Howard Koslow, an illustrator whose miniature masterpieces adorned millions of items of mail, delighted generations of philatelists and made him one of the most celebrated stamp artists in the history of the U.S. Postal Service, died Jan. 25 at his home in Toms River, N.J. He was 91.
The cause was Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his wife, Helen Koslow.
Across the United States, whose history, landmarks and people Mr. Koslow commemorated in 60 stamps, certain rituals have coaxed Americans out of their homes to their doorstep or driveway every day, often at the same time, in routines that remained constant for decades.
One of those routines has traditionally been the delivery of a newspaper. Another is the arrival of the mail. It was that routine that brought Mr. Koslow’s artistry into an unknowable but almost certainly gargantuan number of American homes, his illustrations adhered to birthday greetings, holiday cards, love letters and less-welcome correspondence such as bills.
Known for his attention to historical accuracy, Mr. Koslow painted full-scale works commissioned by the U.S. Air Force Academy, NASA, the National Park Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. But he was best known for his tinier creations — his Postal Service stamps — and particularly for a series depicting lighthouses that was a philatelist sensation beginning in the 1990s.
His first postal entry, released in 1971, was an 8-cent stamp recognizing the 10th anniversary of the treaty that designated Antarctica as territory to be used only for peaceful and scientific purposes. His illustration, simple but effective, showed a white and blue map of the polar region and noted the years the treaty had been in effect.
Later, he made stamps and postal cards featuring places such as Wolf Trap Farm park in Virginia, the Brooklyn Bridge, Carnegie Hall and Ellis Island in New York, and Washington National Cathedral in the national capital.
He commemorated the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution with a stamp released in 1987. Shortly thereafter came stamps recognizing the executive branch (an infinitesimal portrait of George Washington), the House of Representatives and the Senate (renderings of sculptures from the chambers) and the Supreme Court.
Then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected Mr. Koslow’s initial proposal for his chamber’s stamp, with an apparently mythological guardian hovering aloft over the court. The Postal Service identified the figure as a “winged genius,” but other viewers interpreted the figure to be an angel. The final version of the stamp showed the long-serving 19th-century chief justice John Marshall.
Mr. Koslow displayed his talent for portraiture with a popular set of stamps, issued in 1994, recognizing blues and jazz singers including Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey, Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday.
But he was best known for his stamps featuring the lighthouses of the Great Lakes, the Southeastern United States, the Pacific Coast and the Gulf Coast. The most recent installment, an homage to the lighthouses of New England, was issued in 2013.
The collection “overwhelmed the postal service,” Bill McAllister, a longtime stamp and coin columnist for The Washington Post, said in an interview. “Stamp sales have gone down, because all mail has gone down, but for some reason these were stamps that people would look for and ask for. . . . Post offices literally couldn’t keep them in stock.”
He compared the series to the Postal Service’s 1993 stamp honoring Elvis Presley, which McAllister described as “the most saved stamp in American history.”
“I guess the truth is that his lighthouses were as close as they have come to the Elvis stamp,” he observed.
Mr. Koslow’s skill lay partly in his range. The postal service has employed few artists, McAllister said, who “can portray something as abstract as a treaty to the jazz greats and the lighthouses.”
But Mr. Koslow also had an uncanny ability to visualize a scene in miniature. He often worked with acrylic paint on canvases as small as 4 inches by 7 inches.
“To get all that detail in there!” he once told the Asbury Park Press of New Jersey. “That’s a little tense.”
Howard Bertram Koslow was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 21, 1924. After excelling in his high school art club, he graduated in 1944 from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then was an apprentice to the French graphic designer Jean Carlu. He later studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Mr. Koslow did graphical work for corporations, designed book covers and painted portraits. A contact at the Society of Illustrators, to which he belonged, led to his selection as a postal service stamp artist. His original works are today housed at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington.
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, the former Helen Feldman, of Toms River; two daughters, Kathi Meyer of San Diego and Amy-Jo Willig of Melville, N.Y.; a sister; and four grandchildren.
In many cases, the pieces of mail bearing Mr. Koslow’s artwork were missives containing news, happy or disheartening — a cheerful holiday card recounting a year’s worth of family goings-on, or perhaps a melancholy note from a friend not seen in a while. In their eagerness to open the mail, the recipient might even look past the stamp, without which the letter never would have arrived.
In Mr. Koslow’s view, the stamp on an envelope, not just the letter inside it, had to “convey a story,” he told the Ocean County Observer of Toms River. “It has to tell you something.”