US Stamps

By Cary R. Brick

Let’s not throw traditional stamps into the CSAC dumpster

October 29, 2014 03:30 PM

  • A pane of 2013 Made in America forever stamps honoring the blue-collar laborers who built today’s America.

I am yesterday’s lunch in the world of creating United States postage stamps, but I still care deeply about their subjects and how they portray America.

What I am is a retired member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, the conference table-sized group of Americans that selects subjects and creates designs of U.S. postage stamps for submission to the postmaster general for his approval, and for eventual issuance.

I call that prestigious group “CSACers” for short, and was proud and honored to be one of them for 12 years until my term-limited retirement in January.

Bill McAllister, Linn’s Washington correspondent, asked me recently for reaction to the postmaster general’s new appointees to fill vacant CSAC seats.

Referring to Katherine Tobin and Carolyn Lewis I said, in essence: “These two former USPS governors are wonderful choices. Former governors, as public servants with distinguished backgrounds covering the entire American spectrum, can bring fresh perspective to the work of the committee.”

Unfortunately, in recent years, the committee, while recommending scores of beautiful and creative stamps for the postmaster general’s approval, has been in danger of losing some perspective on what is welcomed by postal consumers.

The focus of the marketers who manage the current program — with powerful influence over the committee — is to promote stamps that they predict will pay bottom-line dividends, minimizing the previous focus on subjects attractive to the widest possible audience without emphasis on the revenues they produce.

I am hopeful the governors-turned-CSACers can bring perspective back to the table, or at the very least, push for a realistic balance.

As former Postmaster General Benjamin Bailar said recently in his letter of resignation from CSAC, the stamp program should not be viewed by USPS marketers as an opportunity to generate bailout dollars.

That just isn’t going to happen.

Stamps shouldn’t be marketed with the same profit motives as Big Macs, Slurpees, jeans or neighborhood tattoo parlors.

Pie-in-the-sky marketers within the USPS, below the postmaster general level, seem to believe otherwise. They come from the corporate world of soft drinks and Wal-Marts. They are still at the table running the show, and I’m now just another consumer. So be it. But I still care deeply about the stamp program, as do philatelists and tens of millions of Americans who use the mail.

My message to the new CSACers is simple: Strive for balance.

On the matter of subject selection, I offer a story.

During my years on CSAC, never once did we ask a rural, suburban or city postmaster or window clerk what customers ask for. My suggestions that we CSACers do so periodically were treated as candidates for the dead letter office by stamp program managers well below the postmaster general level.

At my retirement dinner, I discussed this topic with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe (a genuine gentleman and dedicated career postal employee who worked his way up the USPS career ladder), and he was receptive.

A marketing manager overheard the conversation and pulled him away.

My suggestion to new CSAC members is to try something new by asking those closest to the consumers what sells and what doesn’t. Isn’t that basic marketing?

Do I object to the marketers positioning pop culture on stamps?

Heck no! I well understand and support the notion that there has to be a creative and artsy balance in stamp subjects.

I don’t object to the Janis Joplin-style subjects, but I fear a creeping momentum to give back-seat treatment to traditional stamps that educate by telling the rest of the American story.

There is certainly room for beautiful art, pop culture and timely subjects, as well as the traditional subjects and those expected by the philatelic community.

To my disappointment, I watched many eyes roll when some educational, patriotic or historic subject was presented to the committee. Themes from the world of science and technology, for example, were met with sighs and “ughs.”

I hope the new members will always be cognizant of their obligation to create stamp programs attractive to the widest possible consumer marketplace.

They should also keep in mind that personal agendas should be checked at the door. Veteran CSACers have seen that written rule violated and unenforced time and time again.

Lastly, I remind the new members that CSACers have an obligation to listen to the American people and strive to think about how their suggestions can be effectuated.

Here’s an example.

For years the committee said “no way” to a proposed stamp honoring coal miners.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of letters, resolutions and petition signatures were received from coal mining states. A website was dedicated to the cause.

But, in essence, these questions were asked within CSAC: “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.”

Not until a higher-up in USPS headquarters expressed personal support for the previously dismissed and discarded proposal was it readdressed, albeit grudgingly.

I suggested a sheet focusing on those blue-collar laborers who built today’s America, as I had done without success before.

Lo and behold, it became a reality, and the Made in America forever stamps were issued Aug. 8, 2013 (Scott 4801).

Much to my pleasure, the set was voted the overall favorite stamp issue in Linn’s 2013 United States Stamp Popularity Poll. Hurray!

I found great personal pleasure recently when I discovered the one-time throwaway proposal is now being offered as a piece of art on the USPS website. It is billed as “Made in America: Building a Nation Framed Art” for $39.95.

That proposal has come a long way from being seen as “dirty” by the committee. I placed my order and will hang the framed piece at my desk where I can see it — and smile — every day.

I challenge the new appointees to remember the traditional while creating the new and exciting issues.

To them I say, “Remember those in line in post offices across America. In the end, they will determine what sells. Not the marketers.”

Cary R. Brick is a freelance writer living in Clayton, N.Y., on the Canadian border, where he serves as president of the Thousand Islands Foundation and the Jefferson County Chambers of Commerce, commissioner of the Town of Clayton Fire District, and a director of the Clayton Local Development Corporation. Before joining CSAC in 2002, he served as a chief of staff in the United States House of Representatives in Washington for 30 years.