Harry Potter and the Moneymaking Magic of Pop Culture Stamps
It took two years and no small amount of controversy before Harry Potter received his very own U.S. postage stamp, but the official cultural gatekeepers of the American stamp world finally gave the fictional British wizard his due and sales have been magical so far.
Sixteen different Harry Potter stamps were released last month, each featuring a different character, from Dumbledore to Voldemort and even Harry’s pet owl. Susan McGowan, executive director of stamp services and licensing at the U.S. Postal Service, says the group “has been enthusiastically received” and is likely to be the post office’s most successful stamp series in years, although sales figures won’t be released until after the run has ended. McGowan puts it on a par with the 2007 Star Wars line, which is currently the fourth-most-popular series ever. More than 80 million Star Wars stamps were purchased but never used—a good thing for the cash-starved USPS, which gets to keep that money without delivering any mail.
The Harry Potter stamps have caused a bit of a dustup among stamp traditionalists, who have found a number of transgressions in the series. The stamps feature living actors depicting fictional figures, when only deceased subjects are supposed to be honored. (“Star Wars did that, too,” McGowan points out.) The novels aren’t even American, although that didn’t stop the late French singer Edith Piaf from becoming a stamp last year. The Washington Post even ran an article claiming that the postmaster general bypassed the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) to force the series into production. “That’s not true at all,” McGowan says “I don’t know where they got that information from. This was in the works for a long time and went through all the normal channels.”
The controversy, such as it is, isn’t really about whether Harry and Hermione should appear on a U.S. stamp, or even the process of stamp approval; critics worry that the venerable postal service is too enthusiastic in its embrace of mainstream pop culture as a way to bring in money. Is the USPS releasing stamps for Marvel Comics because it genuinely values their contribution to American culture? Maybe. But it’s also a financially strapped institution that’s looking for a way to lessen its debts, 46¢ at a time. “Diversion to e-mail and paying bills online is causing our sales to go down, there’s nothing we can do to stop that,” says McGowan. “But when you make stamps that are more fun and that people want to collect, more people will want to buy them. That’s our job.”
That’s a pretty novel viewpoint for such an historically stodgy institution. When the USPS started issuing stamps in 1847, the consensus was that they should resemble coins, carrying only the faces of deceased presidents or founding fathers. The commercial appetite for stamps became apparent by 1893 with the release of Columbian Expedition-themed stamps that sold extremely well, despite a joint resolution from Congress calling them “outrageous.” Over the years, stamp subjects broadened to include the likes of Niagara Falls (1901) and Louisa May Alcott (1940). The postmaster general still picked all the topics. (Perhaps that helps explain why George Washington has graced postage stamps more than 240 times.)
In 1957, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) was formed as a way for the public to recommend stamp designs and topics, drawing its 13 experts from different aspects American culture. Today’s members include former Olympic swimmer Donna De Varona, former president of the American Film Institute Jean Picker Firstenberg, and Harvard historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The group meets quarterly and reviews all of 40,000 ideas for new stamps submitted by Americans every year. About 30 new stamps are released annually, based on CSAC’s recommendations.
An uproar—or as much of one as is possible in the subdued stamp collecting world—occurred in 1993, when the postal authorities decided to release a stamp commemorating Elvis Presley. A rock musician had never been given such a formal honor, and conservative stamp collectors questioned the move. “Some people actually think he should never be honored because of his alleged drug problems,” then-Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank told the New York Times.
In an unprecedented move, the postal service polled Americans on whether they’d prefer to see Elvis young or old on their envelopes; more than 1.2 million voted in what was a landslide for win for young Elvis crooning into a microphone. The stamp brought in $26 million, and more than 124 million of the purchased stamps—about 24 percent—were never used. That made Elvis the most “saved” commemorative stamp in U.S. history and taught the post office about the money-making appeal of pop culture.
Stamps now bring in $6.5 billion a year in revenue for the USPS, but a series such as Harry Potter has the potential to vault that number much higher. The post office dutifully tries to limit the number of pop culture stamps released each year by following an unofficial rule: A third of the new stamps should commemorate important niche topics, such as this year’s stamp devoted to West Virginia’s statehood or the one honoring the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. “They’re of historical significance, but they’re not wildly popular,” says McGowan. The other two-thirds usually feature events, people, holiday designs, animals, or other entities that enjoy much broader appeal. This year saw the release of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and muscle car stamps. And Harry Potter.
“Should the Postal Service market stamp images that focus on a younger audience in hopes of reaching beyond traditional collectors and generating sales?” USPS Inspector General David Williams asked yesterday on his office’s blog. “Or, should stamps be works of art and pieces of history and not based on fads or celebrities?” Reactions were mixed.
“Yes yes yes!!!!” wrote a woman identifying herself as Ashley Frye. “I vote NOOO!!!!” posted another under the name Zena. Williams has received dozens of responses to his question, and the USPS appears to be taking them seriously. It’s a sign of the times that the service chose to poll people online instead of sending out a mailer.