US Stamps

America’s "shining seas" and more shown on O Beautiful stamps

Jun 14, 2018, 4 AM

By Michael Baadke

A new set of United States stamps captures the beauty of the nation’s natural scenery while paying tribute to a stirring song that praised that beauty more than a century ago.

The O Beautiful pane of 20 nondenominated (50¢) forever stamps will be issued July 4 at Memorial Park, 1605 Pikes Peak Ave., in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The 7:30 p.m. MDT first-day ceremony is planned as part of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic’s July 4th Summer Symphony event.

Kevin Romero, a U.S. Postal Service district manager, will participate in the ceremony, as will the orchestra.

For more information, and to register in advance for the ceremony, visit

Twenty different photographs have been selected as stamp images and arranged on the pane to echo familiar phrases from America the Beautiful, the song composed by Katharine Lee Bates with music by Samuel Augustus Ward.

As the song is sung today, the lyrics in the first verse are “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain. America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

The Postal Service explained in a May 17 press release: “Each of the stamps features a photograph that helps illustrate one of five phrases from the song’s first verse: ‘Spacious Skies’ (top row), ‘Waves of Grain’ (second row), ‘Mountain Majesties’ (third row), ‘The Fruited Plain’ (fourth row), and ‘Sea to Shining Sea’ (bottom row).”

Inscriptions along the left margin identify the themes of the five horizontal rows, while the banner margin across the top features the first words of the song — and the title of the stamp issue — “O Beautiful.”

The stamps were designed by USPS art director Ethel Kessler using existing photographs by several different photographers.

Following are descriptions of the scenes pictured and the photographers credited, as grouped in each of the five horizontal rows of four stamps. (After the initial identification here, photographers are credited by last name only.)

Spacious Skies: Sunlight on Death Valley National Park by Gary Crabbe of San Francisco, Calif.; Three Fingers Mountain in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington by Kevin Ebi of Lynnwood, Wash.; a field near Grove City, Kan., in a photograph named Daydream by Sean Ramsey of Yukon, Okla.; Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee by Tim Fitzharris of Santa Fe, N.M.

Waves of Grain: A Wisconsin wheat field in Calumet County by Larry Michael of Green Valley, Ariz.; plowed wheat fields in Palouse Hills, Wash., by Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott of Hurley, N.Y.; a farm windmill in Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, Merced County, Calif., by Crabbe; fields of wheat in Montana by Momatiuk and Eastcott.

Mountain Majesties: Yosemite National Park in California by Crabbe; Crater Lake National Park in Oregon by Crabbe; Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona and Utah by David Muench of Bozeman, Mont.; Maroon Bells peaks in White River National Forest, Colo., by Fitzharris.

The Fruited Plain: Sunrise near Orinda, Calif., by Crabbe; Pigeon Point near Pescadero, Calif., by Fitzharris; vineyards in Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County, Calif., by Crabbe; sunlight on green hills in spring in the Tassajara region near Livermore, Contra Costa County, Calif., by Crabbe.

Sea to Shining Sea: Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, Kauai, Hawaii by Timothy T. De La Vega of Hannapepe, Hawaii; Lone Ranch Beach at Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor, Oregon by Fitzharris; storm clouds at Apollo Beach, Canaveral National Seashore, Florida by Fitzharris; and Bailey Island, Maine by Benjamin Williamson of Brunswick, Maine.

 Although a few of these locations have been highlighted previously on U.S. stamps, the majority have not.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Yosemite National Park, for example, are featured on airmail stamps issued consecutively in 2006 (Scott C140-C141) as part of the Scenic American Landscapes series.

That airmail series and the 2016 National Parks set of 16 forever stamps (Scott 5080) also made use of photographs to display various scenic areas across the country.

The new stamp set is not the first to make use of lines from America the Beautiful as a theme.

Flag definitives issued in 1981 celebrated the song with “…for amber waves of grain” inscribed on an 18¢ sheet stamp showing a harvester in a grain field,
“…from sea to shining sea” on an 18¢ coil stamp depicting a lighthouse and coastline, and “…for purple mountain majesties” on an 18¢ booklet stamp featuring purple mountains.

That older booklet stamp, by the way, shows part of the Grand Teton mountain range near Jackson Hole, Wyo., according to the 1981 Postal Service philatelic release No. 22.

It is widely claimed that when Bates wrote about purple mountains, she had in mind Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, which she had recently visited.

When the Flags of our Nation commemorative coil series was issued from 2008 to 2012, the U.S. flags interspersed with the state and territorial flag stamps in each coil roll featured background images again matching up with the song lyrics, including spacious skies (Scott 4273), amber waves of grain (4302), purple mountains (4303) and fruited plain (4332).

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The Postal Service provided background details about the writing of America the Beautiful:

“First published as a poem on July 4, 1895, America the Beautiful was written by poet Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) and set to the music of Materna, a melody composed by Samuel Augustus Ward (1848-1903). Considered by many to be our unofficial national anthem, the song consists of four verses, each punctuated by the anthemic cry ‘America! America!’ Today it remains one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs.”

Bates was born in Massachusetts and became an English professor at Wellesley College, and eventually the head of its English department.

She revised her original poem in 1904 and again in 1913. It was joined with Ward’s melody early on, though according to the Library of Congress, Bates’ lyrics were occasionally sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

“When the National Federation of Music Clubs sponsored a 1926 contest to elicit new music for Bates’ poem but failed to find a winner, Ward’s music prevailed,” the Library of Congress reports.

The Postal Service has created two pictorial postmarks for first-day covers franked with the new stamps. A black postmark features a single scenic view, while the color postmark is a composite of five views representative of the stamps and the song.

The Postal Service has not disclosed plans for its own prepared FDCs or press sheets. That information has not been provided for recent issues until after the issue date is past. It is presumed but unconfirmed that FDCs and press sheets will be offered for the O Beautiful issue.

Ashton Potter (USA) Ltd. is printing and processing 60 million stamps, a fairly large order for what will likely be a popular commemorative set.