HANNIBAL — Mark Twain is glad to be carrying mail across the United States again. He said so himself on Saturday.
Or at least, that's what Jim Waddell, a professional Mark Twain portrayer, said.
When did the first stamp designs come about?
The U.S. first started producing stamps in 1847. The first stamps were usually engraved, and they often had images of U.S. presidents, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
In about 1930, the Park Series came out, and it was around that time that the postal service could add color in developing more than just portraits.
Since then, the program has expanded to include a variety of subject and design possibilities.
How does the stamp design process work?
The public submits recommendations for stamp designs. The postal service receives about 30,000 letters and hundreds of different design ideas each year. Recommendations must meet 14 criteria to be considered.
The recommendations are reviewed by the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. The committee, a group of 15 citizens appointed by the Postmaster General, meets quarterly for up to two days at a time. Committee members are not paid, but their meeting expenses are covered. Some members are recommended by others and appointed. Others send in letters saying they are interested in being on the committee.
In 2010, there were 14 committee members, including Donna de Varona, a former Olympic swimmer; Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard; and I. Michael Heyman, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
An art director and artist are assigned, and a design is created. The manager of stamp development helps with this process. In addition to discussing the initial recommendations, the committee also provides feedback on design development.
After the committee approves the stamps and stamp designs, the Postmaster General reviews them. He or she has final authority on which stamps are made.
How many stamps are issued each year?
The postal service puts out about 100 to 125 stamp designs per year. Those stamp designs are released in issues.
There are about 20 or 25 issues of stamps per year, and an issue can have anywhere from one to 20 designs. The Mark Twain stamp, for example, only has one design. The Early TV Memories issue, which came out in 2009, had 20 — it featured 20 different American television shows from the 1950s.
Some stamps are regular issues, but the designs vary. These include flag stamps and the annual "Love" stamp.
How can I submit an idea for a stamp?
Stamp proposals must be submitted in writing, and they must meet with design criteria, which can be found on the postal service's website. Send your recommendation to:
Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee
c/o Stamp Development
U.S. Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300
Washington, DC 20260-3501
Where can I learn more?
For more information about the postal service's stamp program, go to beyondtheperf.com. Engage in a bit of philately — the study of stamps.
To connect with the American Philatelic Society, go to stamps.org.
Mark Twain stamps can be purchased in local post offices. The stamps and other commemorative items can be ordered online at shop.usps.com.
Source: Layne Owens, acting manager of stamp development for the U.S. Postal Service
"I'm just happy knowing that my first revenue was generated carrying letters in Hannibal, and now, at least in spirit, I can do that again," said the Twain-clad Waddell.
He said these words at the dedication ceremony in Hannibal for the U.S. Postal Service's newest stamp, which features a portrait of Twain. There is a riverboat in the background — the Mississippi River was an integral part of Twain's life and works. Twain lived in Hannibal from age 4 to 17.
About 200 people gathered beneath a tent between the Becky Thatcher Home and the white-washed fence of Tom Sawyer fame to witness the dedication.
Laura Sweets, a plant pathologist with MU Extension in Columbia, came because of a hometown connection. She grew up in Hannibal, and her father was an avid Twain fan. Her brother, Henry Sweets, is the curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Museum.
Others came for the stamp. For collectors, it was an opportunity to add to their collections. The postal service's merchandise tent near the ceremony remained busy before and after the ceremony, even as the rain drizzled, then poured.
Attendees bought stamps and commemorative booklets, along with other souvenirs, such as framed images of the stamp. Some got a First-Day of Issue Cancel — a special postmark only offered on the day of the ceremony. People also bought First Day Covers with cachets — envelopes with special artwork designed to commemorate the Twain stamp.
One group in the audience came almost by accident. Melanie Epperson was on her way from Pisgah Forest, N.C., to Quebec, Canada, with her husband, son and grandson. After they dropped off the dog in Little Rock, Ark., they headed north. St. Louis was part of their route, so they decided they might as well take one day and go to Hannibal.
Saturday was their fourth day in town — one day hadn't been enough.
"I know nothing about stamps," Epperson said, but the family decided that because they were in town, they should go to the dedication anyway. Afterward, they left with stamps in hand.
"Protect the stamps at all cost," Epperson said to her family as they prepared to step out from beneath the tent and walk into the rain.
The stamp-savvy, the literature-lovers and the simply curious alike laughed and applauded during the speeches as the ceremony progressed.
Speakers included David Martin, manager of the Gateway District of the U.S. Postal Service; James Bilbray, a member of the postal service's Board of Governors; Henry Sweets, Mark Twain Museum curator; and Waddell as Twain.
Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, characters from Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," sat in the front row. Becky, played by Salwa Mikhail, wore her hair in two neat, brown braids sticking out beneath her pink bonnet. She sat up straight and smiled just a little during the ceremony. Tom, played by Austin Janes, wore his characteristic straw hat, and he yawned.
The audience applauded as the blue U.S. Postal Service Banner hanging at the front of the tent was pulled, uncovering a much-enlarged image of the stamp. The artwork for the stamp was done by Gregory Manchess — the same oil painter who did the Oregon statehood stamp in 2009.
The Twain stamp comes as the 27th in the Literary Arts series. Other writers in the series include John Steinbeck, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and Ayn Rand.
As with other stamps, the suggestion for the Twain stamp came from the public. There were four other Twain-related stamps previous to this one. In 1940, he was one of 10 poets and authors honored. In 1972, there was a Tom Sawyer stamp, and a Huckleberry Finn stamp followed in 1993. Between those two, in 1985, Halley's Comet passed by. The stamp commemorating the comet also honored Twain — his birth and death years were the same years of the comet's passing.
Even after four related stamps, Twain was still among the suggested stamp subjects.
“In the 1990s, there were some suggestions from the public to issue another Mark Twain stamp, and the committee just felt that he had been honored enough times and did not make a recommendation,” said Layne Owens, acting director of stamp development with the U.S. Postal Service.
In the early 2000s, there was a lull in Twain recommendations, Owens said, but around 2005, the letters started coming back in.
Recent events have boosted Twain's popularity. April 2010 was the 100th anniversary of his death, and his autobiography was released in November. In January, a Twain scholar's efforts to revise "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" by replacing the N-word stirred up controversy.
Some of the letters suggested a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of Twain's death, but the postal service prefers to commemorate anniversaries of birth. But with the release of the autobiography, the stamp committee decided Twain would be a good subject option for 2011.
The stamp was issued as a Forever stamp, so the value will always match the rate of first-class stamps, regardless of rate changes. The value on the stamp will endure, much like Twain himself.