The hoopla around the upcoming mid-term election naturally could lead to recollections of previous contests. Lately I have been thinking about 1992 in which there were two elections: one involving Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush and one involving a younger, rock-’n’-roll Elvis and an older, Las Vegas Elvis. One election determined a president; the other a king.
Spot the Reference
At least 10 Presley hits are referred to in the article, references or figures. Feel free to hum along when you find them. Answers will be at the end of the article.
Figure 1. Above, fans' dreams were fulfilled in 1993 with the release of the 29-cent Elvis stamp (Scott 2721). Right, the vertical booklet strip of the Legends of American Music: Rock & Roll/Rhythm & Blues issue of June 1993 (Scott 2731-2737).
On Monday, February 24, 1992, at the Las Vegas Hilton, where Elvis Presley had played a then-record 839 sold-out performances, Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank, a former savings and loan executive, announced that a U.S. postage stamp commemorating Elvis Presley would be issued in 1993. Frank’s publicity savvy, perhaps gained in his previous job, led to the decision that the public would pick the stamp design, one of two portraits of Elvis Presley. To add to the publicity, Frank announced on the “Larry King Live” television show that an Elvis stamp was on the way.
Presley was first suggested as a commemorative stamp in 1987, 10 years after his death. One fan with a whole lot of burning love wrote the postmaster general almost weekly, pushing for an Elvis commemorative. “She’s really stayed on our case,” Frank said, in an article in the New York Times. She was not alone and found more than 10,000 Elvis fans willing to sign petitions that were forwarded to the Postal Service. In fact, said Frank, the service received more than 60,000 letters and petitions supporting the stamp. After four years of asking and sending in requests, fans finally succeeded when the USPS decided to issue a Legends of American Music series. The series, which started with 29-cent stamps, would include an Elvis Presley stamp, which would be issued both as a single and later as part of a group (Figure 1).
Despite fans’ interest in an Elvis commemorative, the decision was controversial for at least three reasons.
First, there were objections based upon Elvis’ use of drugs. One naysayer commented in a Los Angeles Times article shortly after the voting began, “I think it’s sort of sad. I don’t think it’s appropriate. It sends the wrong message.” The appropriateness of such an honoree also was discussed in Congress.
Countering the criticism, Frank told the New York Times in early 1992, “Some people actually think he should never be honored because of his alleged drug problems. But even if he had such problems, he was a genuine American musical giant, and for sure he won’t be the first famous flawed American to show up on a stamp.”
Echoing this sentiment was a spokesman from Graceland, Presley’s estate in Memphis, Tennessee. “That’s ridiculous,” said the spokesman, according to United Press International. “He’s being honored for his achievements, for his music, for his contributions to our lives. A lot of people have been placed on stamps, all human beings with problems.”
The second problem was admittedly not a problem for most. A CBS News poll in 1992 found that 8 percent of people asked thought Elvis still lived. In fact, that percentage stayed nearly constant until at least 2002, according to later news polls. Granted, it was not a large percentage, but enough to raise some objections to the stamp, since a living person could not be depicted on a U.S. postage stamp.
A third obstacle was based on economics. For instance, presidential candidate Ralph Nader objected because of the costs of promotion. He estimated that to break even the USPS would need to sell more than 1 million stamps that collectors would keep and not use.
The artists and the vote
Eight artists were asked to provide sketches of Presley, unrestricted with respect to style or time period, resulting in about 60 possibilities, according to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
Figure 2. A rejected Elvis stamp design courtesy of National Postal Museum
In a comment about the sketches and to reference a famous 1955 Elvis hit, Frank said, “We want to be honest with our rendition, but, well, don‘t be cruel.” Of these sketches, the candidates were reduced to two. (Some of the rejected images can be found on the NPM’s website, like the Figure 2 example.)
A finalist by Mark Stutzman showed a younger rock-n-roll Elvis; the other, by John Berkey, showed an older Las Vegas-era Elvis.
Mr. Stutzman had this to say: “I was trying to portray him the way I think of Elvis – definitely a sex symbol, in an alluring pose,” Stutzman told the Baltimore Sun about his portrayal. “I wanted to show his eyes strongly and the way he curled his lip when he was singing, and I wanted to show the lock of hair that always fell on his forehead.”
Berkey’s portrait was often referred to as Fat Elvis or “older and wider.” That's all right, said Berkey. “I understand what happened, the negative feelings. But I painted the king. That other guy is a prince. As a matter of fact, he weighed 160 pounds and he was 38 years old, at the time. That’s not fat and that’s not old.”
A perceptive 9-year-old made this comment about the two choices, according to the ElvisBlog, by Phil Arnold, “(In the ‘50s stamp), he’s just holding a microphone here. I like him (in the ‘70s stamp) because he’s singing.”
Stutzman’s Elvis portrait was used in the Legends of American Music set of seven stamps issued in June 1993. He also designed the portraits of Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in the series, while Berkey contributed the portraits of Clyde McPhatter, Otis Redding and Dinah Washington.
The ballots were postcards, 3 million of them distributed to post oﬃces around the country, which were addressed, but not postage paid. (The card required a 19-cent stamp.) On one side was the election mailing address, while on the other side, the two final portraits were reproduced with boxes to check for your choice (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Elvis ballot. Notice that all ballots go to a Memphis address and that further information could be requested by the fan.
Figure 4. An unoﬃcial ballot that has the correct address, but does not have any USPS markings or the request for further information. The voting side does not show the candidate portraits, referring only to “young” and “mature” Elvis.
One type of ballot has the USPS logo and other information in the margins. Other ballots, one of which is shown in Figure 4, existed, but while claiming to be oﬃcial, may not have been; nevertheless, they had the correct Memphis address and would presumably count.
Figure 5a. This ballot from People magazine diﬀers somewhat from the ballot available in post oﬃces. The orientation here is landscape instead of portrait and more text has been added. The pictures, the selection boxes and the address side match the post oﬃce ballot.
Figure 5b. The ad which appeared in People magazine. A diﬀerent design was used for the lobby poster in post oﬃces.
A somewhat diﬀerent version of the USPS ballot (Figure 5) was included in the April 13, 1992, issue of People magazine with a full page announcement of the contest. (People magazine was a smart choice as it was one of America’s most popular weekly magazines and was noted for honest coverage of celebrities.) People had few rivals until the 2000s. Further, the magazine had a favorable demographic readership to maximize ballot returns and had a large presence in doctors’ and health care providers’ oﬃces as well as personal care salons.
The cards could not be given out until April 6, 1992, and had to be returned no later than close of business on April 24. If a post oﬃce ran out, fans were directed to send a postcard with their choice to the address on the lobby posters on display.
More than 1 million votes were cast, and the younger Elvis won with about 75 percent of the vote. News organizations, newspapers and others reacted to the announcement. Examples include: “Countrywide: Fans Split in Vote for Elvis Stamp,” from the Los Angeles Times; “Elvis stamp unveiling: ‘He would be very proud,” from UPI; “The Elvis Stamp: Stuck On You,” from the Baltimore Sun; and “Fans to Hound Post Oﬃces for Long-Awaited Elvis Stamp,” from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, whose story included the clever phrase, “And ever’body at the ol’ mailbox will be dancin’ to the mailbox rock.”)
Interestingly, the 1992 Elvis election was the second time U.S. postal officials asked the public to vote to determine the design of a commemorative, according to a 2012 column by John Hotchner in Linn’s Stamp News. Hotchner reported that the U.S. Post Office Department presented the first vote by presenting six potential designs for the 1964 Gettysburg Civil War commemorative via an advertisement in a magazine. The designs were shown in the February 10, 1963, edition of This Week Magazine, a nationally syndicated weekly supplement to newspapers that was published from 1935 to 1969.
Readers were given one week to vote on the six entries, Hotchner wrote. (A select committee of nine – including three art professionals – had chosen six entries from a group of 955 designs submitted by professional and amateur artists.) The winner of the voting from the ad in This Week was never announced, but the USPOD did soon announce that Roy Gjertson’s design would be used for the commemorative. A source that helped Hotchner with the column believed “the reason the public vote on the Gettysburg design was not announced was that it did not agree with the (select) judges’ decision.”
Presidential candidates join in
Even the 1992 presidential candidates took advantage of the Elvis phenomenon, evoking Elvis to make disparaging quips about each other.
Here are two from President Bush: “I finally figured out why (Clinton) compares himself to Elvis. The minute he has to take a stand on something, he starts wiggling”; and, “Clinton is on all sides of every issue. He’s been spotted more places than Elvis Presley. I guess you’d say his plan really is Elvis Economics; America will be checking into the Heartbreak Hotel.”
Clinton parlayed Bush’s negative comment into a positive statement by playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Here is another quote from Clinton: “I don’t think Bush would have liked Elvis very much.”
Clinton’s airplane during the campaign was nicknamed “Air Elvis” and he preferred the younger Elvis stamp, according to a report on the Collectors Weekly website. Reporters referenced Elvis to Clinton in various ways, for example, calling the candidate “Elvis with a calculator,” from the New York Times. Al Gore, upon accepting the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination, referenced Clinton-as-Elvis with “I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was a kid – that one day I’d have a chance to come here to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis,” he said in the New York Times.
The first day
The ballot card for the April vote had an optional section that the sender could fill in to request further information about the Elvis stamp. (As per these requests, the USPS sent out about 800,000 brochures, stating “You voted for him last April,” and “In January, the king will rule.”) There also was a pictorial array of items that could be ordered from the USPS: the stamp sheet and saver sleeve, commemorative album and limited edition print and the exclusive “First Day” ceremony program (Figure 6).
Figure 6a. The cover of this USPS Elvis Ceremony Program mimics the sleeve of a vinyl 45 rpm record; the insert, looking like the record itself, can be seen at the top middle. Ah, it does bring back memories! A first day canceled stamp (Scott 2721) is visible through the sleeve.
Figure 6b. Inside is a copy of the Graceland ceremony program. Notice that the postmaster general dedicated the stamp and the stamp designer was honored.
Figure 6c. The back of the program card simulates a 45 with information about the stamp and the vote spiraling around the center “hole” like the grooves in a record.
Figure 6d. The back of the sleeve gives a brief and engaging background about Elvis Presley and the 1993 stamp.
Not long thereafter, an unprecedented number of fans telephoned the USPS to request the stamps. This response prompted the USPS manager of philately to exclaim, “It’s just phenomenal,” causing the USPS oﬃcials to “seem absolutely giddy – dare we say ‘all shook up?’ – over the Elvis stamp,” according to the Baltimore Sun. (Indeed, with the boost in the public’s attention from the vote, the anticipated profits and the possible increased interest in stamp collecting, the USPS expected a “bonanza” from the Elvis stamp, the newspaper said.)
The stamp was oﬃcially issued at 12:01 a.m. (Central Standard Time) on January 8, 1993, which would have been Presley’s 58th birthday, with a special ceremony at – where else? – Graceland! Although all post oﬃces had supplies of these stamps, only the post oﬃce across the street from Graceland and the five portable oﬃces set up for the event could sell the stamp from 12:01 am until noon, when sales began nationwide at all post oﬃces.
At Graceland, despite wintry drizzle, thousands of people lined up nearly 18 hours before midnight. People also waited in lines all over the country. Hundreds converged on the main Manhattan post oﬃce and hundreds more visited the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace for a special postcard with the stamp and a photo of Elvis shaking hands with then-President Nixon. The Hollywood (California) Post Oﬃce was bustling. Sales went quickly at two smaller California post offices; in Sierra Madre, the entire allotment of 16,000 stamps was gone in two hours; in Brea, 8,000 stamps were sold in 30 minutes.
In Chicago, people began gathering long before the sale began. At Boston’s Post Oﬃce Square, hundreds of fans created a long line to buy the stamps. The downtown post oﬃces in Atlanta sold out in minutes. The 300 million stamps that were initially printed – three times the normal print run for a commemorative stamp – were supplemented with more than 200 million additional stamps. According to the Baltimore Sun, the second batch was printed due to the “unprecedented avalanche of advance orders.”
Of course, an Elvis stamp mailed on the first day of issue would bear both a special cancellation and postmark (Figure 7).
Figure 7. An unaddressed Elvis first day cover with the elaborate first day cancellation and a cachet by ArtCraft, a frequently seen designer.
Figure 8. One of the versions of the famous “pointing finger.” The text inside the “finger” doesn’t quite match the song title. The return reasons don’t include the lyrics from Elvis’ song, “address unknown” (although the choice there is close) or “no such zone,” (not there at all), but do include a “no such number” choice!
Some enterprising fans purposely misaddressed their letters so that the post oﬃce would put the famous return-to-sender finger on the envelope (Figure 8). (For those who might not know, “Return to Sender” was one of Elvis’ hit songs in 1962.) Unfortunately, by 1993, the proper designation had changed. “We haven’t used that (Return-To-Sender) stamp in years,” said a Postal Service spokesman in Sacramento, California. Nevertheless, the main post oﬃce in Sacramento had custom stamps made in the old, finger-pointing style and set aside a special Return-To-Sender Day, with a commemorative program, to handstamp patrons’ envelopes (Figures 9 and 10). Fans must have been pleased, since nearly 30 times the normal number of customers came through in the first hour and a half, reported the Deseret News (Utah).
Figure 9. This cover was stamped at the “Return-to-Sender” celebration in Sacramento, CA.
Figure 10. The program from the “Return-to-Sender” celebration at the Sacramento, CA post oﬃce.
In order to monitor which stamps are the most popular, the USPS did annual surveys of 10,000 households. Popularity was based upon how many stamps were kept as opposed to being attached to mail for postage. The Postal Service considered a stamp successful when collectors bought it but did not use it. In 1997, oﬃcials boasted that the “retention rate” of the Elvis stamp made it the most popular. A USPS spokesman said that about 1 in every 5 of the 500 million printed was collected.
In 2011, the Presley stamp was still the most popular with more than 120 million saved by fans and collectors, close to 30 million more than the second most popular (The Wonders of America). Clearly, Ralph Nader did not have to worry that at least 1 million stamps would not be used! Also note that the Legends of Rock and Roll set of stamps, which includes Elvis, is number six on this list at 76 million saved.
Returning to the other election in 1992, there were similarities between the presidential and Elvis elections: two strong candidates, ballots, polling places (mailboxes for the stamps), TV and newspaper coverage. But there were two big diﬀerences. First, there was no age restriction on who could vote in the Elvis showdown. Second, people could vote more than once in the battle of the Elvises!
One person said they voted 18 times for the rock-n-roll Elvis and twice for Las Vegas Elvis because “I wanted to give the older one a chance. I appreciate him because he’s from the ’70s, but I want the younger one to win. He’s better looking,” offered a quote from the LA Times. A University of Richmond student, according to the campus newspaper, voted 14 times, all for the younger Elvis.
Using a bit of hyperbole, but I suspect echoing the desire and excitement of many, a fan quoted in the Baltimore Sun said, “I’d vote 10,000 times if I could. I kind of like the older Elvis better, it’s like it’s got more character. But really, I’d like it if all of them were printed. That would be my choice.”
The USPS hoped to recreate the same excitement and sales again in 2015 by issuing the sixth “Forever” stamp in the Music Icons series on August 12 with a 1955 photo of Elvis, his signature in gold and a small golden crown between “Forever” and “USA” at the bottom left.
Figure 11a. A pane of 20 Elvis “Forever” stamps (Scott 5009a) issued in August 2015. Notice the simulated vinyl record peeking out at the top.
Figure 11b. The photo of Presley on the back of the Elvis “Forever” pane - a great photo with which to end!
The pane of 16 stamps was designed to look like a vinyl record sleeve on the front with a diﬀerent photo of Elvis on the back (Figure 11). At the time, Michael Baadke in Linn’s Stamp News wrote “But it’s unlikely [the new Elvis issue] will make as big a splash. The numbers are likely to be reduced, simply because fewer people are using letter mail.” How the times do change. Once you’re a king, there seems to be no need for a second coronation.
All-Time Top 25 Most Popular Commemorative Stamps,” InfoPlease, sourced USPS (2011).
Alvarez, Rafael. “Stamp of Approval Young Elvis or Old, It’s in the Fans’ hands,” The Baltimore Evening Sun (April 6, 1992).
Arnold, Phil. “An Elvis Stamp Assortment,” Elvis Blog (October 3, 2020). http://www.elvisblog.net/ 2020/10/03/another-assortment-of-elvis-goodies-that-need-a-new-home/.
Arnold, Phil. “Voting For The Elvis Stamp,” Elvis Blog (June 15, 2008). www.elvisblog.net/2008/06/15/voting-for-the-elvis-stamp/. Associated Press. “Many Happy Returns for Elvis Fans,” Deseret News (February 6, 1993).
Ayres, B. Drummond Jr.. “Millions of Elvis Sightings Certain in ’93,” The New York Times (January 11, 1992).
Benjamin, Gentry. “Fans to Hound Post Oﬃces for Long-Awaited Elvis Stamp,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel (January 8, 1993). Web.
Blanton, Dana. “Poll: For a Few True Believers, Elvis Lives,” Fox News Poll (August 14, 2002).
Dunbar, Donette. “Countywide: Fans Split in Vote for Elvis Stamp,” Los Angeles Times (April 7, 1992).
Dunn, Ashley. “Elvis Was There: Postage stamps: The Hollywood Post Oﬃce does brisk business …,” The Los Angeles Times (January 9, 1992). Web.
Elliot, Stuart. “The Media Business: Advertising; Another Blitz To Promote Elvis Stamp,” The New York Times (December 1, 1992).
“Elvis Comes Alive at the Post Oﬃce,” The New York Times (January 9, 1993).
“Elvis is Number One in Stamps,” The Elvis Daily (September 11, 2016).
“Elvis Presley stamp has postal service ‘all shook up’ Orders pour in in advance of stamp’s release,” The Baltimore Sun (December 14, 1992). Web.
Holguin, Jaime. “The King’s Popularity Constant,” CBS News (August 11, 2002).
Hotchner, John M. “Elvis Wasn’t the First,” Linn’s Stamp News (April 16, 2012).
Jochim, Mark Joseph. “The Birthday of Elvis Presley,” A Stamp A Day (January 8, 2018). Web.
Marcus, Greil. “Opinion: The Elvis Strategy,” The New York Times (October 27, 1992). Web.
“Nader Rips Postal Service for Expense of Elvis Vote,” Orlando Sentinel (April 25, 1992).
Rein, Lisa. “Can USPS find magic again with a new Elvis stamp?” The Washington Post (June 9, 2015).
Ronky, Jessica. “No Return to Sender,” The Collegian (University of Richmond) (January 28, 1993).
Rosenblatt, Robert A. “Elvis – Lean or Large? Fans Can Pick Stamp Portrait,” Los Angeles Times (February 25, 1992).
Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. (Sidney, OH: Amos Press, Inc.).
Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “The Art of the Stamp: “The Stamps That Would be King,” https://postalmuseum.si.edu/.
Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “The Elvis Stamp: America Elects a King.” https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/art-of-the-stamp-the-artwork-stamps-with-a-story/the-elvis-stamp-america-elects-a-king.
“The Elvis Stamp: Stuck on You,” The Baltimore Sun (January 7, 1993).
United Press International. “Elvis Fans to Vote on Stamp Choice,” UPI Archives (February 24, 1992). Web.United Press International. “Elvis Stamp Unveiling: He Would Be Very Proud,” UPI Archives (June 3, 1992). Web.
United Press International. “Thousands throng Graceland mansion to buy Elvis stamp,” UPI Archives (January 8, 1993). Web.
U.S. Postal Service. “29-Cent Rock & Roll/Rhythm & Blues Commemorative Stamp and $5.80 Stamp Booklet,” Postal Bulletin (May 13, 1993).
U.S. Postal Service. “Elvis Presley Poll,” Postal Bulletin (March 19, 1992).
U.S. Postal Service. Postal Bulletin (May 27, 1993 and June 10, 1993).
U.S. Postal Service. “Stamp Announcement: Elvis Presley Stamp,” Postal Bulletin (July 9, 2015).
“USPS Hopes Second Elvis Stamp Will Be Huge Success,” Linn’s Stamp News (June 10, 2015).
George Pfeffer has recently returned to the stamp collecting he pursued as a teenager. He has been surprised to find that he likes to collect stamps combined with other postal ephemera that tell a story. He was a theoretical physical chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, or as his wife says, “He bombards molecules in a computer.” After retiring from the university, he volunteered in his children’s elementary and middle schools and taught high school chemistry, physics, rhetoric and theater, an odd, but satisfying, mix of subjects. He and his wife live by a river in the Blue Ridge Mountains with fruit trees, flowers, blueberries and too many deer.
For Further Learning - Recommendations from the APRL research staff
Dickinson, Gary. Catalog of U.S. Elvis Presley Stamp First Day Covers (Colonial Beach, VA: American First Day Cover Society, 2020). [G3701 .F527 D553e 2020]
“Elvis Stamp Technical Details,” The American Philatelist (March 1993).
Griffith, Gary. “Competing Elvis Designs Unveiled – Public to Vote from April 6 to 24,” Linn’s Stamp News (March 9, 1992).
Griffith, Gary. “Public to Vote on Elvis Stamp Design,” Linn’s Stamp News (January 27, 1992).
Griffith, Gary. “Young Elvis Design Leads Unofficial Polls,” Linn’s Stamp News (March 16, 1992).
Winick, Les. “Elvis Stamp Could Boost Collecting at USPS,” Linn’s Stamp News (March 15, 1993).
Spot the Reference Answer
The following songs were referenced: “All Shook Up,” “Burning Love,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “Return to Sender,” “Stuck on You,” and “That’s All Right.”