In December 1996, Ethel Kessler attended her first meeting as an art director for the U.S. Postal Service. Soon after, Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development, gave her an assignment: Explore a set of four stamps on the flora and fauna of an American desert.
The idea, which was spurred by the success of Desert Plants (1981), presented a welcome challenge to Kessler. “In my mind, nature wasn’t really my subject,” she says, “but I looked forward to working in a new area.”
When it came to choosing an artist for the four stamps, John D. Dawson came highly recommended by fellow art director Howard Paine. Paine had worked with Dawson on assignments for National Geographic magazine and subsequently on three stamp issuances: American Cats (1988), Idaho Statehood (1990), and Flowering Trees (1998).
“I jumped at the chance to work on more stamps,” Dawson recalls. He eagerly started sketching concepts of a horizontal strip of stamps titled “The World of Chihuahuan Desert.”
“I think that was the inspiration for it all,” Kessler remembers. “The stamp development team thought it would be really popular — and they wanted to see more.”
Eventually, with the help of their research firm, PhotoAssist, and numerous other consultants, the Postal Service gathered a list of 51 ecosystems in addition to the American desert. An entirely new concept was on the table.
The team narrowed the list to six ecosystems they would feature in a series. First up was Sonoran Desert, chosen by consultants as more unique and pivotal to the United States than Chihuahuan Desert.
At the same time, the Postal Service was preparing to release an innovative sheet of 15 stamps titled The World of Dinosaurs, in which the individual stamps would be extracted from a larger panoramic scene. But the visual continuity was slightly compromised by the punched perforations required in water-activated formats.
So when it was suggested that Sonoran Desert be produced as self-adhesive, an emerging format that was becoming popular, new possibilities were opened. The serpentine edges made die-cutting less expensive and allowed for more flexibility in arranging stamps on the pane. Plus, educational information about each ecosystem could be printed on adhesive liner on the back.
But best of all, the interlocking, die-cut edges meant that when Sonoran Desert was issued, it appeared as one magnificent piece of art — without punched perforations. “It was amazing,” Kessler says. “You couldn’t tell where the stamps started and where they finished — all you saw was a beautiful, full image.”
Despite some complaints that a pane containing only ten stamps with a large selvage area was wasteful, the public responded positively, making the stamps among the most popular of 1999. And as Dawson and Kessler continued to work their way through the six planned issuances, the popularity grew. Soon enough, the Postal Service made the decision to extend the series six more years. (See the full series and trace the development of each issuance.)
On September 1, the series concluded with the issuance of Hawaiian Rain Forest, making this last issuance a special one for Hawaiʻi resident Dawson. “This series has been a perfect fit for me,” he says. “It’s literally been one of the greatest adventures of my career.”
“I am sad that it’s over,” Kessler adds, “but I am excited about what we were able to do. Who would have dreamt that from that first assignment we would ultimately create 120 stamps?”