Though it seems unimaginable in today’s post-Roe climate, 50 years ago, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring family planning. The first day cover (a special envelope bearing the new stamp and a postmark with its date of issue) stated: “A need for family planning/Spiraling population growth–a source of economic and political difficulties facing mankind.” As a syndicated news article noted in 1972, the stamp looked “innocuous enough,” with its portrait of a happy, white, middle-class family of four, but it stirred up plenty of controversy. An ultra-conservative priest based in North Dakota, Father Frederic Nelson, told his followers that Catholics “could not morally use the stamp.” “We are sure you know what this ‘stamp’ is all about,” he wrote. “It promotes ‘family planning,’ meaning in Americanese, birth control, abortion, and probably euthanasia.” He intended to return all mail bearing the stamp with the words, “Postage stamp offensive to addressee. Return to sender.” He urged his flock to do the same.
Meanwhile, the grassroots group Zero Population Growth bought the stamp in bulk and hoped the postal service would follow up with stamps depicting the “one or no child family.” Caught in the middle, the post office insisted the stamp was not an endorsement of birth control. A spokesman explained that subject matter for stamps largely fell in two categories, American heritage or “national issues of concern,” and went through a rigorous screening process involving a citizens’ committee and final approval by the postmaster general. While the post office didn’t shy away from difficult topics (“Prevent Drug Abuse ” was the subject of a 1971 stamp),it was cagey about who suggested the family planning stamp. The Planned Parenthood Federation was the stamp’s official sponsor but denied initiating the process. USPS admitted the idea had been floating around for several years but would not divulge who made the proposal. “We want to focus attention on an issue that requires discussion,” the head of USPS’ philatelic division explained. “Judging from the very heavy mail we have received on both sides, we seem to have been very successful at that.”Despite the hubbub, the stamp was largely popular with the public. Over one million were sold on the first day it became available. People used them on wedding and birth announcements to send a sly, sassy message to friends and family. As part of a poll on family planning, the Minneapolis Star Newspaper asked 600 voting-age respondents about the stamp. Did they think its message was appropriate? Of those polled, 76 percent said yes. Perhaps apocryphally, a woman in Pittsburgh, PA, allegedly purchased the stamps, then tried to return them because she was the mother of 11 children. “Imagine what my friends would say if I sent them letters with this stamp on them,“ she said.
Top Photo Photographed by Angela Decenzo