MAXWELL:  Put your stamp on the century

2/22/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Visualize the 1950s.

What do you see? What images best capture the essence of this transitional decade, the prosperous period that brought us suburbia, that bridged the war years of the 1940s and the socially turbulent 1960s?

Does the fallout shelter come to mind? What about drive-in movies? Drive-in restaurants? The Korean War? Remember “I like Ike”? Elvis? 3-D movies? Tail fins and chrome? Polio vaccine? I Love Lucy? Rock “n’ roll? The Hula-Hoop? The interstate system? The desegregation of public schools? The Honeymooners?

Well, the U.S. Postal Service wants to know what average Americans like about the 1950s and, for the first time, has invited the public to vote on the subjects honored on U.S. postage stamps _ starting with the 1950s.

The voting began on Feb. 3, and will continue through Saturday. Ballots are available at all post offices nationwide and are on the Internet at

This effort, called Celebrate the Century, is a collaboration between the Postal Service, the U.S. Department of Education and 10 of the country’s leading education organizations. Its major purpose is to give citizens a chance to participate in the selection and design of the postage stamps honoring the most memorable and important people, events, places and trends of each decade of the 20th century.

Celebrate the Century’s education component, moreover, is intended to involve 300,000 classrooms of students nationwide in a comprehensive curriculum that will take students on a field trip through the decades of the 20th century. Designed mainly for students in third through sixth grades, the education series is available to teachers free of charge. It includes in-school balloting for students as well as take-home projects for children to discuss with their families.

Stamps representing the years 1900 through 1949 have already been chosen by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, a panel of citizens appointed by the postmaster general that meets four times a year to review the 40,000 to 50,000 requests from the public. The committee makes suggestions and recommend future stamps.

The committee probably would have continued to work independently if the Elvis stamp phenomenon had not occurred.

Valoree Vargo, manager of Stamp and Product Marketing for the Postal Service, said the experience taught the agency a lesson in citizenship: “We did a lot of research, and we now understand that people like to be involved up front. That was proven to us during the Elvis stamp ballot, where we asked people to vote on the young Elvis versus the old Elvis. The people became very involved through that vote.”

For the 1950s, the public will have 30 choices, of which 15, issued as a sheet, will become stamps based solely on popular vote. Stamp lovers and history enthusiasts will cast ballots for subjects in categories that include history, science and technology, arts and entertainment, and sports and lifestyles.

“We at the Postal Service, like millions of other citizens, like to think of stamps as little pieces of history that are relevant to all Americans because what stamps do is commemorate the people, the events, the trends that have shaped America,” Vargo said. “We get requests for everything imaginable, even the hot dog.

“A lot of requests for things just don’t fit our strict criteria. For example, a person would have to have been dead for 10 years to be commemorated. We don’t commemorate disasters, and we don’t commemorate anniversaries until at least their 75th year.”

Azeezaly Jaffer, executive director of Stamp Services, said that the response to Celebrate the Century has been excellent, with all age groups, including children, casting ballots. The top five vote-getters for subjects epitomizing the 1950s may surprise many people, Jaffer said.

As of Feb. 11, Victory Over Polio was the leader with 87,455 votes; Drive-In Movies, second, with 84,286; Tail Fins & Chrome (cars of the “50s), third, 81,121; Rock “n’ Roll, fourth, with 76,619; I Love Lucy, fifth, with 75,542. Other favorites include Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, World Series rivals (N.Y. Yankees/Brooklyn Dodgers), teen fashions, stock car racing, desegregation of public schools and Rocky Marciano, undefeated.

Again, Celebrate the Century is, in its own small way, participatory democracy. For the first time in the history of the Postal Service, ordinary citizens _ by casting their votes _ can put their personal stamp on American history.