US Postal Service Stamps

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: Get this idea out of your head. A stamp is not a tiny painting.
Ethel Kessler (EK): Somebody might be able to do a great painting that’s 20 x 30 inches, but you take that down to 1 x 1.5 inches, and it’s a challenge to make it work.
RM: And Ethel Kessler is just one of a handful of people who take on that challenge.
EK: I’m Ethel Kessler
Julie Shapiro (JS): Ethel’s one of just five art directors responsible for churning out every single stamp issued by the United States Postal Service each year.
EK: And I’ve been doing that for fifteen years.
JS: Those bonsai stamps that just came out with the tiny little beautiful meticulous detailed drawings of trees? Those are hers.
RM: And our reporter there is postal service and stamp enthusiast Julie Shapiro.
JS: Most people think of stamps and then picture flags or the Liberty Bell, or the word “love” spelled in a cutesy font. But there are so many other stamps made every year. What about those abstract expressionist stamps that were all sorts of awkward sizes? Or the muppets that were on a white background and seemed to be bursting out of the envelopes?
RM: And those new “pioneers of industrial design” stamps? Oh my goodness.
JS: And I love the cloud stamps. If you looked at the sheet, they’re laid out in the exact same layers they exist in the sky. Every year there are artful stamps, there are poetic stamps, there are stamps with senses of humor. Even surprising stamps. It’s just that you don’t really see those ones. You just see the flags, the bells, and the love.
RM: Stamps take, on average, a year to a year and a half from conception to execution.
EK: I can just tell you that this process is never succinct.
JS: Basically the art directors pull together the stamps once the subject matter’s been picked.
RM: But as Ethel mentioned, it’s a long process.
JS: It starts with public suggestions for stamp subjects, mailed to the USPS.
RM: Yes, stamp proposals must be submitted in writing. Damn right! You have to use a stamp.
Terry McCaffrey (TM): The first thing is the subject.
And that is our other guest, his name is Terry McCaffrey.
TM: My name is Terry McCaffrey and I recently retired as the manager of stamp development for the US Postal Services stamp services office, where I was in charge of designing all the postage stamps for the government.
EK: There are 50,000 suggestions a year that come in from the American public. Basically, all of those subject suggestions have to be gone through and have to be reviewed by a committee.
RM: The committee is called the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee.
EK: That’s CSAC for short. C-S-A-C. And that committee serves the postmaster general.
JS: As you might imagine, CSAC has received some pretty far-out suggestions over the years.
TM: We’ve received requests for “hate” stamps to combat the “love” stamps that we issue every year. One for the devil. One for the passing of the great American outhouse.
JS: But luckily there are rules that help guide the committee in choosing the stamp subjects.
RM: About a dozen rules.
JS: They primarily feature Americans.
RM: Births, anniversaries, significant contributions.
JS: Dead presidents usually get a stamp.
RM: 50th anniversary of historical events.
JS: 50th anniversaries of statehood.
RM: No repeats within fifty years, excepting national symbols and holidays.
JS: 200th anniversaries of University Foundings.
RM: No disasters commemorated.
JS: Keep away from religion.
TM: They have honored, of course, Christmas. And there have been a few people, such as Mother Theresa, where we were really honoring her for her humanitarian efforts, not for her religious orders or religious beliefs.
RM: And this one is interesting.
JS: Themes of widespread appeal that reflect the USA’s inclusiveness. In other words, something everyone will love.
RM: So being bold and controversial is not what stamp makers are going for. Which I think you could view critically too. Although you know, inclusiveness its self could be viewed as a radical notion to some. But there’s one more big rule, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
JS: So the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee follows these rules, picks the subjects, runs them by the Postmaster General- you know, the Grand Pooh-Bah of the USPS.
EK: If he’s not in favor of a stamp, it isn’t going anywhere. But I think he usually defers to the committee.
JS: And assigns them to the art directors. And then the art directors follow their own rules. And the number one thing to keep in mind around the stamp services office?
TM: Our mantra, courtesy of one of the art directors, Howard Pane, was to keep it simple. And look at it at stamp size.
JS: But the art directors also consider a few other things.
TM: Keeping it bright and colorful and engaging and making the image something that people will want to put on their envelopes.
EK: What’s the feeling you want to evoke? What emotions do you want to evoke?
TM: The social awareness stamps, as we refer to them, are the most difficult stamps to produce because you have to create an abstract concept and sell it to the American Public.
RM: And there’s one stamp that’s been wildly successful in this. Both Terry and Ethel cited it independently.
EK: The first stamp that I have to mention
TM: Dear to my heart for many reasons
EK: It also happened to be the first stamp that was issued that I art-directed, was a breast cancer stamp.
TM: Not only is it a great graphic design and illustration, but it also is a fabulous message stamp.
EK: And that stamp was also the first time in the country that the US did a stamp that raised money for a cause in addition to the postage.
TM: Because you pay an extra eight cents on average to purchase each one of the stamps.
EK: That stamp, which went on sale in 1998
TM: And it’s still on sale, after all these years
EK: And it’s raised about 73 million dollars for breast cancer research. Just looking at the lower left to the upper right, it goes from dark colors into bright colors, layered with a line drawing of the goddess Diana,
TM: Reaching over her shoulder to reach for an arrow in her quiver.
RM: Which also has an ingenious resemblance to the line-drawn cartoons from those doctor’s office pamphlets that explain how to give a self-breast exam.
TM: Where her one bare breast would have been, they had removed that and put in a slogan “Fund the fight. Find a cure.” It was a brilliant design.
JS: But not all social awareness stamps are wildly successful.
TM: I think one of the biggest examples of a stamp gone wrong is many years ago before I joined the group, there was a stamp “stamp out alcoholism.” But unfortunately, it was one of the biggest failures we ever had because when the message was sent to another person, that person received it and got the impression that the sender was saying “you’re an alcoholic. You need help.” And they found that offensive. So that stamp did not work.
JS: As technology pulls us deeper into electronic correspondence and away from snail mail
RM: A term the USPS hates, by the way
JS: The USPS has lost billions of dollars. But it’s trying to keep up and stay relevant. To that end, in the fall of 2011, they changed one of the biggest rules governing stamp subject selection.
EK: It used to be that first you had to be dead long enough to be on a stamp. And there were lots of reasons for that. In the beginning, it was they had to be dead ten years, they shifted that to five, and as most people know, they just shifted that to even living people can be on stamps. Now you have to start looking and saying “Who is the first one?”
JS: I had a feeling Terry knew the answer to that one.
TM: Yes I do. But I am not at liberty to say. It will not be Lady Gaga.
JS: See, when the USPS changed the deceased subject rule to allow living people on stamps, they asked the public to nominate someone for the first living stamp.
RM: Tragically, nominations were accepted online. No stamps required.
JS: And besides Bob Dylan and, at the time living, Steve Jobs, yep, Lady Gaga was right there near the top of the list.
TM: I said well, you get what you ask for. Not that Lady Gaga is bad. I love her music. I just think it’s a little premature to put her on a stamp.
RM: This open call for the first living person, I see how you could view it as kind of a gimmick to get people excited about the post office and get Lady Gaga fans to buy stamps.
TM: It will not be Lady Gaga.
RM: A boy can dream, can’t he?!
RM: But for the people who design stamps, sure they want you to buy them. But when you talk to them, immediately you know there’s so much more to it to them than that.
JS: As Ethel puts it, stamps tell the story of America in pictures.
EK: You work on these things so long. And put so much into it. Heart and soul. That you just feel like in the end, it has to be right. It’s for the American public! That’s who we’re doing this for! And I just want it to be right.
TM: It’s something that touches every person in the United States and it’s a product that I helped develop. And that to me is just wonderful and I’m honored to have been part of it.
JS: Oh, PS. In my opinion, 45 cents, the current rate for a first-class stamp, is an entirely reasonable amount to pay for a tiny work of art that escorts your letter all the way across the country.
RM: I completely agree. For 45 cents, I wouldn’t take your letter upstairs! And I’m going there anyway.
“Selection 13: Postal workers canceling stamps at the University of Ghana post office.”
99% Invisible was produced this week by Julie Shapiro, the artistic director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
JS: I’ve been telling people I want to get on the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee. I have a new life goal. That’s what I’ve taken from this little radio project. And believe me, I asked how to do it. I’ve got some awards to win, apparently. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but I’m working on it.

Comments (4)


  1. fran

    Brilliant podcast! I was wondering what is the whistling and clapping song at the end of the podcast? Keep up the good work!

  2. Lynn

    So? Did a living person ever appear on a US stamp? (Aside from actors portraying characters). It seems like it didn’t happen.

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