John Wayne put his stamp on American culture—and the U.S. Postal Service stamped back.
Written by Jenn Thornton
The National Postal Museum (NPS) is America’s undisputed stamping ground for postal history, preservation and philately (aka stamp collecting). You can thank Founding Father Benjamin Franklin for also fathering our postal service, and the Smithsonian for the museum, whose holdings reflect the cultural richness of the country, exalted in exhibitions and stamps of iconic people, places and moments. Enter John Wayne, whose memory and mug alike are forever part of the fabric of America, immortalized in our collective imagination—and on our post, too.
Wayne commanded the national stage for so long, it was only a matter of time they’d give the man his own stamp. He was, of course, the ideal candidate; a legend whose likeness is everywhere, even now—on film and t-shirts, in books and magazines, and on bourbon bottles too. He also checked every box that the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee—a panel of historians, educators and others—look for in a stamp subject. He was a man, a myth, an event.
Wayne is immortalized in countless films, but only one commemorative stamp—a 37-cent imprint that for fans of the late actor (and collectors) is priceless. Issued on Sept. 9, 2004, in Los Angeles, Calif., the stamp was designed by Derry Noyes, the long-time artistic director for the United States Postal Service who is responsible for some of the most artistic miniature tributes of our time. Reducing someone with such an colossal impact on American culture to stamp-size is not easy, but Noyes’ design captured the nuances of an expression that defined “The Duke” for generations. The slightly raised eyebrow, the just short of sly expression—the face that appeared in over 175 films. American artist and illustrator Drew Struzan, meanwhile, turned to a black and white publicity still of Wayne taken during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to inspire his painting of the stamp. The hand behind poster art for the Indiana Jones films and many more, Struzan’s brushstrokes brought Wayne vibrantly to life. The John Wayne postage stamp was the 10th release in the USPS’s Legends of Hollywood Series—one of the longest-running and most popular collections issued between 1995 and 2016—celebrating the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Many of the subjects in the series were either Duke’s close compadre, like Gary Cooper, or co-star, including Henry Fonda in Stagecoach(1939), Fort Apache (1948), and The Longest Day (1962), and Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn (1975). Wayne’s frequent director John Ford, meanwhile, was commemorated in USPS’ Forever Great Film Directors series, and his stamp prominently features the auteur—shades on, pipe in hand—in the foreground of a scene from The Searchers (1956), complete with a fictional Ethan Edwards, portrayed in the film by Wayne, moseying into the landscape that Ford famously captured. Duke may be gone, but his impression, lives on. Can’t stamp it out.
Photographs courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum (exterior) and United States Postal Service (stamp)