For 22 years, the U.S. Postal Service has been trying to re-create the blockbuster product that brought contemporary subjects to the face of postage stamps and helped the agency’s balance sheet: the Elvis Presley stamp issued in Memphis in January 1993.
This summer postal officials are going to try again, dedicating a second stamp at a First-Day-of-Issue ceremony on Aug. 12 at the late entertainer’s Graceland estate. And the financially struggling mail agency will hope “the King” will still generate multimillion-dollar sales, even as the stamp fades from consciousness along with the hand-written letter.
“His life and talents are an incredible story,” Postmaster General Megan Brennan said of Presley in last week’s announcement. “Spanning from his humble beginnings in a Tupelo, Mississippi, two-room house to becoming one of the most legendary performance artists of the 20th Century, Elvis Presley’s works continues to resonate with millions the world over.”
Elvis will be commemorated on a Forever stamp, whose design is being closely held, as the sixth artist in an ongoing series celebrating music icons. He will get his own Twitter hashtag, #ElvisForever. He’ll be featured with a different design from the first version, which sold for 29 cents.
But will the most popular collectible stamp in U.S. history come close to bringing in the revenue that flowed to the Postal Service in 1993, when it printed 500 million Elvis stamps? No one has done it so far, not Marilyn Monroe, Batman, Frank Sinatra, or even Harry Potter.
“There are still millions of Elvis fans out there who will buy the stamp,” said Michael Baadke, senior editor at Amos Media, which publishes Linn’s Stamp News, a popular magazine for stamp enthusiasts. “But it’s unlikely it will make a big a splash. The numbers are likely to be reduced, simply because fewer people are using letter mail.”
The post office considers a stamp successful when collectors buy it but hang onto it. In 1997, officials boasted that Elvis’ “retention rate” made it the biggest seller, Baadke said, with 124 million stamps never used, about $36 million in sales. (USPS spokesman Ray Saunders said only 1 in every 5 of the 500 million printed were collected).
Saunders gives credit for the turn in postal history to Anthony M. Frank, a California savings and loan executive who was postmaster general in the early 1990s. Frank wanted an Elvis stamp against the recommendations of the powerful yet conservative Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which chooses the images that go on stamps.
Frank had a public relations savvy that has eluded current postal leaders in a digital age. He announced on Larry King Live that the Postal Service was bringing out an Elvis stamp. “The next day, his office was swamped with reporters,” Saunders said.
At a press conference at the Las Vegas Hilton in January 1992, postal officials made another smart public relations move, announcing that customers could vote on which image of Elvis they wanted on the stamp. People magazine got in the act, including official tear-out ballots in its April 13, 1992 issue.
Ballots were sent to all 40,000 post offices, and 1.1 million votes were cast by, yes, mail, Saunders said. The younger Elvis received 851,000 votes, the older Elvis 277,000 votes.
On the day of the debut, busloads of fans traveled to Memphis just to watch a stamp be dedicated.
“I have attended many stamp ceremonies since than rainy night, but I have never seen anything to match the enthusiasm of those crowds in Memphis or the Presley birthplace of Tupelo, Miss.,” Bill McAllister, Washington correspondent for Linn’s, recalled in an essay after news broke of the second stamp.
For the U.S. Postal Service, those were glory days.