A Tiny Canvas for Holiday Mirth

Web sites offering do-it-yourself postage, such as Nick Slepko's take on the LOVE stamp, have personalized the act of sending mail the old fashioned way.
Web sites offering do-it-yourself postage, such as Nick Slepko's take on the LOVE stamp, have personalized the act of sending mail the old fashioned way.

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006

It takes a certain amount of hubris to Photoshop your head onto the cupid from the famous U.S. Postal Service LOVE stamp and send it out into the world.

Nick Slepko, 28, a former Arlington resident, said "hubris is sort of implied" in his decision to create his own vanity postage stamp, using one of three Web sites that now offer do-it-yourself postage. The vanity stamp program was launched by the Postal Service in May 2005 and was expected to have its most business this month.

Letter mail has been flagging, so the customized postage has been a boon for the Postal Service, said spokeswoman Joanne Veto. More than 20 million of the stamps have been sold, and the program's trial period has been extended for another two years.

Some users say the stamps have become a tiny and unlikely canvas for the kind of family animus that often pervades the holidays -- like faux-cheery holiday letters of years past.

As Slepko put it: "What better way to say dysfunction than through the post office?"

He thought putting a "LOVE ME!" plea on a sheet of stamps would be the perfect gift for his prickly mother, Tess.

"She's the most un-mom a mom could be," said a teasing Slepko, who is a consultant living in Ukraine. "She's not a big fan of children in general. I had to potty-train myself."

As the holidays approach, the three Web sites -- http://Stamps.com, Zazzle and Endicia -- have been inundated with pictures of kids dressed as gingerbread men, dogs with wreathes around their necks and cats in hats.

Ken McBride, the chief executive of http://Stamps.com, the largest purveyor of vanity stamps according to the Postal Service, said a third of the images submitted to the site are of babies or children, another third are of families, a sixth are pets and the remainder are landscapes, cars or other images, McBride said.

The photos are screened for content and, if accepted, turned into sheets of perfectly legal 39-cent postage stamps.

The cost of seeing your mug on the right-hand corner of an envelope, generally reserved for heads of state and other notables, is not cheap -- sheets of 20 run about $18.

Yet, "It means something to people," McBride said. "It's always been a sacred thing. The upper right-hand corner of a letter is special."

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