A Sticky Story

On the national branding project better known as USPS stamps.

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Is this a great country or what?
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As far as the United States Postal Service’s problems go, a dust-up
over a stamp probably doesn’t rank very high. But for the Freedom from
Religion Foundation (FFRF), the post office’s dire financial straits don’t mean it can just go about issuing stamps of whomever it
wants. That’s why the organization — whose focus is maintaining a
separation of church and state — last month came out against the Postal Service’s decision to issue a stamp this year honoring Mother Theresa.

FFRF argues that the choice violates the Service’s own ban on stamps and stationary that honor religious individuals. The organization blames “America’s disproportionately powerful Roman Catholic influence,” but a spokesman for the agency told Fox News that the nun is being honored for her humanitarian work, which it counts as distinct from her religious affiliation. Besides, the agency seems to say at the end of its press releases, “the Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses, and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.” This isn’t a Ten-Commandments-in-the-courthouse kind of issue, the small print suggests.

If you can push aside for a moment the constitutional issues under debate, the fact that a stamp can rouse such passion at all can seem quaint, what with the Postal Service’s role in and relevance to public life in freefall. Indeed, my friend Stefany Anne Golberg argues elsewhere on this site that the Post Office must die. Die it likely will, Stefany. But it’s worth noting that as we lose an increasingly anachronistic and eternally lumbering bureaucracy, we’re also losing the closest thing we have to a national art program, one that intends to tell a very particular story about the country.

   The USPS wasn’t always PC.

This is not a recent development. From the very beginning, stamps were meant to celebrate what their contemporary makers considered to be the best aspects of America, to codify narratives about the country and values their makers wanted to cultivate in it. That was originally thought to be manifest in its heroic founding figures. The first stamps, issued in 1847, depicted Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. In 1893, Postmaster General John Wanamaker broke that tradition when he issued a series of stamps celebrating the Colombian Exposition. The stamps presented scenes of historic significance related to Columbus’ landing in the New World: stamps such as “Columbus soliciting aid of Isabella,” “Columbus in sight of land,” “Columbus presenting natives” and “Columbus announcing his discovery” collectively told the story of the explorer’s exploits in the the Americas (as well as his troubles back home — consider the $2 “Columbus in chains”!).

Of course anyone who has ever stood in line alongside one of those post office product shelves, stamps today depict a lot more than Great White Men Who Did Great Things. Stamps today depict women and minorities and landscapes and objects and plants and animals and cartoon characters and film characters and sports and flags and landmark buildings and abstract concepts such as “love.” The categories of people depicted has grown as well, expanding well beyond founding fathers and explorers to include scientists and inventors and artists and actors and musicians and writers. This is why the the clerk at the Post Office presents you with decisions you never otherwise face in life: the Liberty Bell or Distinguished Sailors? Gary Cooper or Gulf Coast Lighthouses?

Stamp subjects today are chosen by the 13-member Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. The Postmaster General selects the members — a mix of scholars, artists, and successful representatives of other fields such as sports and politics — who serve not the Postal Service, the body’s name suggests, but the American people. Indeed, anyone is able to recommend a stamp. The Committee meets four times a year to select stamps based on 12 criteria: Stamps honoring historical events must commemorate an anniversary that’s a multiple of 50; colleges and universities may only be honored on the 200th anniversary of their founding; living people are ineligible, and the dead must be gone for five years before they can appear on a stamp; and so on. Overall, the stamps chosen should be “interesting” and “educational.”

The greater variety of stamp subjects suggests that the Postal Service has indeed cast a wider net over the last century. But it is, in many respects, the same net. The implicit goal of selecting images that should define desirable American values hasn’t changed; what has are the subjects that can do such defining.

Which is why, in 2010, you get stamps on Cowboys of the Silver Screen. Katherine Hepburn. And newspaper comics (newspapers!). The most timely new stamp commemorates the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which isn’t all that timely when you think about how the Olympics have been around for over a century, and these games are just one part of yet another historic tradition. Nineteenth-century artist Winslow Homer and Abstract Expressionism of the ’40s and ’50s are included this year, a nod not to the works themselves, but to their canonization. The 2010 Nature of America pane depicts the Hawaiian Rain Forest. This is described as an educational series, and press materials tout the ecosystem’s rich biodiversity. One assumes the educational intent is to instill a sense that this is an environment worth protecting, even though the stamps seem to sidestep the question of protection from what.

Writing a letter to great-grandpa, are we?

Stamps are, after all, not meant to have that kind of edge. This is very clear in a video from the National Postal Museum that documents the creation of a stamp. The clip follows an artist charged with creating a series of American motorcycles over four decades. When he brings a variety of sketches to the Postal Service offices, the head of stamp design immediately rejects one that too closely resembles a scene from the film Easy Rider — the USPS staff felt it connoted an “easy lifestyle.”

“When it comes to stamp design,” a narrator tells us, “it’s a fine line between thought-provoking and provocative.” That sounds about right, until you realize he’s favoring the former over the latter.

Why no provocation? Why take no risks in designing stamps? Risk — from the Revolution through Westward exploration through the country’s economic rise — has always been a dominant theme in this country. If nothing else comes out of the subprime mortgage crisis and its economic fallout, can’t we at least acknowledge that we’re willing to take bigger risks than Holiday Evergreens?

To some degree, the Postal Service is amenable to change. Disagree with the subjects its panel chooses? You can now make your own stamps. Various online operators now make it possible for you to create legal stamps with photos of your kid, your engagement, your pet, your college logo, or your favorite Anne Geddes photo. This seems like a more democratic system of stamp selection, but then you realize that nobody else is going to ever use your photo of your kid, your engagement, or your pet (college logos and Anne Geddes, alas, have wider appeal).

But despite the element of personal choice, this new freedom does nothing to buck the Postal Service’s messaging. Of course these stamps are not the top-down products of the Service, its committee deciding the stamps 300 million Americans will use. But it is also not bottom-up content creation in the contemporary spirit of the Web, in which what you make requires the approval of others (many, many others) for it to be infused with any kind of cultural significance. You may choose which stories you’d like to tell through stamps, the USPS says, but it is your story; your friends may create their own, or choose a nice Kate Smith, thank you.

The new face of content — all that personality-driven stuff lumped together under the viral video/reality TV/blog culture umbrella that stands in opposition to established tropes like “Sunday Funnies” — makes stamps’ content feel so starkly out of touch. But there is, in the end, one relevant stamp. It’s the postage generated by Automated Postal Centers. The QR Code stamp is unique to each piece of mail, a unique image of black and white squares that has no intentional story it. It exists simply to speed up the process of using the Post Office. To eliminate the need to wait in lines with others, to avoid the interaction with a clerk. Its message isn’t Scouting or Tiffany Lamp or Oregon Statehood. Its message is Improvement. And that feels like a very American value. • 12 February 2010

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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