As the U.S. Postal Service prepares to issue a stamp featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer next week, a postal expert whose 12-year term on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee ended earlier this year pleads with his former colleagues to resist the temptation to choose new stamp images “with the same profit motives as Big Macs, Slurpees, jeans or neighborhood tattoo parlors.”
“They come from the corporate world of soft drinks and Wal-Marts,” Brick, a 30-year chief of staff in the House of Representatives before his appointment to the stamp panel, wrote. “They are still at the table running the show, and I’m now just another consumer…But I still care deeply about the stamp program, as do philatelists and tens of millions of Americans who use the mail.”
This airing of dirty laundry in the small but passionate stamp community, headlined “Let’s not throw traditional stamps into the CSAC dumpster,” draws another fault line in an ongoing debate over whether the cash-poor Postal Service should pursue commercial stamp subjects to lure new collectors and revenue at the expense of more enduring cultural images.
The friction came to a head last fall, when the stamp panel grew concerned about how the Postal Service’s marketing staff was pushing pop culture that culminated with the release of stamps honoring Harry Potter. Members complained to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe that the panel was being brushed aside in decisions on stamp images. The committee is composed of prominent Americans, including historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and sportscaster Donna de Varona.
In August, Benjamin F. Bailar, a former postmaster general and prominent stamp collector who was midway through his term on the panel resigned in protest, complaining in a letter to Donahoe that the agency is “prostituting” its stamp program in a wrongheaded search for “illusory profits.”
Brick’s manifesto, written as advice-giving to two new committee members, comes on the heels of turmoil in the Postal Service’s stamp service office, which issues new stamps and acts as a liaison with the committee. The head of the stamp program, Susan McGowan, was replaced this month and moved to another position in the marketing department.
A Postal Service spokeswoman said McGowan was “detailed” to a sales operations and planning position in the marketing department but declined to give a reason for the move. McGowan has been replaced by an executive in an acting capacity, officials said.
During McGowan’s tenure, the marketing office took took steps to enhance the visibility of new stamps, rankling collectors. Last year, for example, the Postal Service reprinted a version of a famous airmail stamp issued in 1918 with an error known as the Inverted Jenny, which shows a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, or a “Jenny,” printed upside down.
The misprint of the 24-cent airmail stamp, America’s first, became an instant collector’s item. When it was reissued in 2013, postal officials included in the run 100 sheets that actually show the airplane flying upright. Collectors have called this a gimmick, since stumbling across the new sheets has a low probability.
First-day cover collectors also have been frustrated with the agency’s new strategy of hiding details of upcoming new stamp releases until they are issued to the public, a move to generate excitement from buyers.
Brick’s reference to marketers from the “corporate world of soft drinks,” is a criticism of Nagisa Manabe, a former Coca-Cola executive Donahoe hired in 2012 to reinvigorate the postal brand. Manabe has pushed stamp subjects with a commercial appeal. She moved the stamp program into her department and pushed aside veterans in the program, postal sources have said.
Manabe was not immediately available for comment.
Brick urged the two new committee members, Katherine Tobin and Carolyn Lewis, both former governors of the postal board, to “strive for balance” in choosing stamp subjects. He said postal officials should ask a series of postmasters or window clerks what mail customers themselves say they want to see on stamps.
Brick recalls that the committee repeatedly rejected his suggestion of a stamp honoring coal miners. “How in the world can we make that dirty job beautiful? We can’t. How can an artist and designer make that work? They can’t. Let’s move on to more beautiful subjects,” is how Brick describes the discussion on the committee.
Eventually a postal official intervened, and Made in America, a sheet of 12 stamps featuring blue-collars laborers, was released last year to acclaim from collectors.
Postal officials, in response to Brick’s column, said they believe they have successfully balanced subjects that define the country’s diverse national culture and beauty “to appeal to a variety of audiences.”
“In the past year we’ve commemorated World War II and Korean War Medal of Honor recipients; pioneering Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; Harvey Milk, one of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials; the Civil War, the War of 1812; the Star Spangled Banner; hot rods; Tennis legend Althea Gibson; and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — just to name a few,” spokesman Mark Saunders said in a statement.
“That said, while continuing to commemorate historic events and individuals, it is critically important that we offer subjects to interest younger generations and topical collectors into stamp collecting, such as Harry Potter, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and, most recently, Batman,” Saunder said.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuts at the National Postal Museum on Nov. 6. It will be followed Dec. 5 by former NBA star Wilt Chamberlain when the 76ers host the Oklahoma Thunder.