Perhaps it was the infamous “chicken stamp” of 1948 that provoked Life magazine to complain about the quality of U.S. stamps. Life’s story outlined a collection of stamp subjects that had been driven mostly by political influence — from groups such as the poultry industry.
“Back in the 1940s, political insiders had strong influence over the stamp program,” acknowledges Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the Postal Service. “They used the program to pay back favors to organizations or groups they were interested in. There were stamps on the trucking industry, railroads, unions — all kinds of groups and organizations.”
It took several years to form the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), but in the five decades since, the committee has been a major force in driving the stamp program forward. CSAC now serves as a firewall for political influence and a filter for public interest. As such, it helps ensure that stamp subjects and designs “uplift the public and celebrate the best of America,” in the words of William Gicker, creative director for the stamp program.
CSAC is currently led by Jean Picker Firstenberg, president emeritus of the American Film Institute. CSAC members have ranged from educators, historians and art lovers, to pop culture and sports figures, according to McCaffrey. Notable past members include famed artist Andrew Wyeth, novelist James Michener, basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps, and actors Ernest Borgnine and Karl Malden. When new openings occur, they are filled by the Postmaster General, often informed by recommendations from McCaffrey and his staff. Up to 15 people can serve on CSAC, which currently has 12 members.
In addition, CSAC always includes notable graphic designers as well as people with a strong affinity for collecting. “We look for different demographics, different disciplines,” McCaffrey adds, noting that he has a file of résumés “about two inches thick” of people volunteering to serve.
While clearly an honor, CSAC membership involves real effort that goes beyond its two-day meetings, four times a year.
“This is no ‘rubber stamp’ committee,” McCaffrey says. “We’re asking them to work, not only during those quarterly meetings but also in between — reviewing papers and doing research if they want to pursue certain stamp subjects.”
Though deeply influential, CSAC is still an advisory committee. Final decisions always rest with the Postmaster General, who renders official approval by signing a printed proof of a stamp design, which is then saved in an archive.
The "boss’s" prerogative to disagree was never more notable than in the case of the Elvis Presley stamp in 1993. Despite huge public interest, CSAC declined the Elvis stamp, expressing a traditional preference for history over pop culture. But Elvis Presley was history — and then-Postmaster General Anthony Frank overruled CSAC. Soon after, Elvis left the building to become the best-selling and most highly collected commemorative stamp in history.
Serving on CSAC is indeed a history-making experience as well as an honor. In the interest of maintaining a lively rotation of perspectives, members are limited to serving no more than three four-year terms.
“Some say, ‘Wow, I’ve never been part of a committee where I work so much. But I’ve also never been on a committee that is so much fun and so interesting,’” Gicker says. “This is not a place where they just show up to listen and raise their hands.”
Also in this issue of Beyond the Perf: an exclusive look inside a CSAC meeting.