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Local Stamp Designer Debuts Civil War Series

For 40 years, Phil Jordan has been walking historic ground.

“We live in a very historic area,” Jordan said. “People have no idea we are treading upon grounds famous Americans tread on, and these are routes we encounter all the time. We live in an area where these ghosts are all around us.”

Jordan speaks fondly of Falls Church – the historical photos that grace the Broad Street CVS, the way The Falls Church looks just the same as it has for years, and a little-known plaque that hangs in the Falls Church Community Center, naming those from the area who served in the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate side, and sometimes from the same family.

And now in his professional capacity, as a contract art director for the United States Postal Service, he will be sending a bit of area history across the nation.

Jordan is the lead art director on a series of stamps recognizing the Civil War coming out this year. The stamps will be released over a five-year period, each stamp set representing our country in war 150 years ago. The first stamp set, which was released this week, will represent 1861, with stamps featuring battles at Fort Sumter and First Bull Run. The stamps will be released with collectors in mind, showing two unique stamps on the front of a sheet, with 10 of those stamps on the reverse side for use accompanied by a summary of the events of the year.

The background image spread across the sheet may be familiar to some, as it was taken during the Civil War at Minor’s Hill, on the Falls Church and Arlington County line.

“That was just pure chance,” he said of finding the local-taken historical image and wishing to use it. He said that of the thousands of images he saw, the image best suited the message he was trying to convey with the stamp set about the American mood in 1861, and had nothing to do with his residency in Falls Church.

“What I would hope to do is to show a lot of saber rattling, which is shown in that photograph,” Jordan said, adding that he intended to juxtapose the image with quotes taken from the era – including some from famous leaders speaking to the reality of war, but also one from a song in which a woman laments her lover’s departure to fight in the war.

“At no time during any of these sheets will you find flag waving or rah rah,” Jordan said. “It was an ugly episode. At no time do I want to project it as ‘rally around the flag, boys.’ That’s why that photography is very important. We’re commemorating one of the most significant events in the history of the country, but let’s don’t paint it in red, white and blue.”

Each sheet will feature a background photograph, and finding the right one was very important to Jordan, which led him to looking through around 5,000 images from the era multiple times.

“It just began to take on a life of its own, and the deeper I got into it, the more depressed I got. There is no way to avoid that this was a hideous episode in our country,” Jordan said, adding that sometimes the graphic images were taken in such detail that with a magnifying glass he could even make out serial numbers on rifles.

The former East Carolina University U.S. history student has been working on the stamp series for years, and will continue to work on the project until the release of the final set of stamps in 2015, and this is not uncommon. The process of creating a U.S. postage stamp, from the first idea in the creator’s mind to affixing it to your water bill, is a long one, often completed three to five years before a stamp is even released to the public.

“The Postmaster General has a committee of citizens called the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, and that committee selects all the stamps,” Jordan said. “That committee is made up of distinguished Americans from all walks of life, representing constituents from all around the country.” The committee has two subcommittees, which focus on the subject of the stamps and their design, respectively.

“They get about 50,000 to 60,000 requests for stamps from the public, and our program can support maybe 60 subjects in that range,” Jordan said.

The committee then assigns the projects to the four USPS art directors.

“What you get depends on your background,” Jordan said. “Any of us can do a subject, but some of us are more accustomed to a certain type of work.” His background in aviation and space from his work as a graphic designer at Air and Space magazine lent itself to his work on military projects, he said.

On the Civil War series, the USPS has also been working with the firm PhotoAssist.

“Their job is to find images, subjects and expert consultants to help us along the way, make selections, and also to deal with rights, issues, and all the things related to that sort of thing,” Jordan said. PhotoAssist brought in the help of Dr. Allen Guelzo, a Gettysburg College professor specializing in the Civil War era.

The group settled on a list of battles to highlight and began considering works of art to represent each battle, and collecting quotes and historical information to accompany the images in the design. Jordan made reviewing photographs his pet project.

“I had always admired the photography that is on file at the Library of Congress for the quality and clarity of it,” Jordan said. “The fact that those photographs are in real time, they are as real as it’s going to get about the war. These photos show you what it looked like, what it felt like. So I got in there and decided that we’d take one photograph for each year.”

After the final images and quotes are selected, the design is finalized. Jordan says that if an image selected doesn’t seem right in the design, it often means back to the drawing board for him.

The Civil War stamps will not be his only project to be released this year. Jordan has also played a part in creating an all-purpose “Celebrate” stamp, stamps celebrating NASA’s Project Mercury and MESSENGER Mission, and the Merchant Marines, a stamp to honor the Muslim holiday Eid, and stamps celebrating the popular public figures Mark Twain, Gregory Peck, and even Owney the Postal Dog.

And while Jordan can’t speak about the other projects he has been working on for the USPS, he will, as he has in his 20-year career with the USPS, continue to design the stamps that fit a wealth of history into a tiny space.