GPO, FDR, and The Malta Citation

On March 4, 1861 – exactly 150 years ago today – the United States Government Printing Office opened for business. On such an auspicious occasion, Government Book Talk examines a unique Federal Government document. Ordered by the President on the tightest possible deadline for a purpose of international importance, only one copy was created by GPO. It is also, as far as I know, the only GPO product ever reproduced in its entirety on a postage stamp. Here’s the story of the Malta Citation.

From 1940 to 1943, the British Crown Colony of Malta endured prolonged and brutal air attacks launched by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Axis was determined to bomb or starve the people of Malta into submission  to deprive Great Britain of a vital naval base and, in so doing, dominate the Mediterranean. Despite saturation bombing and near starvation conditions caused by submarine attacks on British supply convoys, the Maltese people carried on with exemplary courage until the Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily ended this threat. To honor their resistance to Nazi aggression, King George VI awarded the George Cross to Malta and its people in recognition of an entire nation’s collective valor. In November 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided that America also should salute the people of Malta. He decided to visit the islands after the “Big Three” conference with Churchill and Stalin in Teheran and present the Maltese people with a citation that expressed the sentiments that Malta’s defense had inspired in the American people. The text was composed at the White House, but it fell to GPO to transform that text into an appropriate form.

The order for the Malta Citation was forwarded to GPO from the White House on November 15. Delivery was required not later than 3 p.m. on November 24 to meet the deadline for transport halfway around the world. The President suggested that the citation should be about 16 by 24 inches with lettering resembling that of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The details of color and design were left up to GPO. A complicating factor was secrecy. For reasons of security, the President’s visit to Malta could not be allowed to leak out. This combined need for speed, secrecy, and artistic excellence made the Malta Citation one of GPO’s most exacting and unusual wartime assignments.

The Malta project was assigned to GPO’s Division of Typography and Design. Its Director, Frank H. Mortimer, was given complete responsibility for the design and execution of the Citation. Because of the need for secrecy, and because only one copy was required, Mortimer decided to do the job by hand rather than experiment with type faces. He chose to work with genuine sheepskin parchment, feeling that its qualities of endurance and its capacity to retain freshness of lettering in both black and colored inks made it the most logical choice. He used steel and crow quill pens, drawing letters in the gothic style he had selected. Two sketches were prepared and submitted to the President, who chose the simpler version. Once the design was approved, Mortimer set to work. He used red and black inks for the 1-page text, with initials illuminated in blue, red, and gold. Pure gold leaf was used in the surrounding border, along with two fine lines of blue and red on the outside. An ornamental design consisting of the shield of Malta with the flags of the United States and Great Britain, all superimposed upon an aerial contour map of the main island, was placed above the text.

 To house the Citation, GPO’s Carpenter and Paint Shop produced a specially constructed case of solid, highly polished walnut, lined with royal blue plush. It was designed so that the right half contained the text while the left served as a cover. A weight to hold the parchment flat when the case was closed was placed inside the left half. This was produced in the GPO Bindery and consisted of laminated wood covered with dark blue morocco leather trimmed with lines in gold leaf and faced with the shield of Malta. Public Printer Augustus E. Giegengack personally delivered the completed citation in its case to the White House at 2:45 p.m. on November 24, beating the deadline by 15 minutes. On December 18 he received a letter from the President containing this tribute: “I wish to congratulate you and your craftsmen on the splendid workmanship displayed on the scroll which was presented by me to the people of the Island of Malta. It was very beautifully done, and I am sure we can all be proud of this product of our Government Printing Office.”

And the postage stamp? In 1956, Malta issued a stamp (left) that reproduced the Citation’s text, documenting  its importance to the Maltese and serving as a reminder of the huge variety and high quality of work that GPO has produced for the last century and a half. Happy birthday, GPO!

22 Responses to GPO, FDR, and The Malta Citation

  1. maik timmerman says:

    Happy birthday , by the way beautiful blog comments.

  2. learn korean language says:

    Well, congratulation to GPO. I’m sure many people are happy and satisfied to your service, keep up the good work and continue on your success.

  3. southern cooking says:

    glad to hear this wonderful story

  4. James says:

    Hey There Govbooktalk,
    Cool Post, At a single time, Sliema, the greatest metropolis in Malta, had different rather highly affordable guest properties. This was previous to the “discovery” of Malta as a tourist spot. The fact is that, guest homes have disappeared the tourism department does not consider they contribute to a beneficial image of the island. I do. They are not only noticeably less high-priced than most inns, they are noticeably increased enjoyment.
    Kindest Regards

  5. Rebecca B. Schwartz says:

    Job well done! Proud to be part of a country that produces quality work!! Happy 150th GPO.

  6. Mag says:

    Congratulations and Happy 150th to GPO. Remarkable achievement and taking into consideration that technology wasn’t the same as it is today!

  7. Steve Pulis says:

    Wonderful story about a wonderful job well done! Happy 150th too!

  8. Bill Olvany says:

    “The Malta Citation” story was both informative and an inspiration. Congratulations on your 150th anniversary.

  9. Marcelo Horacio Yepes del Pozo Valencia says:

    Happy Birthday GPO.

  10. Nancy Roach says:

    Happy 150th Birthday GPO! My husband is a graphic arts teacher in a local high school. His father was a printer for the city of Boston. Technology is great but it does not replace the talent and dedication of Frank Mortimer and Augustus Giegengack. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring story on a Monday morning.

  11. Mike Tinnon says:

    Congraturlations to the United State Government Printing Office (GPO) on your 150th Anniversary on March 4, 2011.

    Mike Tinnon
    Boerne / San Antonio, Texas

  12. Rida says:

    Congratulations on 150 years! This would be worthy of a Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story” news broadcast. I have learned something new today. I was unaware of Malta, its part in WWII, and the GPO’s role in this. This is a great day for my first granddaughter was born this morning!

  13. Norio Yamada says:

    Citation “WOW”!!!!!! Many thanks you folks provide
    us. Thanks again

  14. Balvant Barot says:

    On this auspicious occasion, I salute The United States Government Printing Office, FDR as also GPO’s then Director, Frank H. Mortimer. God Bless America !

  15. Adriana says:

    HAppy birthday GPO!

  16. Gary Vernon says:

    Happy Birthday! Keep up the good work!

  17. David Coursey says:

    This is such a wonderful story from a very special time. Goregeous work that will be an important document for the Maltese people for many generations to come. Could the GPO execute such a project today entirely in-house?

    • govbooktalk says:

      It is a great story, and yes, GPO has a Creative Services group, the successor to the Typography and Design Division mentioned in the post. They are a very talented group and could easily do lettering like this. Likewise, our carpenters and binders still produce a high level of work and are very capable of handling such an order. It’s part of our tradition of service, from classic craftsmanship to advanced technology, and we’re proud of that. Thanks for asking!

  18. zannias vasilis says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY GPO!CONGRATULATIONS!THIS ARTICLE IS UNIQUE!FIRST AF ALL!ACTUALLY , THE PEOPLE OF ISLAND MALTA WERE VERY BRAVE , AGAINST NAZI GERMAN AND FASCIST ITALY!IT IS WORTH , THAT THEY HONORED BY GREAT BRITAIN AND U.S.A!BUT MANY TIMES THE HISTORY CONCEALS THE TRUTH!ACCORDING TO EVIDENCE OF GERMAN OFFICER , AFTER WAR WORLD II , THE GERMAN LOST THE WAR DUE TO RESISTANCE IN THE BALKANS!SPECIFICALLY DUE TO PARTIZAN OF TITO , AND OF COURCE , DUE TO BATTLE OF ISLAND OF CRETE , AND EAM-ELAS (GREEK PARTIZANS)!EVERYONE CAN LEARN VERY EASY THE STORY ABOUT THE BRIDGE OF “GORGOPOTAMOS” , AND THE 900.000 GREEKS WHO DIED BY GERMAN , ITALY , AND BULGARIAN ARMY!

  19. Michael McGreevy says:

    That is the first I have heard of the citation. It is a wonderful story.

  20. Eduardo Jorge Wessel says:

    JOB WELL DONE “GPO”!, remember that you are being read in Argentina, by an Argentine. All the best for the team, Ed

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