Grand Island Postage Stamp: The Story of a Stamp

Grand Island Ice Caves Stamp



The Story of a Stamp:
From Suggestion Box to Mail Box

Gladstone, MI – On January 18, 2020, the US Postal Service (USPS) will begin selling the new “Grand Island Ice Caves” Priority Mail Express stamp, featuring a winter scene at one Hiawatha National Forest’s premier recreation sites. As we admired the stamp’s stunning artwork released by USPS in December 2019, we wondered how stamps are “born.” Who comes up with the ideas? What is the process for moving from concept to the upper right-hand corner of a package?

While we awaited the Grand Island stamp’s arrival at Post Offices, Hiawatha National Forest staff reached out to the US Postal Service to learn the story behind the Grand Island stamp.

“The process of designing a new stamp begins with the American people,” said Roy Betts, a senior public relations representative with USPS. “The Postal Service welcomes suggestions for stamp subjects that celebrate the American experience. Any proposal that meets the established criteria will be considered.”

According to Mr. Betts, even with the current prevalence of digital communication, there is strong public interest in stamps. 

“We receive tens of thousands of stamp suggestions from the public each year,” he said. 

Due to the time required for research and approval, ideas for stamp subjects should be received at least three or more years prior to the stamp’s proposed issuance year.

Betts didn’t say who sent the suggestion for the Grand Island stamp, but it’s amazing to imagine that suggestion landing on a pile of thousands of other suggestions. Maybe it was scribbled on a napkin and stuffed into an envelope. Or, perhaps it arrived in a carefully crafted letter complete with rationale, background information and illustrations. But then what? 

Stamp suggestions are reviewed quarterly by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), members of which are appointed by the Postmaster General. The group meets to sift through the suggestions for future stamps, and recommend the best prospects to the USPS. With so many suggestions, how does the committee decide which ideas rise to the top of the list? 

“The USPS is primarily interested in stamps that feature American or America-related subjects that have had a significant, positive impact on American history, culture or environment,” explained Betts. 

With all postal customers in mind, including stamp collectors, the CSAC relies on a set of basic criteria when making its recommendations. The complete list of criteria and limitations are described on the US Postal Service’s webpage. No credit or compensation is given for the submission of a stamp subject that is selected – except maybe the personal satisfaction of knowing that your suggestion made a difference!

Using the CSAC’s recommendations, the US Postal Service plans and develops its stamp program two to three years in advance. 

According to Betts, “The USPS stamp development department contracts a small team of professional art directors to oversee the creation of stamp designs.”

The art directors, in turn, work with professional researchers, designers, artists, illustrators, and photographers to produce the stamp art, arguably of the most visible forms of public art. Greg Breeding is co-founder of an independent design company and served as art director for the Grand Island stamp project. 

“Stamps may be works of art, but before the artwork comes the research,” says Mr. Breeding. 

The US Postal Service requires that each future stamp subject be fully researched to ensure the artwork and publicity materials will be correct, to avoid any misinformation or copyright issues, and to obtain any needed permissions. For this role, USPS enlists a professional “fact checking” firm. Fact-checkers at Photo Assist researched the background for the Grand Island project, providing a complete package of existing images and artwork, rights-and-permissions expertise, and factual information. Breeding then provided this material to the artist selected for this stamp project. 

“Greg contacted me about a year-and-a-half ago about this project,” said artist Dan Cosgrove, whom Breeding enlisted to create the artwork for the Grand Island stamp.

Mr. Cosgrove studied the photos and other background information, but still needed to ask himself what ice really looks like. 

“I even took photos of the icicles hanging off my back porch, looking at the way ice interacts with light, the color of the sky, and so on,” he said.

Since the ice curtains at Grand Island are constantly changing natural elements, Cosgrove realized that for this project his artwork didn’t need to replicate an exact ice formation.

Grand Island Ice Curtains

“I wanted the sketches to capture the spirit of the ice curtains and the rock formations that support the ice,” Cosgrove said.

He developed three preliminary pencil sketches for the Grand Island stamp. Back at USPS, Breeding first shared those conceptual drafts with the USPS, the small team of fellow art directors, and Photo Assist. Then, he took the sketches to the CSAC members for their feedback.  

“Development of the stamp art is an iterative process, and keeping everyone involved throughout the process helps ensure the best possible final product,” notes Breeding. 

Breeding discussed the feedback with Cosgrove, who then finalized a sketch and scanned it so he could develop the digital artwork for the Grand Island stamp.

“I worked digitally in color planes to create the final artwork, making sure the design would work well in both stamp-sized and larger formats,” he explained. 

Mr. Betts seconded this point.

“Stamps are miniature works of art! They must capture the essence and feel of the subject on a very small canvas. A good stamp is crisp, clear and beautiful. Dan has this very special skill,” said Betts.

The Postal Service issues approximately 35 stamps each year; a small percentage of those stamp designs are created by artists new to stamp design. Mr. Cosgrove estimates he has worked on about twenty-five stamp designs for the Postal Service over the years. 

“For instance, I designed the Mount Rushmore stamp in 2008, as well as a Hoover Dam stamp, and several stamps featuring battleships,” Cosgrove said. 

Once the final artwork was approved, Cosgrove provided a very high resolution digital copy for use in designing the stamp. 

“Stamp design involves several phases. First, I brought Dan’s original artwork into the standard Priority Mail Express stamp format,” explained Breeding.

Used on Priority Mail Express flat rate envelopes, Priority Mail Express stamps are among the USPS’s larger stamp formats, referred to as ‘semi-jumbo’. The format includes a border, particular typography, and distinctive layout standards. 

Next, the stamp design is delivered to a production team that tweaks the digital file to prepare it for the printing process. 

“The team specializes in the technical aspects of printing. So in addition to inserting technical printing marks, they make any needed adjustments to ensure the stamp art reproduces faithfully,” said Breeding.

Once the production package was approved, the Grand Island stamp moved to the printing phase. Security printers specialize in printing highly secure, highly authenticated documents and goods for the world’s governments and other customers. Stamp designs require security printing because they are embedded with various security features that verify their authenticity, thwart counterfeit and aid the movement of mail through the postal system. 

“Ashton Potter, one of two security printers under contract with USPS, printed 1.26 million copies of the Grand Island ice caves Priority Mail Express stamp,” said Bill Gicker, USPS Acting Director of Stamp Services . 

Mr. Gicker points out that security is a key element in both production and distribution of stamps, because they are essentially a form of currency. The Grand Island stamp – and all the materials involved in its production – were carefully accounted for throughout the security printing and distribution process.

Meanwhile, back at US Postal Service, Roy Betts used the final stamp design and the completed research package to provide media advisories in anticipation of the public release of the artwork and subsequently, of the final stamp product.  
The USPS unveiled the Grand Island stamp’s artwork on December 12, 2019, about five weeks before the January 18 availability of the stamp in Post Offices. (Currently, collectors may pre-purchase the stamp on the USPS’s online Postal Store.) 

In its initial news release, the USPS announced that there would be no national first-day-of-issue ceremony for the Grand Island stamp or the Big Bend Priority Mail Stamp, completed in the same stamp project. However, local postmaster anticipates local interest:

“The Munising Post Office will have a first-day-of-issue cancellation along with first day covers,” said Stacy Ashbrook, Munising Postmaster. The Munising Post Office is located at 220 Elm Avenue, Munising, and will be open from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. for the occasion.

Ashbrook states, “We are very excited to have a stamp representative of our region available for our customers to purchase.”  

A single stamp of the Grand Island Ice Caves Priority Mail Express stamp can be purchased for $26.35. Even with this price tag, many people will use the stamp because it covers the base price for Priority Mail Express flat rate packages which is the USPS’s fastest domestic service. In addition to those who will use the stamp, stamp collectors may also purchase it. 

“Appreciation of stamps knows no boundaries,” said Betts. Stamp collectors may choose a particular stamp for its subject – the location, the person, the topic. Others may collect based on the artist, or simply because they like the artwork or the series in which it falls. 

The new Grand Island stamp celebrates the winter beauty of Grand Island National Recreation Area (GINRA), which is located in Lake Superior near Munising on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and is edged by massive sandstone cliffs and beautiful beaches. As a result, this stamp may be of special interest to local residents and tourists visiting the area including winter recreationists like the hundreds who attend the Michigan Ice Fest, an annual ice climbing festival headquartered in Munising.

“The US Forest Service hopes that the new stamp will increase public awareness of GINRA and of the broad range of benefits and uses provided by National Forests in general,” said Janel Crooks, Hiawatha National Forest public affairs officer. 

She explained that National Forests contribute to local timber industry, provide clean water and habit for wildlife, manage recreation opportunities, and engage numerous volunteers, partners and communities in management of public lands.  

“National Forests also provide beautiful landscapes like Grand Island that serve as the setting for local communities and for tourism,” said Crooks.

Congress designated GINRA on May 17, 1990, in recognition of the outstanding features of this Lake Superior isle. During the summer months, visitors can easily reach the island using the passenger ferry service. GINRA's summer recreation opportunities include hiking, biking, and camping. 

Grand Island Ice Curtains 2After October, Grand Island is comparatively quiet. During the winter months, groundwater seeps form magnificent ice curtains and stalactite-like icicles along portions of Grand Island's cliffs and caverns. However, access to these formations limited by the safety of crossing the Lake Superior ice, which is uncertain due to strong currents in the underlying channels between the island and the mainland. The ice “caves” can be dangerous if not impossible to reach, so the stamp provides another way to glimpse this beautiful winter landscape.

"We also hope winter visitors will explore the mainland winter recreation opportunities offered by Hiawatha National Forest, such as our cross-country ski trails, as well as the many miles of state snowmobile trails we host," said Crooks.

National Forest ski trails near Munising include Valley Spur and McKeever Hills. To learn more about recreation opportunities in Hiawatha National Forest and Grand Island National Recreation Area, visit the Hiawatha National Forest website.  

About the U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live. For more information, visit

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