The federal duck stamp program began in 1934 with Scott #RW1 (see
illustration). The events leading to the establishment of this series of stamps are well
documented, most recently in The Duck Stamp Story by Eric Dolan and Bob Dumaine
(the latter a prominent dealer and Board Member of our society).
Federal Duck stamps are revenue stamps issued by the federal government
to raise funds for wetlands preservation. The stamps validate a license to hunt migratory
waterfowl when affixed to the license and signed by the hunter. Since the hunting season
for waterfowl begins in the fall and may extend into winter of the following year, the
stamps are issued midyear and display the date of expiration in the next year. Since the
first issue in 1934 ("void after June 30, 1935"), 67 federal duck stamps have
been issued through the current stamp issued in 2000 and void in 2001.
The initial stamp was issued by
the Department of Agriculture; in 1939, the duck stamp program was transferred to the
Department of the Interior (DOI), where it is currently managed by the Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS). Through 1976, the stamps bore the inscription "Migratory Bird Hunting
Stamp." In 1977, the inscription changed to "Migratory Bird Hunting and
Although the issue price of the federal stamp remained at one dollar
for the first fifteen years of the program, it has risen steadily since then. The table
below lists the issue price of federal duck stamps from 1934 through the present, showing
the number of years each rate lasted:
# of Years
1934 - 1948
1949 - 1958
1959 - 1971
1972 - 1978
1979 - 1986
1987 - 1988
1989 - 1990
1991 - ?
Inscriptions on the back of federal issues were
introduced in 1946, printed under the gum. The first inscription stated that:
In 1954, the inscription was changed; eight different inscriptions have
been used to date. Starting in 1954, duck stamps were printed on dry, pre-gummed paper;
thus, the inscription is removed when the stamp is moistened to affix to a license.
As singles, the stamps are collected mint or
used. Since some hunters dont sign their stamps (as they are required to do), there
are two categories of used stamps: signed and unsigned. Any stamp appearing mint on the
face but without gum was almost certainly soaked off a license after the season. Another
popular way to collect mint stamps is signed by the artist, either on the stamp or on
As singles, the stamps are subject to the same condition grading as for
postage stamps. A set of the 67 mint-never hinged (MNH) issues can range from about $3700
in fine (F) condition to about $9000 in extra fine (XF) condition. Hinged stamps sell for
significantly less: in used (signed) condition, the range is about $650 to $1200, with a
set of unsigned (no gum) stamps costing about $1600.
The federal stamps have all been printed by the Bureau of
Engraving & Printing and issued in panes of various sizes with plate numbers. As for
postage stamps, duck stamps are printed in large sheets that are then cut into panes and
assembled into pads.
From 1934 through 1958, the stamps were
printed in 112 subject sheets that were cut into 28 stamp panes. The plate number was
printed above or below the 2nd stamp in from the corners on top and bottom.
These plate numbers are collectable as plate singles and blocks. For reasons of symmetry,
these early issues are collected as plate blocks of 6, with full selvage on two adjacent
sides and a vertical pair of stamps to the right and left of the pair with the plate
In 1959 the sheet format was changed to 120 subjects, resulting in
panes of 30 stamps. In addition, the plate number was moved to the side of the corner
stamps. These issues are collected as corner plate singles (with all selvage) and as plate
blocks of 4. As explained by Dolan & Dumaine, the 1964 issue is an exception, because
the plate number was mistakenly placed in the former position, above and below the 2nd
stamp from the corner. Thus, this issue is also most desirably collected as a plate block
of 6, though for several years the Scott catalog did not indicate this, resulting in a
shortage of plate blocks of 6 and corresponding high prices after the error in guidance
With the 2000 issue, the sheet format was changed again to 80 subjects
and panes of 20. Plate numbers were printed on all four corners to accommodate the demand
for plate singles and blocks that had resulted in much wastage of partial sheets. This
issue is also collected in plate blocks of 4.
Since 1998, the duck stamp has also been printed in a single-stamp
self-adhesive format that can be sold through an automated teller machine (ATM).
Indications are that this will be the preferred format for sales to hunters around the
country. The sheet format will be continued, but primarily for sales to collectors through
the USPS Philatelic Service.
In 1985, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the duck stamp
program, the FWS auctioned 14 full sheets of RW51, each consisting of four panes of 30
stamps with vertical and horizontal gutters and special numbered marginal inscriptions.
The fifteenth sheet was provided to the National Philatelic Collection.
One dealer purchased eleven of the sheets and broke them down into
vertical and horizontal gutter pairs and cross gutter blocks for sale to collectors.
Interior singles were also sold as premium items, after being marked on the reverse with
plate position and provided with a certificate of authenticity from the Philatelic
Foundation. Without the plate marking and certificate, they are indistinguishable from the
normal issue that year.
Printing errors are relatively rare for federal duck stamps, though
imperforate multiples, color omissions, color shifts, plate flaws, paper folds, and
inverts and omissions of the back inscription exist for some issues. The Dolan &
Dumaine book contains a listing of recognized errors and varieties.
The most recent innovation in duck stamp collecting is the introduction
of artist remarques in the selvage of mint stamps. These are miniature informal drawings,
often in color, of the duck species featured in the stamp (see illustration). Individually
drawn by the artist who drew the art pictured on the stamp, these make an attractive
addition to a duck stamp collection.
So far we have discussed collecting federal duck stamps as mint or used
singles, plate singles or blocks, and errors. There are many more ways, however.
Covers & Licenses
Postal historians collect stamps on covers and prize the cancellations
and markings. For duck stamps, the true equivalent of a cover is a signed stamp on license
(see illustration). Licenses are available from all the states and some territories (e.g.,
pre-statehood Alaska and Hawaii).
Collecting a full run of federal duck stamps on license is much more
challenging than simply buying a set of mint or used stamps. Assembling a full set of duck
stamps on license from the same state is even more challenging, as is collecting a
license from every state.
In the first year of use of the federal duck stamp, not every state or
territory required hunting licenses. For these areas, the federal government issued a
special certificate (Form 3333) that contained a place for the stamp to be affixed and
separate places for the certificate to be signed by the hunter and validated by a
postmark. Properly validated certificates currently sell for many hundreds of dollars.
Some collectors also created "first day covers" for duck stamps, by affixing a
duck stamp and current first class postage on an envelope and having both cancelled on the
day the duck stamp was issued. As this practice gained in popularity, attractively
cacheted covers were produced and special cancellations were offered by the Post Office at
first day ceremonies for the duck stamps, though strictly speaking it was the first class
postage on the cover that was being cancelled. As for postage stamp first day ceremonies,
there are now commemorative programs on which the duck stamps (with appropriate postage)
are also cancelled.
Certificates & Cards
Since 1960, the Fish & Wildlife Department has issued a series of
"Appreciation Certificates" and souvenir cards that were generally provided free
with the purchase of a duck stamp. These provided a printed rectangle or a wide margin
where the stamp could be affixed and optionally cancelled with postage. From 1985 to 1996,
the Service brought specially overprinted cards to many stamp shows where they could be
cancelled with a special show cancellation. In 1987 the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
began issuing an annual Souvenir Card in full color. In 1995 the FWS issued the first in a
series of "Artist Cards" honoring two or more artists and with room or two or
more stamps to be affixed and canceled. Both certificates and cards are collected mint and
with stamps affixed and canceled.
Junior Duck Stamps
Finally, no description of the federal duck stamps is
complete without mention of the Junior Duck Stamp program. This is an educational and
development program for aspiring young artists. The program has grown rapidly since it was
begun in 1989 as a pilot project. Educational materials are provided to public and private
schools (K-12) and state and national art competitions are held for the design of a
"Junior Duck Stamp." In 1992, the USFWS issued a souvenir sheet showing nine
winning artworks from state competitions held during 1991 and 1992 across the nation (see
illustration). Five thousand sheets were printed, which sold for $10 each. Since 1993, a
single $5 stamp has been issued showing the winning artwork. These stamps are collectibles
only and are not valid for any hunting purpose. They do make an attractive and inexpensive
complement to any duck stamp collection.
Have I missed any ways to collect federal duck stamps? Please let me
know and I will mention them next time.