Celebrations Abound in September’s Stamps
New United States stamps issued in September focused on tradition, celebrations and whimsy, areas that some collectors may find frivolous, but others – including the casual customer – may see as pure fun.
There were three releases with nine new face-different postage stamps. The issues are Happy Birthday, which is a single stamp, and two sets of four: Message Monsters and Day of the Dead. All of the stamps are first-class domestic, self-adhesive Forever stamps and all are being sold in panes of 20.
September also was a month for cross-border acknowledgment, with connections on these new stamps to Mexico and Canada. There’s a strong link to Mexico with the Day of the Dead stamps along with a wink to Mexican culture in the Happy Birthday stamp. There are no maple leaves, vast woodlands or hockey pucks on the Message Monsters stamps, but the monsters were created by a Canadian illustrator and children’s book author. These not-particularly scary monsters might not look like a comic-book villain or the Wolfman, but they come with some add-ons that help make them very cool and entertaining for mailers.
Elements of a birthday celebration – including confetti, ribbons and bright colors – make the design of the new Happy Birthday stamp pop with delight (Figure 1). And, for those counting, there is likely a first appearance of a specific topic on this U.S. postage stamp.
Figure 1. Technical details and purchasing information for the Happy Birthday stamp can be found here
Ironically, the stamp meant for celebrations was issued September 9 without benefit of a live or virtual first day ceremony. Appropriately, though, the official first day location is Toast, North Carolina, a community of 2,000 in the northwest part of the state, west of Mt. Airy and near the Virginia border.
The Happy Birthday stamp is offset-printed in panes of 20 by security printing contractor Ashton Potter USA Ltd. This is the first first-class Forever stamp issued at the new 58¢ rate.
The word “HAPPY” appears most prominently in capital letters on the stamp, with each of the five letters inspired by a different party decoration: a red and green piñata for the “H,” an orange and yellow striped birthday hat “A,” a red piece of frosted cake for the first “P,” a green birthday candle for the second “P” and an orange balloon sculpture for the “Y.” The word “birthday” appears below it in blue capital letters, with “Forever” and “USA” centered in smaller red lettering at the bottom. Surrounding all the design elements is a flurry of multicolored ribbons and confetti.
Even though there was no first day event, the USPS created pictorial first day cancels for use on collector-prepared envelopes and on its own first day covers (Figure 2). A black postmark surrounds the “Happy Birthday” text with confetti and streamers, a party hat, a balloon and a cupcake with one lit candle. The color postmark also shows confetti, along with a cake decorated with the phrase “Happy Birthday” and topped with four lit candles.
Figure 2. The USPS special first day cancellation for the new Happy Birthday issue.
So, what’s the possible first on this stamp? The piñata. I cannot find a piñata on any previous U.S. stamps, though maybe one of you has sharper eyes. My search found piñatas only on a little more than a dozen modern stamps, all Christmas stamps from Mexico, where piñatas are part of the traditional annual festivities. The earliest stamp showing a piñata that I found was on a 1978 Christmas stamp from Mexico (Figure 3).
Figure 3. A 2005 holiday piñata stamp drawn by a child, one of more than a dozen Christmas stamps from Mexico showing piñatas.
The new Happy Birthday stamp was designed by Lisa Catalone Castro and Rodolfo Castro, with artwork by Rodolfo Castro. Ethel Kessler served as art director.
As the stamp appears simple in its design, I asked Kessler if there were any specific design elements that were difficult.
“The whole creation and assembly was a challenge,” said Kessler, who took time to discuss the stamp in an email interview. Her insights appear at the end of this section.
The Catalone design group previously worked with Kessler to create designs for the four 2001 Love stamps that use handwritten love letters by John and Abigail Adams as a backdrop to a single rose and the four 44¢ Supreme Court Justices stamps issued in 2009.
Birthdays are important benchmarks in our lives and the celebration of birthdays in the U.S. has its origins in a wide array of cultural traditions. Some ancient civilizations observed the birthdays of prominent figures or celebrated rites of passage, and well-wishes and gifts have long been associated with bringing about good fortune. Folklorists and historians claim to see the origins of birthday parties in older practices that resemble our customs, such as candles on a cake, which existed in some form in both ancient Greece and early modern Germany. When we gather to sing, brighten our spirits with candles, and make a wish, these deeply rooted rituals connect us to loved ones and invite everyone to share in the birthday fun.
The U.S. Postal Service’s history of Happy Birthday stamps began in 1987. The booklet of 10 22¢ stamps (eight designs total) included one duplicated stamp showing a cake topped by one lit candle and a “Happy Birthday” greeting. A Congratulations! stamp was the other repeated design (Figure 4).
Figure 4. The first U.S. stamp wishing a Happy Birthday was the 22¢ stamp depicting a slice of birthday cake, part of the 10-stamp Special Occasions booklet of 1987.
A new booklet of 12 Special Occasions stamps, now denominated 25 cents, was issued in 1988 (Figure 5). Among the four designs was a Happy Birthday stamp that simply shows four identical lit blue candles with spiraling yellow and orange flames.
Figure 5. One of the 1998 Special Occasions stamps, Scott 2395.
The next Happy Birthday stamp – a 37¢ stamp designed by Harry Zelenko – was issued in February 2002 with the main design elements of bright, bold colorful lettering and sprinkles of confetti (Figure 6). The stamp was reissued for denomination changes in June of the same year and again in 2006. That was the last U.S. Happy Birthday stamp until this new one. (A “Happy Birthday” greeting is found as an add-on sticker in the 2015 From Me to You issue, but it’s not a full stamp.)
Figure 6. A Happy Birthday stamp designed by Harry Zelenko was issued in three different denominations – 34, 37 and 39 cents.
The world’s postal services have been celebrating birthdays on stamps alongside the U.S. starting from around the same time period. Among the countries that have issued Happy Birthday stamps – many showing a cake and candles – are China, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Some of the earliest I could find are from New Zealand, which issued a booklet of five such stamps in 1991, plus those from France (1998), Spanish Andorra (1998) and Belgium (1999) (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Foreign postal services have been producing Happy Birthday stamps for more than 20 years. New Zealand created a booklet of five in 1991 and France called on children’s literature character Babar, the elephant, to send birthday greetings in 2006.
Ethel Kessler – Art Director
When did you start working on this stamp?
You have worked twice before with these designers on stamps: The Adams Love Letters and the 2009 Supreme Court Justices. Those stamps and this new one all seem so different in concept and design. Why did you think of calling on them for a Happy Birthday stamp?
It’s not that I look for a certain style. I look for creative thinking when subject matter is unique and needs to be focused on our target audience. Lisa Catalone was the designer for the LOVE stamps. Her passion for stamps as a collector influenced her interest in working with me.
Can you clarify, did Lisa and Rodolfo work on all three issues?
Rodolfo was the main designer for Happy Birthday. Though, I must say, Lisa Catalone is very collaborative, and they figure out methods and directions as a team. Rodolfo was refocusing his design talents into dimensional and motion graphics, so they wanted to explore how that could change the art from a 2-dimensional approach to 3-dimensional.
I really like this design with each letter comprised of a different birthday element. It’s both fun and thoughtful. Can you explain how it came about? Who thought of this design?
The first question in the design process is to ask, “What is an American birthday celebration?” Lisa did many sketches until we decided on the design you see now.
A couple of the letters – a party hat “A” and balloons “Y” – are perfect fits. Were those instant? Did the other elements – piñata, cake and candle – fit naturally to the letters or were there changes as you went along?
There are infinite changes along the way!
Were there other elements other than the five used that were tried and rejected? (Like, did you try a wrapped present for “P” or an “H” made of confetti?)
Many elements we juggled around until the right balance was achieved. We always say that stamps are very tiny canvases, so items need to go out unless they add to the story. You might have liked a chocolate cake better, but at stamp size it’s just a lot of brown.
Speaking of confetti and ribbons, at what point in the process were those added?
Right from the beginning.
Is there anything else interesting you’d like to add?
We tried to light the candle, but it just didn’t work well. It was a fun project that was more challenging than you would think