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Between 1971 and 2013, illustrator Howard Koslow designed some of the most recognizable stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service, on subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to the signing of the Constitution to American jazz and blues masters to 30 iconic coastal lighthouses.
Less well-known is the 22-cent stamp he designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Roughly an inch by an inch and a half, it frames a rural scene with an electric co-op pole in the foreground and a family farm in the distance. Electric lights glow from the windows of the farmstead and the barn.
About 1,500 people attended the First Day of Issue ceremony at the Madison, South Dakota, post office on May 11, 1985, exactly 50 years from the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order creating REA to finance the building of rural power lines.
As with other commemoratives, the Postal Service printed 160 million REA stamps, which were sold at local post offices for 60 days, after which they were available from its Philatelic Sales Division for one year.
NRECA started making inquiries about an REA stamp in 1980. By the time it was approved in 1983, the Postal Service’s stamp advisory committee had received nearly 80 letters in support of the idea, from members of Congress, labor unions, and historians.
Committee member Wilbur J. Cohen, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of health, education, and welfare, said the stamp survived stiff competition from other New Deal programs because “the rural electrification legislation was landmark, revolutionary legislation. It resulted in major changes of historic proportions in farming and rural areas.”
Most important to Cohen, who was involved 45 years earlier in creating New Deal programs, was that REA was still at it, still making rural America a better place to make a living, raise a family, grow old.
Postmaster General William F. Bolger recalled a meeting with NRECA General Manager Bob Partridge, who convinced him FDR’s executive order was “one of the most significant events that ever took place in America.” Bolger decided right there “it was something that ought to be commemorated.”
Koslow was commissioned to design the REA stamp because he had designed one commemorating the 50th anniversary of another New Deal program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the year before.
REA and NRECA supplied photos from their archives for Koslow to study. After making 22 rough sketches, ranging from an electric lightbulb beside a kerosene lantern to a deserted rural road lined with distribution poles, he made five color illustrations to show the committee.
One showed a pole in the right foreground with a farm in the distance across a plowed field. A similar one substituted a steel transmission tower for the pole and made the farm much larger. A third was a close-up of a clapboarded farmhouse at dusk with its windows aglow with electric light. In a fourth, a vertical format, Koslow moved the same farmhouse back and filled the right side of the composition with a distribution pole. There’s a barn in the background of both of these illustrations. Koslow’s fifth illustration, also a vertical, showed four men, two wearing bib overalls, using wood pikes to raise a distribution pole.
The committee liked the elements in the first two best. To create the final image, they asked the artist to replace the transmission tower in the second with the distribution pole, enlarge the farm even more, make the furrows in the field more noticeable, and add glowing light to windows in the farm buildings.
While painting this scene, Koslow looked through a reducing glass to see how the buildings would look when reduced to about a sixth of their actual size.
“There is a real skill to making something readable at one-inch square,” said Daniel A. Piazza, the chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, when The New York Times interviewed him shortly after Koslow’s death at 91 on January 25, 2016. “Howard was very good at that.”
Koslow was paid $1,500 to design and paint the REA stamp, less than his usual fee for a week’s work. But he said he was proud just to have been chosen for the job.
In the spring of 1985, many NRECA and co-op employees received as a gift a limited-edition paperweight with the stamp and a reproduction of the First Day of Issue postmark encased in it.