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Roman Mars [00:00:29] Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share too. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In 1992, a historic election captivated the nation. The race pitted a young up-and-comer against an old guard establishment candidate. And I’m not talking about the 1992 presidential election between Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and the incumbent George H.W. Bush.
Gabe Bullard [00:01:26] Instead, this was the highly publicized race between young Elvis and old Elvis.
Roman Mars [00:01:32] That’s reporter Gabe Bullard.
Gabe Bullard [00:01:33] Over a decade after Elvis Presley’s death, the king of rock and roll took over headlines once again as Americans weighed in on which portrait of Elvis would be forever immortalized on a 29 cent U.S. postage stamp. It was put to a popular vote. Should the stamp feature an image of young Elvis, at the start of his rise, or an older Elvis, in his iconic white jumpsuit?
Roman Mars [00:01:54] The Elvis stamp vote grabbed the nation’s attention, playing out not just in newspapers and on late night TV, but in the actual 1992 presidential election. And by the time the final vote was cast and every ballot had been counted, U.S. postage stamps had been changed forever.
Gabe Bullard [00:02:17] When you mail a letter, you have a lot of options for stamps. You can go the traditional route and use an American flag, or you can choose a stamp that fits your personality. The Postal Service has issued stamps for Selena, the Star Wars droids, The Simpsons, and so many other pop culture icons.
Roman Mars [00:02:34] But this kind of favor variety in stamps is pretty new. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that we had postage stamps at all.
Gabe Bullard [00:02:44] In the early years of the post office, mail was often sent cash on delivery, like a collect call. If someone sent you a letter, you paid for it when you picked it up at the post office. But postage was expensive and the system for calculating fees was complicated. It was hard to know what a letter would end up costing in the end.
Roman Mars [00:03:01] When the U.S. implemented standardized postage rates, the cost to mail letters became more predictable and less expensive. Now a person could pay to send a letter in advance and the recipient could get it without a fee. A stamp was proof that a sender had paid for the mail.
Gabe Bullard [00:03:18] The U.S. issued its first national stamps in 1847–one with George Washington and one with the first U.S. postmaster, Benjamin Franklin. In the decades that followed, the U.S. issued more and more varieties of stamps. Stamps marked anniversaries, celebrated big events, and honored historical figures.
Daniel Piazza [00:03:36] Presidents and military heroes and national wonders and technological achievements and flight milestones.
Gabe Bullard [00:03:45] That’s Daniel Piazza, curator of the philatelic collections at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. For much of their history, stamp designs were traditional, institutional, and patriotic because no matter what’s on a stamp, it’s still an official document issued by the United States government.
Daniel Piazza [00:04:01] Like paper currency or like a bond or something like that, it’s meant to represent the country.
Gabe Bullard [00:04:06] And so putting someone on a stamp is essentially a government endorsement. And a lot of subjects didn’t make the cut. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, America’s biggest cultural contributions–like jazz, rock and roll, Hollywood–were mostly absent from envelopes.
Daniel Piazza [00:04:22] Part of it had to do, I think, with the fact that stamps in this period–most of them are designed and printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which also prints the money. And of course, our money is very conservative as well. So, there was a lot of hesitancy about getting into these frivolous topics.
Roman Mars [00:04:42] But there was also an incentive for the post office to design stamps that were new and novel because along with the first stamps came the first stamp collectors, and they presented a unique value to the Postal Service.
Daniel Piazza [00:04:55] Postage stamps that are sold to collectors are pure profit for the Postal Service because they never have to deliver the service. Postage stamps are an IOU.
Gabe Bullard [00:05:05] Because of the way stamps work as payment for a service not yet delivered, every stamp in a collector’s album and not on an envelope represents money the post office gets to hold on to. A new stamp has the potential to make money, keep collectors happy, or even encourage new hobbyists to start a collection. And the Postal Service wants this. Since the 1950s, the post office has had philatelists–stamp collectors–sit on a committee that weighs in on stamp design.
Daniel Piazza [00:05:30] I think the needs and the desires of collectors figure fairly prominently in that just because, you know, as in any other business enterprise, that’s a niche market. That’s your base.
Roman Mars [00:05:43] And the need for the post office to make money wherever it can has only intensified over time. In 1970, Congress passed a law requiring the Postal Service to operate as a self-funded agency. That means that all its funding, even today, comes from the sale of postage products. A hit stamp can be a big deal financially for the post office.
Gabe Bullard [00:06:05] But the USPS also has a fine line to walk. Keep the stamps traditional enough to befit a government document and also keep the crowds of collectors happy with new stamps that generate money.
Roman Mars [00:06:16] To further protect the dignity of government issued stamps, the post office also had a rule that anyone except presidents whose likeness appeared on a stamp needed to have been dead for at least ten years. The idea was to give enough time for any unsavory details to emerge.
Gabe Bullard [00:06:34] The ten-year rule meant that a lot of celebrities weren’t eligible for stamps at the peak of their influence. But it also meant that with each passing year, a new crop of honorees became eligible.
Roman Mars [00:06:45] Which is exactly what happened in the mid 1980s, when a group of dedicated fans started floating the idea of a stamp fit for a king.
Joan Gansky [00:06:54] I guess we would have been called “stalkers,” you know? But that word wasn’t around.
Gabe Bullard [00:06:59] This is Joan Gansky. She’s been a fan of Elvis Presley since she first heard his music as a kid in England in the ’50s. She even met Elvis a few times, hanging out outside of his house in LA after work.
Joan Gansky [00:07:11] But most always, if he saw there were fans around, he would stop and talk to them. He never really forgot his fans.
Gabe Bullard [00:07:21] And his fans never forgot him. Elvis died in 1977. And not long after, fans began agitating for a stamp. Joan and her husband, Paul, joined a letter writing campaign and recruited fellow members of their fan club, the Jailhouse Rockers, to help. They even made envelopes that said, “I’m in favor of the Elvis stamp.”
Paul Gansky [00:07:38] We’d have meetings every month, and we’d write letters. And a big pitch was, “Look, you issue an Elvis stamp, you’re going to make a lot of people happy and you’re going to make a huge profit.” And finally, the penny dropped with Anthony Frank.
Roman Mars [00:07:55] Anthony Frank took office as postmaster general in 1988, the year after Elvis became legally eligible to appear on a stamp. Almost immediately, he acknowledged the campaign for the Elvis stamp and even encouraged the idea.
Gabe Bullard [00:08:10] Frank’s endorsement energized fans, but it also challenged the long-standing cautiousness the post office had around stamps. Until this point, the USPS had to tread carefully, putting out commemorative stamps interesting enough to attract some new collectors while still sticking with their traditionally conservative look.
Roman Mars [00:08:27] If the USPS did put Elvis on a stamp, it would represent a fundamental change in what stamps look like and who was allowed to be on them because Elvis Presley wasn’t a war hero or a respected composer. He was a rock star with a rock star lifestyle.
Daniel Piazza [00:08:44] A lot of the concerns around the Elvis stamp did center on his drug use, which was well known and well publicized and contributed to his death.
Gabe Bullard [00:08:53] That’s Daniel Piazza, again, at the Postal Museum. After the postmaster general said he would support an Elvis stamp, newspaper columns appeared with headlines like “Return to Sender.” They argued that an Elvis stamp would be a government endorsement of drug use.
Daniel Piazza [00:09:09] This is the middle of Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaigns.
Nancy Reagan [00:09:12] The thrill can kill. Say no to drugs. And say yes to life.
Daniel Piazza [00:09:18] After school specials about latchkey kids and getting into drugs and all this sort of thing.
Gabe Bullard [00:09:24] And it wasn’t just fans of Nancy Reagan who had reservations about putting Elvis on a stamp.
Public Enemy [00:09:30] Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me you see straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain…
Gabe Bullard [00:09:36] Public Enemy song Fight the Power came out in 1989, and it calls out Elvis for co-opting the work of Black artists. Later in that same verse, Chuck D also says this…
Public Enemy [00:09:49] Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…
Gabe Bullard [00:09:49] But despite resistance from newspaper columnists, anti-drug activists, and Public Enemy, Postmaster Frank didn’t back down. In the early ’90s, the post office began recruiting artists to illustrate a series of stamps that would feature famous musicians.
Mark Stutzman [00:10:04] As the art director told me–he said, “We’re kind of done with the whole poets and philosophers and ex-presidents.” He said, “We’re trying to go in a different direction.”
Gabe Bullard [00:10:13] Mark Stutzman is an illustrator based in western Maryland. He’s designed movie posters, drawn for Mad Magazine… And if you drank soda out of a Batman Returns cup from McDonald’s in the ’90s, that was him. In the early part of the decade, he was one of a handful of artists tapped to submit work for the new series of stamps. An art director gave Stutzman a long list of candidates for stamps, including Elvis.
Mark Stutzman [00:10:35] But they were toying with him not being on the list. Even at that point, they were really afraid of treading in this area for fear that they would alienate tried and true collectors.
Gabe Bullard [00:10:46] In fact, at first, the art director asked Stutzman to work on a stamp honoring Count Basie. But then a few days later, the director called back.
Mark Stutzman [00:10:54] He said, “Put down what you’re doing. And I want you to submit your best Elvis Presley.”
Gabe Bullard [00:10:59] And so after he got the assignment, Stutzman set about trying to capture the king’s likeness in miniature form.
Roman Mars [00:11:06] Even though postage stamps are basically receipts for spending a few cents with the government, they’re also works of art. That’s part of what makes them so appealing to collectors. And like any work of art, they can tell a story. They just have to do it on a very tiny canvas.
Gabe Bullard [00:11:21] Stutzman was limited to five by seven inches. And because it would be shrunk down further after that, his art director told him to keep it simple.
Mark Stutzman [00:11:28] The format is terribly small. And he said, “It can’t be complicated.” And my work has a tendency to be somewhat detailed and all of that stuff. He says, “Don’t make it…” And he used the term “fussy.” He said, “You can’t get fussy. It has to be very direct.”
Gabe Bullard [00:11:41] Still, Stutzman wanted to capture as much about Elvis’s life and appeal as possible.
Mark Stutzman [00:11:46] So I had to rush to the library–this is before the internet–rushed to the library, go to magazines stands, get Elvis Presley fan magazines, and just start compiling as much stuff as I could to kind of see what direction I would go in.
Gabe Bullard [00:12:02] He read about how Elvis performed, where he got his clothes tailored, the color schemes of the era…
Roman Mars [00:12:07] Stutzman drew young Elvis Presley in a gold jacket with a dark fleck pattern in front of a pink background. His necktie is loose, he holds a microphone in his hand, and he’s leaning forward.
Mark Stutzman [00:12:19] I wanted Elvis’s sex appeal to come through because I think that was a big part of why he was so controversial and successful. And then I had the little tassel of hair that was loose that showed that he was active on stage. And he’s a little perspiry. But that’s, like, too subtle for stamp world.
Gabe Bullard [00:12:43] Stutzman only handed in this one design. Other artists submitted multiple versions to the point that the Postal Service ended up with a total of 60 Elvis portraits to choose from.
Mark Stutzman [00:12:53] And I submitted one because I was young and dumb and didn’t know that I could do more than one version.
Gabe Bullard [00:12:58] Of these 60 options, the Postal Service narrowed their choices down to Stutzman’s and one other. The two finalists represented two very different periods of Elvis’s life and two very different versions of an American icon.
Ann Powers [00:13:10] What is the meaning of the young Elvis? Well, first, just eye candy. Let’s be real. Come on. Young Elvis was super cute.
Gabe Bullard [00:13:19] Ann Powers is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. Stutzman’s Elvis portrait is of a poor kid from Mississippi on his way to becoming the biggest star in the world, powered by rock and roll and, of course, his famously scandalous dance moves.
Mark Stutzman [00:13:32] Young Elvis is, you know, youthful virility and spirit. But also, young Elvis is irreverence. Young Elvis is, you know, wearing pink. And I think that’s one of the great appeals of that image of Elvis and his youth is that he is a soft boy that we can all love.
Roman Mars [00:13:54] Young soft boy Elvis was a far cry from the second Elvis portrait made by an artist named John Berkey.
Gabe Bullard [00:14:01] Berkey’s design shows Elvis in his later years. He has sideburns growing past the high collar of his white leather jumpsuit. This, quote unquote, “old Elvis” is not quite facing the viewer. He’s almost in profile. Berkey was reportedly inspired by an image of Elvis from his 1973 concert in Hawaii. Though this portrait is widely associated with his Las Vegas residency.
Roman Mars [00:14:21] Berkey’s old Elvis was closer to the one that critics made fun of. This was the Elvis who people joked about faking his death and hiding out in a trailer park–the Elvis who was immortalized in velvet paintings. Joan Gansky again.
Joan Gansky [00:14:36] The naysayers–they would bring out, well, you know, that he was, you know, on drugs, he was fat, and all these… You know, ridicule him for the jumpsuits that he wore.
Gabe Bullard [00:14:49] But even though old Elvis was an easy target for jokes and was past his prime hit-making years, Berkey’s image was far more familiar in the 1990s. It’s the image so many Elvis impersonators tried to copy. Even a decade after his death, this Elvis–with the sequins and the hair–seemed to be everywhere.
Joan Gansky [00:15:07] In the early ’90s, you didn’t see many young Elvis. In the general public’s eyes, if you said, you know, “You’re going to see Elvis perform,” they’d expect a jumpsuit.
Gabe Bullard [00:15:18] To fans, the Las Vegas residency–the tours–it all showed stamina and devotion to the people who loved him. The press might have dubbed this design “Old Elvis,” but he was only 42 when he died. And there was something poignant to the image of him in his last years–a flawed hero.
Ann Powers [00:15:32] You know, it plays into this idea that wealth will not make you happy–that fame will not make you happy–which is always important to articulate as a kind of safety valve for America’s relentless craving for fame. You know, it humanizes the icon.
Roman Mars [00:15:52] The Postal Service unveiled Stutzman and Berkey’s designs in February of 1992. The young Elvis, full of promise, and the old Elvis in all of his rhinestone glory.
Gabe Bullard [00:16:04] The Postal Service was already taking a risk, issuing an Elvis stamp to begin with. To choose one image over another would be even more controversy to take on. Rather than make a decision, they decided to make a splash. The first rock and roll stamp would be a populist choice.
Newscaster [00:16:19] By a mail-in ballot available at post offices in April, the public will decide whether a younger, leaner Elvis or an older, plumper Elvis is the one that goes into circulation.
Gabe Bullard [00:16:31] Piazza says the choice not only let the Postal Service off the hook for deciding which Elvis to enshrine, it also generated publicity for the shift toward pop culture stamps.
Daniel Piazza [00:16:40] It has this sort of buildup leading up to the issue. And the public feels involved in the stamp issue. Maybe part of the consideration, too, is that it helps to blunt some of the criticism because it’s obviously wildly popular.
Roman Mars [00:16:54] As hard as it might be to imagine, a federally sponsored mail-in poll about postage stamps took off in a huge way–and not just among philatelists.
Gabe Bullard [00:17:03] Postcard ballots went out in People magazine and were available to pick up at local post offices. People lined up to get them. Some took stacks of ballots as keepsakes or to try to sway the election. Just because this was a government vote didn’t mean the usual rules applied.
Paul Gansky [00:17:18] I voted at least a hundred times, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
Roman Mars [00:17:25] That’s Paul Gansky, again, with some casual voter fraud.
Paul Gansky [00:17:29] I think we all voted multiple times, like on American Idol, you know?
Gabe Bullard [00:17:34] There are a few reasons the Elvis vote became such an unlikely phenomenon. First, this is when baby boomers were rising in political power and influence. Boomers were more steeped in pop culture than previous generations, and they took it more seriously. Earlier generations might have seen pop culture as frivolous. But for boomers, it was generation-defining–a side effect of growing up at a time with more mass media than ever. As the vote unfolded, people wrote letters to their local newspapers, commenting on the stamp. Reporters interviewed impersonators, fans, detractors… The phrase “all shook up” was everywhere.
Roman Mars [00:18:10] It was anyone’s guess which version of the King of Rock and Roll would win out. But one presidential candidate of that year made no mystery about where he was placing his chips.
Newscaster [00:18:21] Bill Clinton of Arkansas has been nicknamed “Elvis” by reporters. The man who would be president is a fan of the king, and he was persuaded…
Roman Mars [00:18:28] Clinton was in his 40s–old for an Elvis, but young for a presidential candidate. And like other baby boomers, he engaged with pop culture in a new way. He went on MTV, he used Fleetwood Mac for his campaign song, and he loved Elvis. Clinton welcomed the comparisons. The press called his plane Air Elvis, and he sang Elvis on the campaign trail.
Bill Clinton [00:18:52] “You know I can be found.” That’s all I can do. “Sitting home all alone. If you can’t come around, at least please telephone.” My message to the New York press: “Don’t be cruel.”
Roman Mars [00:19:10] And on top of that, Clinton referenced Elvis during one of the most iconic campaign appearances in political history.
Gabe Bullard [00:19:24] The Arsenio Hall Show opens, and there’s Bill Clinton, wearing sunglasses and playing saxophone with the show’s band. This was in June of ’92, the day after Clinton secured the Democratic nomination. And just as Arsenio walks on stage waving, Clinton starts playing a solo. The song he’s playing is, of course, Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley.
Roman Mars [00:19:53] Clinton’s saxophone solo has been seared into public memory. But what you might not remember about his appearance was that the very first question Arsenio Hall asked Clinton was about the Elvis stamp.
Arsenio Hall [00:20:07] Let’s get right down to things. What do you like? The old Elvis, or the…? For the stamp? You know, I know you’re an Elvis fan.
Bill Clinton [00:20:16] I led a national crusade for the young Elvis.
Arsenio Hall [00:20:19] Really?
Bill Clinton [00:20:20] Yeah. You know, when you get old, I mean, he got fat like me. I mean, you know… I think it has to be the young Elvis. That’s when he had all this energy and real raw, new, fresh power. I mean, you know, it would be a shame to do the old stuff.
Gabe Bullard [00:20:42] The public didn’t need to wait long to find out if Bill Clinton’s prediction would bear out because the next day, in Memphis, they announced the results.
Roman Mars [00:20:50] 1.2 million ballots were cast for the Elvis stamp. And at the podium in front of network cameras, Anthony Frank made the announcement.
Anthony Frank [00:20:59] The winner is… the young Elvis.
Roman Mars [00:21:05] Young Elvis won by a landslide, taking 75% of the vote.
Gabe Bullard [00:21:10] Speaking to reporters the day of the unveiling, Postmaster Frank used this attention to say the stamp was the start of a change for the post office.
Anthony Frank [00:21:17] We’re not elitist anymore, we’re not only doing symphonies, and we’re not only doing dead poets. But we’re doing people that contributed to the culture of our country–the pop culture, if you will.
Gabe Bullard [00:21:29] The Elvis stamp went on sale just a couple of weeks before Clinton’s inauguration on what would have been Elvis’s 58th birthday. The Ganskys were in line, along with thousands of other fans.
Paul Gansky [00:21:38] I know I bought at least 50 sheets. I seem to recall writing a check for $700.
Joan Gansky [00:21:47] That’s a lot of money back then.
Roman Mars [00:21:50] Stamps were 29 cents. And the post office went on to sell over a half a billion Elvis stamps. It outsold every single commemorative stamp before and since. And with many of those stamps heading towards collectors’ albums, that was a lot of profits for the Postal Service.
Paul Gansky [00:22:06] A few people didn’t like the idea of Elvis being on a stamp. But what the hell? It worked out good.
Gabe Bullard [00:22:13] On top of the stamp sales, the post office also made money licensing Stutzman’s young Elvis image.
Daniel Piazza [00:22:19] There were mugs and keychains and–I don’t know–belt buckles and tote bags and probably baseball caps and who knows what else?
Gabe Bullard [00:22:29] Soon, the post office launched the Legends of American Music series with stamps for Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Dinah Washington, and, of course, Elvis. The series went on to include over 70 artists and opened the doors to a whole new wave of Black musicians on U.S. stamps.
Roman Mars [00:22:47] Since the Elvis stamp came out, a lot of concerns about propriety have gone out the window. Famously, anti-drug artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin got stamps with little to no blowback. So have movie stars, athletes, and even cartoon characters. Stamps were never the same again.
Daniel Piazza [00:23:06] This absolutely opened the door to the pop culture stamps of the 20th century–for good or ill–I mean, whether you like that or not.
Roman Mars [00:23:15] America might not have been ready in 1992. But today I think it’s safe to say that an old Elvis stamp would be an easy sell for the post office–jumpsuit and all. Coming up, the strange world of international Elvis news. If you run as part of your weekly routine for therapeutic reasons or for body and health benefits, Brooks has the perfect running shoes for you. Brooks creates the best running gear, tools, and experiences to move you along your path. Let Brooks do the research and sweat the details to help you find your best run. You can find Brooks softest cushioning in their Glycerin 20 shoes. I have a pair of those. I love them. The Glycerin 20 shoes are designed to deliver comfort on the run and designed to be lightweight, responsive, and durable. Several years ago, I was running regularly for the first time, and I was in constant pain. And someone in the know suggested Brooks to me. And my foot pain when I was running went away immediately. And I never looked back. I run exclusively in Brooks to this day. They are the best. Find your perfect pair of running shoes now at brooksrunning.com. That’s brooksrunning.com. What’s more important? Making sure you’re set for the day, or planning for tomorrow? You can actually do both at the same time. With annuity and life insurance solutions from Lincoln Financial, you’re not just taking care of you and your family’s future, you’re also helping yourself out today. Lincoln’s annuities offer options to not only provide you with your guaranteed retirement income for life but to help protect you from everyday market volatility. And their life insurance policies not only provide your family with a death benefit, but some can even give you immediate access to funds in case of an emergency. Go to lincolnfinancial.com/getstartednow to learn how to plan, protect, and retire. Lincoln annuities and life insurance are issued by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Products sold in New York are issued by Lincoln Life and Annuity Company of New York, Syracuse, New York. Distributed by the Lincoln Financial Distributors Inc. A broker dealer. Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Their curated assortment of mid-century, modern, coastal, industrial, and Scandinavian designs make furniture shopping simple. Article’s team of designers are all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. They’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time and looks good doing it. Article’s knowledgeable Customer Care team is there when you need them to make sure your experience is smooth and stress free. I think my favorite piece of furniture in my house is the Geome sideboard. Maslow picked it out. Remember, Maslow? And I keep my vinyl records and CDs in it. It just is awesome. I love the way it looks. Article is offering 99% Invisible listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit article.com/99 and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Do you ever feel like your brain is getting in its own way? Like, you know you should be exercising every day, or you know you should send that work email out just to clear it from your mind. You know you should do what’s good for you, but you just can’t do it. Therapy helps you figure out what’s holding you back so you can work for yourself instead of against yourself. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist and switch therapists any time for no additional charge. Make your brain your friend with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. So, we’re back with Gabe Bullard. And Gabe, we were talking about the Elvis stamp. But I should specify, we’re talking about the U.S. Elvis stamp because the one you reported on is not the only Elvis stamp out there.
Gabe Bullard [00:28:04] It isn’t the only one. And it’s not even the first. Other countries–without the same dead for so many years role as the U.S.–issued their own Elvis stamps years earlier.
Roman Mars [00:28:14] And so how many are there?
Gabe Bullard [00:28:16] So there are dozens out there issued over decades. The earliest I can find was issued in Grenada one year after Elvis died in August 1978. But there have also been Elvis stamps in Tanzania, West Germany, Central African Republic, and many other countries.
Roman Mars [00:28:32] And I’m guessing these various Elvis stamps from, like, Grenada are big among collectors.
Gabe Bullard [00:28:39] Yeah, to say the least. Jayson Kerr Dobney–he’s a historian and a stamp collector who specializes in music stamps. He showed me his collection.
Jayson Kerr Dobney [00:28:49] I have a whole album of postage stamps of Elvis from all over the world. And it’s just incredible. I mean, Albania, Antigua, Chad, Burkina Faso… I mean, just all of these countries featuring Elvis. And you know that they’re doing it for monetary reasons. It’s kind of funny and interesting.
Roman Mars [00:29:11] And so what do these stamps look like? I mean, did they all decide to do the young Elvis like we did?
Gabe Bullard [00:29:16] No, no, not at all. They run the gamut of Elvis’s career and meaning. There are young, old… There’s tributes to different movies he was in. There’s tributes to events in his life.
Jayson Kerr Dobney [00:29:28] There’s a postage stamp of Elvis that actually celebrates his service in the military. So, it’s an image of him holding a gun–actually the stamp itself–and then him in a young uniform. They’re just sort of in a collector souvenir sheet around it. That’s from Liberia. So, yeah, there’s some interesting iconographic treatments of Elvis in these global stamps.
Roman Mars [00:29:53] So is this a widespread thing to have U.S. celebrities on international stamps? Or is this just the magic of Elvis–it’s just it’s an Elvis thing?
Gabe Bullard [00:30:02] So Elvis changed the game for stamps like this, but he’s not the only American celebrity you’ll see. To go back a bit, Jayson says Louis Armstrong was on other country stamps long before Elvis. Within a few months of his death in 1971, Mali, Senegal, and a few other countries put out stamps with Armstrong on them.
Jayson Kerr Dobney [00:30:20] I think part of that was the sensation that he was. And jazz was so big in Africa. Part of it was the sort of growth of the Black Power movement and looking at Black diaspora writ large and sort of championing these figures across international boundaries.
Roman Mars [00:30:33] So some of these countries are putting U.S. figures on their stamps because they have some sort of ideological connection–it’s essentially an honor. But as Jayson kind of mentioned, you gotta imagine that this is also a ploy to make money, right?
Gabe Bullard [00:30:49] Oh, yeah. Yeah. One reason to put out stamps with U.S. figures is because the stamps will sell to U.S. collectors. And the U.S. Elvis stamp made it clear just how much money a pop culture stamp can make. Jayson says there’s this wave of foreign stamps for U.S. pop culture after the young Elvis stamp in the U.S. was such a hit.
Roman Mars [00:31:07] And so can you tell me a little bit about what these international stamps typically look like? Are there any sort of different or interesting aesthetic choices that they make versus U.S. stamps?
Gabe Bullard [00:31:18] Oh, yeah. There’s a wide variety of designs. If you go to stamp buying websites, you’ll see a lot of what they call “souvenir sheets” with a few different faces on them. Typically, when you think of a sheet of stamps, you might think of a tight grid without much space that isn’t dedicated to postage. You know, that’s how you buy them at the post office here. But souvenir sheets are pages–sometimes they’re postcard-sized, sometimes they’re larger–that are meant for collectors. They only have a few stamps on them, but with an illustration around them that expands on the design. So, if a stamp has someone’s face, the souvenir sheet might show the rest of their body. And relevant to our story about Bill Clinton and Elvis, Jayson has a souvenir sheet with two stamps on it.
Jayson Kerr Dobney [00:31:57] This is from Chad. It’s two stamps, but they’re next to each other. And it’s an older Elvis, wearing one of his jumpsuits, playing guitar, but he’s standing next to Bill Clinton playing saxophone.
Roman Mars [00:32:10] So old Elvis and Clinton–even though, you know, Clinton mentioned that he actually preferred the young Elvis.
Gabe Bullard [00:32:15] Exactly. Exactly. And there’s a lot of pairings. Paul and Joan and fellow producer Selena Seay-Reynolds looked through a lot of these stamps, spotting different celebrities.
Paul Gansky [00:32:26] Robert Redford. Marilyn Monroe.
Selena Seay-Reynolds [00:32:29] Michelle Pfeiffer.
Paul Gansky [00:32:32] Liz Taylor.
Selena Seay-Reynolds [00:32:34] Eddie Murphy.
Paul Gansky [00:32:35] Oh, Eddie Murphy. Yeah.
Roman Mars [00:32:38] That’s a huge variety of people–many of them living.
Jayson Kerr Dobney [00:32:42] That’s impressive.
Gabe Bullard [00:32:43] It is. And I do want to highlight that there’s some controversy around this. So, there are some fakes out there, where a printer just puts a government’s name on a stamp. And there are times when a company completely outside of a country might be in charge of issuing or designing commemorative postage but with the approval of the country. And sometimes a company might have a contract to make stamps, but they don’t really mean for them to ever be used to send letters.
Roman Mars [00:33:07] Oh, so there might be stamps that, you know, bear the country’s name, but they never really appear in that country at all? Like, they’re specifically meant to just attract collectors?
Gabe Bullard [00:33:18] Yeah. And there’s a term for this kind of stamp. It’s called a “speculative stamp.” And collectors are divided on these.
Roman Mars [00:33:24] So in what way?
Gabe Bullard [00:33:25] Well, so it could be seen as excessive among some collectors. And this debate goes back a long way. When the U.S. issued its first commemorative stamps to mark the Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was briefly a group called the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps that told collectors not to buy these. But that group didn’t last very long.
Roman Mars [00:33:45] The S.S.S. didn’t just take off and light the world on fire? Okay. Okay. So, some collectors, they still want speculative stamps, even though those stamps might not be meant for the actual purpose of stamps, which is to move mail in the country that they’re issued.
Gabe Bullard [00:34:01] Exactly. Yeah. And these stamps–even if they’re controversial–they’re really interesting to see because U.S. pop culture doesn’t just exist in the U.S. It’s an international export. And stamps are now part of that, too. And so, it’s kind of cool to see our culture reflected back to us in the form of these international stamps.
Roman Mars [00:34:18] Yeah. And for collectors, you know, it gives you way more variety than you get with U.S. commemorative stamps.
Gabe Bullard [00:34:24] Definitely. And if you’re a fan of an artist, this might be the only chance you’ll have to see them on a stamp. For example, we might not see a Tina Turner stamp for a few years in the U.S. if we see one at all. But you can go online and find a stamp from Grenada from 1988 with Tina Turner. And that same issue, they have Madonna and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. And you can buy those and own a little piece of that history for not very much money.
Roman Mars [00:34:49] So does this influence the U.S. Postal Service to maybe issue more pop culture stamps, maybe with, you know, stars from other countries, too?
Gabe Bullard [00:34:59] Well, so since the ’90s, it’s become a bit more complicated to put pop culture icons from anywhere on a stamp, in part because of how sophisticated the pop culture industry has become. The Elvis estate worked closely with the Postal Service on an Elvis stamp, but that’s not always how these things go. Daniel Piazza at the Smithsonian Postal Museum told me about it.
Daniel Piazza [00:35:18] You don’t have to pay royalties for a statue of George Washington in the Capitol building to put it on a stamp. But with all of these sports legends and Hollywood actors and singers, these are years of complicated negotiations–sometimes with their estates–to get the right licensing and permissions and images. And you have to go to all of the descendants, or at least the sort of legally entitled descendants, and make sure that they agree with and approve of the image that’s used and so forth.
Roman Mars [00:35:50] It’s such a mess. As soon as, like, one thing gets easier–you know, the idea of what is worth commemorating–all the lawyers get involved to make it worse. Oh well. So maybe they’re just kind of balancing the universe when it comes to celebrity stamps.
Gabe Bullard [00:36:06] I think so, yeah.
Roman Mars [00:36:07] But I do love the idea of getting, like, a Michelle Pfeiffer stamp from somewhere like Sierra Leone. That’s just a stunning thing to know that that exists or could exist in the world. Thank you so much, Gabe. This is awesome.
Gabe Bullard [00:36:17] Thank you.
Roman Mars [00:36:23] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Gabe Bullard and edited by Delaney Hall with additional editing by Kelly Prime. Sound mixed by Dara Hirsch. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Music by Swan Real. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.