BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Wickliffe Baldwin

Marcus Wickliffe Baldwin (1853-1925) was born in Irvington, New Jersey on 31 March 1853, into a printing family, with his father working at the National Bank Note Company (NBNC). Young Marcus showed artistic talent and could always been seen holding a pad and pencil to draw whatever grabbed his attention. He especially liked to create portraits.

At a very young age, Baldwin, encouraged by his parents, became an apprentice at the NBNC. He started out at the letter engraving department, but soon grew tired of that, as he wanted to engrave vignettes. He boldly asked to be transferred and after an interview with the famous banknote and stamp engraver Alfred Jones, who was rather impressed by the young man, his request was granted. Jones also recommended he attended art school, and so young Baldwin went to the National Academy of Design for evening lessons.

A period of hard work followed, but Baldwin soon mastered important engraving techniques such as creating light and shade. Helped along by both Jones and other picture engravers, who all recognised his talent, Baldwin soon set his goals even higher, and wanted to delve into the art of portrait engraving. By then, he had been an apprentice for as short as two years, but his pictorial work was already being used on bonds and certificates. While it would normally take a decade before an engraver would be ready to start tackling portraits, Baldwin's meteoric rise was such that he was ready within a few years. 

Baldwin remained with the NBNC after the firm merged with the American Bank Note Company in 1878. But a few years after the merger, Baldwin set up his own company, called Baldwin & Gleason. For over a decade his company catered for all sorts of engravers’ and printers’ jobs. The company proved popular with many young and upcoming engravers, among whom was the future stamp engraver Robert Savage.

But Baldwin was not a businessman and that side of things wore him out. So he eventually left the company and set up as an independent freelance engraver. His reputation by then was such that he was sought out by big companies such as the Hamilton Bank Note Company, for whom he engraved his first stamps: several values from the El Salvador Columbus issues of 1892 and 1894. 

In 1897 Baldwin joined the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). They had been offering a position for years, but Baldwin had been very reluctant to give up his independence. But in the end he managed to negotiate a contract which suited his personal needs as regards to visiting his family which he had to leave behind. This is the moment his career in stamp engraving took off.

During his stint at the BEP, which lasted some two decades, Baldwin was responsible for the engraving of many a president’s portrait on America’s definitives. From the ‘Series 1902’, for example, Baldwin engraved the portraits of Lincoln (5c), Webster (10c), Harrison (13c), Clay (15c) and Farragut ($1). He also engraved Washington’s portrait on the 1908 definitives and Franklin’s portrait on the 1912 set. 

Baldwin may have created a range of American definitives which are familiar to us all, but his portfolio contains many more gems. He was also heavily involved in many of the commemorative issues around the turn of the century. In 1898, Marcus engraved the vignettes of several stamps in the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, Omaha issue. His engraving of the ‘Western Cattle in Storm’ vignette of the $1 value, especially, is still considered one of the very best stamp engravings in the US catalogue. Baldwin also engraved the vignettes of the 2c, 5c, 10c and $2 values, and he engraved the corn and wheat ornaments of the ornamental frame used for all values. His engraved essay for a proposed 4c depicting an 'Indian on a Horse' never made it to a stamp.

Hot on its heels followed the popular bicoloured stamps of the 1901 issue for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. All the vignettes, excluding the 1c, were engraved by Baldwin. It was BEP’s first attempt at printing bicoloured stamps and some values were inevitably printed with the vignette upside down.

BEP’s second attempt at bicoloured printing, in 1918, was yet another stamp engraved by Baldwin. Mainly known for its variety, the Inverted Jenny, Baldwin’s airmail engraving has become the most famous US stamp ever. Unfortunately, this stamp has for a long time been attributed to another engraver, but information from Baldwin’s diaries has since proved that he really was the engraver of the vignette.

Marcus was 65 when he started engraving the vignette of the famous 1918 US airmail issue, depicting Jenny, the Curtiss JN-4. According to the official BEP die production records, he worked in the vignette on 8 and 9 May 1918, for a total of 18 hours and 45 minutes, receiving $46.61. His die was numbered 664. At the time he was considered one of BEP’s most accomplished engravers.

Proofs of Marcus’ die in combination with Weeks’ frame die show that the plane he engraved did not carry any number. Yet, the eventual plane on the stamp carries the number 38262. In his diary, Marcus wrote that ‘Weeks did the lettering’. While for many years philatelists believed this referred to Edward Weeks doing the lettering of the frame, it is now thought that Mr Weeks engraved the number on the plane as well.

At the end of the 1910s, tensions over pay between management and staff at the BEP became more and more disagreeable. It was a period during which many engravers sought employment elsewhere. Baldwin, wanting to stay, joined committees to negotiate better deals for the many engravers at the firm. He was even sent on a fact-finding mission to various other printing firms, but all his hard work and negotiations were of no or very limited avail.

Disillusioned with the firm’s practices, he eventually retired from the BEP in 1920 and returned to the American Bank Note Company in 1921. Instrumental in this move was Baldwin's aforementioned former employee Robert Savage, who had always retained a huge admiration for Baldwin and his work, and had pleaded with him  to return to the ABNC. There, Baldwin would enjoy his final years of his career until his death on 15 July 1925. In this last period, Baldwin engraved still a good many stamps, mainly for Central American countries, with his portrait engravings for the 1921 Centenary of Independence sets issued in Nicaragua and Panama being the ones that stand out.

You will find Marcus Wickliffe Baldwin's database HERE.