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The Story Behind Stamp Gaffes

Retired U.S. Postal Service official Terry McCaffrey tells all about the Lady Liberty error and more

Q. Mistakes happen, but you've had many more hits than misses. Of which stamp are you most proud?

A. After 9/11 we issued a stamp featuring the American flag flying and the motto: United We Stand. It appeared just six weeks after the event, and it's been one of our most popular. It's sold two-and-a-half billion stamps.

Q. Will you follow up with a 10th anniversary stamp commemorating the fall of the twin towers?

A. No. The USPS doesn't print stamps that commemorate disasters. We want to pay tribute to positive things.

Q. Are there other restrictions?

American postage stamps don't honor living people — one must wait five years after death for that commendation. U.S. presidents are the exception; their images can follow their demise after a year. In fact, we plan ahead and are already working on Clinton, Bush, Carter, all waiting in the archives.

Q. How long does a stamp stay in circulation these days?

A. Generic stamps are ordinarily available for two to three years. Commemorative designs, like our Legends of Hollywood issue, a year or so.

Q. There was a rumor that you doctored an image of Bette Davis. Did you really remove the cigarette from her hand in her iconic photo?

A. Someone had already done away with the cigarette from the black-and-white photo we used as a reference for the portrait — we didn't.

Q. Who actually designs and creates our stamps?

A. Forty years ago most designs were done by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. In the late '60s and early '70s we started using outside artists. Thousands of portfolios are submitted every year, and we look at every piece of art. Still, many professional designers have failed because it's difficult to work on a small palette and work very simply. Also, thousands of requests come from the public asking to put this or that on postage; they think it's a great piece of art and would make a great stamp. Well, not quite!

Next: Complaints about stamp design.

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