The Tubman Stamp Project Helping to Put Harriet Tubman on $20 Bills
|Hilliker||Jun 12, 2019|
Last month the Trump administration announced that the new Harriet Tubman $20 bill would be delayed until 2028. The new $20 bill celebrating Tubman’s legacy as an abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor, and women’s suffrage advocate was supposed to be unveiled in 2020, but the Trump Treasury Department postponed it for eight years citing the implausible argument of “counterfeiting issues.”
Harriet Tubman $20 bills are still appearing anyway. Thanks to an inspired civil disobedience project called the Tubman Stamp, people are buying 3D printed stamps of Harriet Tubman’s face and stamping her likeness over that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
The North Star tracked down the Harriet Tubman superfan making these stamps: New York graphic designer Dano Wall. Wall designed the stamps in 2017 before the delay was announced. They did not initially take off.
“Until last week I was selling between two to 20 stamps per week, making them all in my free time after work and carrying them in shopping bags to the post office in the morning,” he told us. But the popularity of Wall’s stamps exploded when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced in late May that the Tubman $20 bills were being suspended. The DIY Tubman stamps quickly sold out, and the waiting list is now longer than 10,000 orders.
“I haven't taken any new orders since I sold out last week,” Wall says. “I'm approaching 13,000 people who've signed up to receive notifications when I put more stamps in stock.”
“On my own, I'm able to make a hundred or so stamps per week. So I obviously will need to get some help to make enough to meet the demand that is clearly out there for these stamps. I plan to put more in stock in small batches every week until I'm able to get larger batches prepared.”
Wall had been funding the Tubman stamps out-of-pocket for the first year of the project, but in August 2018 he applied for $1,000 grant from a fundraising organization called The Awesome Foundation.
“I heard back a week or two later from them, letting me know that I'd won the grant and that I was one of the first unanimous decisions they'd had in years,” he remembers. “I spent it all almost immediately on 3D printer filament, laser-engravable rubber, ink pads, and parts to upgrade my 3D printer so I could crank the handles out faster. The press that came with the grant caused a spike in demand and interest, so I set up an Etsy shop to help manage the orders. “It slowly grew from there.”
That was nothing compared to the interest the Tubman stamps generated when the Trump administration postponed the new $20 bill. Wall’s stamps suddenly made national headlines with stories appearing in CNN, The Washington Post, and VICE. Thousands of new orders poured in from across the country. Wall’s production methods had to change so the thousands of people who’d ordered stamps actually got them. He sourced out the printing of the Harriet Tubman stamp faces in hopes of putting a dent in the 13,000-person waiting list.
“The rubber stamp faces are molded by this wonderful old Irish man in the East Village,” he says, describing Casey Rubber Stamps on East 11th Street in New York City. “He can pump out upwards of 1,000 per week for me.” Wall has also found a new way to produce the stamps’ handles that just might catch him up, so that everyone who wants a Tubman stamp can get one.
“The handles are more difficult to make in bulk,” he concedes. “I've been 3D printing them up until now, but am in the process of getting them injection molded so I can make them by the thousands, or tens of thousands if need be, and quickly.” But he won’t have that capability for a few months. So in the meantime, his home is a round-the-clock Harriet Tubman stamp factory.
“I've got 3D printers working night and day and have ordered some big batches of handles,” Wall tells us. You might wonder if you can legally use $20 bills stamped with Harriet Tubman’s face. But, New York magazine found that Tubman bills were accepted in vending machines and at retailers like Target and Trader Joe’s.
Stamping this particular Harriet Tubman design onto the $20 bill is also perfectly legal. A lengthy analysis from the 3D printing website Adafruit Industries shows federal law does “prohibit the willful destruction of, and stamping of advertisements upon, paper money,” but “stamped currency is fit for circulation so long as its denomination remains legible.”
Harriet Tubman’s face in itself is not an advertisement and does not conceal the denomination, which makes stamping it on US currency technically legal.
If you’re lucky enough to have your own 3D printer, the Tubman Stamp project provides plans to print your own Harriet Tubman stamps for free. Or if you live near Manhattan, Cheeky Sandwiches and Scarr's Pizza have stamping stations where you can stamp up some Harriet Tubman $20 bills for your own personal stash.
The Tubman Stamp project is donating all proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Therapy For Black Women & Girls, so it’s a worthwhile $20 purchase even if you don’t get your stamp for a few months. Harriet Tubman freed at least 300 enslaved people, while Andrew Jackson owned 150 enslaved people. It’s not hard to see who you’d rather have rubber-stamped on the $20 bill.
About the Author
Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.