Order Code RS2022 1
Updated April 15, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Distributed by Penny Hill Press
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Commemorative Postage Stamps : History,
Selection Criteria, and Revenue Potentia l
Specialist in American National Governmen t
Government and Finance Divisio n
More than 1,700 commemorative stamps have been issued since the first in 1893 .
In recent years they have been marketed to attract non-collectors and children . In 2002 ,
the U.S . Postal Service (USPS) issued 121 different commemorative stamps .
In considering subjects for commemorative stamps, the USPS Citizens' Stam p
Advisory Committee, guided by 12 basic criteria, reviews and appraises th e
approximately 50,000 proposals submitted for commemoration each year . Th e
Postmaster General (PMG) has the exclusive and final authority to determine bot h
subject matter and design . A number of resolutions are introduced in Congress eac h
year urging that consideration be given to a particular subject for commemoration, bu t
few are passed, and the advisory committee accords them no special status .
The commemorative stamp program contributed an estimated $174 million i n
retained revenues for the USPS in fiscal year 2002 . According to postal officials, a well chosen stamp design can generate millions of dollars in additional postal revenues .
This report will be updated for each Congress .
The Commemorative Stamp Progra m
Postage stamps were introduced in 1847, but for a half century the designs wer e
limited to images of Presidents and founding fathers . The first commemorative postage
stamps were issued in 1893 to mark the Columbian Exposition of that year . The succes s
of the Columbian stamp series prompted the Post Office to continue offering stamps t o
commemorate historic events and places . The commemorative stamp became a fixtur e
of mail service, contributing to civic education and drawing millions into the hobby o f
Congressional Research Service + The Library of Congress
When USPS was established in 1971 with an expectation that it would be selfsupporting, the revenue potential of commemorative issues became a more prominent
consideration. Social issues such as conservation, employment of the handicapped, an d
higher education were added as commemorative features to the traditional mix o f
historical and patriotic themes . In 1993, USPS released the Elvis Presley stamp, whic h
generated unprecedented enthusiasm among postal customers (as distinguished fro m
collectors) and still holds the record for stamps saved - 124 million with a face value of
$35 .9 million .
The USPS has been criticized by collectors for issuing too many commemorativ e
stamps, as well as for producing too many stamps of a particular issue . Concerns have
been expressed that too many stamps diminished the value of the stamps to the hobbyis t
and had the potential to drive collectors away . Under Postmaster General (PMG) Marvin
Runyon, a former collector himself, it became USPS policy to produce and market fewe r
commemorative stamps . However, in the effort to expand and appeal to a wider range o f
interests, USPS in the late 1990s began designing stamps not only to attract non collectors, but also children . This expansion, however, has increased the number of
commemorative stamps produced and marketed . The number of separate commemorativ e
stamps issued rose from 26 issued in 1997, to 81 in 1998, and 121 in 2002 . In 2002,
several of the issues were multi-stamp panes, for example the 50-stamp issue with a retr o
postcard design featuring "greetings" from each state . Several of the stamps issued in
recent years were designed for children (e .g., Looney Tunes, Peanuts, teddy bears, an d
Bright Eyes, a grouping of various bright-eyed animals and fish) .
Errors and subject selection in commemorative stamps have sometimes generate d
controversy . For example, in 1994 postal officials belatedly discovered that a stam p
featuring wild west star Bill Pickett depicted the wrong man . To prevent such
occurrences in the future, a historian has been hired by the USPS to authenticate al l
chosen stamp designs . In addition, the agency has contracted with Photo Assist, a
Washington, DC firm, to conduct "visual and textual research" in the development o f
stamp designs. A widely-circulated news story in 2000 pointed out that of 1,72 2
commemorative stamps issued since 1893, only 133 (8%) featured women or women' s
issues . 1
The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committe e
The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee was established by the PMG in Marc h
1957 . Before it was established, political influence often determined what stamps wer e
issued .' The committee operates under 39 U .S.C . 404(a) (4-5), and its primary purpos e
is to provide "philatelic, history, and artistic judgment and experience" in the selectio n
and design of commemorative stamps . The committee consists of 15 members, none o f
whom is a postal employee, and whose backgrounds reflect a wide range of educational ,
artistic, historical, and professional knowledge . Members are appointed and serve at the
' Marilyn Gardner, " A Stamp of Approval on Stamps About Women," Christian Science
Monitor, August 16, 2000 .
2 U.S . Congress, Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services ,
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, The Issuance of Sernipostal Stamps by the US.
Postal Service, 106 th Cong., May 25, 2000 (Washington : GPO, 2000), p . 20 .
pleasure of the PMG for 5-year staggered terms . Current members include actor Kar l
Malden, graphic designer Michael Brock, and former basketball coach Richard ("Digger" )
Phelps . No member may serve more than three terms . The PMG appoints one member
to serve as chairperson and another member as vice chairperson, each serving 2-yea r
The committee meets quarterly in Washington, DC, or at the call of the committee
chairperson, to review the thousands of suggestions that are received by the USPS . Its
meetings are not public . The committee itself employs no staff. To speed up the
committee's task, research employees of the stamp development group analyze all stam p
subject suggestions upon initial receipt . Subcommittees of staff researchers are forme d
on special themes such as sports, medicine, transportation, black heritage, and performin g
arts to provide additional background and research . Occasionally, commemorative idea s
require considerable research to explore an idea's merit or to devise a strong visual
appeal . All supporting materials are then presented to the committee, along with any
suggestions . While the primary responsibility of the committee is to review and apprais e
all proposals submitted for commemoration, the PMG has the exclusive and fina l
authority to determine both the subject matter and the designs for U .S. postage stamps .
Members of Congress are often asked by constituents to support a particula r
commemorative theme or event. In doing so, a Member may choose to write the PM G
expressing support for a particular stamp proposal . This usually results in a referral to the
advisory committee. It is not uncommon for Members to introduce congressiona l
resolutions encouraging the commemoration of a specific subject . In the 10 7 th Congress ,
33 resolutions for this purpose were introduced, 25 in the House and eight in the Senate .
None of the resolutions emerged from committee . In the 106 `h Congress, two resolution s
were agreed to in the Senate : S .Res. 218, expressing the sense of the Senate that a stam p
should be issued to recognize the 4-H Youth Development Program's centennial, an d
S .Res . 371, expressing the sense of the Senate that a stamp should be issued to honor
sculptor Korczak Ziolokowski and the Crazy Horse memorial he created . While
considered by the advisory committee, neither subject was recommended for issuance .
Rule 19 of the House Committee on Government Reform, as adopted for the 105 th
through the 10 8 th Congresses, has discouraged the prospect that House resolutions urgin g
postal commemoration will be considered :
The committee has adopted the policy that the determination of the subjec t
matter of commemorative stamps properly is for consideration by the Postmaste r
General and that the committee will not give consideration to legislative proposals fo r
the issuance of commemorative stamps . It is suggested that recommendations for th e
issuance of commemorative stamps be submitted to the Postmaster General .
Criteria for Selecting Commemorative Stamp s
The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee receives about 50,000 nominations eac h
year, and gives no special attention to those submitted by Congress or other legislative
bodies . As a basis for its recommendation to the Postmaster General, the advisor y
committee uses 12 criteria when considering commemorative stamp subjects . They are :
• It is a general policy that U .S . postage stamps and stationery primaril y
will feature American or American-related subjects .
• No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U .S. postage.
• Commemorative stamps or postal stationery items honoring individual s
usually will be issued on, or in conjunction with significant anniversarie s
of their birth, but no postal item will be issued sooner than 10 years after
an individual's death . The only exception to the 10-year rule is th e
issuance of stamps honoring deceased Presidents, who may be honore d
with a memorial stamp on the first birth anniversary following death .
• Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoratio n
only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years .
• Only events and themes of widespread national appeal and significance
will be considered for commemoration . Events or themes of local or
regional significance may be recognized by a philatelic or special posta l
cancellation, which may be arranged through the local postmaster .
• Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor fraternal ,
political, sectarian, or service/charitable organizations . Stamps or
stationery shall not be issued to promote or advertise commercia l
enterprises or products. Commercial products or enterprises might b e
used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture .
• Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor cities ,
towns, municipalities, counties, primary or secondary schools, hospitals ,
libraries, or similar institutions . Due to the limitations placed on annual
postal programs and the vast number of such locales, organizations, an d
institutions, singling out any one for commemoration would be difficult .
• Requests for observance of statehood anniversaries will be considered fo r
commemorative postage stamps only at intervals of 50 years from th e
date of the state's entry into the Union . Requests for observance of othe r
state-related or regional anniversaries will be considered only as subject s
for postal stationery, and only at intervals of 50 years from the date of th e
• Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor religiou s
institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associate d
with religious undertakings or beliefs .
• Stamps with a surcharge for the benefit of a worthy cause, referred to a s
"semipostals," shall be issued in accordance with Public Law 106-253 .
Semipostals will not be considered as part of the commemorativ e
program and separate criteria will apply.'
• Requests for commemoration of significant anniversaries of universitie s
or other institutions of higher education shall be considered only fo r
stamped cards and only in connection with the 200`h anniversaries of their
• No stamp shall be considered for issuance if one treating the same subjec t
has been issued in the past 50 years . The only exceptions to this rule will
be those stamps issued in recognition of traditional themes such a s
national symbols and holidays .
Other than applying these criteria, the USPS has no formal procedure for submittin g
stamp proposals, which can be by letter, post card, or petition . After a proposal is
determined not to violate the USPS criteria, each proposed subject is listed on th e
committee's agenda for its next meeting . In-person appeals by stamp proponents are no t
permitted . Proponents are not advised if a subject has been approved until a general
announcement is made to the public .
The USPS encourages the submission of commemorative postage stamp subjects t o
the committee at least three years prior to the proposed date of issuance, to allow sufficien t
time for consideration, design, and production . Suggestions may be addressed to th e
Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, U .S. Postal Service, 47 5
L'Enfant Plaza, S .W ., Room 5670, Washington, DC 20260-2437 .
Revenue-Raising Potential of Commemorative Stamp s
While it is feasible to track the gross revenues USPS gets from the sale o f
commemorative issues, determining how many stamps are saved (i .e . not used for postage )
is difficult . This is because commemorative sales and usage are interchangeable with, an d
not counted separately from, other stamps and other forms of postage .
In an attempt to gain some knowledge of the contribution its commemorative
program makes to its bottom line, USPS has tried a number of approaches to measure the
retention rate for commemorative stamps . Before 1989, clerks collected "intent to retain "
data from customers on six to eight issues per year, and projected retention revenues fro m
the responses . In the following years, USPS launched quarterly surveys of a representative
sample of approximately 60,000 households, asking them to report the stamps they bough t
and those they intended to retain . This was an expensive approach, however, in par t
because 84% of the households reported that they retained no stamps and thus analyst s
could learn little from them about relative appeal of various types of issues . In 1999,
USPS launched what it teuned a more cost-effective design using 10,250 quarterl y
surveys, 61% of which were to go to households pre-screened (by a market researc h
company) to be "stamp retaining households . "
For a discussion of the semipostal stamp program, see CRS Report RS20921, Semiposta l
Stamps : Authorization, Revenue, and Selection Process, by Nye Stevens .
The resulting revenue estimates are still inexact and, because of frequen t
methodological changes, cannot be directly compared . However, there seems to be ampl e
evidence that the commemorative postage stamp program provides net revenues measure d
in the hundreds of millions of dollars for USPS . According to USPS estimates, retentio n
revenues for the past five years have been as follows:
$166 .6 millio n
$215 .1 millio n
$271 .8 millio n
$198 .6 millio n
$173 .8 millio n
Source : United States Postal Service .
A major contributor to retained revenues in 1998, 1999, and 2000 was th e
"Celebrate the Century" series, commemorating each decade of the 2 0th Century with a
multi-stamp pane . While the citizens' advisory committee recommended subjects fo r
the first five decades - 1900 through 1940 - subjects for the remaining five decade s
were selected by nationwide balloting of the American public .