For an inanimate object weighing just a tiny fraction of an ounce, the postage stamp can sometimes stir up a whole lot of trouble. Throughout U.S. history, stamps have often caused controversy, usually for reasons the post office never anticipated. Here are 11 of the most famous examples:
Whistler’s Mother stamp, released 1934
Many artists objected to the way James McNeill Whistler’s famous 1873 painting was cropped to fit the horizontal stamp format. Others complained about the vase of flowers that had been added to its lower-left corner—possibly a bit of early product placement for Mother’s Day, which the stamp was meant to honor. In a telegram to the postmaster general, a group called the American Artists Professional League charged that the stamp represented a “mutilation of the artist’s original picture, thereby robbing it of much of its charm.” The director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which had recently borrowed the painting (officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1) from the Louvre, said that if Whistler “were alive today he would be enraged.”
Susan B. Anthony stamp, released 1936
Some imaginative critics thought they saw a cigarette sticking out from the lips of the famous women’s rights advocate. It was actually an unfortunately positioned line of white cross-hatching in the background. (The next time Anthony got a stamp, in 1955, there seem to have been few complaints.) Anthony’s U.S. dollar coin, released in 1979, was no less controversial. Critics charged that the Anthony dollar was too close in size to a quarter and therefore easily confused with one, and the coin proved a dud with the public, as well.
Union Civil War generals stamp, released 1937
Many Southerners were outraged by this stamp featuring three Northern generals: William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Philip Sheridan. Grant and Sheridan most could live with, but Sherman was still despised for his harsh tactics and his famously destructive March to the Sea in 1864. State legislatures in South Carolina and Georgia took up the matter, the latter suggesting that the stamp not be issued until the federal government reimbursed Georgians for Sherman’s destruction and that it also be engraved with a lengthy list of his misdeeds. The postal department attempted to mollify critics by assuring them that a stamp featuring Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson was coming soon. But…
Confederate Civil War generals stamp, released 1937
Although postal authorities hoped this stamp honoring Robert E. Lee and Thomas J.“Stonewall” Jackson would placate Southerners offended by an earlier one with the reviled Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, it proved controversial in its own right. Trouble was, the portrait of Lee showed just two stars on his collar, even though he was a three-star general, making it appear that he’d been demoted. The post office variously claimed that the stamp had been based on an older photo or that the third star was actually hidden by his collar. Nonetheless, when Lee was next honored on a stamp, in 1949, he wore civilian clothes.
Pony Express stamp, released 1940
Horse lovers and historians found no end of faults in this stamp issued to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the pioneering mail delivery service. The horse’s mouth was open (unlikely at a gallop, some said) and daylight was visible through its nostrils, making it appear as if it had been shot through the head. The rider, meanwhile, was holding the reigns too loosely and the saddle he was riding on was allegedly 50 years ahead of its time. As if all that weren’t enough, the rider didn’t appear to be carrying any mail. A later Pony Express stamp, issued on the 100th anniversary in 1960, seems to have come and gone without controversy, though the galloping horse still has its mouth open.
Christmas stamp, released 1962
No kind of stamp seems to have been as consistently controversial as the ones issued to mark Christmas. That includes the first U.S. Christmas stamp, issued in 1962. Featuring a pair of white candles and a wreath with a red bow, it was attacked for crossing the line between church and state as well as for slighting other faiths. Some Christians objected to it, too, saying the government had no business intruding into their religion. Time magazine even faulted it on aesthetic grounds, calling it “calculated blah.” The post office fared no better in 1963 with a design involving a lit-up Christmas tree in front of the White House. Though perhaps an improvement artistically, it was lambasted for injecting politics into Christmas.
Christmas stamp, released 1965
For 1965, the post office decided to try something different: a painting of the angel Gabriel based on an early New England weathervane. It didn’t reckon on critics who’d attack the stamp for portraying a bosomy angel, even though Gabriel was male. Gabriel would return for Christmas three years later, this time based on The Annunciation, a painting by the 15th century master Jan van Eyck in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. Perhaps because of the painting’s prestigious provenance, the 1968 stamp did not invite any ire, although its Gabriel could also be mistaken for female—though a decidedly less bosomy one.
Dinosaur stamp, released 1989
Who could be offended by a block of four stamps honoring animals that had been dead for millions of years? In this case, paleontologists, who maintained that two of stamps contained errors. The dinosaurs labeled as brontosauruses were, in fact, apatosauruses, they said. And the pteranodons weren’t technically dinosaurs at all, but flying lizards. Postal officials admitted the latter point but noted that the stamps were officially named the “prehistoric animal series” and that the term “dinosaur” had merely appeared in promotional materials. The other two stamps, honoring the stegosaurus and the tyrannosaurus, escaped any controversy.
Elvis Presley stamp, released 1993
Elvis fans had been pressing for a stamp ever since 1987, the 10th anniversary of the crooner’s death (at the time, anybody but a president had to be dead for a decade). But Presley’s drug abuse made him a controversial choice. Given the frequent Elvis “sightings” in the years since his death, there was also a facetious controversy over whether he had been gone for the required 10 years—or was even dead at all. Regardless, the stamp reportedly became the most successful commemorative release in post office history, with some 500 million copies in print.
Richard M. Nixon stamp, released 1995
Although Nixon had resigned in disgrace in 1974, when threatened with impeachment, the former president was honored with a stamp after his death, as all presidents are by tradition. The stamp was predictably unpopular and the butt of endless jokes; as a newspaper columnist remarked, “this is one guy whose backside I do not care to lick” (self-adhesive stamps wouldn’t become common until 2002). Sales picked up a bit, however, when a clever entrepreneur issued an envelope that made it look as if Nixon was behind bars.
The Atomic bomb stamp, released 1995
As part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the postal service designed a stamp with a painting of a mushroom cloud captioned “Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August 1945.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Japanese government, peace activists, and many others were offended by a stamp that appeared to celebrate a terrifying weapon that multiple countries now possessed and occasionally threatened to use. After the apparent intervention of then-President Bill Clinton, postal officials reconsidered the matter and the stamp was never released (although a prototype for it, showing “00” where the stamp’s denomination would have appeared, is easily found online). In its place, the post office substituted an image of President Harry Truman announcing Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945.