Stamps Honor Maritime Heritage

July 2011

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The U.S. Postal Service will salute the U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM) July 28 by issuing a set of four forever stamps during a dedication ceremony at the United Sates Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.


The dedication will take place at 11:30 a.m., at the academy campus’ Ackerman Auditorium, which is located at 300 Steamboat Rd. The event will be free and open to the public. Designed to honor the USMM throughout its rich history, the four stamps will feature four vessel types which historically have been used by merchant mariners in the service of their country: a clipper ship modeled after the Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1852; an auxiliary steamship, based on the ships of the Collins Line; a World War II Liberty Ship; and a container ship, based on Seafarerscontracted Matson Line’s R.J. Pfeiffer.


Illustrator Dennis Lyall of Norwalk, Conn., created the stamps under the art direction of Phil Jordan of Falls Church, Va. The following history on the four vessel types depicted on the stamps was provided by the U.S. Postal Service.


Clipper Ships

The clipper ship, noted maritime historian Benjamin Labaree, was “a unique American contribution to the glory of seafaring.” Hundreds of “Yankee” clippers, noted for their streamlined shape and majestic cloud of square-rigged sails, were built from the 1840s through the 1850s.


Their heyday arrived with the California Gold Rush of 1849, which hastened the need for faster sailing ships to take prospectors and supplies out West. In 1851, the fastest of the clipper ships, the Flying Cloud, sailed the 13,000-plus miles from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco in a record 89 days. Clippers also boosted the trade in tea, bringing it fresh from China to England and America.


Clipper ships eventually lost their dominance to the more dependable steamship, which had greater cargo capacity and could sail on regular schedules. But during the time they “flashed their splendor around the world,” as Samuel Eliot Morison has written, clippers embodied the poetry of the seas.


Auxiliary Steamships

In the mid-nineteenth century, steampowered ships competed with clipper and other sailing ships for transatlantic mail and passenger service. In America the most magnificent of these were the four large wooden-hulled, sidewheel steamships—the Atlantic, Baltic, Pacific, and Arctic—that were built by New York entrepreneur Edward K. Collins in the 1840s

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Like many steamships of the time, they included back-up or auxiliary sailing rigs to supplement their powerful engines. The elegant, 280-foot ships of the “Collins Line”—the ocean liners of their day—were notable for both speed and cargo-carrying capacity. They provided service between New York and Liverpool in the 1850s and set numerous transatlantic speed records before rising costs helped bring an end to their business.


Liberty Ships

During World War I, the United States learned how to mass-produce merchant ships. But the nation remained without a settled policy for maintaining a modern merchant marine to meet its economic and defense needs until 1936, when legislation established the U.S. Maritime Commission and empowered the U.S. Merchant Marine to serve as a naval auxiliary unit.


The Commission immediately began increasing the size of the country’s merchant fleet and shortly before America’s entry into World War II ordered the production of plain but sturdy cargo vessels called Liberty ships. Over the next four years, the United States produced more than 2,700 Liberty ships – “the most impressive single page in the history of the American shipbuilding industry,” according to historian Allan Nevins. Liberty ships served in all theaters of war and sustained the Allied forces with a steady supply of food and war materiel. These ships were manned by members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, including thousands of SIU members, whose sacrifices, though less heralded than those of U.S. Navy crewmen, were no less critical to the war effort.


Container Ships Without the container ship the globaleconomy as we know it would be impossible. These ships, each loaded with thousands of containers measuring either 20 or 40 feet in length, carry virtually all the products and materials that end up in our local stores. “In 2006 alone,” according to a maritime history exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, “about 18 million containers stuffed with cargoes of all sorts were sent on more than 200 million trips by sea, rail, and road to places around the world.”


Container ships were pioneered in the 1950s by Malcolm McLean, a trucking operator from North Carolina. McLean’s idea was to eliminate multiple handling costs by standardizing the shape of a container so that it could be easily moved between different modes of transportation: truck, rail, and ship. Intermodal transportation took hold and created efficiencies that transformed the global economy. By the end of the twentieth century, container ships carried nearly all of the world’s manufactured goods and exemplified the modern merchant marine.


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