11 Controversial Stamps

Didgeman, Pixabay
Didgeman, Pixabay / Didgeman, Pixabay

You wouldn't think something as small and mundane as a stamp would be much cause for controversy. But over the years, quite a few stamps have upset more than just collectors. Here are 11 of them.

1. A Mushroom Cloud Stamp

In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service somehow thought it would be a great idea to issue mushroom cloud stamps to honor the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Naturally, the Japanese government wasn't thrilled about the notion. The White House stepped in and basically vetoed the idea (the New York Times reported that the then-White House Chief of Staff "made it clear that President Clinton preferred an alternative"), so a depiction of Harry Truman was used instead.

2. The Bill Pickett Stamp

In January 1994, the Postal Service realized there was an issue with the stamp they had released to honor rodeo star Bill Pickett. Pickett was in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and toured with Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and Tom Mix, among others, and his stamp was part of a "Legends of the West” series. The problem? The 20 million sheets of stamps that were shipped out for sale at post offices had the wrong guy on them. The stamp actually depicted Pickett's brother, Ben, who was noticeably more rotund than Bill.

The Postal Service recalled the stamps and had them destroyed, but not before one post office accidentally sold three or four sheets before the official release date. To be fair, it was an honest mistake: The caption of the picture used to create the stamp was mislabeled. However, if you find one of these stamps, it's not worth the chunk of change you might think. The Postal Service took 150,000 of the sheets with the errors on them and issued them by lottery, making them not quite as unique.

3. The Bernard Revel Stamp

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has regulations that stop their engravers from putting anything unauthorized on stamps, even microscopic things invisible to the naked eye. But that doesn't always mean that employees abide by those rules. In 1987, it was discovered that Kenneth Kipperman hid a Star of David in the portrait on a $1 stamp, which depicted educator Bernard Revel. The object itself wasn't questionable, as Revel was Jewish, but the whole situation became even stranger when Kipperman was arrested for threatening to bomb the site of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He was protesting the destruction of the current building to make way for the Holocaust Museum, which happened to be right next door to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Since then, supplies of the stamp have run out, and rather than reprint, the Postal Service decided to replace it with a portrait of Johns Hopkins.

4. Photographs submitted by The Smoking Gun

Stamps.com used to let you put anything you want on a stamp—almost. The Smoking Gun put the company to the test and submitted pictures of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Monica Lewinsky's dress, Slobodan Milosevic, Jimmy Hoffa, Linda Tripp, and high school and college photographs of the Unabomber. Pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald and Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano were denied. Perhaps because of the experiment, Stamps.com changed their policy and decided to no longer allow pictures of adults or teens, unless submitted through "trusted channels" such as portrait studios. Stamps.com stopped its custom stamp program in June 2020.

5. Stamps of Joseph Stalin’s Secret Policemen

Russian stamps issued in 2002 caused quite the stir. The stamps honor six of Joseph Stalin's secret policemen renowned for their abilities to catch foreign spies, but at least two of those six also committed terrible atrocities against their own countrymen, including deporting thousands of peasants in the ‘30s. Although the Russian House of Stamps issued a statement saying they were strictly honoring the 80th anniversary of Russia's counter-intelligence service, citizens were concerned that the government was trying to send a message.

6. The Marie Stopes Stamp

A similar situation (being honored for one cause, while angering citizens for other reasons) arose in Britain, where a stamp was issued with the picture of Marie Stopes. She was a pioneer in the field of family planning who opened the UK's first family planning clinic, which is why she earned a spot on a stamp. But she was also a eugenicist and Nazi sympathizer who sent a book of poetry to Hitler. 

7. The Freddie Mercury Stamp

A 1999 UK stamp featuring Freddie Mercury upset a lot of people. People were miffed because Queen drummer Roger Taylor was featured rather vaguely in the background of the stamp. This was a problem, as living people aren't supposed to be on stamps (except members of the Royal Family). The Royal Mail responded to the criticism, saying the stamp had been approved by the queen.

8. The Robert Johnson Stamp

Famous Bluesman Robert Johnson was at the center of controversy in 1994, 56 years after his death. There are only three known photographs of Johnson (plus an additional much-disputed one), so when one of them was altered for a stamp, people were upset. Namely, smokers. The famous photobooth picture of Johnson, with a cigarette dangling between his lips and a guitar in his hand, was changed to delete the cigarette. The President of the National Smokers Alliance called the omission "an affront to the more than 50 million Americans who choose to smoke." However, a cig has cameoed on a stamp before; a 1982 stamp featuring Franklin Delano Roosevelt shows him holding a cigarette and holder.

9. A 14-Striped American Flag Stamp

In 2008, a collector discovered that one of the Postal Service stamps featuring an American flag had 14 stripes on it. The Postal Service has no plans to recall the stamp, but they apologized and said the extra stripe at the bottom was added to give the flag definition, and the mistake was never caught.

10. The Frida Kahlo Stamp

When the U.S. issued a stamp to honor Frida Kahlo, not everyone was happy about it. Conservatives like Jesse Helms were vocal about their criticism. Helms took to the Senate floor to protest the stamp, saying Kahlo was an unfit subject. He wasn't the only who protested: People wrote in, upset that a communist, person with a drug addiction, and bisexual should be featured on a U.S. stamp. Even the Wall Street Journal published an article titled "The Stalinist and the Stamp: The Wonders of Postal Diversity."

11. The Dinosaur Stamps

In October 1989, the Postal Service released four dinosaur stamps to celebrate the extinct creatures. But paleontologists noticed an error: one of the stamps identified an apatosaurus as a brontosaurus. The latter name stopped being used in 1974, after researchers realized the prehistoric beast originally identified as a brontosaurus was actually an apatosaurus. The Postal Service did not recall the stamps, despite protests by the Smithsonian Institution and Paleontological society.