Stamp Tact | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Postal Service is not exactly known for its speed. I mean, the USPS just got around to issuing a Bob Hope stamp last spring, six years after his death. (Illustration by Eric Palma)

Stamp Tact

How the post office can lick other countries at their own game

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The votes in the 2008 U.S. presidential election had not even been counted. In fact, the election was still months away. But Barack Obama already had his own postage stamp.

“Buy a Piece of History,” read the breathless ad in Linn’s Stamp News, a weekly newspaper for philatelists—people like me who are willing to pay dearly, even obscenely, for tiny, sticky pieces of paper.

But this wasn’t the United States celebrating its soon-to-be first African-American president. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has a rule that “no living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.” The Obama stamp was issued by the Republic of Chad, which, like many other cash-strapped nations, has found an ingenious way to make a buck: issuing stamps that make a big fuss over foreigners. Not to be outdone, Jamaican postal authorities have saluted Ralph Lauren. And Grenada has honored Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star Zydrunas Ilgauskas. (No word on whether the 7-foot-3, 260-pound Lithuanian has ever sipped a rum punch on the balmy Caribbean island.)

The USPS would do well to take note of this lucrative industry, given the $3.8 billion it lost in fiscal year 2009. Perhaps the United States should begin issuing stamps that honor people (dead or alive) and events (famous or obscure) intended to catch the eye of foreign collectors.

Sure, there’ll be objections. USPS guidelines state that our stamps should be restricted to mostly “American or American-related subjects” and “events, persons and themes of widespread national appeal and significance.”

To which I respond: Loosen up, guys!

If Singapore’s postal service can slobber all over Mickey and Minnie, if Guinea can be all atwitter over Norman Rockwell and if the Comoro Islands can tip its hat to Roger Clemens (and not raise any pesky questions about performance-enhancing substances), then why, for heaven’s sake, can’t the USPS pay tribute to, say, a Brazilian telenovela goddess? I’m willing to bet, also, that 40 million to 50 million stamp collectors in India would open their wallets to buy a U.S. stamp that celebrates Sachin “Master Blaster” Tendulkar. (Never heard of the greatest batsman in the history of cricket? You’d better, if you want to keep the price of a first-class stamp under 20 bucks.) And, isn’t it time that someone paid proper homage to Taiiku No Hi, Japan’s Health and Sports Day?

Still, I have a sinking feeling that my postal bailout plan will end up in the dead-letter office. Though I have tremendous respect for our mail carriers—those men and women who brave rain, sleet, snow and global warming to deliver their daily quota of new credit card offers—the Postal Service is not exactly known for its speed. I mean, the USPS just got around to issuing a Bob Hope stamp last spring, six years after his death and nine years after the Commonwealth of Dominica (pop. 72,000) saluted him with six—six!—different stamps.  

And, speaking of postally underappreciated American comedians: Wherrrre’s Johnny? Five years after his death and 18 years after he walked off the “Tonight Show” stage, we’re still waiting for his affable face to grace our envelopes. Could it be that the postmaster general can’t take a joke? It was Johnny, after all, who advised: “Mail your packages early, so the post office can lose them in time for Christmas.”

Bill Brubaker's essay "Let a Thousand Bobbleheads Bloom" appeared in the March 2009 Smithsonian.

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