On January 1, 1893, the majority the Columbian stamps were first placed on sale in large cities. The Columbians are some of America’s most famous and sought-after stamps, and are considered the first US commemorative stamps.
The Columbian stamps were produced to promote the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was to be held in Chicago, Illinois, from May 1 to October 30, 1893. The exposition was a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The Columbians were the first US stamps ever issued to promote a commercial event and the first American commemoratives.
At the time of the planning for these stamps, the American Bank Note Company held the US postage stamp contract. A special contract had to be negotiated for the Columbians because of their larger size. The contract allowed the printer to charge 17¢ per thousand stamps, significantly more than the 7.45¢ per thousand they charged for the 1890 definitives. The series was originally planned to contain 15 stamps, but the 8¢ stamp was issued in March because of a change in registration fees.
Fifteen stamps were placed on sale on January 1, 1893, in New York City and Boston. Most other post offices across the country were closed that day, so they began their sales on January 2. In March, an 8¢ stamp was issued to meet a new registration fee.
Unlike any other stamps before them, the Columbians created a worldwide phenomenon. As popular as they were, the Columbian stamps were also controversial. Collectors eagerly awaited the series, forming long lines to purchase the stamps. Yet many were frustrated by the price of owning the complete series. The total value of the stamps was $16.34, which is comparable to paying about $500 in today’s wages. Adding to the high cost is the fact that the nation was experiencing a depression at this time. As a result, few could afford the higher value stamps – the series included the first US postage stamps with face values over 90¢. Some postal clerks refused to sell Columbian stamps because demand far exceeded supply.
As a consequence, used Columbian stamps were selling for close to face value in 1893 – even as mint stamps were officially on sale. The craze for Columbian stamps was even more pronounced in Europe, where collectors hounded American tourists and begged for stamps from their mail. A corner of Hamburg’s stock exchange was devoted to trafficking Columbian stamps. On August 11, 1893, The New York Times reported these transactions were conducted “as carefully as they handled the highest gilt-edged securities.”
The Columbians were on sale at post offices until April 1894. These stamps would be the final issue printed by a private firm before the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over stamp production for decades.
The Columbians were America’s first commemorative stamps, making them an important part of philatelic history. So important that stamp author Max Johl said that the series’ degree of completion is often the “yardstick by which a US collection is measured.” The series also included the first US stamps to picture a woman – Queen Isabella, who sponsored Columbus’ expeditions. The Columbians are among the most sought-after of all US stamps.
The Columbian Special Delivery Stamp
The US #E3 Special Delivery stamp was not issued for the expo, but is still considered part of the Columbian Series. When the Columbian stamps were issued in January 1893, the 1¢ stamp (#230) was printed in the same blue shade as the 10¢ Special Delivery stamp of the time. To avoid confusion, the Special Delivery stamp was printed in orange using the same design – creating #E3.