US Stamps

World’s fair philately: 19th and early 20th centuries

Jul 23, 2018, 4 AM

U.S. Stamp Notes by John M. Hotchner

World’s fair philately has been a popular collecting area in the past, headlined by postal emissions from the United States. The first of these was for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The U.S. Post Office Department outdid itself with that set of 16 postage stamps, plus a special delivery stamp and postal stationery, publicizing the event.

Many collectors loved the set, but it fell far short of universal acceptance at the time, mostly because of the number of stamps, their large size, and the high face values for which there was doubtful need.

The total cost of a mint set of the 16 postage stamps was $16.34 at a time when the average worker made less than that in a week. The set included stamps denominated at $1, $2, $3, $4 and $5.

This caused the philatelic press of the time to suggest that the Columbian issue would cause the death of stamp collecting. Stamp clubs passed resolutions condemning the issue, and the issue gave birth to the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps.

Yet, today, the Columbian issue is one of the jewels of a high-level U.S. stamp collection. Figure 1 shows the 1¢ low value and the $5 high value.

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The Post Office Department did pay attention to the criticisms. In 1898 when it celebrated the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, there were “only” nine stamps in the set and the top denomination was $2, as shown in Figure 2.

There was still negative feedback. The Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps recommended that collectors refuse to purchase these stamps and thus assist in preventing future issuance of stamps intended mainly for the purpose of sale to stamp collectors and speculators.

Although the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps faded away, it may have had an effect as exposition issues were considerably more restrained after 1898.

One of my favorites is the Louisiana Purchase Exposition issue of 1904. Held from April 30 to Dec. 1, 1904, it was also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Figure 3 shows the set of five stamps. The highest denominated is 10¢.

For most expositions, there is more to collect than postage stamps. Among the collectibles are cancellations, postcards, and cinderellas (labels that look like stamps). 

A nice example combining some of these elements is the postcard shown in Figure 4. It was sent by a foreign visitor to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to someone in Germany.

The card depicts a painting of the Louisiana Purchase Column on the front. On the address side are a 1¢ Louisiana Purchase stamp, the world’s fair cancellation, and an exposition seal showing the territory added to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase.