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In March 1869, the US Post Office Department issued a set of ten stamps that broke from convention. While the faces of American patriots had stared up at the mailing public ever since postage stamps were first issued in 1847, these designs were pictorial: a locomotive, a ship, a mail carrier on horseback, the landing of Columbus, among other scenes of American life and history.
To further segregate them, the 1869 Pictorial issues were nearly square, as opposed to rectangular. The gum was inferior. Four of the designs were printed in two colors.
People disliked them.
Six months later, the Boston Herald reported, “in consequence of the National dissatisfaction with the new postage stamps, orders have been given to prepare designs to be issued in place of the present designs.”
And so began a centuries-long string of passions stirred and objections raised, for reasons related to a stamp’s subject or design, the printing technology used, or a production error made.
Take the 3-cent commemorative stamp of 1948, for example, that had people clucking loudly. Released to mark the centennial of the American poultry industry, the stamp showed a rooster waiting to crow at sunrise. Postal patrons deemed the stamp “undignified” and unnecessary (with thousands of other deserving and patriotic subjects inside the American experience to choose from) and awarded it a somewhat derogatory nickname: The Chicken Stamp.
Then, a little more than a decade later, the US Postal Service decided to honor Swedish diplomat and former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold on a 1962 stamp, and error struck: A few stamp panes were mistakenly printed with the yellow background inverted. When word of the misprints got out, speculation about their value led Postmaster General J. Edward Day to intercede, ordering a special printing of more than 40 million inverted stamps. The worth of the desirously imperfect originals, estimated at US$500,000 each, was thus destroyed, and stamp collectors were incensed — especially those lucky enough to have snagged one of the authentic errors.
Arguably the most controversial U.S. stamp ever issued made a splash in 1981, along with the message “Alcoholism: You can beat it!” Despite the Postal Service’s good intentions to convey to the public that alcoholism was treatable, recipients of letters with the stamp were insulted, believing the sender had accused them of having a drinking problem. The phrase “You can beat it” made the message too personal.
Yet purists have many agendas, from public health to historical accuracy, and voices often clash surrounding a single issue.
In 1982, for example, the US Postal Service released a stamp for the centennial of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth. The design was based upon a casual photograph of the President leaning out of a convertible, cigarette in hand — which triggered a strong and public reaction from the anti-smoking movement. Showing the former head of state smoking was unacceptable.
But with a 1994 stamp devoted to blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson, the absence of the musician’s cigarette became controversial. The original photograph inspiring the design showed Johnson smoking, and yet the cigarette was eradicated from the stamp. While a spokesperson stated that the Postal Service didn’t want the stamp “to be perceived as promoting cigarettes,” the president of the National Smokers Alliance wrote, in a letter to the Postmaster General, that the revision was “an affront to the more than 50 million Americans who choose to smoke.” The fact that a historical image had been amended made still others unhappy.
Five years later, a similar quandary: A stamp honoring Jackson Pollock showed the Abstract Expressionist hunched over a canvas, dripping paint onto its surface. The image was modeled after a gritty photo that appeared in a 1949 Life cover article, showing the artist with his trademark cigarette dangling from his mouth. Yet in the stamp: no nicotine. This time dissenters (including a cultural symbolism scholar) argued that the alteration was an attempt to “sanitize” history.
And so it continues that there will be many more opinions than stamps issued — a welcome reality in a democratic culture that speaks its mind freely. But if you’ve been waiting for that stogie-smoking-chicken stamp to debut, don’t hold your breath.
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