by Steve Swain
10th of April 2013
Yellow - A Significant Stamp Color
The importance of yellow in graphic mediums, including stamps, is well documented. Combine yellow and red to stimulate a feeling of excitement; yellow enhances a more subdued, cool palette of greens and browns; mix yellow with gray and a bit of black to create a crisp, high-tech look.
A review of the stamps portrayed in a U.S. catalog using color reveals numerous attractive designs using yellow. It is a very prominent and significant color for many stamps. Figure 1 presents several examples of these wonderful issues.
Yellow is a significant color in the design of these stamps
The school room blackboard on the 1972 P.T.A. issue (Scott 1463) is boldly emphasized against the brilliant yellow background. The 2011 issue commemorating the Indianapolis 500 road race (Scott 4530) has an exciting rendition of the yellow Marmon Wasp winning the 1911 race. The 1987 25¢ bee and flower issue (Scott 2281) highlights the shining yellow of the honey bee. The 2007 41¢ Celebrate stamp (Scott No. 4196) artfully combines yellow with red.
Some stamps have even been printed on yellow paper, with some of the most notable examples being the 1961 Kansas Statehood Centennial Sunflower commemorative and the various issues of late-1970s to early-1980s Americana series shown in Figure 2.
Kansas Statehood (Scott 183), Beat the Drum (Scott 1615), Violins (Scott 1813), Windmill (Scott 1730)
Probably the most famous U.S. stamp associated with the
color yellow is the 1962 “yellow color shift” issue (Figure 3). From
the original printing of the stamp honoring Dag Hamarskjold,
Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, several
panes were discovered with the yellow color inverted.
Figure 3. Scott 1203
Not wanting to create a rarity, the USPS decided to print huge quantities of the color-inverted stamps allowing every collector to have a true error issue in their collection.
The Elusive Yellow Stamp
The multi-color process for U.S. stamps using yellow began with the 1958 Forest Conservation issue (Scott 1122). So, the question is begged as to whether yellow has always been a significant color for U.S. stamps prior to the introduction of the multi-color process. If so, which stamps, and how many?
A close review of the stamps portrayed in a color catalog reveals, with a very few exceptions, that prior to the use of effective multi-color printing technology U.S. stamps were printed using a single color: red, blue, green, brown, purple or black. Granted, there were many variations of these colors, such as “pale blue”, and printing varieties due to plate inking or ink preparation resulted in a range of colors seen on most early stamps. However, a single, primary color was definitely the mainstay for U.S. stamps during the years prior to the multi-color process
But not yellow. Of the thousands of U.S. stamps issued, with high quality, tightly rendered designs resulting in very attractive stamps, only a very few have yellow as their primary color scheme.
The Elusive Color Yellow - How Many Yellow Stamps?
Relying on descriptions in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, the 10¢ eagle-and-shield issue of the legendary 1869 “pictorials” set (Figure 4) was the first U.S. stamp having yellow as its sole color.
A noteworthy innovation in the 1869 pictorials was the introduction of the first two-
color stamps in U. S. postal history, the four denominations of 15-cents and higher.
The 10¢ eagle-and-shield design was adapted for the 30¢ bi-colored blue and red
stamp with the addition of draped U.S. flags. These bi-colored stamps are notable
exceptions to the one-color rule of that time period.
Following the 1869 issue, very few stamps were issued using the color yellow as the
base tint. In fact, taking into consideration regular issues, commemoratives, airmail
Figure 4. 1869 10¢
Eagle-and-Shield (Scott 116)
and special delivery, the list of stamps classified as yellow-only includes the 1869 10¢ Eagle-and-Shield (Scott 116) and the 4 varieties of the 10¢ Washington of the 1908 series (Scott 338, 356, 364 and 381) shown in Figure 5.
10¢ Washington of the 1908 series (Scott 338, 356, 364 and 381)
Some collectors will maintain that absent from this list are stamps commonly identified as yellow, such as the 1913 10¢ Panama-Pacific Exposition (Scott 400) and the 1922 10¢ James Monroe (Scott 562). However, these stamps are purposely not included in the above list of “yellow” stamps because Scott classifies these issues otherwise, as "orange yellow" or "yellow orange".
“Back of the Book” Yellow Stamps
The especially small list of stamps printed with yellow as a base color can be expanded by including issues in the “back of the book” category, specifically the 1873 Agriculture Department official stamps, Scott O1- O9. (Examples in Figure 6.)
Agriculture Department official stamps: Scott O3, Scott O4, Scott O6
Using designs of the regular issues then in use, these stamps satisfied a request by Congress to
abolish the much abused franking privilege. Stamps were issued for the Executive branch and its
subordinate departments, with Agriculture being one of those departments.
True, the various printings of the Agriculture Department stamps range in color from yellow to golden yellow to olive yellow. However, the generally accepted major type of the issue was printed solely in yellow, and that is how it’s listed in Scott’s.
An interesting note is that official stamps were valid only on
government mail and were never sold to the public, so
collectors found assembling this long series a challenge and
But in 1875, a special printing was made available to
collectors of the entire set, ungummed and overprinted with
"Specimen", as shown in these examples.
Further understanding related to the color yellow and U.S. stamps could result from research into the shades, hues and variations of yellow stamps as well as orange stamps incorporating yellow in their color scheme. Also, a comparison of yellow used in the major stamp catalogs, online resources, expertizing services and stamp auction houses could highlight the inconsistencies in how colors are identified on some stamps.
Yellow has definitely played a significant role in the history of U.S. stamps, whether for regular issues, commemoratives or back of the book items. But in stark contrast to the prominent use of yellow with the multi-color process, yellow as the single, primary tint is a most elusive color for U.S. stamps.