Commemorative Postage Stamps: History, Selection Criteria, and Revenue Potential
Commemorative Postage Stamps: History,
Selection Criteria, and Revenue Potential
Kevin R. Kosar
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
More than 1,800 commemorative stamps have been issued since the first in 1893.
In recent years they have been marketed to attract non-collectors and children. In 2007,
the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will issue 99 different commemorative stamps. In
considering subjects for commemorative stamps, the USPS Citizens’ Stamp Advisory
Committee, guided by 12 basic criteria, reviews and appraises the approximately 50,000
proposals submitted for commemoration each year. The postmaster general (PMG) has
the exclusive and final authority to determine both subject matter and design. A number
of resolutions are introduced in Congress each year urging that consideration be given
to a particular subject for commemoration, but few are passed, and the advisory
committee accords them no special status. The commemorative stamp program
contributed an estimated $225.9 million in retained revenues for the USPS in 2005.
This report will be updated for each Congress.
The Commemorative Stamp Program
Postage stamps were introduced in 1847, but for a half century the designs were1
limited to images of Presidents and founding fathers. The first commemorative postage
stamps were issued in 1893 to mark the Columbian Exposition of that year. The success
of the Columbian stamp series prompted the Post Office Department to continue offering
stamps to commemorate historic events and places. The commemorative stamp became
a fixture of mail service, contributing to civic education and drawing millions into the
hobby of philately.
1 This report originally was authored by Nye Stevens, who has retired from CRS. Since that time,
it has been updated by Kevin R. Kosar, who may be contacted by readers with questions on postal
When USPS was established in 1971 with an expectation that it would be self-
supporting, the revenue potential of commemorative issues became a more prominent
consideration. Social issues such as conservation, employment of the handicapped, and
higher education were added as commemorative features to the traditional mix of
historical and patriotic themes. In 1993, USPS released the Elvis Presley stamp, which
generated unprecedented enthusiasm among postal customers (as distinguished from
collectors) and still holds the record for stamps saved — 124 million with a face value of
The USPS has been criticized by collectors for issuing too many commemorative
stamps, as well as for producing too many stamps of a particular issue. Concerns have
been expressed that too many stamps diminished the value of the stamps to the hobbyist
and had the potential to drive collectors away. Under Postmaster General (PMG) Marvin
Runyon, a former collector himself, it became USPS policy to produce and market fewer
commemorative stamps. However, in the effort to expand and appeal to a wider range of
interests, USPS in the late 1990s began designing stamps not only to attract non-
collectors, but also children.2 This expansion has increased the number of
commemorative stamps produced and marketed. The number of separate commemorative
stamps issued rose from 26 in 1997, to 81 in 1998, to 121 in 2002. In 2007, USPS will
issue 99 commemorative stamps.3
Errors and subject selection in commemorative stamps have sometimes generated
controversy. For example, in 1994 postal officials belatedly discovered that a stamp
featuring wild west star Bill Pickett depicted the wrong man. To prevent such
occurrences in the future, a historian has been hired by the USPS to authenticate all
chosen stamp designs. A widely-circulated news story in 2000 pointed out that of 1,722
commemorative stamps issued since 1893, only 133 (8%) featured women or women’s
issues.4 Also, according to a widely-read stamp publication, the PMG was “stunned” by
the negative reaction to the stamp issued in honor of Frida Kahlo in 2001; Ms. Kahlo, a
Mexican artist and the wife of Diego Rivera, was also a communist, and the stamp was
strongly criticized by Senator Jesse Helms.5
The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee
The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) was established by the PMG in
March 1957. Before it was established, political influence often determined what stamps
were issued.6 The committee operates under 39 U.S.C. 404(a) (4-5), and its primary
2 Stamps that may appeal to children include Looney Tunes, Peanuts, teddy bears, and “Bright
Eyes,” a grouping of various bright-eyed animals and fish.
3 For details on the stamps, see USPS’s website [http://www.usps.com/communications/
4 Marilyn Gardner, “A Stamp of Approval on Stamps About Women,” Christian Science
Monitor, Aug. 16, 2000.
5 Charles Snee, “Stamp Committee OK’d Edwards Stamp; PMG Potter Cut Stamp from 2003
Program,” Linn’s Stamp News, Apr. 5, 2004, p. 8.
6 U.S. Congress, Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services,
purpose is to provide “philatelic, history, and artistic judgment and experience” in the
selection and design of commemorative stamps. The committee consists of 15 members,
none of whom is a postal employee, and whose backgrounds reflect a wide range of
educational, artistic, historical, and professional knowledge. Members are appointed and
serve at the pleasure of the PMG for three-year staggered terms, with no member able to
serve more than four terms. Current members include Joan Mondale, actor Karl Malden,
graphic designer Michael Brock, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. No
member may serve more than three terms. The PMG appoints one member to serve as
chairperson and another member as vice chairperson, each serving two-year terms.
The committee meets quarterly in Washington, DC, or at the call of the CSAC
chairperson, to review the thousands of suggestions that are received by the USPS. Its
meetings are not public. CSAC itself employs no staff. To expedite its work, employees
of the USPS’s stamp development group analyze all stamp subject suggestions upon
initial receipt. Subcommittees of staff researchers are formed on special themes such as
sports, medicine, transportation, black heritage, and performing arts to provide additional
background and research. Occasionally, commemorative ideas require considerable
research to explore an idea’s merit or to devise a strong visual appeal. All supporting
materials are then presented to the committee, along with any suggestions. While the
primary responsibility of the committee is to review and appraise all proposals submitted
for commemoration, the PMG has the exclusive and final authority to determine both the
subject matter and the designs for U.S. postage stamps. Thus, for example, although the
advisory committee recommended in 2003 that a stamp be commissioned for tercentenary
of the birth of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, PMG John Potter refused to
approve the recommendation.7
Members of Congress are often asked by constituents to support a particular
commemorative theme or event. In doing so, a Member may choose to write the PMG
expressing support for a particular stamp proposal. This usually results in a referral to the
advisory committee. It is not uncommon for Members to introduce congressional
resolutions encouraging the commemoration of a specific subject. In the 108th Congress,
28 resolutions for this purpose were introduced; in the 109th Congress, 23 resolutions were
introduced. However, congressional endorsement of a proposal accords it no special
status in the committee’s deliberations. The House Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform has discouraged Members from introducing bills endorsing the
issuance of new commemorative stamps. For the 110th Congress, the Committee’s Rule
The committee has adopted the policy that the determination of the subject
matter of commemorative stamps ... is properly for consideration by the
Postmaster General and that the committee will not give consideration to
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, The Issuance of Semipostal Stamps by the U.S.th
Postal Service, 106 Cong., May 25, 2000 (Washington: GPO, 2000), p. 20.
7 According to Linn’s Stamp News, he “feared those who would complain about honoring a
politically incorrect, dead white male who was also a theologian.” Charles Snee, “Stamp
Committee OK’d Edwards Stamp; PMG Potter Cut Stamp from 2003 Program,” Linn’s Stamp
News, Apr. 5, 2004, p. 8.
legislative proposals for the issuance of commemorative stamps and new
semi-postal issues. It is suggested that recommendations for the issuance8
of commemorative stamps be submitted to the Postmaster General.
Thus, in the House, when a commemorative stamp bill is introduced, it is referred the
committee, which takes no further action on the bill.
Criteria for Selecting Commemorative Stamps
The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee receives about 50,000 nominations each
year, and gives no special attention to those submitted by Congress or other legislative
bodies. As a basis for its recommendation to the Postmaster General, the advisory
committee uses 12 criteria when considering commemorative stamp subjects. They are:
!It is a general policy that U.S. postage stamps and stationery primarily
will feature American or American-related subjects.
!No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.
!Commemorative stamps or postal stationery items honoring individuals
usually will be issued on, or in conjunction with significant anniversaries
of their birth, but no postal item will be issued sooner than five years
after an individual’s death.
!Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration
only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.
!Only events and themes of widespread national appeal and significance
will be considered for commemoration. Events or themes of local or
regional significance may be recognized by a philatelic or special postal
cancellation, which may be arranged through the local postmaster.
!Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor fraternal,
political, sectarian, or service/charitable organizations. Stamps or
stationery shall not be issued to promote or advertise commercial
enterprises or products. Commercial products or enterprises might be
used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture.
!Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor cities,
towns, municipalities, counties, primary or secondary schools, hospitals,
libraries, or similar institutions. Due to the limitations placed on annual
postal programs and the vast number of such locales, organizations, and
institutions, singling out any one for commemoration would be difficult.
!Requests for observance of statehood anniversaries will be considered for
commemorative postage stamps only at intervals of 50 years from the
8 Website of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, available at
date of the state’s entry into the Union. Requests for observance of other
state-related or regional anniversaries will be considered only as subjects
for postal stationery, and only at intervals of 50 years from the date of the
!Stamps or postal stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious
institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated
with religious undertakings or beliefs.
!Stamps with a surcharge for the benefit of a worthy cause, referred to as
“semipostals,” shall be issued in accordance with P.L. 106-253.
Semipostals will not be considered as part of the commemorative
program and separate criteria will apply.9
!Requests for commemoration of significant anniversaries of universities
or other institutions of higher education shall be considered only for
stamped cards and only in connection with the 200th anniversaries of their
!No stamp shall be considered for issuance if one treating the same subject
has been issued in the past 50 years. The only exceptions to this rule will
be those stamps issued in recognition of traditional themes such as
national symbols and holidays.
Other than applying these criteria, the USPS has no formal procedure or required
format for submitting stamp proposals, which can be by letter, post card, or petition. After
a proposal is determined not to violate the USPS criteria, each proposed subject is listed
on the committee’s agenda for its next meeting. In-person appeals by stamp proponents
are not permitted. Proponents are not advised if a subject has been approved until a
general announcement is made to the public. The USPS encourages the submission of
commemorative postage stamp subjects to the committee at least three years prior to the
proposed date of issuance, to allow sufficient time for consideration, design, and
production. Suggestions may be addressed to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee,
c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 1735 North Lynn St., Suite 5013, Arlington,
Revenue-Raising Potential of Commemorative Stamps
In order to encourage stamp collecting, USPS maintains philatelic centers in more
than 300 population centers in the United States and in 7 foreign countries. While it is
feasible to track the gross revenues USPS gets from the sale of commemorative issues,
determining how many stamps are saved (i.e., not used for postage) is difficult. This is
because commemorative sales and usage are interchangeable with, and not counted
separately from, other stamps and other forms of postage.
9 For a discussion of the semipostal stamp program, see CRS Report RS20921, Semipostal
Stamps: Authorization, Revenue, and Selection Process, by Kevin R. Kosar.
In an attempt to gain some knowledge of the contribution its commemorative
program makes to its bottom line, USPS has tried a number of approaches to measure the
retention rate for commemorative stamps. Before 1989, clerks collected “intent to retain”
data from customers on six to eight issues per year, and projected retention revenues from
the responses. In the following years, USPS launched quarterly surveys of a representative
sample of approximately 60,000 households, asking them to report the stamps they bought
and those they intended to retain. This was an expensive approach, however, in part
because 84% of the households reported that they retained no stamps and thus analysts
could learn little from them about relative appeal of various types of issues. In 1999,
USPS launched what it termed a more cost-effective design using 10,250 quarterly
surveys, 61% of which were to go to households pre-screened (by a market research
company) to be “stamp retaining households.” The resulting revenue estimates are still
inexact and, because of frequent methodological changes, cannot be directly compared.
However, there seems to be ample evidence that the commemorative postage stamp
program provides net revenues measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars for USPS.
According to USPS estimates, retention revenues have been as follows:
Source: United States Postal Service.
The stamps most kept by consumers are as follows:
Stamp Subject Year IssuedStamps Saved
Wonders of America200687.5 million
Rock & Roll/ Rhythm &199375.9 million
DC Comics Super Heroes200673.0 million
Source: United States Postal Service