Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday October 18, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 216: Old Cap Image Really Gets Around


On a background image of a stylized replica of Old Capitol erected at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis 
appear an assortment of Old Cap likenesses (clockwise from upper left) as the Bily sanctuary clock in 
Spillville, 1938 U.S. postage stamp, 1943 UI homecoming badge and 1946 U.S. half dollar. 
Collage created by Bob Hibbs.


By Bob Hibbs


The image of Old Capitol really gets around; and, in doing so has become arguably the most recognized symbol in Iowa.

Without doubt, the University of Iowa tiger Hawk, the stunning campanile on the Iowa State campus or the splendid five-domed capitol in Des Moines are more recognized by some, but these images pale at the ubiquitous appearances of Iowa City’s Old Capitol through more than 160 years.

In 1938 just three cents would mail a first class letter, and one could purchase the frank with an image of Old Capitol emblazoned on it. The U.S. stamp commemorated the Territory of Iowa centennial even though the territory existed only eight years from 1838 until the State of Iowa was established.

A serial-numbered corner block of four of the stamps now will cost about $5, about the same as a first-day cover postmarked Iowa City.

A homecoming badge in 1943 cost perhaps 25˘ and was printed black on gold cardboard featuring a frontal view of Old Capitol. Use of metal for such purposes was prohibited at the time to direct metal into the manufacture of World War II war material. Many of the badges were destroyed during the rain-soaked game, making them rare.

Today an authentic 1943 paper badge in good condition sells for about $2,000. However, Old Cap’s image on eight other homecoming badges from years past cost considerably less.

The U.S. mint helped mark Iowa’s state centennial in 1946 by issuing a half dollar coin featuring Old Capitol.  It sold then, of course, for 50˘; but, now it takes about $50 for one in good condition, and collectors pay several hundred dollars for one in a high-rated condition.

An unusual place to find an Old Capitol image is a stereographic slide of paired images taken at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It isn’t truly Old Cap, but one polluted by designers with strains of the Des Moines capitol.

Commentators at the time tell us the composite design created an impressive presence on the fair’s Avenue of the States, designating it the best of the buildings erected by states to house their self promotions.

A hand-carved image of Old Capitol even appears on the 1930 intricate “sanctuary” clock, a 9˝-foot tall creation which the celebrated Bily brothers took nearly three years to complete. Farmers and carpenters, the brothers forged their masterpieces in wood as a hobby with home-make tools.

They executed the sanctuary clock in black walnut, oak and boxwood at the family farm near the small northeast Iowa town of Spillville where much of their work remains in a public museum. The pieces were not commercially made, and have never been sold.

Several series of plates have included the likeness of Old Capitol. Among the most popular has been a 12-plate blue on white Wedgwood ceramic set issued five times between 1933 and 1974. Each plate carries an issue date. Curiously, the 1938 and 1974 sets both also carry a “Third Edition” notation.

These plates dated in the 1930s frequently sell at $100 or more per plate.

Another popular series is a brown earthenware set of 11-plates created by Judy Sutcliffe of Green Tree Pottery in Audubon for the UI Alumni Association. It began with an Old Capitol imaged plate in 1972 and ended with one featuring Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1982. They now sell for around $25 each.

Scores of decorative ceramic plates and engraved silver tea spoons that have been marketed through the years are now considered highly collectable, as are cups and saucers. One of the fanciest featuring Old Cap is a prize fragile porcelain tea cup and saucer, gently fluted, issued about 1900. It is valued at several hundred dollars.

Mother would have said, “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

Next Saturday: Looking over a 1900 map of Iowa City and environs.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.  

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