WASHINGTON — What do Walt Disney and Babe Ruth have in common with baby buggies and the Brooklyn Bridge? All have appeared on U.S. postage stamps.
How about Jack Benny, the Chesapeake Bay whaler and a pet skunk named Sachet? All have been proposed for similar glory.
Needless to say, the U.S. Postal Service is not wanting for more stamp ideas. Already among the thousands of proposals are suggestions ranging from scratch-and-sniff stamps to a tribute to modern plumbing that features an outhouse.
"We look at all of them," said Belmont Faries, chairman of a 15-member citizens stamp advisory board that weeds through the many ideas. The job is not as easy as it might seem; who and what gets onto postage stamps can be serious business.
So sensitive are some proposals that even the postmaster general--who appoints the board and has the final say on stamp matters--is sometimes hesitant to exercise that authority.
After the space shuttle disaster earlier this year, for example, Postmaster General Albert V. Casey called the White House repeatedly about a proposed stamp honoring the lost Challenger crew. Casey was reluctant to depart from a long-established guideline that anyone appearing on a stamp, except for presidents, must have been dead for 10 years, and was seeking support for making an exception.
But the White House failed to realize how much the tragedy had captured America's attention, Casey said, even though at least one other country, Hungary, has already issued a Challenger stamp. "I was disappointed," he said.
The campaigns for stamp candidates can rival those waged for legislation. After George Meany died in 1980, the AFL-CIO leaned on President Jimmy Carter for a stamp to honor him. Rather than break the rule that someone must be dead 10 years, the Postal Service issued a stamp on Labor Day honoring organized labor.
More recently, when President Reagan decided to honor Latinos with a stamp, his staff produced a design--without consulting the Postal Service--that turned out to be impossible to produce.
And, sometimes, the Postal Service can be damned if it does and damned if it doesn't; complaints have arisen even about stamps bearing the likenesses of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W. C. Fields and St. Francis of Assisi.
Took Message Personally
The worst stamp in recent memory, postal officials and collectors say, was the one that said: "Alcoholism--You Can Beat It." Many recipients of mail bearing that stamp took the message personally--and resented it.
Such issues were hardly the case in the early days of sending letters.
Britain issued the first adhesive postal stamp in 1840, the "one-penny black," followed by Brazil in 1843. In America, letters were still being folded and sealed with wax, and the fees were based on the number of pages.
It was not until 1847 that the U.S. government issued its first stamps: a 5-cent stamp featuring Benjamin Franklin, the first postmaster general, and a 10-cent stamp depicting George Washington.
(The addition of stamps did not necessarily speed up mail deliveries. According to postal history, Los Angeles did not know that California had been admitted to the union until six weeks later.)
30 Billion Printed
In 1847, 860,000 stamps were printed; last year, there were about 30 billion. And that, to the U.S. Postal Service, means big business.
Regular stamps of varying denominations are printed in unlimited quantities, commemorative stamps--which honor important events, people or special subjects--are printed in limited quantities. Last year, the Postal Service reported a net profit of $122.6 million from sales of all types of stamps and other postal-related items retained by the nation's 22 million collectors.
"A good stamp is one that people other than collectors will go out and buy," Faries said.
This year, the Postal Service will issue 40 new stamps featuring 25 subjects from fish to tow trucks, plus a special series honoring 36 presidents. Among the individuals who will be honored with stamps are Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, jazz composer Duke Ellington, American political leader William Jennings Bryan, freed slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth and author Margaret Mitchell.
Those subjects, however, were approved only after passing the intense scrutiny of Faries' advisory board, which has been in existence since 1957. A set of criteria bars stamps honoring religious institutions, political or charitable organizations or commercial enterprises. Historical events are honored only on anniversaries of 50-year intervals.
Goal Not Always Met
Ultimately, the board is charged with producing well-designed stamps with broad public appeal--a goal, its members concede, that is not always met.
Even animals, for example, can prove troublesome. "We agonized for months over the dogs," trying to find American breeds, one board member recalled. When the stamps were issued in 1984, they angered large numbers of cat owners, who asked for equal time.
Now, it appears, the feline lobby is about to get its way. "We're about to take the plunge," one board member said. "Otherwise, the Garfield lobby will get us," referring to the comic-strip cat.