Since 1934, hunters of migratory waterfowl have been required to purchase a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, commonly known as a duck stamp, at the beginning of each hunting season. These revenue stamps must be signed by the hunter and affixed to his or her hunting license.

From the beginning, though, the program was aimed at more than just hunters. Conservationists and wildlife-art lovers were also its audience, and the revenues generated by sales of the stamps were earmarked specifically for the purchase of wetlands and other wild spaces used by migratory birds. Thanks to these three interest groups, the stamps have been a resounding success. More than $700 million has been raised by the sales of these stamps, resulting in the acquisition of some 5.2-million acres for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The first head of the Duck Stamp Program, a conservationist and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist named Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, drew the first duck stamp. His pencil sketch depicted a pair of mallards coming in for a landing, with waving reeds in the background. Tinted blue, the stamp cost a dollar, racked up sales of 635,001, and was valid through June 30, 1935.

Frank Benson’s 1935 stamp, which was good through June 30 of 1936, also cost a dollar. His trio of canvasbacks was given a maroon hue. Canadian geese, greater scaups, northern pintails, and green-winged teals filled out the rest of the 1930s, while the 1940s were sprinkled with black ducks, ruddy ducks, wood ducks, buffleheads, and two types of geese. Stamp sales crested the 1-million mark in 1938, and 2 million was reached in 1946.

All this time, the stamps still cost $1, and artists were selected by invitation. But in 1950, the price of a duck stamp was raised to $2. That number would hold until 1959, when the price was raised to $3 and the first multi-colored stamp was issued. Based on a tempera drawing by Maynard Reece, it featured a Labrador retriever with a mallard in its mouth next to the words "RETRIEVERS SAVE GAME."

But the biggest change of 1950 was the way in which duck-stamp artists were selected. That year, a competition was held and 65 artists entered. The winner was Walter Weber, whose black-and-white gouache drawing of a pair of trumpeter swans flying over a lake, with mountains in the background, was printed in purple.

In 1971, states got into the pictorial-stamp act, beginning with California. As with the federal program, the goal was to raise money for wetlands. Paul Johnson created the first...

For serious collectors, mint-condition stamps that are unsigned and have their original gum backing bring the highest prices. That said, some people prefer to collect stamps that have been affixed to licenses or signed by the hunters who originally purchased them. In these cases, the collector is not only getting a collectible stamp, but a piece of cultural history, too.

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