If you're like me, you probably take postage stamps for granted. I'll slap one on an outgoing bill or letter, but I don't usually give them much thought. However, there's a rigorous process that one has to go through to get his mug on a stamp, so we thought we might answer some questions for any aspiring postage subjects.
I want to be on a postage stamp! What do I have to do?
If it's a United States Postal Service stamp you're gunning for, we've got bad news. The first thing you have to do is croak. According to USPS rules, no living person can appear on U.S. postage. Don't expect to have your stamps immediately show up at your wake, either; another rule stipulates that people can't be honored by portrayal on a stamp until five years after their death. (This rule is relaxed slightly for recently deceased U.S. presidents, who can be honored on the first anniversary of their birthday following their deaths.)
If I'm notable enough, though, five years after my death I'll start showing up on letters, right?
Not necessarily. There are still a few more hurdles over which your candidacy must jump. First, the USPS usually only issues stamps on significant anniversaries of a subject's birth, so you might have to wait until what would have been your hundredth birthday. (The "significant" part of this equation is a bit up for grabs, though; the USPS sold over 124 million Elvis Presley stamps issued on what would have been the King's 68th birthday.)
Once you've found your way onto a single stamp, it's a long wait before you get another chance to provide postage. USPS rules state that no person can appear on a commemorative stamp if they have appeared on another stamp in the previous 50 years. On the plus side, that means we're only 33 years away from our next Elvis stamp!
What else might keep me off a stamp?
Of course, these rules may be more flexible than the USPS is letting on. When the USPS announced its slate of commemorative stamps for 2010, one of them featured Mother Teresa. Atheist groups blasted the stamp for having religious underpinnings, but the USPS responded that the issue was more to honor Mother Teresa's humanitarian work than her religious beliefs. (A similar controversy arose in 1986 when the USPS honored orphanage founder and Catholic priest Father Edward Flanagan on a 4-cent stamp.) Despite the controversy, the Mother Teresa stamp is coming to a post office near you in August on what would have been her 100th birthday.
As citizens do we have any say on what ends up on stamps?
Do we ever! Since 1957 the Postmaster General has maintained the fairly obscure Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. This group of 15 or so citizen advisors offers the USPS a "breadth of judgment and depth of experience in various areas that influence subject matter, character and beauty of postage stamps." The citizens on the committee are appointed by the Postmaster General and meet four times a year to discuss stamp proposals.
What citizens have served on this committee?
Highlighter enthusiast Phelps actually served two terms on the committee from 1983 to 2006, and he wrote extensively about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the group in his memoir. According to Phelps, the committee received a deluge of up to 50,000 proposals a year and often felt pressure from members of Congress to approve certain stamps. Phelps wrote, "The pressure doesn't work; if anything it turns off the committee."
What luminaries are currently on the committee?
The biggest name is probably Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who ended up having a "beer summit" at the White House last year. Other members include former American Film Institute head Jean Picker Firstenberg and Joan Mondale, wife of former presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
Has the committee ever let a controversial stamp slip through the gates?
Certain ill-advised issues have sparked firestorms of controversy. In fact, in 1994 a stamp nearly caused an international incident.
With the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaching, the CSAC and the USPS made the decision to issue a stamp depicting a mushroom cloud with the caption "Atomic bombs hasten war's end, August 1945." The USPS defended the commemorative stamp by saying it sought to depict an important historical event without offering a judgment on the event itself.
As you can imagine, though, lots of people questioned the tastefulness of a stamp that depicted the deaths of thousands of civilians. Japan's Foreign Minister protested the issue, as did the mayor of Nagasaki, who called the stamp "heartless." The Japanese Embassy in Washington took its case to the State Department in hopes of canceling the stamp.
Eventually, the Japanese protests grew so loud that the Clinton White House had to lean on the USPS to quash the stamp. The USPS replaced the mushroom cloud stamp with one depicting Harry Truman announcing the end of the war.
Have there been any controversies that weren't quite that heavy?
As part of a tie-in with the movie The Land Before Time, the USPS issued a set of four dinosaur stamps depicting Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteradon, and Brontosaurus in 1989. Sounds harmless enough, right?
Not to scientists. First, it's spelled "Pterandon" with an "n," and the species in question is a pterosaur, not a dinosaur. Moreover, the name "Brontosaurus" was no longer used in the scientific community; Apatosaurus had taken its place. Scientists railed against the USPS' poor fact checking, and the USPS responded that it used the name "Brontosaurus" because it was more familiar to the public.
Famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a very funny essay about this flap that's featured in his collection Bully for Brontosaurus, but a New York Times editorial had the best comment on the whole imbroglio: "But give the Postal Service due credit. The flak over its blunder has given "˜apatosaurus' more currency than it could ever get in a billion years of repetition in learned journals."
How long have these commemorative stamps been around?
The USPS issued the first commemorative stamps in 1893 to honor the World Columbian Exposition that was taking place in Chicago. Although the idea of commemorative stamps is a familiar and popular one now, it didn't thrill everyone at the time. It particularly irked Congress, which issued a joint resolution to denounce the "unnecessary" stamp issue.
Postmaster General John Wanamaker "“ the same Wanamaker who started a wildly successful chain of East Coast department stores that bore his name "“ stuck to his guns and thought the special stamps could make the postal service some serious cash. He was right; the stamps were almost immediately hot sellers, to the tune of two billion sold. Wanamaker himself spent $10,000 buying the $2 stamps in the hope that the idea of commemorative stamps would become valuable items for collectors.
Wanamaker's idea obviously worked. In 2006, the USPS estimated that the Elvis alone had sold over 120 million stamps that were never used for postage, which provided over $30 million in loot for the postal system's coffers.