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Interwar Colonial Revivals

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 victory_postageVictory Issue, 1919, celebrated the Allies victory in World War I, Smithsonian National Postal Museum Collection

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 During the interwar period (1919-1940), some Americans celebrated a nostalgic, homogenous fiction of the American colonial past. Public celebrations of historic anniversaries were filled with patriotic sentiment weaving together local, vernacular, events, and people into official national narratives, as was the case with commemorative stamps printed in this era.1 Commemorative committees, business leaders, and politicians actively pursued federal postage stamps celebrating regional anniversaries held at Plymouth Rock, Mayport, Minneapolis, Lexington and Concord, and Valley Forge, and states flaunted their foundings. Others fought for stamps honoring military men who transformed into cultural heroes such as Casimir Pulaski and Theodore Kosciuszko. Knowing of the postal service’s power to sell an idealized and patriotic vision of the American past, some sought commemoratives as part of grander strategies fighting for social and political equality while others perpetuated a romanticized, white-washed, view of colonial America. The battle for recognition on a federal stamp also reflected contemporary struggles over the construction of race and definitions of citizenship in the U.S. Residents and citizens with southern and eastern European ancestry, for instance, strove to be accepted as racially white, and that worked to further the chasm between whites and blacks who still struggled as second-class citizens for political power and lacked visual representation on postage as actors in American history.2

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the early twentieth century, an increase in vernacular awareness and interest in stamps seems connected to the growth of local historical societies that promoted genealogical research and historic site preservation. State and privately-funded societies, from libraries and archives to patriotic-hereditary groups, encouraged Americans to research the history of their families and save family heirlooms. Hereditary group members took pride in tracing their roots back to pioneering families who established communities in Pennsylvania, for example, before the American Revolution. These practices helped to build regional and state pride that connected small towns and counties to broader national narratives. Encouraging family history research also created dividing lines among old and new immigrant groups, as many older immigrants grasped onto their colonial lineage while ignoring the challenges faced by late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century groups with similar European origins.3

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Memorials and monuments reflect more about the time when they are built than about the past events and people represented. Regional preservation groups such as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) erected memorials and preserved sites tied to Virginia’s founding families that recast British settlements at Jamestown and Williamsburg as harmonious and homogeneous. For elite Virginian members of the APVA, post-Civil War political and cultural upheaval left them with a present they did not like. Preservation and reconstruction efforts let them –and other groups working in different states—return to time when white elites commanded power and deference from blacks and poor whites.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 These efforts are seen in celebrations and pageants, such as the national Pilgrim Tercentenary, that connected to wider cultural and political events working to define Americanness in post-War America. Americanization efforts in the twentieth century attacked customs and practices of new and first-generation immigrants thought to be racially and socially inferior. Historic preservation and colonial revival movements grew in popularity because those preserving and reproducing iconography from the colonial period believed this style was uniquely American. Preserved homes and historic sites were constructed to be places that taught immigrants about America’s past, while “patriotic Americans” were urged to buy and display colonial-era reproductions in their homes.4

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Colonial-themed stamps from the 1920s and 1930s coincided with growing interest in viewing, owning, and displaying physical evidence, or material culture, from colonial and early Republic eras. Wealthy businessmen and heiresses of industrial fortunes donated money to finance wings in museums and historic preservation. The American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1924 to exhibit early American decorative arts and furnishings of “our ancestors” – where “our ancestors” meant a few selected to represent the many. Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition boasted “High Street,” an attraction that featured rebuilt “colonial” structures of Philadelphia in 1776. Inspired by Henry Mercer’s collections of tools, Henry Ford began voraciously collecting a host of buildings and objects in 1919—anything from agricultural machinery to household and kitchen implements—that he would eventually display in Greenfield Village, Michigan. Uninterested in financing an established historic site like John D. Rockefeller, Ford created his own emulation of an “Early American Village” that opened to the public in 1931. Physical restorations and quests for “authenticity” at Colonial Williamsburg in the late 1920s and early 1930s encouraged some Americans to purchase antiques and replicas to decorate their homes.5 Calling upon the designs of the late colonial and early Republic periods during a time of American post-war conservatism in foreign policy, some Americans focused on building the image of United States as an exceptional place with a unique history.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This chapter will reveal how different groups reached backwards to use images and individuals from the past to address cultural and political unease with 1920s and 1930s America through the medium of a commemorative stamp.


  1. 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  2. John E Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1992), 13-20, 169-185. Bodnar defines official culture as presenting the past in a patriotic ways that emphasize ideals rather than complex realities. Vernacular culture represents many interests of diverse groups that reflect personal experiences in smaller communities. 

  3. 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991).; Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard University Press, 1998); David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: BasicBooks, 2005). 

  4. 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Katharina Hering, “‘We Are All Makes of History’: People and Publics in the Practice of Pennsylvania-German Family History, 1891-1966” (Dissertation, George Mason University, 2009). 

  5. 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 William B. Rhoads, “The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35, no. 4 (December 1976): 239-254; Patricia West, Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1999); and Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture

  6. 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 William B. Rhoads, “The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism,” Patricia West, Domesticating History; Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory; Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Richard Townley Haines Halsey and Elizabeth Tower, The Homes of Our Ancestors (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1925).; Thomas J. Schlereth, Material Culture Studies in America (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1982).; Karal Ann Marling, George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture, 1876-1986 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988).; Francesca Morgan, Women and Patriotism in Jim Crow America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).; Hamilton J.G. de Roulhac, “The Ford Museum,” American Historical Review 36, no. 4 (July 1931): 772–775; Walter Karp, “Greenfield Village,” American Heritage Magazine 32, no. 1 (December 1980): http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1980/1/1980_1_98.shtml; Walter Karp, “Electra Webb and Her American Past,” American Heritage Magazine 33, no. 3 (May 1982): http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1982/3/1982_3_16.shtml; Edward Park, “My Dream and My Hope,” Colonial Williamsburg History, n.d., http://www.history.org/Foundation/general/introhis.cfm.. 

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Source: http://stampingamericanmemory.org/2014version/shaping-national-identity-with-commemoratives-in-1920s-1930s/interwar-commemorations/