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!