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One hundred years ago, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to establish the National Park Service, but this was not the first time a president has acted "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein... by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."1 On June 30, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation withdrawing Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove from the public domain and granting the land to the state of California.2 On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation creating the world's first national park, Yellowstone. Over the next forty-four years presidents and Congress created almost forty national parks and national monuments. The War Department and some states undertook to preserve Civil War battlefields as well as the site of the British surrender at Yorktown that ended the American Revolution and to erect monuments at Bennington, Vermont, and Bunker Hill, Massachusetts. The mineral springs at Hot Springs, Arkansas, has also been withdrawn from the public domain. Many individuals and organizations were taking action to preserve places of natural and historic significance, but in an earlier, simpler time, little thought was given to providing a coordinated structure of management. Preservation had become an end in itself.

By the early years of the twentieth century, however, the issue of managing preservation, often called conservation, was becoming more pressing. In 1890 the Census Bureau had declared that a frontier no longer existed. The West held a new fascination, and the nation's 63 million people were increasingly interested in traveling by rail—the Great Norther, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe—to national parks, almost all of which were located in the West at that time. The parks were open to all visitors, but no one was in charge of protecting them. Cavalry units of the U.S. Army patrolled some parks to limit poaching and vandalism. But the threats were larger than that. After the 1905 earthquake, San Francisco needed a dependable supply of water, and creating a reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park would solve the problem. Congressional approval was needed. With no single voice to speak for Yosemite, of any other park, the approval was easier than it should have been. Conservationists saw that they must act.

[The parks were] orphans, split among three departments—War, Agriculture, and Interior. They were anybody's business and therefore nobody's business.

— Horace Albright on the state of National Park management circa 1915

President Theodore Roosevelt held a conference on conservation in the East Room of the White House in 1908. He and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that natural resources needed federal management. American lands no longer seemed vast and endless, and something had to be done so that parks would exist into the future. Among those who advocated for establishing an organization in charge of parks, two stood out: Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. They, in turn, became the first and second directors of the National Park Service.

Mather, who had made a fortune in business, arrived in Washington in 1915 to begin working with Albright. They had two goals: To overcome opponents of a National Park Service within the government (including Pinchot, who worried that a Park Service would threaten timber rights on Forest Service land) and to create public support for such an organization. They began meeting with government officials to promote the positive benefits of having one organization overseeing the national parks. The parks were "orphans," said Albright, "split among three departments—War, Agriculture, and Interior. They were anybody's business and therefore nobody's business."3 Slowly Mather and Albright won the support of influential organizations and individuals, including railroad and automobile interests, the Sierra Club, and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. They convinced national magazines, especially National Geographic, to print articles about the national parks and encourage the public to visit them. Mather orchestrated seventeen railroads to cooperate in publishing The National Parks Portfolio, a book full of pictures and articles about the parks that was sent to each individual member of Congress. In 1916 Representative William Kent, and independent from California, and Senator Reed Smoot, a Republican from Utah, sponsored the necessary legislation, culminating in Wilson's signing of the National Park Service Organic Act. Interior Secretary Franklin Lane appointed Mather the first director, and work began on creating a system of parks.

National Park Service photographer George Grant was tasked with selecting photographs from which artists would produce designs and engravings for the colorful series of stamps featuring the national parks in 1934.

National Park Service

Until he retired in 1929, Mather continued to promote the parks using advertising and publicity methods that had proved so successful in establishing the NPS. One avenue he pursued was to get the Post Office to issue stamps featuring the parks. His efforts were not realized until Franklin D. Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector, was inaugurated president. Roosevelt's new secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, proved to be a tireless advocate of conservation and of the national parks. He acted quickly. He announced that in 1934 would be National Park Year. At a cabinet meeting on March 9, 1934, Ickes and Roosevelt, together with James Farley, postmaster general, discussed a series of park stamps, and by March 29, they had a definite plan.4

In the next few weeks Arno B. Cammerer, appointed NPS director August 10, 1933, asked George Grant, chief photographer of the National Park Service, to begin the process of selecting photographs from which artists would produce the designs and engravings for ten stamps. Grant was an interesting—and logical—choice. He was hired as the first official photographer for the National Park Service. Over the course of his career—he retired in 1954—he took more than 30,000 pictures of the parks. Most are credited as "National Park Service photograph," so he never became as famous as his contemporary Ansel Adams.5 Grant and several associates selected ten parks to be features on stamps ranging from one cent to ten cents. They were, in ascending order of stamp value: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Acadia, Zion, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains. In a 1962 interview conducted by Herbert Evison, Grant said he had no idea of how many different images had been considered: "We had an awful time making those selections." 6

On May 16, 1934, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was directed to prepare sample designs for the first stamp—the one-cent Yosemite—based on the photograph selected by Grant and his group. On June 15, Farley selected one of several submitted designs. He approved the proof June 28, and printing began on July 6. Ten days later the stamp went on sale.7 The remaining nine were on similar schedules; the last stamp, the ten-cent Great Smoky Mountains, went on sale October 8. Think about it: just six months from initial discussion to finished product—no sign of bureaucratic inefficiency here!

The first day that the Yosemite stamp went on sale, 250,000 stamps were sold in the park and 60,000 covers canceled. In Washington, D.C., 285,000 stamps were sold and 26,219 covers canceled. Beside the individual stamps, commemorative sheets of 200 and 120 stamps were also produced along with souvenir sheets of four and six stamps. In 1937 a special one-sheet of the ten-cent Great Smoky Mountains stamp went on sale at the Society of Philatelic Americans annual convention in Asheville, North Carolina, very near the park. Stamp collectors and park advocates alike were delighted.8

Each stamp was one color, and the color for each stamp was different. Roosevelt himself selected the orange-red for the Grand Canyon stamp.9 The lettering was generally white (reversed). Six stamps are in the horizontal format, and four are vertical. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing did all the engraving work. The ten-cent Great Smoky Mountains stamp was the first U.S. postage stamp designed by a woman, Esther Richards.10 Together, with individual stamps and souvenir sheets, almost 435 million stamps were printed. That so many were printed means they are still available today, and prized by collectors. A complete set can be purchased online for about $10.

It is hard to know if the stamp series encouraged Americans to go to their national parks, but throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s visitation had ranged between about 2 and 3 million a year. In 1933, 3,255,684 people visited the parks. The next year, National Park Year, visitation jumped to 6,095,201. Between 1934 and U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, the number of park visitors increased by at least 15 percent every year. In 2015, in a much larger population, 307,247,252 people went to a national park.11

President Roosevelt used other means to urge Americans to enjoy the national parks. Grant's photographs, printed in newspaper and magazines, made the natural beauty of American landscape features iconic. In addition, Roosevelt brought the War Department battlefields into the National Park System in a major reorganization in 1934. During his term in office the number of park units grew from 52 to 143, including, among so many others, Blue Ridge Parkway, Everglades, Natchez Trace Parkway, Dry Tortugas, Big Bend, Fort Stanwix, Joshua Tree, Manassas, Zion, Cape Hatteras, Salem Maritime, Channel Islands, Saratoga, Mount Rushmore, and Hopewell Furnace. 12

In addition to supporting the stamp program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged the public to visit national parks, and he brought many additional sites into the system, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he spoke at the dedication in 1940.

National Park Service

Speaking at the dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, September 2, 1940, Roosevelt told his audience:

"There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to his continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this Park we shall conserve these trees ... for the happiness of the American people. The old frontier that put the hard fibre in the American spirit and the long muscles on the American back, lives and will live in these untamed mountains to give to the future generations a sense of the land from which their forefathers hewed their homes." 13

In other words, parks were just not about beauty and scenery; they stood for the values upon which Americans had built this nation, and they ensured that present and future generations could draw inspiration from them.

Roosevelt's impact on the parks and conservation in general was enormous.14 During his years in office not only did the number of park units practically triple but national wildlife refuges and national forests also increased in number and acreage. In 1934 he initiated a program that required hunters of migratory waterfowl to purchase a duck stamp along with a license. All the proceeds from the sale of the duck stamps, a program that continues today, go to the purchase of wetlands and migratory waterfowl habitat. The annual competition for the year's duck stamp draws hundreds of artists.

In the last hundred years presidents have made it a point to visit national parks, and they like to have themselves and their families photographed smiling against the scenic vistas. Roosevelt visited parks, too. Though he could not walk the trails, he delighted in greeting rangers and visitors from his open-air car, reaching out to shake their hands. For personal recreation, he often turned to his stamp collection. His hobby helped him to see that everyday postal stamps, in denominations everyone used—and almost everyone wrote letters in those days—would remind Americans that their national parks, monuments and battlefields, refuges and wetlands and coasts, are preserved forever for their enjoyment.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 42 Summer 2016

Footnotes & Resources

  1. The legislation known as the Organic Act. See National Park Service History,
  2. After Yosemite became a national park, October 1, 1890, California returned lands of the park to the federal government.
  3. Quoted in Rachel Hartigan Shea, "How Good Old American Marketing Saved the National Parks," published online March 24, 2015, by Nationals Geographic,
  4. Max G. Johl, The United States Commemorative Stamps of the 20th Century (New York, H.L. Lindquist, 1947), 1:288.
  5. For a recent appraisal of George Grant's work and hist career, see Ren and Helen Davis, Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015).
  6. Quoted in ibid., 41.
  7. Johl, United States Commemorative Stamps, 1:289.
  8. Ibid., 1:287-325. Johl has a thirty-eight-page essay on the 1934 National Park Issue. He begins with an overall view, design and engraving details, designs used and rejected, names of artists and engravers, plat numbers print runs, commemorative sheets and blocks issued, and date of issue. The dates, names, and quantities printed shown in the individual captions come from these pages.
  9. Ibid., 1:293.
  10. Ibid., 1:321.
  11. National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics, Annual Summary, 1926-1940, 2015,
  12. Barry Mackintosh, The National Parks, Shaping the System (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 46-61.
  13. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at the Dedication of Great Smoky Mountains, National Park, September 2, 1940, online at the American Presidency Project,
  14. Douglas Brinkley, Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America (New York: Harper, 2016). In more than 700 pages, Brinkley chronicles FDR's role in conservation and the lasting benefits that are his legacy. Brinkley also tells the story of the dozens of dams, constructed for improving navigation and providing hydroelectric power, the flooded small towns and wildlife habitats and are also a part of the Roosevelt legacy.

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