WASHINGTON — For more than half a century, a committee of cultural heavyweights has met behind closed doors, its deliberations kept secret, weighing the faces and images of Americana worthy of gracing U.S. postage stamps. While its rulings have been advisory, they long carried the weight of writ.
Now comes a youngster from across the seas. He isn't what these leading lights from the fields of arts and letters, athletics and philately had in mind. For one, he seems kind of crass to some. And worse, he isn't even American.
The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday released 20 postage stamps honoring Harry Potter, and officials at the cash-strapped agency hope the images, drawn straight from the Warner Brothers movies, will be the biggest blockbuster since the Elvis Presley stamp 20 years ago.
But the selection of the British boy wizard is creating a stir in the cloistered world of postage-stamp policy. The Postal Service bypassed the panel charged with researching and recommending subjects for new stamps, and the members are rankled, not least of all because Potter is a foreigner, several members said.
The dispute caps more than a year of friction between the Postal Service and the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, named by the postmaster general to help make sure that the American experience is properly portrayed. The committee has grown increasingly disaffected over how the agency's marketing staff has pushed pop culture at the expense of images that could prove more enduring.
For one of the only times in its 56-year-history, the committee was not consulted in the decision to put Potter and his friends and foes on the run of 100 million "forever" stamps.
"Harry Potter is not American. It's foreign, and it's so blatantly commercial it's off the charts," said John Hotchner, a stamp collector in Falls Church, Va., and former president of the American Philatelic Society, who served on the committee for 12 years until 2010. "The Postal Service knows what will sell, but that's not what stamps ought to be about. Things that don't sell so well are part of the American story."
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in an interview that the agency "needs to change its focus toward stamps that are more commercial" as a way to increase revenue to compensate for declining mail volume as Americans switch to the Internet.
Members of the advisory committee have complained to Donahoe that they have been brushed aside by agency staff, led by marketing director Nagisa Manabe, a former Coca-Cola executive hired in 2012 to reinvigorate the postal brand. Manabe moved the stamp program into her department and pushed aside veterans in the program, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed postal sources.
Manabe, through a Postal Service spokesman, declined repeated requests for comment.
Many ideas for new stamps now originate with her staff and are heavy with celebrity subjects, those familiar with the changes say. Among those now under consideration are the Beatles, Apple founder Steve Jobs, basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and chef Julia Child.
To generate excitement among collectors, the Postal Service recently reissued a new $2 version of a highly publicized stamp error: a 1918 air mail stamp commemorating the country's first airmail flight, a stamp known as the Inverted Jenny. The stamp had an upside-down image of the Curtiss JN-4 biplane used to deliver the mail.
The Postal Service reissued the inverted image in September as well as 100 sheets of the image right-side up. Postal Service spokesman Roy Betts said the goal was to generate excitement.
But to committee members, as well as many collectors, it has come across as a gimmick and an unfair lottery.
The Harry Potter stamp is eliciting similar skepticism from collectors.
"The attitude should be that stamps are works of art and little pieces of history," said Don Schilling, a collector in Los Angeles who publishes an online stamp blog. "They shouldn't be reduced to the latest fads, whatever's going to sell."