Stupid Question ™
June 14, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: How did President Richard Nixon end up on a stamp so quickly after his death? When Elvis Presley died, fans were told they would have to wait at least 10 years before his face could grace a stamp.
—Sean Scheiderer, Columbus, Ohio
A: Nixon’s stamp actually came nearly five months late, compared to standard United States Postal Service (USPS) policy.
But yes, he and the other presidents do not have to wait 10 years like everybody else. That’s because of a different corrupt president—Warren Harding.
No matter who you are, you have to be dead to be honored by a stamp. In most cases, that means dead at least a decade.
The origin of the 10-year figure is unclear, but it seems like a decent interval. There are similar traditions in place for other government memorials, all linked to America’s original caution against establishing a monarchy by over-honoring living people. (Alarmists may note the erosion of this tradition; the CIA headquarters is now named for President George H.W. Bush, who is so not-dead he was most recently seen skydiving.)
However, under a separate tradition, presidents get a stamp on their next birthday following their death. Thus, recently deceased President Ronald Reagan will be so honored on his birthday, next Feb. 6.
The birthday celebration is because modern presidential stamps are “commemoratives”—special, limited-edition stamps that at least nominally celebrate some kind of anniversary. (So are most other famous-dead-people stamps; thus, Elvis’ 1993 stamp commemorated the 10th anniversary of his death and was issued on his birthday.)
U.S. federal postage stamps didn’t exist until 1847. President George Washington was honored on the first series (along with Benjamin Franklin)—a lot more than 10 years after his death.
Actual commemorative stamps marking significant anniversaries began in 1893 (somewhat belated celebrations of Columbus “discovering” America).
It took a while for presidential commemoratives to get going. Abraham Lincoln got a stamp in 1866, rushed into production after his assassination the year before, but it was technically a “definitive,” or regular, stamp, not a commemorative. A 1909 Lincoln stamp marking his 100th birthday, however, was a commemorative, and perhaps the first official presidential commemorative.
After that, commemoratives quickly became political. The USPS had a hard time saying no to political pressure and to the money commemoratives raked in.
This led to the frenzied tribute to Harding, which changed the presidential rules forever. Harding died on Aug. 2, 1923 and had himself a stamp by Sept. 1—still one of the fastest stamp commemorations in U.S. history.
Commemoratives were already coming on pretty fast at the time, but Harding shattered the stamp speed record. For example, President William McKinley, who went to the trouble of getting assassinated in 1901, still had to wait about 2.5 years before showing up on a stamp. That was a standard presidential wait until Harding kicked the bucket.
Harding’s effect was twofold. On the one hand, it allowed popular presidents to be commemorated very rapidly. (Today commonly viewed as either mired in corruption or incompetently oblivious to corruption around him, Harding was beloved in his time.) Thus, President Franklin Roosevelt was on no fewer than four stamps within three months of his 1945 death.
On the other hand, it allowed unpopular presidents to go stampless for a long time. The first victim was Woodrow Wilson, who died shortly after Harding and was forgotten for about a year, then only got a definitive stamp. Calvin Coolidge’s stamp came more than 5 years after his 1933 death.
Following decades of fitful clamor to rein in this highly politicized stamping, the USPS finally adopted the birthday-after-death system, and has adhered to it since President John Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.
The one exception was Nixon, who died April 22, 1994 and was commemorated on April 26, 1995, missing his Jan. 9 birthday by miles. The official reason was to avoid the chaos of a January rate increase, but many philatelists believe the Watergate president’s massive unpopularity played a role. Likewise, the USPS has always declined to verify stories that the Nixon stamp was one of the worst-selling commemoratives ever.
Meanwhile—proving that sooner isn’t always better—the Elvis stamp is reportedly one of the best-selling commemoratives in history. It was also the first democratically-elected stamp artwork ever. (The American public famously voted for “young Elvis” over “old Elvis.”)