Portraits of the USA (plus the best stamp they never released)

Credit where it’s due. How well does the United States Postal Service do portrait stamps?

It’s got a head start, being in America and all. With its entrepreneurial spirit, vibrant cultural scene, and comprehensive disenfranchisement of minorities, the USA is never short of an innovator, an envelope-pusher or a trailblazer to honour on a stamp.

USA 2015 Maya Angelou stamp

Take the Maya Angelou stamp that’s out on April 7. No frills, just elegance and eloquence. A dignified tribute. I was gobsmacked to read that the image is that of a painting (!) – an oil-on-canvas number by Ross Rossin that resides in the National Portrait Gallery. Look at that face, and imagine the stories it could tell.

Then go and read those stories.

(Edit: I was later further gobsmacked to learn that the quote chosen for Maya’s stamp was in fact not hers. Oops.)

USA 2014 Ralph Ellison stamp

Sticking with the literary theme, here’s the Ralph Ellison tribute from February 2014. The biggest compliment I can pay this stamp is that as someone not familiar with Ellison’s work, the stamp alone makes me want to look him up. That tenement streetscape call to mind a world to which other works of art have transported me in the past. Who was this guy? Imma find out. I reckon that if I hang out long enough in that late-night diner depicted in Edward Hooper’s painting Nighthawks, he’ll wander in and I can ask him all about himself. Have I insulted a major literary figure with cringeworthy romanticism enough yet? Probably.

Incidentally, this stamp was designed by Kadir Nelson (with Ethel Kessler). Regular readers may remember me embarrassing myself over Nelson’s fabulous Wilt Chamberlain issue back in January.

USA 2014 Harvey Milk stamp

In May 2014 the USPS released this tribute to gay pioneer Harvey Milk, one of the first openly homosexual public officials in the US, assassinated in 1978. Even last year the release of the stamp was not without its tedious critics. What I like about this stamp is that they could have found a way to really gay it up, but they didn’t. The rainbow touch is there for symbolism; the rest is an just engaging photo portrait of a guy. The dominant black might have been chosen because it complemented the photo’s greys, but can we read into it an acknowledgement of mourning, of sorrow at the untimely death of a potential statesman?

USA 2014 Charlton Heston stamp

Appealing to the other end of the political spectrum is the Charlton Heston stamp of April 2014. It’s a likeable portrait of Heston when he was still recognizably a Hollywood star and not a NRA nutter. There’s something old-school about this stamp that I quite like. Just like its subject, it’s classical, but outdated.

The ongoing Music Icon series has been spectacular. The USPS has not just been willing to recognize countercultural stars, but also to depict them in ways befitting their era. The squares who ran society in Harvey Milk’s day would be rolling in their graves to see their nation honour Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin like this in March and August 2014, respectively.

If you’re some sort of young person vaguely attracted to the idea of stamp collecting but bored by the traditional fascination with presidents and kings on stamps, chasing up these issues would be an excellent place to start. Try finding them used on commercial mail… there’s a challenge.

USA 2013 Johnny Cash stamp

A personal highlight of mine from this series is the Johnny Cash stamp of June 2013. The messed-up master broods warily in our direction, as always the man in black.

My only problem with this release isn’t with what the USPS did, it’s with what it didn’t do. There’s a notorious photo of Cash rehearsing for his famous show at Folsom Prison. Photographer Jim Marshall called it “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.” For some stupid reason, the USPS overlooked this photo when designing this stamp. So in a first for the Punk Philatelist, I hereby submit my own design for consideration. Could there possibly be a better reason to rip off that photo one more time?

Punk Philatelist Johnny Cash Flips The Bird stamp

The USPS missed a golden sales opportunity with this one. Who wouldn’t want to stick THAT on a letter to the taxman?

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© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities, except for my Johnny Cash one which should rightfully belong to Jim Marshall

11 thoughts on “Portraits of the USA (plus the best stamp they never released)

Add yours

  1. You are a genius. Not only are you a lucid art/culture critic, but you’ve just designed my favorite stamp of all time. Just brilliant. (And yes, I would buy a bazillion of them, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jessica! I’m in Australia actually. At the moment I’m enjoying my anonymity, which may or may not help for reasons of professional diplomacy… but if I ever decide to go public, I’ll let you know!


  2. Hey – I would love to know how to connect with other less-than-senior citizen stamp geeks, especially in the US. Any suggestions?


    1. Lately I’ve enjoyed watching the Reddit philately thread (www.reddit.com/r/philately) – it has stamp stuff but with Reddit’s usual impudence. It can take a while to get used to Reddit culture if you’re not into it, but it can be great fun once you’re in.


  3. Hey! We featured you in our podcast Stamp Show Here Today, Episode 26! Come check it out! Just search for Stamp Show Here Today on iTunes, Stitcher, or Podbay, or you can check out the Episode on our website. We would love to have some correspondence with you for our show!

    Expert, PSE


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