The Demise of Tradition

First_US_Stamps_1847_Issue.jpg Category:Stamps...

The First U.S. Stamps, via Wikipedia

Tradition. It’s a great thing, is it not? From Fiddler on the Roof to the U.S. Navy to the United States Postal Service. Wait – the Post Office? Well, not really – the USPS has announced the end of a long-standing tradition:

The U.S. Postal Service announced Monday that it is ending its longstanding rule that stamps cannot feature people who are still alive and it’s asking the public to offer suggestions on who should be first.
Since Jan. 1, 2007, the requirement has been that a person must have been deceased five years before appearing on a stamp. Before that, the rule was 10 years. (By tradition, though, former presidents are remembered on a stamp in the year following their deaths.).
The post office announced that it will consider stamps for acclaimed American musicians, sports stars, writers, artists and other nationally known figures.
“This change will enable us to pay tribute to individuals for their achievements while they are still alive to enjoy the honor,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement.

The remainder of the article does point out the current financial plight of the USPS and mentions that this move is likely to benefit the situation. After all, every stamp bought by a collector and placed in an album is almost pure profit for the Post Office. They are only out the printing and admin costs and don’t have to deliver mail for it.

Hey, I’m sympathetic. They are in a tough spot, trying to maintain their traditional routes and 6-day delivery in the age of email. Their business is vanishing faster than you can say “Ben Franklin”. But as a one-time philatelist (I stopped about 1980) I hate to see stamp-collecting diluted that way. I knew the end was near when they issued a series with cartoon characters. I guess I’ll just relegate my collection to the bookshelf and take it down once in a while to enjoy some that were unique. The ones I like best are the Air Mail stamps. I have all of those, except the Zeppelins – I only have the least expensive of those. Sigh.

What makes collections of value? I submit that it is rarity. The more unique and rare something is, the more it is treasured. As I have written before, in this day and age just about anyone can have a reproduction of a great work of art for a tiny fraction of the original’s worth and it will be so good that only an expert can tell the difference. But few go to the trouble because reproductions aren’t rare, they’re limited only by the market.

USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709)

USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709), via Wikipedia

This situation made me think of another tradition that has seen dilution of late, that of not naming U.S. Navy ships for living persons. Huh. I thought that changed with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), named for him in 1995 when he was still alive. But no, wrong again, champaign breath. The USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was named in 1983, three years before the Father of the Nuclear Navy deceased. But there was more, much more, that I hadn’t known. It turns out that despite the tradition, exceptions to the tradition have also been, well, traditional. There is a long list of these exception on, where else? Wikipedia. Go figure.

Seems to me that there is a steady dilution of traditions in American culture like those above. Just off the top of my head I would include in these the relaxation of standards for many military medals and the phenomenon of grade-creep in our schools. Aren’t those the same thing?  I think so.  Rarity fades as we turn into Lake Woebegone, a place where all the children are above average.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to The Demise of Tradition

  1. IzaakMak says:

    Great post Jim. I’ve never been much for tradition myself, having had it used against me so often, but I admit that there are those that have “grown on me” over the years. I love your Lake Woebegone reference, a great reminder of how badly today’s “everyone is a winner” mindset has diminished our ability to recognize the truly exceptional… 😀


  2. John Erickson says:

    I’d question the “every child is above average” if you look around the world. NBC News had another depressing ranking of how our kids do in math, science, and reading versus the world. 25% of eighth graders read below that level. (Sigh)
    So, were the zeppelin stamps just about the German craft, or were there stamps of the US airships, especially USS Akron and USS Macon? If I could go back in time and see one thing before I died, it would be one of those two “flying carriers”. Talk about nostalgia!


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Twelve years after losing World War I, German engineering and ingenuity were already prominent in the world. Here’s a link:

      Lake Woebegone is of course a tongue-in-cheek jab at American arrogance. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Garrison Keillor’s humor on NPR, but it is a perfect parody of our indulgent culture. Check your FM dial for NPR. Car Talk with the Tappet Brothers is the other top show – I laugh until my sides ache! iPod downloads are also available.


      • John Erickson says:

        Thanks for the link, Jim, but I have read a fair amount on the great gasbags. I just can’t imagine our world, with its’ risk-averse mentality, building such great yet flimsy vehicles. But oh, to see the Hindenburg drift over New Jersey – better to ride IN it! (Leave out the debarking at the top of the Empire State, heights scare the crap outta me!) And especially to watch an F2C drop from the belly of USS Akron or Macon! I always felt I was born 50 years too late – though fascinated by space and sub-atomic particle physics, I love, love, LOVE old prop-jobs, inter-war cars, and big-gun battleships. And now I’ll shut up before I start crying. 😉
        Never caught any of the tales from Lake Woebegone. And out here where I live, I’m more likely to pick up signals from E.T than to get NPR! 😀


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Me too, John. When I was a kid I loved reading the Tom Swift series. His adventures with technology fascinated me – everything from dirigibles to electric cars! “How very awesome!”, Tom said confusingly.


  3. PiedType says:

    Speaking of dilutions and the relaxation of standards, one that really bugs me is that practically everyone is a “hero” these days. Help an old lady across the street — you’re a hero! Take an apple to your teacher — you’re a hero! Get your work done on time without being asked — hero! It diminishes true heroism and those who have truly earned the accolade.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Very true, Pied. And here’s yet another dilution, the dilution of the English Language. Right on the front page of our own Joplin Globe is the quotation, “It’s very awesome!” I guess that means that something could be a little bit awesome, or maybe 50% awesome. Now it’s true they were quoting a 4-year-old, but adults mangle the language too. Qualifying superlatives has always bugged me. 😉


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Sorry Jim,

    but this blog is already out of date. I picked up the software at the Post Office last week. Janet and I can now “make stamps” that have OUR PICTURE on the stamps, or pictures of grandkids, etc. Wonder if I can make one showing the “bird” with my hand and mail post cards to the EC and others???



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      What a great idea, Anson! I think you may have just saved the Post Office! Create your own postage stamps! It would actually work because you can even now go to the USPS web site and buy postage – it prints out as a bar code verifying you have paid for it. No reason a self-designed stamp couldn’t be included with the bar code. You had better hurry. Just think of it – the world’s very first Personalized Postage Stamp: Anson flipping the bird! It could be a series. Anson flipping the bird at the EC; at Pelosi; at Harry Reid; at a chart of the national debt. How very awesome!


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Hell’s bells Jim,

    I can even make one with me sticking my tongue out at YOU!!. You have yet to reach “bird status” but just keep on. You’ll get there!

    Actually I am already considering using my picture of the EC kissing my neck at a Tea Party rally a few years ago!!!! Of course he had to stand on his tip toes to do so, reflecting the “statue” of his positions! Given the opportunity I am sure he would have stood on Slick Billy’s back to “reach” the point of kissing my neck.



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