peter J. McGuire was issued in 1956. McGuire, the “father” of Labor Day, is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken.

A special postage stamp honoring Labor Day and the efforts of labor icon Peter J. McGuire was issued in 1956. McGuire, the “father” of Labor Day, is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken.

The stamp itself was designed by Victor J. McCloskey, Jr., a long-time artist for the bureau of engraving, who had previously produced the postage stamp depicting the flag raising on Iwo Jima, among many other famous designs. The depiction was based on a large mosaic in the new A.F. of L. building in Washington, D.C. by the renowned muralist Lumen M. Winter. It showed a laboring man with his family. He held four tools:  an axe, a hoe, a pick, and a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder. A length of rope hung from his arm; his other arm is around his wife, who holds a book open as their son reads from it. In the corner of the picture is a quote from the British essayist Thomas Carlyle, “Labor Is Life.”

Plans for the Labor Day observances continued to grow throughout the month of August. Sales of the stamp would open at the Camden post office at 7:00 a.m., but an official dedication ceremony by postal service officials would take place at 9:00 a.m. From the Camden post office, a motorcade bearing the VIPs would proceed to Arlington Cemetery for the wreath laying at the memorial to Peter J. McGuire at 11:00 a.m. and then a return to Camden for a luncheon for 400 at Kenney’s. The observances that day would also have special significance for the labor movement, as it was the first since the recent merger of the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O.

The carefully planned order of events became somewhat academic, however, when President Eisenhower decided to have a dedication ceremony of his own for the new stamp on Saturday, Sept. 1. The President had received a very sweet invitation to the Camden ceremonies from Peter J. McGuire’s great granddaughter, Jo Ann Dougherty of Pennsauken. However, the press of world affairs and a political campaign made a Presidential visit impractical. Therefore, Ike invited members of the Dougherty family to join him instead for the early ceremony at the White House.

While the ceremonies in observance of Labor Day at Arlington Cemetery have been held annually since P.J. McGuire’s burial in 1906, few have been as memorable and historic as this 50th occasion, with its philatelic tribute to the father of Labor Day.

Sources for this column include contemporary newspaper accounts in the Courier-Post; the pamphlet “The Story of a Forgotten Giant—P.J. McGuire, Father of Labor Day;” and the website Arago.si.edu.

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