GPO and the Stars and Stripes

March 28, 2011

Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Government Printing Office, I’ve been trying to highlight some of its history by featuring some unusual Government publications with a GPO connection. How’s this for unusual: a newspaper that was not printed through GPO, not printed in the United States, and staffed by a number of distinguished authors and critics as well as a future Public Printer.  It took advertising, had 526,000 readers at its peak, yet only stayed in business for about a year and a half. It was, gentle readers, the original Stars and Stripes, the paper of choice for the American doughboys of World War I. (Stars and Stripes currently is published as a non-Government, DoD-authorized newspaper: http://www.stripes.com/customer-service/about-us).

Thanks to the estimable American Memory project of the Library of Congress, the entire run of the U.S. Army’s Stars and Stripes, published in France from February 8, 1918 to June 13, 1919, is available online for browsing. A special American Memory presentation, “A Closer Look at The Stars and Stripes,” highlights the contributions of such luminaries as New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross, drama critic (“Old Vitriol and Violets”) Alexander Woollcott, literary critic John Winterich, sportswriter Grantland Rice, and columnist and “Information Please” radio show panelist Franklin P. Adams (greatly admired in his day and now sunk without trace – who now remembers “The Diary of our own Samuel Pepys”)?  The “Closer Look” also examines soldier-authored material, censorship, and other issues affecting Stars and Stripes. Some of the doughboys’ poetry even transcends doggerel, although not always by much.

Finally, a roster of Stars and Stripes staff reveals the name of Augustus E. Giegengack – a euphonious cognomen, to be sure (hmm – I must be channeling Alexander Woollcott) –   the future Public Printer to whom I referred above. Sergeant Giegengack is listed as working in Circulation, but he started out in charge of printing the paper and expanded his reach to various circulation, delivery, and other tasks. As a poem in Stars and Stripes put it:

“Mail, wrapping, typing, couriers – his duties are a score,

Whenever we can think of it we’ll give him twenty more;

I often wonder how one man can handle such a batch –

When does this great executive get time to stop and scratch?

Nothing neglected, nothing slack

In the department Giegengack.”

After his discharge from the Army, the sergeant returned to the printing industry until his nomination as Public Printer by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, following which he ran GPO from 1934 until 1948 – the longest serving Public Printer in GPO history. He’s also the only GPO chief ever to be profiled in the New Yorker – a three-parter in 1943. He seems to have been both a colorful character and a very efficient GPO chief executive, and the profile is well worth seeking out (New Yorker subscribers can access it online). Many libraries also have extensive runs.

The Stars and Stripes was not only a fine newspaper, but perusing its pages takes one back nearly 100 years to see how the soldiers of the day viewed the war, their situation, and their country. (I wonder if many of today’s soldiers write doggerel?). Even the ads are fun to read! A product of the well-managed “department Giegengack,” it’s a paper that’s still readable and thought-provoking today, when the last American World War I veteran has just left us for “Over There.”


GPO, FDR, and The Malta Citation

March 4, 2011

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!


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