The Great Americans definitive series, a set of stamps with sixty-three designs, issued between 1980 and 1999, comprises the largest set of face different ordinary stamps issued through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Sixty-two of the stamps honor individuals and one honors a couple, Lila and DeWitt Wallace. The general public, and even many collectors, had no knowledge of most of the individuals portrayed. Many subjects appear to have been selected to satisfy various political agendas with no apparent unifying theme.
The Great Americans are characterized by their standard definitive size, simple design lines, and monochromatic colors. They offer more complicated varieties than typically found in previous definitive series. The defining characteristics of these varieties are attributed to the numerous printing presses, perforation processes and machines, paper, phosphorescent tagging, and gum utilized by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the several private contract security printers used to produce stamps of the series.
The Great Americans Series premiered on December 27, 1980, with the issuance of the 19-cent Sequoyah stamp, fulfilling the need for a stamp to pay the international postcard rate effective January 1, 1981. All the designs were produced as sheet stamps. Only the 25-cent Jack London design was produced additionally in booklet format. In 1987, the 5-dollar Bret Harte stamp became the first definitive stamp issued in miniature sheet format, panes of twenty stamps. A major plate variety on the 1-dollar Johns Hopkins stamp was discovered in July 1990. The variety manifests itself as a large spot on the subject’s shirt just below his bow tie.
Lost revenue prompted the Postal Service to produce untagged low value stamps in January, 1991. The 4-cent Father Flanagan, printed by the Bureau, was the first to appear intentionally without tagging. The Bureau also experimented with phosphor coated paper. The 15-cent Cody was the only Great Americans stamp printed on this paper. In 1995 the Bureau added a second ink supplier, which created new shades on some stamps.
After 1991 contract suppliers produced twelve of the Great Americans, the first being the 35-cent Chavez issued April 3, 1991. It became apparent that private contractors could produce stamps at lower costs than the Bureau. Private contractors printed ten of the last eleven Great Americans to be issued.