Living People on Stamps & Portraits: Two Museums & the “Dead Enough” Rule


Part 1
Erin Marie Blasco, Public Programs Coordinator, Smithsonian National Postal Museum

This month, the U.S. Postal Service announced that living figures would be considered for commemoration on postage stamps. Its invitation to suggest names of living individuals in sports, entertainment, and other professions to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee elicited all-caps cries for a stamp portraying Lady Gaga, or perhaps Bruce Springsteen.

As an educator at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, it’s exciting to see people energized about postage stamps. People online and in the museum debate the merit of honoring one American figure over another and discuss what it actually means to have one’s face on a stamp. I’ll have to un-memorize my answer to frequently asked questions such as, “Why isn’t President Obama on a stamp yet?” and “When will there be a George Lucas stamp?”

In the past, I’d answer these questions by explaining that figures on U.S. stamps have to be deceased for at least five years. U.S. presidents are the only exception; they only need to be dead for a year before appearing on a stamp. Fictional figures like Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, and Miss Piggy stand outside the rule, of course. Now that the policy has changed, we have the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be on a stamp and which names are coming up most frequently for consideration.

This isn’t the first time the living/dead discussion has occurred. In 1945, for example a stamp was issued honoring American achievements during World War II. A large group of soldiers is depicted with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. In the stamp, which is drawn from a black-and-white photograph, some of the soldiers in the front row are recognizable as individuals. But the stamp doesn’t break the “dead for five years” rule because it commemorates an event using a group, not individuals.

A number of countries don’t hesitate to issue stamps featuring living figures. Some do this to turn a profit from collectors, while others routinely put their living leaders on postage. Interested in who has already been commemorated on U.S. postage? Browse the Postal Museum’s virtual vault to see high-resolution images of stamps celebrating figures from George Washington (the first face on a U.S. postage stamp) to Zasu Pitts.

Part 2
Geri Provost Lyons, Youth & Family Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The conversation about living figures on stamps is somewhat familiar for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, which for many years collected only portraits of Americans who had been dead at least ten years, with the exception of U.S. presidents.

In 2001, the museum’s board of Commissioners agreed to change the bylaws to eliminate the “ten-year” rule. Since that time, the Portrait Gallery has actively collected portraits of living sitters in all mediums—photographs, time-based media, drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture, and mixed media.

The rule change also allowed for the commissioning and acquisition of contemporary portraits of living sitters, from many backgrounds and disciplines. For example, the first commission of a living sitter was of Eunice Kennedy Shriver by artist David Lenz; the second was of Bill and Melinda Gates by Jon Friedman. NPG has also collected portraits of such well-known Americans such as Martha Stewart, Yo Yo Ma, Norman Mineta, and Michelle Obama, to just name a few.

As an educator for the Portrait Gallery, I am thrilled when visitors can make a connection with a portrait of a living sitter. As of October 2011, 361 living Americans are represented in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection, according to a recent database search. Use our online database to view portraits of living Americans in our permanent collection. Some of the living sitters may have more than one portrait in our collection, but only one has been selected. We hope you enjoy looking at these images!

In the stamp commemorating the Cosby Show, none of the characters appeared. Instead, the family's living room was pictured.