Consider two stamps from the 1960s that sent a message from the United States government to the public: Register and vote.
Those were the good old days, right? Looking at those stamps from the perspective of our present public health crisis—when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump crony who appears to be hamstringing the United States Postal Service (USPS) so that people will not be able to use the mail to vote against his boss—they suggest a past when our federal government sought to protect and enhance democratic freedoms.
But the USPS also reveals the paradoxes of American democracy. The iconography of U.S. postage stamps does not fully reflect, and sometimes conceals, the democratic principles from which the idea of a national postal service was founded: universal access, at affordable rates, to perhaps the oldest, and most important, system of national mass communication. Issued at the height of the Cold War, the stamps also conceal a complex reality. The designers of the 1964 stamp represented voting with a waving U.S. flag; and in 1968, they chose a golden statue of a bald eagle with outstretched wings atop a weathervane. Neither depicts people. Both represent voting with images of iconic, timeless objects at a time of turmoil; and neither suggests, at a moment when voting rights for African Americans were being expanded, that voting could lead to social change.
The postage stamp itself was democratic, but not American, in its origins. A simple technology, it transformed the Royal Mail of Great Britain from a system designed for rulers and elites into one available to all. Previously, postage was a tax, based on the number of sheets and the distance a letter travelled. Moreover, postage was paid by the recipient, which entangled letter carriers in the time-consuming work of collecting fees, often from people unable or unwilling to pay them.
Enter the so-called “Penny Black.” In the late 1830s, postal reformers argued that a drastic reduction in rates, based on weight and uniform throughout the country (ultimately set at two pennies per half ounce) would generate so much postal traffic that the revenue lost due to lowered rates would be more than made up in volume. Crucially, in the new system postage was to be paid in advance. The sender purchased a stamp and affixed it to a letter before mailing it, eliminating the inefficient and contentious collection of fees at its destination.
Other countries followed suit, with the United States creating its own first stamps in 1847. Inexpensive postage extended the original mandate of the Post Office, formulated in the Postal Act of 1792, to connect the citizens of a democracy for the work of self-governance and economic development.
But the new postal system had an unforeseen consequence. As it was adopted by country after country, the postage stamp provided a new space for governments to address the public. To be sure, that space was tiny. But stamps were produced and circulated by the millions and soon, by the billions. Most important, within the borders of each stamp there was room not only for the words and numbers necessary for postal servicing but for the state to proliferate images that effectively advertised itself.
In the 19th century the visual vocabulary of the postage stamp was small: images of heraldic emblems, heads of state and great men. But at the turn of the century, a moment when memorialization of all kinds boomed, the United States became more ambitious. Stamps soon commemorated historically important events and, slowly, important personages other than presidents, politicians and generals: the new postal issue of 1902-1903 featured Martha Washington among a gallery of notable white men.
More importantly, perhaps, the series of 1922-1925 included a Native American, the Sioux Brulé Chief Hollow Horn Bear, although the stamp did not mention his name and merely labeled him “American Indian,” erasing his nation and historical role in opposing Euro-American settler colonialism. Visibility without explanation became a standard tactic in U.S. postal iconography. For example, the 1934 National Park commemorative stamps, released as part of the “See America First” campaign, encouraged U.S. citizens to travel (and spend their money) domestically, without acknowledging that the National Parks had to be emptied of indigenous people to be enclosed as parks at all.
While stamps represented historical figures and democratic themes, theycoyly concealed a reckoning with history itself. The Register-Vote stamps, sponsored and popularized mainly by non-partisan groups like the American Heritage Foundation (AHF) and the Ad Council, created just this sense of false consensus. Organized in 1947 at the start of the Cold War, AHF sought to promote the advantages of liberty as conventionally understood within the U.S. context and to encourage the U.S. body politic to “demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that the way of free men is the best.” Like many other organizations founded to engage in “soft diplomacy” against the USSR and other Communist states, AHF promoted so-called American values and the benefits of capitalism as a way to fight a war of ideas against the Soviet Union.
In other words, stamps were a form of propaganda. The Register-Vote stamps celebrated a democratic process that was plagued by the forms of Black voter suppression that propped up Jim Crow segregation. But the AHF pointedly ignored this struggle. Its inaugural event, the Freedom Train, celebrated the democratic process between 1947 and 1949, carrying 127 important government documents across the United States in the hope that this curated archive “would best stand the test of universal acceptance by the American people.”
And rather than taking a stance on Jim Crow segregation in the South, the Freedom Train avoided cities with segregation ordinances altogether.
Although stamps continued to promote national themes, their connection to actual democracy became thinner in ensuing decades. By the 1960s, when the Register-Vote stamps were issued and the right to vote was being fought for across the former Confederacy, the politics of apolitical culture still shaped the iconography of postage stamps. And after 1971, when the post office was transformed from a government agency to a government corporation (the United States Postal Service, or USPS), the word “service” increasingly referred to a business arrangement rather than a tax-supported department of government designed for the benefit of all.
The new USPS was, in fact, a business, and expected to support itself: perhaps not surprisingly it abandoned any attempt to represent democracy and substituted a bland pluralism instead. A 1976 USPS ad in The American Philatelist,a publication aimed at stamp collectors, asked: “what can a public service message the size of a postage stamp accomplish?” The answer was “sometimes, a miracle” on behalf of good causes. Stamps that advocated for wildlife conservation, blood donation, voting, disabled workers “truly reflect us. They show that we care. And that we want to solve our problems.” And by1976, the United States was also turning away from government intervention in the failures of democracy that had created such turmoil after World War II, and shifting towards private and market-based solutions.
Today, the USPS continues to issue public service stamps that ask citizens to be responsible for their own health and welfare, that depict a diverse citizenry, and celebrate a history of social progress without struggle. Indeed, one of the cardinal rules for the selection of stamp topics is that only “positive contributions” will be recognized: “negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated.”
Despite Republican attacks on mail-in voting as a source of fraud, we know that the post office is capable of securely handling our ballots. We trust them to deliver and collect the U.S. Census every ten years, a feat they just concluded. Each November, and during primary season, the USPS delivers millions of mail-in ballots.
The post office clearly can — and if the recent Congressional appropriation goes through, will — ensure that the many citizens worried about in-person voting during the pandemic have a safe alternative in November. From this perspective, the post office still has a role in democracy.
The Register-Vote stamps remind us (if we needed reminding) that voting is a political act. It requires the backing of a nonpartisan public, not a private, service, one that ought to be supported by tax dollars.
Because encouraging citizens to vote is not the same as making it possible.
Laura Goldblatt, is an assistant professor of English, and Richard Handler is a professor of anthropology; both are at the University of Virginia. They are co-authoring a book on the iconography of citizenship on U.S. postage stamps.