In 1893 Postmaster General John Wanamaker provoked quite a rumpus when he issued the nation's first commemorative postage stamps. He was criticized sternly by US Congressional joint resolution that protested the "unnecessary stamps." A clever businessman Wanamaker defended his actions by predicting the stamps would go on to become money-makers.

The stamps were printed by the American Bank Note Company to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World. Issued to commemorate the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois, from May 1 to October 30, 1893, the series consisted of 15 stamps with face values ranging from one cent to five dollars. Each bore the dates 1492 and 1892.

Wildly popular with collectors and customers, they were arbitrarily lambasted by critics. Discrepancies were quickly pointed out.....even though it was clear that the series was selected based on paintings by various artists who visualized Columbus differently, the one-cent Columbian showed Columbus cleanshaven, 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.

Denouncments of the denominations were heralded. The Chicago Tribune pointed out

Because First-Class postage was only two cents per ounce and only four pounds could be mailed..... 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 five five-dollar Columbian would be to mail a 62-pound, eight-ounce package of books at the book-rate class of postage.

Postmaster General John Wanamaker defended his commemorative series saying that nobody had to buy the Columbians, regular stamps also were available, and futhermore there were customers who did mail packages overseas using First Class Stamps.

Resolved that his stamps would be sucessful Postmaster General Wanamaker spent $10,000 of his own money buying 5000 of his new stamps and kept them in his personal safe as an investment. When Wanamaker died in 1926, the stamps stll in his safe were valued at $4.50 each.

In spite of all the denouncements the new Columbian stamps were a marvel. Two billion commemorative Columbian stamps were sold for 40 million dollars, hundreds of people stood in line for hours at the Columbian Exposition and elsewhere to purchase the stamps and were recognized as a factor in the Exposition's success.

Selected Source

History of the Post Office:

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