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Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

It's official: You no longer need to lick -- WHILE composing a column about the joys of letter-writing, I was in midsentence and -- having been born in the Iron Age -- instinctively typed the words:

". . . you then lick a stamp and put it on the envelope. . . ."

At which point the "Wait a minute!" cartoon dialogue balloon formed, along with the realization that I could not recall the last time I licked a stamp -- and that if even I, who become nostalgic for the old atmospheric pressure every time the barometer changes, have been weaned of stamp-licking, then it truly must be gone, gone, gone.

Yet the phrase remains. You lick a stamp just like you dial a phone. In other words, you say you do, but you don't.

It certainly seems that the stamps with their own adhesive on the backs -- the ones you don't have to touch with your tongue -- have just about completely taken over the U.S. mails. Yet one wouldn't want to guess about a matter this important, so I got in touch with the United States Postal Service in Washington, where the postal official who knows the most about lickable and non-lickable stamps -- his name is Don Smeraldi -- was only too happy to help me out.

The reason you can barely remember licking a stamp, Smeraldi said, is that there aren't that many stamps out there to lick -- the ones with the dry backs that required a close encounter with your mouth have just about vanished.

"It's happened really quickly," Smeraldi told me. "In 1995, just under 20 percent of postage stamps were self-adhesive."

(That's the term, by the way -- the stamps that stick onto an envelope without needing even a flick of your tongue are officially known as "self-adhesive." The old kind were called "gummed," or "water-activated," although everyone knew that the government wasn't talking about water, the government was talking about spit.)

Anyway . . . from the 20 percent share that self-adhesive stamps owned in 1995, the number leapt to over 60 percent in 1996, over 87 percent in 1999, and over 90 percent in 2000. That's about as dramatic as a shift in American habits gets -- yet you seldom hear about it.

This is because the only people who really talk much about stamps are stamp collectors, and they are also about the only people left who prefer the stamps you lick. This is because . . .

Oh, you really don't want to hear. Smeraldi told me the reasons, but they're pretty dreary. May we move on?

All right. There are around 40 billion U.S. postage stamps produced each year, so even 10 percent of that is a big roll of stamps that still need licking.

Don't assume, though, Smeraldi said, that just because 4 billion lickable stamps are produced each year, that is indicative of the number of people who still choose to lick them. Many businesses use machines that attach stamps from rolls to envelopes, and those machines wet the stamps mechanically, not with tongues -- that's where the lickable stamps are going.

But certainly there still must be a lot of people out there who simply prefer to touch stamps with their tongues -- right, Mr. Smeraldi? There must be quite a few lick-a-stamp fans. Correct?

"I haven't heard from any," he said. "And I'm the guy who would."

With all the complaints over the years about the Postal Service, you should probably give them credit for creating a stamp that sticks by itself, and that really works almost flawlessly. The self-adhesive stamps are also harder to tear accidentally, because they're not attached to each other the same way.

Here's an interesting fact for you before you regretfully move on to other parts of today's paper:

The material on the back of lickable stamps was officially considered a foodstuff by the U.S. government.

"Corn starch and dextrin," Smeraldi said.

And the taste? What was that officially called?

"It just tasted like stamps," Smeraldi said.

Actually, it's sort of amazing that lickable stamps lasted as long as they did. With as much distrust of the federal government as there is, think what the reaction would be today if the government were to release a universally used product, and ordered the public:

"You have to lick this."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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