World’s Strangest

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How to Get Your Face on a Postage Stamp

Follow these five surefire steps and you’ll be stuck to the corner of envelopes in no time!


This is the hard part. According to the U.S. Postal Service, no living person can appear on an official stamp. No exceptions! (Clearly, the Postal Service is in the Elvis-is-dead camp).


Don’t expect your stamps to arrive in time for your wake. The Postal Service has a rule that people can’t be honored in stamp form until five years after their death. But they do make an exception for recently deceased U.S. presidents. The USPS is willing to honor a former commander-in-chief on the first anniversary of the birthday following his death.


Even after you’ve been dead and buried for five years, the USPS will only issue stamps on significant anniversaries. For most personalities, that means waiting until what would have been their 100th birthday before landing the honor. Of course, what constitutes a “significant” anniversary is up for grabs. In 1993, the USPS issued an Elvis Presley stamp on what would have been the King’s 68th birthday. No one complained; more than 500 million Elvis Presley stamps were sold.


Because of the whole separation-of-church-and-state thing, the USPS won’t issue stamps that commemorate “individuals whose principle achievements are associated with religious undertakings.” But the government bends this rule from time to time. When the Postal Service announced its slate of commemorative stamps for 2010, one of them featured Mother Teresa. Atheist groups blasted the stamp for its religious underpinnings, but the USPS responded that the stamp was intended to honor the nun’s humanitarian work more than her religious beliefs. Despite the controversy, the Mother Teresa stamp was officially released on September 5, 2010 -when she would have been 100 years old.


Since 1957, the Postmaster General has appointed and maintained the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which consists of 15 leaders from diverse fields. They meet four times a year to discuss stamp proposals, and the committee’s roster often reads like a random assemblage of folks you’d never see at the same dinner party. Past members include Academy Award winner Karl Malden, author James Michener, and Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps (who served not one, but two terms on the committee, from 1983 to 2006). Phelps wrote extensively about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the group in his 2007 memoir, Undertaker’s Son: Life Lessons from a Coach. During his tenure, the committee received a deluge of 50,000 proposals a year and often felt pressure from members of Congress to approve certain stamps. Phelps wrote, “The pressure doesn’t work; if anything it turns off the committee.”

Current members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Board include Jean Picker Firstenberg, former head of the American Film Institute; Joan Mondale, wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale; and Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who ended up having a “beer summit” at the White House in 2009. If you wind up having a drink with Gates, don’t bring up the stamp thing.

International Diplomacy & the Postal Service

Believe it or not, the U.S. Postal Service has been issuing commemorative stamps since 1893. (The first series celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World!) But the real reasons the USPS issues these stamps isn’t so much to celebrate patriotism; it’s to make money. When people collect stamps instead of using them for postage, the federal government turns a healthy profit. In 2006, the USPS estimated that 120 million Elvis stamps were never mailed, delivering more than $30 million to the Postal System’s coffers.

But not every commemorative stamp is a good idea. In 1994, the Postal Service planned to issue a stamp recognizing the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The government was trying to portray the historical event without offering a judgement on the bombing itself, but lots of people questioned its tastefulness. Japan’s foreign minister protested, as did the mayor of Nagasaki, who called the stamp “heartless.” The Japanese embassy in Washington took its case to the State Department in hopes of canceling the stamp before it was released. Eventually, protests grew so loud that the Clinton White House leaned on the USPS to ditch the stamp, and the Postal Service caved. But it held onto the theme. In 1995, the USPS replaced the mushroom cloud stamp with one depicting Harry Truman announcing the end of the war.


The article above, written by Ethan Trex, is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the March-April 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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