It started with a sympathy card I’d written to a friend after the death of her father, but I only had few pastel “Love” with a bunch of flowers. Pretty posies on that envelope seemed as inappropriate as putting an AIDS quilt stamp on a “Welcome Baby” card, so I headed to the post office for something more suitable.
I might have picked up a roll of flag stamps: all-purpose, all-but-invisible. But with only one person behind the counter and a line ahead of me, I studied the display of new commemoratives and left with a sheet of stamps with images of America’s national parks: in any case, the pictures suggested serenity. I also got a sheet of stamps honoring Looney Tunes characters — perfect for birthday cards and quarterly tax payments.
I only go to the post office when I’ve got a package to mail or to check the postage on oversized envelopes. But I almost never leave without buying a sheet of new issues. Sometimes, they’re just too gorgeous to pass up, like Native American artist George Morrison’s jewel-tone landscapes. Sometimes, they’re intriguing, like the image of Edmonia Lewis, an African-American woman from another century, gazing over her shoulder. Lewis (1844-1907) was the daughter of a Black man and a Native-American woman who overcame racism and violence to become an internationally acclaimed sculptor. (Her “Death of Cleopatra” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.)
I got the “Coffee Drinks” for the art-deco-style font and celebration of espresso and cappuccino. “Otters in Snow” was just irresistibly cute. And then there was the magical, metallic, “Total Eclipse of the Sun” series, where the touch of a finger made the sun disappear behind the black shadow of a full moon.
I wish I’d saved some of those, but I am not a collector. I just enjoy making sure they match the contents. Seasonality is another consideration; August is not the month to waste on a charming image from the classic children’s book, “The Snowy Day.”
I feel the need to apologize when I affix one of my pretties on the rare bill or official correspondence that requires paper. But I console myself with the thought that the mother and baby elephant stamp might bring a smile to someone in a dreary basement mailroom.
I do have a favorite. The “Wonder Woman” series came out in 2016 to honor 75 years since the superhero’s debut, she who fights evil with magic bracelets and a lasso.
Wonder Woman stamps sold out so fast, I went from post office to post office buying as many as I could find. I still have a stash, reserved for close friends on birthdays, anniversaries, and more recently, hip replacements.
As of December 1, 2022, I had 125 first-class Forever stamps in my desk drawer, plus a few dozen postcard stamps. I don’t need to buy another stamp for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, purchasing Forever stamps is financially prudent, since they become more valuable with every rate increase. The Trump administration’s attack on the postal service made buying stamps feel like an act of solidarity.
I never gave a thought about how the post office chooses what goes on a stamp until it became personal … twice.
Many USPS stamps are the result of recommendations from a Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which welcomes input from the public. I learned this from friends and colleagues of attorney and activist Urvashi Vaid, who died in May at the age of 68 from breast cancer. I had met Vaid years ago when she lived in Boston and followed her career of advocacy on behalf of AIDS funding, LGBTQ rights, prison reform, and more. I was glad to add my support for her nomination.
Sometimes the Committee reaches out to artists, which is what happened with this year’s Hannukah stamp by [local] Judaica artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren. I’ve known Oren since 1983, when her images of Jewish marriage contracts – ketubot—appeared in my first book, The New Jewish Wedding. Her Hanukkah stamp design was showcased at the Jewish Arts Collaborative’s Hanukkah celebration at the MFA.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I already have more than enough of them for this year. And next.
First published December 20, WBUR’s Cognoscenti