The postage stamp designs of Helen Roberta Fitzgerald

By James Bone

Helen Roberta Fitzgerald (Helen Bacon, in some documents) was the first woman to design postage stamps for Canada. Her earliest work was the Associated Country Women of the World stamp (1959). She would complete six further designs that were accepted by the Post Office Department. Including a Christmas design that was used for two different stamps, her work appeared on a total of eight Canadian postage stamp issues.

Born in 1919 in Edmonton, Alberta, Fitzgerald was raised in Toronto and lived most of her life in Ontario. She began studying art and design at a young age and eventually completed her studies at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), where she later taught. In addition to teaching, she worked on commercial art for the Eaton’s catalogue, freelanced as a graphic designer and layout artist, was heavily involved in textile, mosaic and embroidery arts, and worked on commissioned ecclesiastical art for churches across Ontario.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling woman.

Helen Roberta Fitzgerald in 1978, provided by Fitzgerald for the Canadian Postal Archives database project

Later Canadian stamp issues designed by Fitzgerald include Girl Guides Association (1960), Strength Through Education (1962), Victoria, 1862–1962 (1962), Christmas: Gifts from the wise men (1965) and Highway Safety (1966). Unlike other stamp designers, Fitzgerald frequently designed at the same size and scale as the intended finished postage stamp, rather than make a larger design that would then be scaled-down. The Strength Through Education stamp shows the effect of this method, with the elements of the design making careful and full use of the available space.

A two-tone stamp design showing a boy and a girl with diplomas in their hands looking off into the distance, with symbols representing aspects of knowledge in orange: classical building, crown, gavel, gears, typewriter, scientific equation, violin, globe, book, microscope, etc.

Strength Through Education (e001218439), copyright Canada Post Corporation; note that the issued stamp has a different title in French (L’instruction fait la force)

Fitzgerald’s work on postage stamp design occupied only a brief period in her life, from 1959 to 1967. The design for her final Canadian stamp issue, Votes for Women (1967), was poorly received, and this might have brought about an end to Fitzgerald’s work with the Post Office Department.

In addition to postage stamp design for Canada, Fitzgerald submitted designs for the 1967 Canadian centennial emblem, and she painted fish designs that were used, in part, for a 1963 series of Maldives postage stamps.

A colour design showing a brightly coloured fish with yellow, blue and black stripes on a blue background.

Pygoplites diacanthus (Angelfish), design painted for a Maldives postage stamp (e011202373)

Fitzgerald eventually retired to King City, Ontario, continuing her practice of the arts, where she lived with her husband Wilfred Bacon until she passed away in 2009.

Library and Archives Canada received a small donation of archival material related to Fitzgerald, which includes paintings from the Maldives series, slides showing a mosaic of the Associated Country Women of the World design, Canadian centennial emblem designs, design essays for the Highway Safety postage stamp issue, correspondence, postal covers, and newspaper clippings related to her work. All of the material in the Helen Roberta Fitzgerald fonds is open for consultation.


James Bone is a Philatelic and Art Archivist within Private Specialized Media at Library and Archives Canada.

 

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