America’s Most Popular Stamp
After a yearlong campaign, the USPS held a special midnight first-day ceremony on January 8, 1993, for the long-awaited Elvis Presley stamp. The popular issue was also the first in the extensive Legends of American Music series.
Ever since Presley’s death in 1977, fans around the country had clamored for a stamp honoring the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Ten years later, he was eligible to appear on a US stamp, and requests increased dramatically.
Around 1988, Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank began suggesting that he might someday issue a stamp to honor Presley and other major figures in American music. The USPS discussed the Elvis stamp and music series in the coming years. They also held focus groups to gauge interest in such stamps. While many people liked the idea of an Elvis stamp, he was also a controversial figure due to his history of drug use.
However, after long debate, the USPS announced on January 7, 1992, that Elvis would appear on the first stamp in a new series honoring famous American musicians. That same day, Postmaster General Frank also announced that the design of the Elvis stamp would be left up to the American people – they could vote for the young or the old Elvis. This move actually surprised many at the USPS, who didn’t know that was going to be the plan.
The balloting period was short – from April 4 to 26, 1992. The USPS printed 5 million ballot cards to be placed in post offices, while People magazine included 4.5 million ballots in one of its issues. People from all walks of life weighed in, including presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who opted for the young Elvis. Some 1.228 million ballots were cast and in the end, young Elvis won out three to one.
Initially, the USPS printed 300 million of the Presley stamps. But when advance demand proved even greater than expected, they printed another 200 million in the December before the stamp’s issue.
The big day came on January 8, 1993, which would have been Elvis’ 58th birthday. The first day ceremony was held at midnight at Elvis’ Graceland home with his former wife Priscilla, and daughter, Lisa Marie, in attendance. Despite the cold, rainy weather, hundreds of fans waited hours in line to claim the 800 seats available for the ceremony. The festivities had begun hours earlier as bands performed and a few dignitaries gave short speeches. They all then sang “Happy Birthday” to Elvis before a fireworks show inaugurated the first sales of the new Elvis stamp.
Graceland produced 35,000 envelopes with a special gold inscription “I was there – January 8, 1993.” These all sold out by 10 in the morning. The USPS also set up two trailers in Tupelo, Mississippi, where they provided special “Birthplace Station” cancels.
In all, the USPS printed 517 million Elvis stamps, three times the usual print run for a commemorative. The Elvis stamp is the most widely publicized and best-selling US commemorative in history. The Legends of American Music series would run until 1999 and honor more than 70 artists from all styles of music.
Click here to view individual stamps in the Legends of the American Music series.