US Postal Service Stamps

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Get this idea out of your head. A stamp is not a tiny painting.

Ethel Kessler:
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.

Roman Mars:
And Ethel Kessler is just one of a handful of people who take on that challenge.

Ethel Kessler:
I’m Ethel Kessler.

Julie Shapiro:
Ethel’s one of just five art directors responsible for churning out every single stamp issued by the United States Postal Service each year.

Ethel Kessler:
And I’ve been doing that for fifteen years.

Julie Shapiro:
Those bonsai stamps that just came out, with the tiny little beautiful meticulous detailed drawings of trees? Those are hers.

Roman Mars:
And our reporter there is postal service and stamp enthusiast, Julie Shapiro.

Julie Shapiro:
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?

Roman Mars:
And those new “pioneers of industrial design” stamps? Oh my goodness.

Julie Shapiro:
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.

Roman Mars:
Stamps take, on average, a year to a year and a half from conception to execution.

Ethel Kessler:
I can just tell you that this process is never succinct.

Julie Shapiro:
Basically, the art directors pull together the stamps once the subject matter’s been picked.

Roman Mars:
But as Ethel mentioned, it’s a long process.

Julie Shapiro:
It starts with public suggestions for stamp subjects, mailed to the USPS.

Roman Mars:
Yes, stamp proposals must be submitted in writing. Damn right! You have to use a stamp.

Terry McCaffrey:
The first thing is the subject.

Roman Mars:
And that is our other guest, his name is Terry McCaffrey.

Terry McCaffrey:
My name is Terry McCaffrey and I recently retired as the manager of stamp development for the US Postal Service’s Stamp Services Office, where I was in charge of designing all the postage stamps for the government.

Ethel Kessler:
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.

Roman Mars:
The committee is called the “Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee.”

Ethel Kessler:
That’s CSAC for short, C-S-A-C, and that committee serves the postmaster general.

Julie Shapiro:
As you might imagine, CSAC has received some pretty far-out suggestions over the years.

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Julie Shapiro:
But luckily there are rules that help guide the committee in choosing the stamp subjects.

Roman Mars:
About a dozen rules.

Julie Shapiro:
They primarily feature Americans.

Roman Mars:
Births, anniversaries, significant contributions.

Julie Shapiro:
Dead presidents usually get a stamp.

Roman Mars:
50th anniversary of historical events.

Julie Shapiro:
50th anniversaries of statehood.

Roman Mars:
No repeats within fifty years, excepting national symbols and holidays.

Julie Shapiro:
200th anniversaries of University foundings.

Roman Mars:
No disasters commemorated.

Julie Shapiro:
Keep away from religion.

Terry McCaffrey:
Though 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.

Roman Mars:
And this one is interesting.

Julie Shapiro:
Themes of widespread appeal that reflect the USA’s inclusiveness. In other words, something everyone will love.

Roman Mars:
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 itself 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.

Julie Shapiro:
So the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee follows these rules, picks the subjects, runs them by the Postmaster General, you know, the Grand Poohbah of the USPS.

Ethel Kessler:
If he’s not in favor of a stamp, it isn’t going anywhere. But I think he usually defers to the committee-

Julie Shapiro:
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?

Terry McCaffrey:
Our mantra, courtesy of one of the art directors, Howard Pane, was to keep it simple. And look at it at stamp size.

Julie Shapiro:
But the art directors also consider a few other things.

Terry McCaffrey:
Keeping it bright and colorful and engaging and making the image something that people will want to put on their envelopes.

Ethel Kessler:
What’s the feeling you want to evoke? What emotions do you want to evoke?

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Roman Mars:
And there’s one stamp that’s been wildly successful in this. Both Terry and Ethel cited it independently.

Ethel Kessler:
The first stamp that I have to mention-

Terry McCaffrey:
Dear to my heart for many reasons-

Ethel Kessler:
It also happened to be the first stamp that was issued that I art-directed, was a breast cancer stamp.

Terry McCaffrey:
Not only is it a great graphic design and illustration, but it also is a fabulous message stamp.

Ethel Kessler:
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.

Terry McCaffrey:
Because you pay an extra eight cents on average to purchase each one of the stamps.

Ethel Kessler:
That stamp, which went on sale in 1998-

Terry McCaffrey:
And it’s still on sale, after all these years-

Ethel Kessler:
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-

Terry McCaffrey:
Reaching over her shoulder to reach for an arrow in her quiver.

Roman Mars:
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.

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Julie Shapiro:
But not all social awareness stamps are wildly successful.

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Julie Shapiro:
As technology pulls us deeper into electronic correspondence and away from snail mail-

Roman Mars:
A term the USPS hates, by the way.

Julie Shapiro:
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.

Ethel Kessler:
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’s the first one?”

Julie Shapiro:
I had a feeling Terry knew the answer to that one.

Terry McCaffrey:
Yes, I do. But I am not at liberty to say. It will not be Lady Gaga.

Julie Shapiro:
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.

Roman Mars:
Tragically, nominations were accepted online. No stamps required.

Julie Shapiro:
And besides Bob Dylan and, at the time living, Steve Jobs, yep, Lady Gaga was right there near the top of the list.

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Roman Mars:
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.

Terry McCaffrey:
It will not be Lady Gaga.

Roman Mars:
A boy can dream, can’t he?!

Roman Mars:
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 than that.

Julie Shapiro:
As Ethel puts it, stamps tell the story of America in pictures.

Ethel Kessler:
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.

Terry McCaffrey:
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.

Julie Shapiro:
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.

Roman Mars:
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.]

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Julie Shapiro, the artistic director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival-

Julie Shapiro:
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.

Roman Mars:
And it was produced by me, Roman Mars. With support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. We’re distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. More at prx.org.

This week and every week, I’m aided and abetted by Sam Greenspan. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars but you can always tell me what your favorite stamp is and who you’d like to see on the first ‘living person’ stamp at 99percentinvisble.org.

  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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