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A Tiny Canvas for Holiday Mirth
Personal Postage Is Giving Letter Traffic a Boost

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."

In the wonky world of stamps, aficionados and collectors, known as philatelists, are debating whether these stamps are good or bad. Vanity stamps actually are -- purists hasten to note -- metered postage, not official U.S. stamps. The Postal Service still has rules for official postage, such as that someone has to be dead for five years before qualifying to appear on a stamp.

"We take an inclusive view of the hobby," said Kenneth P. Martin, the deputy executive director of the American Philatelic Society. "There are always traditionalists who will complain, but we think one of the great things about stamp collecting is that you determine what you want to collect."

The Postal Service tried to launch a customized stamp program in 2004, after a presidential commission -- some of whose members realized that mining America's tendency to self-aggrandizement might be profitable -- recommended exploring customized postage. In 2005, the Postal Service handled 211 billion pieces of mail. That could drop to 181 billion by 2017, the commission said.

The idea died after just six weeks, however, because the Smoking Gun Web site found holes in the Postal Service's screening system. Photos of Jimmy Hoffa, Slobodan Milosevic and Monica Lewinsky's stained blue dress made it past the screening. More stringent standards were established for the official pilot last year.

Mark Delman, vice president of marketing for Endicia's PictureItPostage line, said that images for stamps are most often rejected because they use corporate logos or a celebrity likeness. But there also is the occasional randy shot that gets rejected.

"Someone submitted their Halloween photo," Delman said. "They were unclothed except for their lower regions. They had an animal affixed there -- it was a sheep. It was really awful."

Overt political statements are verboten, too.

The folks at Zazzle, for example, recently rejected a photo of a youngster with a T-shirt that read "Make Cupcakes Not War."

Los Angeles resident Shana Weiss said that the snapshot of her 8-year-old son, Jesse, was actually turned down by all three postage companies, although a photo of her 5-year-old wearing a "Happy Feet" ski hat was approved.

"Turns out the message of peace in the holiday season is too controversial," she said. "Go figure."

Husband-and-wife discord sometimes surfaces.

When Ted S. Letofsky, 38, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., insisted that the family cat, Furble, be included in their Christmas letter, wife Hannah responded by creating a composite of a crazy-eyed kitty complete with neon antlers. "My wife is extraordinarily ambivalent about the cat," Letofsky explained. "She sort of inherited him along with me."

Sarah Stephens, 29, the content manager for Endicia's postage operation, reviews the hundreds of photos the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company receives each day. While looking at so many photos of kids and pets is "festive," she said, it sometimes causes her to ponder such questions as: Why do so many people put reindeer antlers on their pets, anyhow?

As the images float by, she said, she sees "an America that loves to show off things precious to them. They enjoy their children. They enjoy their family. They want the world to see them."

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