When they debuted 49 years ago, people bought one billion at four cents a pop. They were folded at the perforation, torn apart carefully, licked, and pressed to the upper-right corner of white envelopes, a task often assigned to a child in the family.
The first U.S. holiday stamp, a simple green wreath with red ribbon created in 1962 by the postal service's art director, was popular, even though an unsealed envelope could be sent for a penny less.
Since then, holiday stamps have been designed by artists or reproduced from paintings, most from the National Gallery of Art. In 1966, the first Madonna and Child stamp was issued, and since the 1990s, designs have acknowledged Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Eid, and the Chinese New Year.
This year's block of four whimsical ornaments was designed by Linda Fountain, of Hilton Head Island, S.C. Working from retro-style glass bulbs, she cut colored paper and layered the designs.
Photographer Sally Andersen-Bruce has created blocks of nutcrackers (2008), cookies (2005), ornaments (2004), and snowmen (2002) stamps. She worked closely with a Virginia woodcarver who built four nutcrackers (a drummer boy, Father Christmas, an emperor, and a soldier) that she then photographed.
A few years earlier, she instructed an artist to make several metal cookie cutters (Santa, moon, stars, angel, snowmen, elves), then hired three artistic bakers to make sugar and gingerbread cookies, and decorate them as they saw fit. They gave her 1,000 cookies.
"The cookies didn't have to taste good, they just had to look good," said Ms. Andersen-Bruce, who lost only one to her dog.
She selected a few dozen of the hundreds of images she shot and sent them to an artist at the postal service in Washington, who made suggestions. Final approval came from the 10-person Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. Stamp designers are paid $5,000 per stamp, $20,000 for a four-stamp block.
The USPS expects to deliver 16.5 billion pieces of mail in the month before Christmas, 2011. The high for the decade was more than 20 billion in 2006, said Mark Saunders, in the USPS' corporate communications office.
Contact Tahree Lane at: 419-724-6075 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see an online exhibit of religious stamps compiled by the National Postal Museum, go to arago.si.edu, click on exhibits, click on topical interests, and scroll to the Art of Christmas Stamps.
To read more and see additional images of holiday stamps, check beyondtheperf.com.