US Stamps

By George Amick

Linn’s 2015 U.S. stamp popularity poll opens for voting

December 08, 2015 12:26 PM

  • Shortly before the Maya Angelou forever stamp was issued in April, it was discovered that the quotation printed on the stamp is from a poem written by another writer.

By George Amick

In 2015, the United States Postal Service issued 100 face-different stamps and postal stationery items. It was the smallest annual total since the 60 produced by the USPS in 1990.

However, the year’s count rises to 162 when it includes imperforates — stamps without die cuts — from uncut press sheets of conventionally issued stamps, which the USPS offers for sale on a limited basis at face value.

In the past, Linn’s hasn’t counted these imperforates in its annual tallies of collectible varieties because they weren’t assigned numbers in the Scott catalogs. Scott mentioned them in footnotes, but followed its longtime policy of not listing stamps that are intentionally created in small quantities for philatelic marketing.

Starting with the 2016 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, however, Scott has assigned minor-letter listings to imperforate stamps from press sheets. The company changed course, explained managing editor Charles Snee, because of the popularity of the imperforates among collectors and the difficulty dealers were having in inventorying and advertising them without Scott numbers.

2015 also was a year in which:

  • A stamp honoring author and poet Maya Angelou displayed an unattributed quotation that USPS officials thought was hers, but which turned out to be from another writer’s work.
  • Elvis Presley, the charismatic performer who helped ignite the rock ‘n’ roll revolution in the 1950s, appeared on U.S. postage for the first time since 1993, when the decision to feature him on a commemorative stamp drew widespread attention from collectors and noncollectors alike.
  • The forever-stamp concept that the USPS introduced in 2007 and which has been described as “the Postal Service’s most successful consumer innovation in a decade” was expanded to include additional postage categories.

On this last subject, the first-class rate for the first ounce of mail remained at 49¢ during 2015, meaning that all stamps with the familiar “Forever” inscription continued to sell for that amount and will always be valid to carry a 1-ounce letter, regardless of the rate in the future. All 27 commemoratives issued during the year were forever stamps.

However, rates went up in June for each additional ounce of first-class mail, from 21¢ to 22¢, which caused the amounts charged for 2-ounce and 3-ounce letters to rise by 1¢ and 2¢, respectively. They also were raised for the square or odd-shaped envelopes that the USPS calls “nonmachineable,” from 70¢ to 71¢, and for postcards, from 34¢ to 35¢.

After receiving permission from the Postal Regulatory Commission, USPS accompanied those hikes with stamps bearing new kinds of service inscriptions to indicate that they — like forever stamps — would be permanently valid for their specified purpose.

Thus, a pane stamp and a coil stamp depicting emperor penguins in a design by prolific wildlife artist Nancy Stahl are inscribed “Additional Ounce.” Four pane and four coil stamps bear stylized images of coastal birds and the word “Postcard.” The latest entry in the Postal Service’s Butterflies definitive series shows an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail over the words “Non Machineable Surcharge.”

Designs that had been utilized in the recent past on three different stamps with 70¢ denominations (including a Vintage Tulip wedding stamp that had been issued earlier in the year) returned in June bearing the inscription “Two Ounce.” And a stamp honoring author Flannery O’Connor, the 30th entry in the four-decade-old Literary Arts series, is inscribed “Three Ounce.”

Literary Arts had traditionally been considered a commemorative set for standard first-class mail, but in 2009 collectors were told that in rate-increase years, new stamps in the series would be reserved for specific postal needs. For that reason Linn’s counts it as a definitive.

The O’Connor design drew a mixed response from her fans. New York Times columnist Lawrence Downes deplored the decision to show the writer as a 20-year-old college student, before she embarked on a career which, in his words, “fused her art and life as a Southerner and a Roman Catholic with stories that are shocking, hilarious and often bloody.” Downes would have preferred, he wrote, “a stamp that was more recognizably the grown-up Flannery, and contained some taste of her strange and majestic artistic vision.”

In response, reader Mark Greenbaum of New Jersey wrote that the criticism was “beyond silly” and noted that “A stamp is not a portrait to be hung on a museum wall; it is a product to sell.

“Would upset O’Connor fans have preferred gloomy colors to reflect the demonic children that often inhabit her stories?” Greenbaum wrote. “Or unsettling smiling eyes to mirror the naive ignorance of her parent characters?”

As for the Maya Angelou commemorative, its design includes, beneath the writer’s name, the sentence: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Two days before the stamp was issued, Washington Post writer Lonnae O’Neal reported that the actual source of the quote is a poem by Joan Walsh Anglund, a children’s book author, in her 1967 book A Cup of Sun.

It was pointed out that the words are often misattributed to Angelou, including by President Barack Obama when he was honoring other artists at the 2014 presentation of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal. The Postal Service decided against scrapping the 80 million stamps already printed, although a spokesman said a different quotation would have been used if officials had known the one chosen wasn’t Angelou’s.

The spokesman noted that the sentence on the stamp had “great meaning” for Angelou, adding that it “provides a connection to her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

The 2015 Elvis Presley stamp is the sixth entry in the Music Icons commemorative series. Like its 1993 forerunner, it depicts the singer as a young man, barely embarked on his spectacular career. The earlier commemorative had been ordered by Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank over the objections of several members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, who felt that the singer’s substance abuse and other excesses disqualified him for postal honors, but Frank’s decision turned out to be a marketing masterstroke.

The pre-issue promotion campaign included a national mail-in vote on whether a “young Elvis” or an “old Elvis” should be pictured — the former won in a landslide — and the stamp opened the way for the USPS to salute other contemporary pop culture stars regardless of their personal foibles.

The largest multistamp set of the year comprises 10 varieties in the Holiday Celebration series of special stamps depicting scenes from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the animated TV special featuring Charles Schulz’s beloved comic strip characters that first aired 50 years ago. The only previous U.S. stamp featuring Schulz’s art is a 34¢ commemorative of 2001 showing Snoopy, the beagle, in his favorite fantasy role as a World War I aviator pursuing the Red Baron.

The largest commemorative set, five varieties, reproduces intricate hand-drawn designs created by Mexican-born Martin Ramirez, a self-taught artist, during his long confinement in a California mental hospital. Ramirez created his drawings and collages using discarded materials until a visiting psychology professor saw the artwork, supplied the patient with appropriate paper, adhesive and implements and arranged for it to be shown.

In 2012, after the USPS and Japan Post had jointly commemorated the centennial of Japan’s gift of blossoming cherry trees to the United States, Linn’s readers voted the two U.S. stamps issued on that occasion and illustrated by Paul Rogers of California the year’s most popular. In 2015, the two countries created another joint issue, this time for the centennial of the return gift of blossoming dogwood trees from the United States to Japan.

Rogers and Japanese artist Junko Kaifuchi each contributed two illustrations to this “Gifts of Friendship” issue. Rogers depicted flowering cherry blossoms framing the Lincoln Memorial and pink and white dogwood blossoms surrounding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, while the Kaifuchi pictures feature cherry blossoms at the National Diet Building and white dogwood at the clock tower in the Parliamentary Museum garden in Tokyo.

A three-stamp set in the Medal of Honor series honors recipients of the military decoration from the Vietnam War and displays its differing versions that are awarded to members of the Air Force, Army and Navy. Previous two-stamp sets had saluted Medal of Honor recipients from World War II and the Korean War, both of which were fought before an Air Force version of the medal was created. The new stamps bear 2015 year dates, distinguishing the new Army and Navy Medal of Honor stamps from their earlier counterparts.

Two series marking anniversaries of U.S. wars, the 200th of the War of 1812 and the 150th of the Civil War, came to an end in 2015 with a single commemorative for the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, the final clash of the earlier conflict, and a pair of stamps marking the 1865 Battle of Five Forks and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Other commemorative series receiving new additions were Legends of Hollywood, which honored Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman as part of a joint issue with Sweden; Black Heritage, with a stamp picturing Robert Robinson Taylor, who is believed to have been both the first African-American graduate of MIT and the nation’s first academically trained black architect; and Lunar New Year, which marked the Year of the Ram with Kam Mak’s painting of a wooden candy tray known as a chuenhop, or tray of forgiveness.

Two commemoratives promote the World Stamp Show to be held in New York City in 2016. Differing only in color, red or blue, they are arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a pane of 20. The year’s social awareness stamp urges the public to “Help Find Missing Children” and pictures a cluster of forget-me-not blossoms alongside a single flower detached from the group. A matching stamped envelope also was issued.

The simple design of a “From Me to You” commemorative consists only of those four words in block letters. However, each pane of 20 stamps includes in the selvage a selection of self-adhesive decorations and messages with which senders can personalize their envelopes, letters and greeting cards. Single commemoratives also salute the U.S. Coast Guard on the centenary of its service under that name, mark the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, and picture longtime film star Paul Newman. The wording “actor/philanthropist” on the Newman stamp makes clear that he was honored not simply for his acting career, which would have amply qualified him for the Legends of Hollywood series, but also for his leadership in promoting charitable giving and his own contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to global causes.

Among the year’s 65 definitives and specials are $1 and $2 denominated Patriotic Waves stamps whose abstract designs feature red and blue curving lines of varied thicknesses in a flowing pattern against a white background. These are similar in appearance to the four high-value Waves of Color stamps of 2012 but were printed by offset lithography rather than intaglio engraving. The latter process — which is popular with collectors but seldom used — did return this year, however, for three special-stamp varieties that were created primarily for wedding mail; their images, a Vintage Tulip and a Vintage Rose, are based on details from two early 1700s engraved plates.

Five forever coil stamps displaying photographs of different types of ferns by Cindy Dyer are similar to five issued in 2014 but were created by a different printer and printing process. The number of collectible varieties turned out to be 10, however, because the printer applied a 2014 year date to stamps from rolls of 10,000, and a 2015 date to those from rolls of 3,000.

Four forever stamps on a double-sided pane depict staples of America’s summer farm harvest — watermelons, sweet corn, cantaloupes and tomatoes — in colorful graphic designs reminiscent of classic produce-crate labels of the past. Another quartet of forever stamps displays Cindy Dyer’s photos of water lilies; two of those photos also were reproduced on stamped envelopes.

Two Love stamps arranged alternately on a pane of 20 display the word “Forever” spelled out with ornamental letters embellished with curving lines that form the shape of a heart. On one, the heart is in red against a white background, while the colors on the other are reversed, showing white on red.

For users of presorted standard mail, a trio of coil stamps was issued which, viewed together on a roll, form elements of a continuous U.S. flag. A pattern of light blue dots is superimposed on the stars and stripes, accentuating the billowing shape of the flag design.

The Postal Service also issued new versions of the Neon Celebrate forever stamp that first appeared in 2011, the six nondenominated Spectrum Eagle coil stamps of 2012 for presorted first-class mail, and the 1¢ Bobcat coil stamp, also of 2012. They differed from their predecessors in one or more ways, such as typography, gum type, imprinted year dates and the process by which they were printed.

An unannounced variety that turned up late in the year was another of several versions of the Purple Heart definitive that was first issued in 2003 and got design overhauls in 2011 and 2012. The 2012 stamp was gravure-printed by Avery Dennison and CCL Label, while the new variety was printed by offset by Sennett Security Products.

The year’s final issue was, like the A Charlie Brown Christmas set, part of the Holiday Celebrations series: four stamps, each with a colorful graphic representation of the geometric pattern of a snowflake. The USPS also offered customers more than 20 other varieties of Christmas and holiday stamps (some with religious subjects) that had been issued in prior years.

Eight postal stationery items were produced in 2015, including the previously mentioned forever envelopes reproducing the Forget-Me-Not missing children stamp and two of the four Water Lilies stamps. The costliest was a $5.75 Priority Mail envelope, available in packs of five, 10 and 25, with a stamped image reproducing the $5.75 Glade Creek Grist Mill Priority Mail stamp of 2014 and issued with no advance notice Jan. 12.

There also were forever envelopes with images of a bank swallow and a vintage 19th century eagle perched on crossed American flags, designs first introduced on envelopes in 2013.

The year’s only new postal card, Fanciful Flowers, depicts orange blossoms and green stems resembling those of a bellflower, and was used for both a single card and a double reply card. The art was created by frequent postal-card designer Cathie Bleck using the scratchboard technique.


Online voting is available; the 2015 poll closes March 4, 2016. Completed ballots must be postmarked by March 1, 2016, and mailed to Linn’s Stamp Poll, Box 4129, Sidney, OH 45365. Future issues of Linn’s also will carry the U.S. stamp poll ballot. Photocopied ballots are accepted.