Postmaster General John Wanamaker stirred up quite a commotion back in 1893 when he issued the nation\’s first commemorative postage stamps. He was rebuked by a congressional joint resolution that protested the \”unnecessary\” stamps. Wanamaker, an astute businessman, defended his actions by saying that the commemorative stamps could become moneymakers. Little did he know the impact commemorative stamps would have on the American culture in future years. Stamp Collecting has become the most popular hobby in the world.
The controversial first commemorative stamps were the Columbian Exposition Issue. Printed by the American Bank Note Company, the stamps were issued to commemorate the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois, from May 1 to October 30, 1893. The stamps celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus\’s voyage to the New World. The series consisted of 15 stamps with face values ranging from one cent to five dollars. Each bore the dates 1492 and 1892. Postmaster General Wanamaker added a 16th, eight-cent stamp to the series when the fee for registering a letter was reduced from 10 cents.
Like commemorative stamps today, these stamps were immensely popular with collectors and customers. The critics denounced them. Various artists who visualized Columbus differently based the designs on paintings. The one-cent Columbian showed Columbus clean-shaven, spying land from aboard his ship. The two-cent, taken from the Landing of Columbus painting in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., showed him landing, presumably a few hours later, with a full beard. These discrepancies were quickly pointed out.
Even the denominations of the stamps were condemned. Because First-Class postage was only two cents per ounce and only four pounds could be mailed, the Chicago Tribune pointed out that even with the addition of the eight-cent stamp for registration fees, the most that could be spent on anything mailed First-Class was $1.36. This made the two-, three-, four-, and five-dollar Columbian stamps useless for mailing. Further, the only way to get the full value for the five-dollar Columbian would be to mail a 62-pound, eight-ounce package of books at the book-rate class of postage.
Wanamaker replied that regular stamps also were available and that nobody had to buy the Columbians. Further, some people did mail packages of books abroad using the First-Class stamps. To show his confidence in the stamps, Postmaster General Wanamaker spent $10,000 of his own money to buy 5,000 of the two-dollar stamps and put them in his safe as an investment. The stamps, still in the safe when Wanamaker died in 1926, were valued at $4.50 each.
In spite of the criticism, the new Columbian stamps were a sensation. Hundreds of people stood in line at the Columbian Exposition and elsewhere to buy the stamps. Two billion commemorative Columbian stamps were sold for 40 million dollars and were credited as a factor in the Exposition\’s success.
Times have certainly changed since Wanamaker issued the first commemorative stamp. Today, The U.S. POSTAL SERVICE is stamping out American culture. Hardly a week goes by that the agency doesn\’t come out with a stamp honoring someone or something, depicting an achievement or noting a problem. The stamps come in a rustling, slithering flood of 5 billion to 6 billion a year: singles, sheets, rolls, blocks, and booklets. Who can keep up with them?
As I grew up I remember my Gram, who was a stamp collector, could pretty well stay abreast of American stamp issues, largely by getting my aunts, uncles, and neighbors to save envelopes for her. My Mom did the same, although from time to time she\’d have to dip into her allowance to buy unusual issues from mail-order companies.
No more. For one thing, used stamps seem to be going out of style, except for first-day covers, stamped envelopes postmarked on the day and at the place where they were first issued. Otherwise, most collectors now buy \”mint\” stamps by the block or booklet, pane or sheet. Dealers and serious collectors have open accounts with the Postal Service so that they receive new issues automatically.
There are still plenty of hobbyists out there, casually collecting stamps by such whims as subject, style or color and mounting them in albums, but stamp collecting has become big business. Linn\’s Stamp News runs stamp index graphs the way the Wall Street Journal tracks stock markets. And, just as the New York Stock Exchange long ago grew away from men cutting deals on a Wall Street curb, stamp trading has gone electronic and online. eBay auctions stamps under more than 100 major categories, each embracing many subspecialties. Sales and swaps are widely available among more than 20,000 private, commercial and official Web sites. If there\’s someone out there who shares your particular philatelic passion, you can find him.
As the popularity of collecting has grown, so has the clamor from organizations and interest groups for stamps honoring their favorite people, places and events. The Postal Service gets some 40,000 new stamp proposals a year. Many are casual, or too crude or clumsy to consider, but most represent the best efforts of sincere citizens and are taken seriously by the 15-member Citizen\’s Stamp Advisory Committee, established in 1957. The members, whose identities are kept confidential to avoid back-channel badgering, wade and weed their way through the proposals and forward the best to the postmaster general, who makes the final decisions. In the normal flow of events it takes several years for a new stamp to progress from proposal to approval to final design to printing. Along the way every step is guided by a dozen selection criteria designed to weed out such influences as commercialism, special interests or trivialities.
That\’s the idealized official version. In fact the pressure from interest groups can be enormous, and the issuance of a stamp sometimes is a measure of political clout. For instance, the Postal Service has a time-honored policy against shared-revenue stamps, but post offices currently are selling the first two \”semi-postals,\” a 33-cent reissue of a stamp with a 7-cent surcharge earmarked for breast cancer research and another whose surcharge goes to prostate cancer research. The stamps were mandated by Congress–who\’s going to vote against cancer research?–which has proposals for a dozen more semi-postals in the works. This could mean an increased workload at a time when the service has had to announce the elimination of 9,000 jobs to cut costs.
There\’s controversy over how the research money should be allocated, and some stamp collectors have asserted that since collectors buy many of the stamps, philatelic organizations deserve a cut also. However the struggle plays out, the Postal Service can be counted on to keep turning out a kaleidoscopic profusion of stamps.
Although the Postal Service spends several years in the approval and production of a new stamp, the actual time and place that each is to be issued often isn\’t decided until nearly the last minute.
And then there are the occasional major glitches such as the 60-cent Grand Canyon stamp, which was supposed to be issued in 1999; but the entire press run of 100 million had to be shredded because it identified the canyon as being in Colorado rather than Arizona. The replacement version, issued Jan. 20, turned out to bear a reversed image of photographer Tom Till\’s scenic view, which was discovered only after the stamp had been released for sale. The Postal Service decided not to recall the issue, which would have created a rarity, but the double-error confusion has led a number of novice collectors to pay premium prices for a stamp that\’s available for face value at post offices.
Elvis may have left the building, but he\’s still \”The King\” as far as American stamp buyers are concerned. The U.S. Postal Service estimates that 124 million of the Elvis stamps issued in 1993 are being held as keepsakes, many of them by people who have no other interest in philately. Two other Presley images were included in the block of eight Rock & Roll & Rhythm & Blues issue of 1993, of which some 75.8 million sheets are being held as collectibles, further securing Elvis\’s place as the American philatelic icon.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, however. The Postal Service expects Bugs Bunny, whose carrot-crunching image was launched in 1997, to eventually step all over Elvis\’s blue-suede shoes. Bugs\’s backers, according to the authoritative Linn\’s Stamp News, include Azeezaly S. Jaffer, who helped whip up interest in the Elvis stamp by having postal patrons vote for the young, lithe Elvis or the, um, mature Las Vegas lounge lizard. The campaign was designed to attract people who\’d never before bought stamps for anything but sending mail.
\”A popular issue gets many newcomers interested in stamp collecting, and we welcome them aboard,\” a Postal Service spokesman said. You bet they do: It\’s estimated that 6 percent to 7 percent of the stamps sold are never used for postage. That\’s almost pure profit to the Postal Service, which since 1970 has been a semi-private agency.
While Elvis may be first in the hearts of his countrymen, internationally he is a distant also-ran behind Princess Diana. Although many nations have issued Elvis stamps, hardly any have not issued Lady Di commemoratives. At last count, at least 115 nations and internationally recognized postage-issuing entities, plus countless \”unofficial entities\” have produced postage stamps or stamp-like stickers bearing the image of the late princess. Some of them have issued many series, so that the actual number of different images numbers in the hundreds. Diana stamps have become such major collectibles that Linn\’s devotes a whole section of its Internet home page (www.linns.com) to her. The United States couldn\’t jump on the bandwagon even if it wanted to, because Diana fails several of the eligibility tests for U.S. stamphood: She wasn\’t American or particularly involved with the United States, and she hasn\’t been dead for at least a decade.
The current Postal Service estimates of the top 10 American collectibles (stamps not expected to be used for postage), in millions:
1. Elvis Presley (1993/single design), 124.
2. Wildflowers (1992/50 designs), 76.2.
3. Rock & Roll & Rhythm & Blues (1993/8), 75.8.
4. Civil War (1995/20), 46.6.
6. Marilyn Monroe (1995/single) 46.3.
7. Bugs Bunny (1997/single), 44.
8. Summer Olympics (1992/5), 39.6.
9. World of Dinosaurs (1997/15), 38.5.
10. Centennial Olympics (1996/20), 38.1.
Reflecting back to 1893, John Wanamaker had confidence in the issuance of the commemorative stamps. He certainly knew they would be moneymakers and would appeal to the American public. Stamp collecting is the world\’s most popular hobby. Stamps tell a story whether it be essentials of a nation\’s history, geography, notable personalities, or nature. They are windows to culture. As one turns the pages of a stamp album, history unfolds: Kings, presidents, and dictators; Hero\’s, despots, and ideologues; Scientists, explorers and great thinkers; Authors, musicians and artists; Events, places flora and fauna. They\’re all waiting to be discovered and enjoyed on postage stamps.
1. Datz, Stephen. Stamp Collecting; Discover the Fun of the World s Most Popular Hobby. Loveland: General Philatelic, 2000.
3. Kelsey, Doug. Celebrate the Centuries. Linns Stamp News January 2000: 62-63.
6. Sabine-Mag. Art and Stamps. 17 July 2000 .