You no longer have to be dead to have your face on an official United States postage stamp. You no longer have to be famous. You don't even have to be human. Last week, the Postal Service authorized a private company to sell postage to people who want to create their own stamps. All you have to do is choose a photo, upload it to Stamps.com, and order it. In about a week, you'll be able to send out mail with stamps bearing that embarrassing photo of your now grown-up kid as a two-year-old, in her pajamas, wearing pearls and earmuffs.
Ken McBride, chief executive of Stamps.com, says that orders have been pouring in for stamps featuring kids, pets, and family celebrations. The stamps cost more than their face value, and there are rules: no nudity, no celebrities, no copyrighted material, and no politically partisan images. So, forget about ordering that naked Dick Cheney stamp.
As with most innovations, I have mixed feelings about these personalized stamps. (I didn't trust microwave ovens for years). At first, the stamps sounded like fun. I could see people using them, especially for special occasions like Christmas, birthdays, or after a weight loss. I thought I might send my college kids letters, using our dog, Rascal's picture as the stamp. I figured they'd think it was cute. (Then I tried to remember the last time they thought anything I did was cute. I came up with "never"). But there were plenty of photos that I've taken that might amuse my friends if I used them as stamps. And most of all, personalized postage would finally give me something to do with my digital photos besides putting them on my computer and never printing them.
But I started feeling a little guilty as I considered personalized stamps in a broader, historical context. Stamps are not just indications of how much postage costs. They are little bits of history. They represent countries, and often honor heroes. They symbolize a nation's struggles and its triumphs.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin have been on our stamps. It doesn't seem to be in the same tradition to have stamps with a picture of that guy down the street with the bad toupee and the old Buick. The White House belongs on a stamp. Does your first apartment? It was fitting that the Marines at Iwo Jima were honored for putting up the flag. Should we honor you and your buddy in the same way for putting up a basketball hoop in the driveway?
Will stamp collectors brag about having the entire series of the Johnson family picnic in Omaha, Nebraska? Will they trade their mint condition Bobby Edwards T-Ball stamp for a Janice Smith, "This Is What My New Kitchen Looks Like" stamp?
Maybe this innovation will motivate people to rediscover the lost art of letter writing. Hardly anybody writes personal letters these days, preferring to use the phone or e-mail. It would be ironic if the digital camera and computer promoted a return to the old ways. And it is possible that people will be more willing to sit down and write a letter to their friends, now that they can show off their bowling trophy on the envelope.
But where will it all stop? Should I worry about personalized American Flags next? Maybe instead of stars in the blue field, they'd have a picture of Uncle Oscar's new teeth.
So, I'm a little confused about this. I'm not sure if the personalized stamp seems weird to me because it's weird or just because it's a new idea. I certainly don't want to participate in something that seems almost sacrilegious, that might make a mockery of a great American tradition. Then again, Rascal is a really cute dog.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.