The blue curtain is about to drop, ready for the big reveal. The color guard has marched in, the master of ceremonies has cracked a few jokes and the names of important guests have been read. But Joan Tittle is busy looking elsewhere.
Sitting in a seat marked “reserved,” the 78-year-old woman with tiny gray curls is waving to employees, looking for the other fanatics she knows and watching for reactions on the faces of the 100-some people in the crowd.
The curtain drops.
Behind it: stamps. Ta-da!
“That’s nice,” Tittle says, her gold hoop earrings tilting as she looks at the blown-up photo. The four stamps, debuting Thursday at a ceremony at the FreshFarm market near the White House, feature colorful scenes of a farmers market: eggs and sunflowers, peppers and loaves of bread, all painted in overflowing baskets with small handwritten price tags.
The Philadelphia woman isn’t impressed with the bustling farmers market where the stamps are being unveiled; she’s here to make sure she gets enough of them. Tittle is a stamp collector, though collector is too dull a word to describe her pursuit. A few years after she retired from being a high school gym teacher in 1993, she began traveling around the country attending as many “first day of issue” ceremonies as possible. Civil War stamps, Kwanzaa stamps, Joe DiMaggio stamps — she wants them all. And not just the stamps. Tittle collects the souvenir envelopes the stamps come in, the programs from the ceremony and the signature of the postmaster general. She’s been to three stamp unveilings in the past two weeks.
“We not only celebrate this great stamp, we are also celebrating our 15th annual farmers market week,” says the man on stage, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today, we have over 8,268 markets throughout the United States.”
The same cannot be said for the historic institution of postage stamps, which are being used at lows not registered since the early 1980s.
The U.S. Postal Service’s attempts to attract new stamp fans in this e-mail era can be seen in Tittle’s stamp albums, which fill a file cabinet, television stand, computer armoire and three bookcases in her home. Stamps in recent years have featured Finding Nemo, Jimi Hendrix and Harry Potter.
This push to appeal to a younger audience hasn’t been met with universal acclaim. A former postmaster general very publicly resigned from the committee that chooses the designs of the stamps released each year. Benjamin F. Bailar accused the Postal Service of “prostituting” its stamp program “in the pursuit of possibly illusory profits.”
It’s hard to imagine many young people taking on the business of first-day stamp collecting like Tittle, who is now pushing through the crowd of middle-aged women wearing farmers market-inspired straw hats at the ceremony.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she says.
“Oh, hi Mayday!,” she says to another collector. “Is the line really this long?”
Her husband, George, follows behind, carrying two black bags full of Tittle’s stamp paraphernalia. He is used to her obsessive fandom — she also follows the Philadelphia Eagles and has attended all but one of their home games since 1958. When she’s not at games or on stamp trips, the couple, married for 49 years, work out together at the YMCA.
“Okay, what do we need,” George says as they near the blue tents in the middle of the farmers market. Tittle is eyeing the line, making sure she will be able to get enough envelopes marked with “cancellation” in black ink, which signifies the stamp was purchased on the day it was released and cannot be used, thus increasing its value.
When they make it to the front of the line, Tittle orders four sheets of 20 stamps.
“We’re out,” says a woman in a USPS polo. “There’s only one left.”
This never happens. Maybe the Postal Service really hit it off with this one, attracting more people to collect the stamp with the lure of its bright colors and trendy topic. Or maybe there were just people at the market who needed stamps.
“I know what this means,” George says. He leaves to go find an actual post office, where he is able to buy her three more sheets for $9.80 a piece.
Meanwhile, Tittle sets out to find the postmaster general, so she can ask him to sign the few extra programs slipped to her by a friend from the Postal Service.
“I know,” Tittle says, holding her stamps and smiling. “I’m out of control.”