They are America's headstones, its family album.
Stamps.It used to be the U.S. Postal Service would put George Washington (282 times) or Ben Franklin (133) on its postage and hope they would stick.
But in the 2,500-plus stamps since the first Washington-Franklins of 1847, postage has become more than just glued paper. Today's stamps are colorful as rainbows, varied as flea markets and one of the most exclusive portrait galleries in the world.
Every year some 25,000-30,000 native sons, bypassed heroes, worthy causes, deserving luminaries, memorable landscapes and happy birthdays are proposed for a stamp. Only 25 or 30 make it.
Once upon a time Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a collector, would call up Postmaster General Jim Farley with an idea and tell him to get printing. Today, in the course of human events, a committee decides.
Who, how, what, when, where?
"It's about as democratic a process as we have going," says Dickey Rustin, manager for stamp information at the Postal Service.
The deciders, appointed by the postal commissioners for the last 30 years, are the 13 members of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. They meet here six times a year to decide, by majority vote, whom you will be sticking your tongue out at on the way to the post office.
The decisions tend to be upbeat. Wyatt Earp stands a better chance of being postally canonized than Billy the Kid. (Jesse James was proposed and turned down. So was a pretzel with beer-flavored glue). It helps to be good looking. We've had cardinals and bald eagles and poinsettias. No turkey buzzards.
Beyond the certitude that there will always be a stamp in circulation showing the American flag (54 times) it is difficult to make book on who will make the postal hall of fame.
We have had Abraham Lincoln but not Jefferson Davis; Babe Ruth but not Roger Maris; Lewis and Clark but not Zebulon Pike; Crazy Horse but not George Armstrong Custer; Canada but not Japanese cherry trees; paddy wagons but not Bonnie and Clyde; Mary Cassatt but not Jackson Pollack; John Harvard but not Elihu Yale; Jack London but not Irving Berlin; jack in the pulpit but not skunk cabbage; a Frank Lloyd Wright house but not an outhouse (proposed and flushed); Nobelists Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck but not Nobelist Ernest Hemingway; Duke Ellington but not King Louis Armstrong; Hoover, Herbert but not Hoover, J. Edgar; Feeding the Hungry but not fat farms.
Conversely, or perversely, we have had population control and baby carriages, Mexican independence and the Battle of San Jacinto.
When John Harvard was stamped in 1986 to celebrate his namesake university's 350th birthday, that opened the door for Yalies and loyal sons and daughters of Leland Stanford, Sophia Smith, Johns Hopkins, Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Col. Ephraim Williams, et al., to demand equal billing. To cool hot potatoes, the post office will not henceforth immortalize college founders.
"We believe someone has to stand the test of time," Rustin explains.
Love has apparently met that standard. The annual "love" stamp sells - S.W.A.K. - a smashing 1 billion per issue.