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Editorial

Harry Potter stamps: Will Owl Post be next?

Traditionalists upset about the new Potter postage stamps need to take a few deep breaths.

By The Times editorial board

December 3, 2013

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Proficiat Postaliosa! If Harry Potter commemorative stamps can cast a solvency spell on the U.S. Postal Service, that's some magic we can get behind. Tradition-bound philatelists should back off from their complaints.

The stamps, depicting scenes from the movies based on J.K. Rowling's books, went on sale in late November despite vehement opposition from some serious stamp collectors, who objected that they were both un-American and crassly commercial. Michael Baadke, the editor of Linn's Stamp News, summarized the collectors' arguments when he wrote that Harry Potter postage was "dismissing significant established U.S. stamp traditions without explanation."

"These U.S. stamps picture living actors from other countries, something that is unprecedented," according to Baadke. "The films the stamps honor have little to do with American culture."

The classicists say that the post office is placing quick profits above tradition, which has typically, though not always, called for stamps to feature the nation's government and cultural leaders, or events in U.S. history such as the first flight or statehood anniversaries.

Indeed, the Potter stamps combined all the ingredients guaranteed to upset traditionalists — commercial, photographic rather than artistic, and foreign to boot. Postal Service officials didn't even consult the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee — a panel formed more than 50 years ago to recommend stamp subjects that have culturally enduring value — probably in the full knowledge that they were writing a new installment of mail history that might best be titled "Harry Potter and the Philatelic Furor."

But the truth is that when it comes to American stamps, the definition of American culture has expanded dramatically in recent years to include muscle cars and Disney and "Simpsons" characters. In 2007, the intergalactic characters of "Star Wars" were emblazoned on a set of stamps.

Certainly, the new Harry Potter stamps are no more commercial than the Pixar movie commemoratives and no less American than the Beatles stamp of 1999 or the endangered species series of 1992, which included a panda, a giraffe and a Bengal tiger. And even in the dignified days of stiffly posed stamp portraits that looked as though they came straight from U.S. currency, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote "The Divine Comedy" during the Middle Ages, was honored with a stamp in 1965. In retrospect, traditionalists might see that as the first sign that the U.S. Postal Service was heading toward hell.

The goal of the Postal Service is clear: It hopes to conjure up some cash, to disapparate some of its red ink. In this era of its financial independence from government, that's a necessity, and there are worse ways to accomplish it than with a popular boy wizard, even one who isn't American.