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Columbian Exposition stamps - A Stan Klos website

The First Commemorative Stamps
Courtesy of USPS

Controversial Columbian Exposition stamps, 1893

Postmaster General John Wanamaker stirred up quite a commotion back in 1893 when he issued the nation's first commemorative postage stamps. He was rebuked by a congressional joint resolution that protested the "unnecessary" stamps. Wanamaker, an astute businessman, defended his actions by saying that the commemorative stamps could become money-makers. History proved him right.

The controversial first commemorative stamps were the Columbian Exposition Issue. Printed by the American Bank Note Company, the stamps were issued to commemorate the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois, from May 1 to October 30, 1893. The stamps celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World.

The series consisted of 15 stamps with face values ranging from one cent to five dollars. Each bore the dates 1492 and 1892. Postmaster General Wanamaker added a 16th, eight-cent stamp to the series when the fee for registering a letter was reduced from 10 cents.

The stamps were immensely popular with collectors and customers, but critics denounced them. The designs were based on paintings by various artists who visualized Columbus differently. The one-cent Columbian showed Columbus clean-shaven, spying land from aboard his ship. The two-cent, taken from the Landing of Columbus painting in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., showed him landing, presumably a few hours later, with a full beard. These discrepancies were quickly pointed out.

Even the denominations of the stamps were condemned. Because First-Class postage was only two cents per ounce and only four pounds could be mailed, the Chicago Tribune pointed out that even with the addition of the eight-cent stamp for registration fees, the most that could be spent on anything mailed First-Class was $1.36. This made the two-, three-, four-, and five-dollar Columbian stamps useless for mailing. Further, the only way to get the full value for the five-dollar Columbian would be to mail a 62-pound, eight-ounce package of books at the book-rate class of postage.

Wanamaker replied that regular stamps also were available and that nobody had to buy the Columbians. Further, some people did mail packages of books abroad using the First-Class stamps. To show his confidence in the stamps, Postmaster General Wanamaker spent $10,000 of his own money to buy 5,000 of the two-dollar stamps and put them in his safe as an investment. The stamps, still in the safe when Wanamaker died in 1926, were valued at $4.50 each.

In spite of the criticism, the new Columbian stamps were a sensation. Hundreds of people stood in line at the Columbian Exposition and elsewhere to buy the stamps. Two billion commemorative Columbian stamps were sold for 40 million dollars and were credited as a factor in the Exposition's success.


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