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.
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.