Have you ever kept a stamp collection? You’ve likely noticed that U.S. stamps often honor important figures, such as presidents and war heroes. But you might not have noticed one thing these people have in common: They’re all dead.
Why don’t living people appear on U.S. postage stamps? The story begins in Great Britain.
In the United Kingdom, postage stamps bear a portrait of the reigning monarch. Even if another image appears on the stamp, the current royal will at least have a spot in the corner. This tradition began in 1840, with the world’s first-ever postage stamp. It featured an image of Queen Victoria.
Seven years later, the United States created its own postage stamps. But what image would decorate them?
The U.S. Mint struggled with a similar question in 1792. Money-makers had to decide whose image would adorn the first U.S. coins. Some officials proposed a portrait of the current president. Congress said no. That idea smacked of British monarchy, which the new nation had just cast off. Instead, said Congress, history should decide who is worthy to appear on U.S. currency.
The U.S. Postal Service adopted that same logic. Its first official stamps arrived in 1847. They featured George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
In 1866, the “history” rule was solidified. The Civil War had just ended. American politicians who once worked together had become bitter enemies. Even after the war, tensions lingered. Postal Service officials faced a dilemma. What if they put a someone on an official stamp, only for that person to later turn traitor?
The Postal Service formalized a simple solution: No living people on postage stamps.
Every U.S. president eventually got his own postage stamp—but not until at least a year after death.
By the late 1800s, postage stamps started including a wide variety of people. In 1893, Queen Isabella I of Spain became the first woman on a U.S. stamp. (Why a Spanish queen? She supported Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the “New World” of America.) A stamp featuring Sioux chief Hollow Horn Bear appeared in 1923. The first African American to grace a U.S. stamp was Booker T. Washington in 1940.
All these people had the same thing in common: They no longer lived.
The Apostle Paul writes about “fighting the good fight” and “finishing the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7) Everyone has sin and flaws. But with God’s help, we can finish our lives well. Sometimes, that looks like big, stamp-worthy accomplishments. Often, it means loving God and our neighbors in little ways every day.
Why? Ordinary things such as postage stamps often have fascinating histories. Sometimes those stories encourage us to live well.