The U.S. Stamp Committee Is (Still) Up in Arms About a Harry Potter Stamp

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 7 2014 3:16 PM

The U.S. Stamp Committee Is (Still) Up in Arms About a Harry Potter Stamp

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Maybe kids will get back into stamp collecting, after all. (USPS stamps not pictured.)

Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

This morning, the Washington Post reported that former Postmaster General Benjamin F. Bailar had resigned from his position on the Citizen’s Advisory Stamp Committee over a decision to put Harry Potter on a set of stamps. The stamps came out last November, and the Post first reported on the displeasure of the CASC over the issue back then. The CASC is comprised of esteemed Americans like historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cooper Hewitt Museum director Caroline Baumann, and it has met quarterly for 56 years to select the subjects that grace our postage. Bailar’s resignation comes amidst an ongoing debate about whether the U.S. Postal Service is sacrificing “gravitas” in favor of more commercially viable subjects.

Given its current financial position, it’s not surprising that the USPS would be considering all possible paths to increased revenues. Mail volume declined by nearly 25 percent over the last decade, with the Postal Service experiencing a net loss of nearly $2 billion in the second quarter of this year; meanwhile, discussions about eliminating Saturday service continue. A boy wizard who’s inspired a $20 billion industry may well be the magic that’s needed to keep us muggles licking envelopes.

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But according to the resignation letter Bailar submitted to current Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, bowing to popular culture—and British culture at that—amounts to “prostituting” the stamp program. If the USPS is going to circumvent the CASC anyway (as they did in this case) by spurning highbrow cultural icons in favor of un-American flotsam, Bailar suggests that the panel may as well be disbanded.

CASC chairwoman Janet Klug explained that “the Postal Service is asking us to do more in the way of pop culture. We’re trying to get a lot of young people interested in stamps. We have to go where they live.” These days, though, philately is more popular among senior citizens than high school seniors. Today’s youth—who one might argue have largely moved on from Potter to Katniss and Tris—are surely more likely to express any remaining adoration for J.K. Rowling on Tumblr.

And even for those who like the idea of seeing their favorite boy wizard on a stamp, the results leave much to be desired. The Harry Potter stamps certainly don’t show the commitment to design we’ve seen in other commemorative stamps, like last year’s Althea Gibson stamp or 2012’s Innovative Choreographer series. They’re just photographs of Dumbledore, Dobby, and Hagrid slapped onto some postage.

For stalwarts of the old guard like Bailar, this unimaginative move, along with considerations to slash the committee’s quarterly meeting schedule in half, may signal doom for the future of stamps as we’ve known them. But perhaps they should scale back their dismay just a tad. Most of the commemorative stamps the USPS released in recent months have been neither boy bands nor Disney characters, but significant historical figures like Shirley Chisholm and Harvey Milk. Back in January, the USPS reissued the Chippendale stamp. No, not the male strip club; that’s Chippendales. (And not the chipmunk cartoon, either—that was Chip ’n’ Dale.) This reissue of 10,000 stamps featured a chair by the 18th century cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. Sure, he was from England, but he did make a mighty fine chair.

Eliza Berman is an intern in the culture department at Slate.

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