Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The US Stamp Design Selection Process

Farming in the West stamp, 1898.
Credit: NYPL Digital Archives.
Following yesterday's post, and a comment about the use of the pronoun "we" in describing the significance of stamps in relation to our history, i did some digging on just exactly how images are selected for "stamphood." 

The short of it is this: The Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) collects requests and suggestions from the public and makes recommendations to the Postmaster General, who appears to have a heavy hand in the designs that appear on stamps. 


Since 1847, the Postmaster General has been charged with preparing "postage stamps, which, when attached to any letter or packet, shall be evidence of the payment of postage chargeable on such letter." This means that by and large, the images selected for stamps have been government approved images, and as we discussed, have been used to create a specific image of the history of the nation. Wikipedia's article on stamp design notes:
Guarding the Wagon Train, 1898.
Credit: NYPL Digital Archives.
Since postal administrations are either a branch of government or an official monopoly under governmental supervision, the government has ultimate control over the choice of designs. This means that the designs tend to depict a country as the government would like it to be perceived, rather than as it really is. The Soviet Union issued thousands of stamps extolling the successes of communism, even as it was falling apart, while in the US the only contemporary stamp hinting at the unrest of the 1960s is an issue exhorting Americans to support their local police.
In the late 1940s, the American public grew irritated with the amount of control Congress had over stamp images, many of which were created to please constituencies or lobbyists. It was too overtly political. CSAC was founded in response to the public opinion. Their role is to review stamp proposals, present them to the Postmaster General, and oversee the production of selected designs. The members of the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee are appointed by the Postmaster General and are essentially responsible for supporting the position in this duty.

Interested in submitting a proposal? Make sure your design meets these criteria first:
1. It is a general policy that U.S. postage stamps and stationery primarily will feature American or American-related subjects.

2. No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.

3. Commemorative stamps or postal stationery items honoring individuals usually will be issued on, or in conjunction with significant anniversaries of their birth, but no postal item will be issued sooner than five years after the individual's death. The Committee will not accept or consider proposals for a subject until at least two years after his/her death. The only exception to the five-year rule is the issuance of stamps honoring deceased U.S. presidents. They may be honored with a memorial stamp on the first birth anniversary following death.

4. Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.

5. Only events, persons, and themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration. Further, it is an important goal of the stamp program to assure inclusion of the Nation’s diverse population especially women and minorities in choosing stamp subjects. In furtherance of this goal it is important to identify as possible subjects persons who have overcome great challenges or active discrimination to enter a field or accomplish an aim and thus created opportunities thereafter for others similarly situated. Events, persons or themes of local or regional significance may be recognized by a philatelic or special postal cancellation, which may be arranged through the local postmaster.

6. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor fraternal, political, sectarian, or service/charitable organizations. Stamps or stationery shall not be issued to promote or advertise commercial enterprises or products. Commercial products or enterprises might be used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture.

7. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor individual federal agencies, cities, towns, municipalities, counties, primary or secondary schools, hospitals, libraries, or similar institutions. Due to the limitations placed on annual postal programs and the vast number of such locales, organizations and institutions in existence, it would be difficult to single out any one for commemoration.

8. Requests for observance of statehood anniversaries will be considered for commemorative postage stamps only at intervals of 50 years from the date of the state's first entry into the Union. Requests for observance of other state-related or regional anniversaries will be considered only as subjects for postal stationery, and again only at intervals of 50 years from the date of the event.

9. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.

10. Semipostal stamps are designed to raise funds for causes determined to be in the national public interest and appropriate. Semipostal stamps are sold for a price above their postage value. The differential between the sales price and the postage value of semipostal stamps consists of an amount (less a deduction for the Postal Service's reasonable costs) to be given to other executive agencies in furtherance of specified causes. The Postal Service issues semipostals in accordance with the Stamp Out Breast Cancer Act and the Semipostal Authorization Act.

11. Requests for commemoration of universities and other institutions of higher education shall be considered only for stamped cards and only in connection with the 200th anniversaries of their founding.

12. No stamp shall be considered for issuance if one treating the same subject has been issued in the past 50 years. The only exceptions to this rule are traditional themes such as national symbols and holidays.
Empire State Express, 1901.
Credit: NYPL Digital Archives.

Regardless of the subject, the designs selected by this committee make a statement about the nation. And whether or not we as individuals support the subject of the stamp, we are bound to it as an artifact of our history. In the event of a massive public response to a stamp—there have been failed designs—this response becomes a part of our history as well. But stamps are the image of the nation as the government wants it to be remembered. Pop icons, artists, scientists, advances in transportation, the American flag—they're all deployed as elements of American identity, despite the way we as individuals may feel about the matter.

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