US Stamps

History of the cartoon contest

Jul 27, 2018, 5 AM

U.S. Stamp Notes — By John M. Hotchner

If you are a longtime reader of Linn’s you will have noticed that we include a cartoon caption contest each month in this column. It has run continuously for more than 30 years, first appearing in the Linn’s issue of Dec. 8, 1986.

Linn’s editor-publisher at the time, Michael Laurence, was dubious that stamp collectors would support the contest, but provisionally let me include it as a regular feature, pending reader reaction.

We were both pleasantly surprised when several hundred entries began to arrive for the first contest. It featured the 1950 3¢ Boy Scout commemorative (Scott 995), which is shown in Figure 1.

In recent years, several readers have asked questions about the contest. I’ve answered them individually, but thought it might be worthwhile to combine those answers into a column.

I have kept no records of how many entries have been received for individual contests. I can say that the number of entries each month is well below the numbers when the contest began.

There have been as many as 500 and as few as 25. At this point, an average contest will draw 50 entries, plus or minus a few.

I think there are several reasons for this: Linn’s has fewer subscribers today than it did 30 years ago; entrants who are not selected as winners tend to give up after several months of trying; at the start, it was new and exciting, and now the concept doesn’t inspire the same level of excitement; we are all busier than we have ever been, and getting people to stop and concentrate on coming up with entries is a harder sell.

There is, however, good news. As email has caught on and more and more collectors have graduated to computers, the number of entries, especially from new participants, is trending upward.

In the past, about half of each group of entries has been from people who enter every month. They must like the challenge, and they provide very good entries in general.

I have learned a few lessons along the way. Our mostly male readership (about 90 percent of Linn’s readers are male) seem to be uncomfortable being asked to think like a female.

Cartoon contests featuring Snow White or a female athlete get noticeably fewer entries.

On the other hand, readers seem to like being asked to assume the role of a politician — current or historical — and to have the opportunity to comment on current events.

About 10 percent of such entries are entertaining but not printable because of the language used, the extremely partisan thoughts expressed, or the fact that they are too long or too labored to be instantly understood. 

These entrants often recognize that they will not be serious contenders as they introduce their lines with, “I know you can’t print this, but … ”

Picking the winners is fun, but not easy. As noted in the contest announcements, entries with a touch of humor or irony have the best chance of winning. After all, it is a cartoon. 

Yes, I do pick the winners, but Linn’s editorial staff gets the final vote as they screen my picks to make sure I have not included something that will result in a ton of angry letters to the editor. I can think of only two times in the last 10 years that they have exercised their veto, and, when considered from their perspective, I had to agree.

Readers sometimes drop a note to say that they liked one of the runners-up better than my selection. We all bring different backgrounds, interests and senses of humor to the table, so I honor those opinions. 

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What is a dud to me, may be sparkling wit to you. But looking back at winners over the years, I think they stand up pretty well. 

In picking the stamps to use each month, I try to hit a balance between something that is provocative but not offensive.

Stamps portraying action or with an illustration that has diverse elements are preferred. Certainly, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower talking to the troops before the D-Day landings was a better choice than the Eisenhower definitives, a style of stamp art I have come to call “severed heads.” Figure 2 shows one of these definitives (Scott 1393) and the 1990 25¢ Eisenhower Birth Centenary commemorative (2513).

But action designs can also bring their own risks. The 1990 25¢ Eisenhower commemorative showing him talking to the troops brought an outraged letter decrying that pick as being disrespectful to the general and to the troops, many of whom were among the dead or wounded in the D-Day invasion. 

I don’t know why but a majority of the entries seem to come from California, New York and Pennsylvania. In picking winners and runners-up, I try to be more geographically diverse. Fortunately there are almost always enough good entries to allow for this. 

Certainly one thing I have learned is that Linn’s readers are clever, smart, savvy folks with a great sense of humor. And as long as you continue to support the cartoon contests with entries, we will continue to run them and, in fact, we have a new one this week.

Cartoon Contest

Russians looking at the goings on in the United States must be staring in awe at the daily news as reflected in the world’s press.

There is only one Russian portrayed as the single featured figure on a U.S. stamp, and he is shown floating in space on the 1992 29¢ Space Accomplishment stamp (Scott 2631). Maybe that allows him a wider view than the Russian man in the street, so let’s use him as the cartoon caption contest stamp for August.

Put yourself in the Russian’s spacesuit and tell me what you think he might be saying about the issues of the day, about appearing on a U.S. stamp, his thoughts on cooperation in space, or on any other subject you think appropriate. 

There will be two prizes given: one for the best philatelic line, and one for the best nonphilatelic line.

The important thing is to use your sense of humor, because entries with a humorous twist have the best chance of winning a prize.

Put your entry (or entries) on a postcard if possible and send it to me, John Hotchner, Cartoon Contest, Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email it to If you send an email, it is essential that you include your postal mailing address.

For each winner, the prize will be the book Linn’s Stamp Identifier, published by Linn’s (a retail value of $12.99), or a 13-week subscription to Linn’s (a new subscription or an extension).

To be considered for the prizes, entries must reach me no later than Aug. 24.

Why not enter now while you’re thinking about it?