Professional Stamp Experts

Out In The Universe . . . Stamps Celebrating The Living And The Dead

Michael O. Nowlan - March 14, 2000

In the first five weeks of the new millennium, two nations presented rather exceptional creations for stamp collectors and stamp enthusiasts. The stamps were not unusual, but for these particular nations, the action was not generally in keeping with past practices.

On January 1, Australia Post issued a most beautiful sheet of 25 different stamps to mark the commencement of the new century. Australia exercised a wonderful new initiative by putting 27 really live human beings on the 25 stamps. And these, moreover, were not the notables of 'down under' society, politics, or government. There were referred to as ordinary citizens.

It all began in March1999 when Australia Post launched a search to find subjects depicting the "Face of Australia" for a special stamp issue. Australian Post wanted photographs from the public of people they felt truly reflected the face of that nation. The public of that forward-going nation took up the challenge with 30,000 entries.

As you can imagine, it took several sessions to narrow the finalists to 25 from each of Australia's six states. The nation's Stamp Advisory Committee then took on the task of making the final selection of 25 photos for 25 stamps. Two of the stamps have two persons each.

The subjects range from an eye-catching photo of twins on the first stamp in the upper left corner to an senior who works with the Salvation Army on the last stamp in the lower right corner. (Religion-on-stamps collectors will want this one because the Salvation Army is vividly portrayed on the gentleman's cap band.)

The other faces of Australia include a stockman, teachers, students, a grape grower, a flying instructor, veterans who now pursue active lives in hobbies or charity work, a mother and baby daughter, a doctor, a doctorate candidate in music, administration officer, a licensed Australian Post manager, a military (navy) man, a vegetable grower, a mother of two, and a retired headmaster. There are several stamps depicting similar occupations, such as students or youth, so there are not 25 persons identified in this list. Australian Post, though, makes no effort to hide names or locales whence the people come. All is public information. In fact, the complete list appeared in a national stamp newspaper in the United States earlier this year.

That is an impressive feat for a stamp-issuing administration, isn't it? I think it achieved its aim which was to show the Australian people through age groups, ethnicity, gender balance, and national distribution.

That, however, is only one part of this story. On February 5, Canada Post released six commemorative stamps to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the National Hockey League All-Star game. What took a lot of people by surprise were the images on the stamps. It was not that the 'stars' were not deserving of portrayal on stamps or that the stamps were ugly. Four of the stamp images feature living, breathing, human beings. Up to that time, Canada was a nation that prided itself in that, for the most part, the only living person to appear on its stamps was the reigning monarch of Great Britain.

Canada's hockey stars feature goaltender Jacques Plante and defenceman Doug Harvey, both of whom are deceased. The 'live' stars are forwards Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, and Wayne Gretzky and defenceman Bobby Orr. Those who follow Canada's national game will recognize these names. The stamps appear in a special souvenir sheet which is attractively designed with head and shoulders images of the players bordering the six stamps. The stamps depict each player in an action pose encircled in a puck-like motif. The hockey players' names do not appear on the stamps; nor do the Australians' names appear on the "Face of Australia" issue.

The NHL All-Star stamps were not the first in which Canada Post used live subjects for stamp images. In a special three-stamp Millennium Keepsake edition issued in October 1999, the boy with the dove on the 55-cent stamp has been identified as Anthony O'Malley. In fact, research indicates Canada Post has used live images as far back as 1958 when a professional model was used for the stamp to honor the nursing profession (Scott 380). But that is substance for another column.

What makes the Australia and Canada stamp news is the open and undeniable use of live person images on postage stamps from nations that have not done so in the past. Will this be a trend of the future . . . the 21st century? A lot of nations have long used images of sports figures, movie stars, prominent politicians, and 'great' people to enhance their stamp programs. The islands of Grenada and St. Vincent are good examples, but there are countless others. A look at the stamps produced by the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation in New York quickly reveals the appearance of many very live 'heroes' alongside the deceased.

Is this all so wrong? I think not! If an individual is worthy of commemoration on a stamp, let it be. It becomes, however, a matter of establishing a precedent. Who gets attention and who is left out? The Canada Post policy on criteria for stamp subjects cites in one of its clauses that the images "are primarily related to Canada and of national interest and significance." Another clause says the images should "evoke Canadian history, tradition, accomplishments or natural heritage." Both would certainly allow the celebration of hockey stars or any other significant people on stamps.

The question that comes up with the Australian and Canadian stamps is how long will nations like Great Britain and the United States continue to maintain policies where only deceased persons appear on their stamps. Britain has one exception, of course, with the reigning monarch. Britain even puts Queen Elizabeth II's image in silhouette on all its stamps. In the U.S., the policy is fixed in stone. The stamp subject, other than a deceased president who gets preferential attention shortly after death, must be in the grave 10 years before consideration is given for stamp commemoration. The USPS even put disgraced president Richard Nixon on a stamp before he was gone 10 years.

The United States new-issue program, though, is not completely void of the living. There are instances where living persons have been identified on U.S. stamps, especially on stamps produced from historic photos. Moreover, some of the "Celebrate the Century" stamps especially for the last three decades actually honor the living for their accomplishments, but specific images of people are avoided.

The developments in Canada and Australia present new challenges for stamp collecting. I think the Australian venture is remarkable. It reveals a spirit of giving recognition to the common people and it creates all sorts of new opportunities for the collector. It also sets a pattern for other nations. Who will follow with something similar? How soon? The Canadian issue also created much interest and some controversy. The latter is understandable.

Where do you stand on the issue? Should the USPS abandon its 10-year-dead policy in favor of 'moving into the 21st century'? Should all nations create a stamp issue similar to "The Face of Australia"? What are the negative/positive implications for live people on postage stamps? These are important questions. They could also have much significance for the hobby in the next decade.

Stamp Universe would like to run a survey on the topic of the living versus the dead on postage stamps. Post your comments to the message boards.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.

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