1893 Columbian Exposition Issue

1893 Columbian Exposition Issue 2022-03-29T15:35:08-06:00


Often issued on a significant date (such as an anniversary), to honor or commemorate a place, event, person, or object, the subject of a  commemorative stamp is usually spelled out in print on the face of the stamp. Usually printed in limited quantities, commemorative stamps are sold for a short period of time, usually until supplies run out.The 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ initial landing in the “New World” provided people from around the globe with an occasion to reflect, to celebrate, and to memorialize the adventurous Italian navigator. Though financial and construction problems postponed the celebration for one year, in 1893 city leaders hosted a magnificent international exhibition to commemorate both Columbus and the nation’s progress over those four centuries—the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In keeping with the exposition’s celebratory theme, the U.S. Post Office Department issued the nation’s first commemorative stamps, the “Columbians”.

Often simply called the Columbians, the 1893 Columbian Exposition Issue,  is a set of 16 postage stamps (or 17, as explained below), each double the size of any previous U. S. stamp. The finely-engraved stamps were the first commemorative stamps issued by the United States. They depict various events in the career of Christopher Columbus and are today highly prized by collectors. The stamps were issued by the United States to mark the 1893 World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

americanbankvigFifteen of the stamps went on sale Monday, January 2, 1893 and were available nationwide. This was a larger number of stamps than the United States Post Office Department had ever offered in any series, thanks to the unprecedented inclusion of stamps denominated $1, $2, $3, $4 and $5; no U. S. postage stamp previously issued had cost more than 90¢. A sixteenth stamp — 8¢, to cover the newly lowered registered letter fee — was added in March. As a result, the face value of the complete set was $16.34, a substantial sum of money in 1893. Unsold stamps were destroyed after the Columbian Issue was removed from sale on April 12, 1894. In all, the American Bank Note Company printed more than 2 billion Columbian stamps with a total face value exceeding $40 million.

Opinion regarding the Columbian Issue at the time was mixed. An organization called the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps (sometimes called the Society for the Suppression of Spurious Stamps) was created in protest over the creation of this set, deeming the Exposition in Chicago insufficiently important to be honored on postage, while some collectors balked at the Post Office Department’s willingness to profit from the growing hobby of philately. Ridiculing the $5 stamp, the Chicago Tribune pointed out that it could be used for only one purpose: mailing a 62½-pound package of books at the book rate. The Columbians did not immediately increase in value after being removed from sale, in part due to substantial speculation resulting in a glut of stamps on the secondary market. However, the value of the stamps, particularly a complete set of 16 (or 17), has skyrocketed over the 125-plus years since.

1¢ Stamp: Columbus in Sight of Land

Entitled “Columbus in Sight of Land“, this lowest value in the set was primarily used to pay postage on third-class mail.

Because the images in the series were not based on the works of a single artist, Columbus’ appearance changes dramatically between this stamp, where he is clean-shaven, and the 2¢ value, where he sports a full beard, despite the depicted events occurring only a day apart.

2¢ Stamp: The Landing of Columbus

By a substantial margin, this is the most common stamp of the Columbian Issue. More than 1 billion copies were printed, more than 70% of the total number of Columbian Issue stamps, in part because it paid the first-class rate for domestic mail. John Vanderlyn’s painting “The Landing of Columbus”, originally commissioned by Congress, and already used on $5 banknotes and the 15¢ stamp from the 1869 Pictorial Issue, was again pressed into service.


Detail of the broken hat

Damage to one transfer roll of the printing process resulted in a chevron-shaped notch in the hat of the third man on Columbus’ right in some examples of this stamp. This variety is known as the “broken hat” variation of the stamp and is very popular with collectors. Most collectors do not consider their Columbian Exposition set complete without both the regular and the broken hat varieties of the 2¢ stamp. This results in a collection of 17, not 16 stamps.

3¢ Stamp: Flag Ship of Columbus

Entitled “Flag Ship of Columbus”, this value depicts the Santa Maria. Although more than 11 million were printed, this stamp also did not pay any standard postal rate in 1893. Instead it was considered a “make-up” stamp, meant to be used in combination with other small denomination stamps to pay higher rates. It is generally believed that a Spanish engraving was the model for this stamp, but the source remains unknown. Regardless of its original source, Robert Savage performed the engraving used.

4¢ Stamp: Fleet of Columbus

The most significant collectible variety in the set also occurs on this value. The normal color of this stamp is a shade known as ultramarine. A very small number of 4¢ stamps were printed in error using the wrong color ink, a significantly darker shade that more closely resembles the blue of the 1¢ stamp. At least two error sheets, totaling 200 stamps, are thought to have been produced, though far fewer copies are known to have survived. The “4¢ blue” is thus considered a great rarity, selling for many thousands of dollars.There is some dispute regarding the origin of the design of “Fleet of Columbus“. Like the previous value, it is widely attributed to an unknown Spanish engraving. However, a similar image also appeared in an American book some six months before the Exposition. There are significant differences, however, and philatelic experts researching the issue have stated that it is not possible to determine the origins of the design with the information known. The stamp itself paid the first-class rate for double-weight mail.

5¢ Stamp: Columbus Soliciting Aid of Isabella

Alfred Major created the design for this stamp, entitled “Columbus Soliciting Aid of Isabella”, basing it on an 1884 painting by Václav Brožík called “Columbus at the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella“. This value was primarily used to pay the half-ounce Universal Postal Union international rate.

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6¢ Stamp: Columbus Welcomed at Barcelona

In 1857, Randolph Rogers was commissioned to produce a number of door panels depicting Columbus’ voyages, to be hung at the United States Capitol building. The 6¢ value in the Columbian Issue, “Columbus Welcomed at Barcelona”, was taken from one of those door panels, the seventh in Rogers’s chronology. The framing figure on the left is King Ferdinand of Spain. The one on the right is Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish explorer inspired by Columbus’ return. Robert Savage was the engraver for the printed design.

8¢ Stamp: Columbus Restored to Favor

Slight variations are known in the purple color of this stamp. However, this variation is not considered to be an error like the 4¢ blue and so does not command substantial premiums.

When originally issued, there were only 15 stamps in the Columbian Issue. However, when the fee for registered mail was lowered on January 1, 1893, it necessitated the introduction of 8¢ stamps. A design was prepared based on a painting by Francisco Jover Casanova, and this stamp, titled “Columbus Restored to Favor”, was added to the Columbian Issue in March.

10¢ Columbus Presenting Natives

The design for this stamp, “Columbus Presenting Natives”, was modeled after one of the paintings created by Luigi Gregori for the administration building at the University of Notre Dame after it was rebuilt following an 1879 fire, and was one of five designs engraved by Robert Savage. This denomination was originally intended to pay the fee for registered mail. However, the change in registered mail fees that necessitated the introduction of the 8¢ Columbian also changed the most common purpose of this value; it instead paid the full postage for registered first-class mail, rather than just the additional fee.

15¢ Stamp: Columbus Announcing His Discovery

Although this stamp would pay the cost for a triple-rate international letter, it was most commonly used in combination with other stamps to meet more expensive heavyweight charges.”Columbus Announcing His Discovery” depicts his return to court from his first voyage. The original painting by Ricardo Baloca y Cancico is lost and is believed to have been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Originally intended to pay postage for international registered letters, the change in the registered mail fee left this stamp with fewer direct uses.

30¢ Stamp: Columbus at La Rabida

The title of painter Felipe Maso’s work, “Columbus before the Franciscans at La Rabidawas shortened to “Columbus at La Rabida” when it was adapted for use in the Columbian Issue. This value was most commonly used to pay for mail to expensive foreign destinations.

50¢ Stamp: Recall of Columbus

A painting by A. G. Heaton was the basis for “Recall of Columbus”, the first 50¢ stamp issued in the United States. Like all high-value Columbians, it was primarily used in combination to meet the needs of heavyweight or international shipments.

$1 Stamp: Isabella Pledging Her Jewels

This stamp, like all stamps equal to or greater than a dollar in the set, paid no specific rate at all. Although all five are known to have been used for heavy international shipments, there is speculation that they were primarily intended as Exposition advertising and as revenue for the Post Office Department. This design was based on a painting by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, and, like many others in the Columbian Issue, engraving for this design was done by Robert Savage. Prior to the printing of “Isabella Pledging Her Jewels”, no United States postage stamp had ever been issued with a value above 90¢.  Most uses of the dollar-value Columbians were placed on philatelic covers.

$2 Stamp: Columbus in Chains

“Columbus in Chains”, its image derived from a painting by Emanuel Leutze, is one of only two stamps in the series to depict Columbus on land in the New World (along with the 2¢). Here, he is shown facing charges of administrative misconduct after his arrest in San Domingo by Don Francisco de Bobadilla.

$3 Stamp: Columbus Describing Third Voyage

“Columbus Describing Third Voyage” was one of five designs engraved by Robert Savage. All of these were his work alone, engraved without collaboration with either of the other two engravers working on the Columbian Issue. Engraving was based on a painting by Francisco Jover Casanova, the same artist whose work was adapted for the 8¢ stamp’s design. The three highest value Columbians were printed in much smaller quantities than less expensive members of the set – 27,650 in the case of the $3 value.

As with the 6¢ Columbian, a color variety exists that is awarded only minor status. While this stamp is normally described as yellow green, the variant is considered to be olive green.

$4 Stamp: Isabella and Columbus

“Isabella and Columbus” was the first United States stamp to bear the portrait of a woman. Queen Isabella’s place on U.S. postage in that regard would not be equaled until Martha Washington was depicted on a 1902 definitive stamp. The portrait of Columbus on the right was adapted from one by Lorenzo Lotto. Only 26,350 were printed, the least of any of the Columbians.

As with the 6¢ Columbian, a color variant exists that is awarded minor status. While this stamp is normally described as crimson lake, the variation is considered to be rose carmine.

$5 Stamp: Columbus

Alfred Jones engraved the “Columbus” portrait, which faced the opposite direction from his similar engraving work on the Columbian Exposition half dollar. The two framing figures were engraved by Charles Skinner. Some 27,350 were printed, of which 21,844 sold.

Exposition Postal Cards

A postal card was also issued by the U.S. Post Office Department to commemorate the Exposition. There were ten different designs related to the sights of the Exposition. The cards were sold individually or as a set in a paper wrapper. One, depicting the Woman’s Building, is known in two slightly different versions.


A man of convictions, Christopher Columbus used his strong personality to persuade rulers and scholars to overlook the accepted theories about the size of the Earth to search out a new route to Asia. Although he wasn’t the first European to find the American continent (that distinction goes to Viking Leif Eriksson – spelled today in a variety of ways), his journeys opened up the trade of goods and ideas between the two lands.

Born by the sea

Born in 1451 (year not agreed upon by all historians), Columbus grew up on the northwest coast of Italy. Genoa was a seaport city. Columbus completed his formal education at an early age and began sailing on trading trips. In 1476, he traveled to Portugal, where he set up a mapmaking business with his brother, Bartholomew. In 1479, he married Felipa Perestrello Moniz, the daughter of the governor of a Portuguese island. Their only child, Diego, was born in 1480. Felipa died a few years later. His second son, Fernando, was born in 1488 to Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

Round earth and a route to Asia


Turkish (Ottoman) Empire

In the 1450s, the Turkish Empire controlled northern Africa, blocking Europe’s easiest access to the valuable goods of the Orient, such as gold, pearls and spices. In a search for an alternative to the dangerous and time-consuming land route, many countries turned their eyes to the sea. Portugal, in particular, made great strides in finding a route around the southern tip of Africa, eventually rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Pearls, gold and spices

Rather than circling Africa, Columbus began a campaign to reach Asia by traveling west. Educated people knew that the world was round; the looming question was, just how large was the planet?

The Greek mathematician and astronomer Eratosthenes first calculated the planet’s size around 240 B.C., and subsequent scholars had refined the number, but it had never been proven. Columbus argued that the numbers most scholars agreed on were too large, and that the vast land mass of Asia would further shrink the amount of sea travel necessary. His calculations set the world at 66% smaller than previous estimates — estimates that were actually impressively close to the earth’s true size.

Columbus went on to Spain, ruled jointly by the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and first presented his plan to the rulers in 1483. It was rejected.  The royal pair were engaged in driving the Muslims and Jews from Granada, but granted Columbus a salary and a position in the Spanish Court. Columbus was loaned three ships, funds for an expedition and permission to sail in April, 1492. He began to plan for his voyage.

Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria

Columbus set sail from the Canary Islands in September, 1492 with about 83-90 crew. He captained the Portuguese ship known as the Santa Maria. She was larger and slower than her two sister ships, the caravels Niña and Pinta, which were fast enough and strong enough for the rough Atlantic seas. On October 12, 1492, they landed on a small island in the Caribbean Sea that Columbus called San Salvador. Certain that he had arrived in the East Indies, Columbus dubbed the natives he met “Indians”. Described by Columbus as gentle and primitive, the people were quickly mistreated by the European explorers.

After  Columbus’ first voyage, goods, people, and ideas were traded between Europe and North America up through modern days. Leaving San Salvador, the crew traveled along the coast of Cuba and Hispaniola (where the present-day countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located) and throughout the Caribbean. On December 24th, the Santa Maria crashed into a reef off of Haiti. Forty men remained at a hastily-built fort to hunt for gold while Columbus took the Niña and Pinta back to Spain to announce his success. Several captive natives were taken to prove Columbus had achieved his goal, though a number of them did not survive the rough sea voyage.

Three more trips

Map of voyagesColumbus made three more journeys to the New World over the remainder of his life, searching for the mainland of Asia. On his first return, he led 17 ships with about 1,200 – 1,500 men back to the islands where he had been appointed governor. They found no sign of the men they had left behind only a few short months before. Columbus settled his company along several smaller forts along the coast of Hispaniola.

Problems quickly erupted as the colonists and investors realized that the easy gold Columbus had promised did not exist. Within a short span of time, a dozen of the ships, filled with discontented voyagers, returned to Spain. Relationships with the native Taino people became more challenging, as they resisted efforts by the Spanish to force them into searching for gold. With criticism of his management of the colony reaching the ears of the monarchs, Columbus returned to Spain and managed to successfully defend himself against the complaints.

In 1498, Columbus took six ships to search for the Asian mainland south of the area he had already explored. Instead, he found the coast of Venezuela. When he returned to Hispaniola, he gave land to the settlers and permitted the enslavement of the Taino people to work it. Complaints still trickled back to Spain, and eventually the monarchs sent a commissioner to investigate. Shocked by conditions at the colony, the commissioner, Don Francisco de Bobadilla, arrested Columbus and his brothers and sent them back to Spain for trial. They all were released by the king and queen, but Columbus was removed from his position as governor of Hispaniola.

In 1502, Columbus made a last-ditch effort to find the bulk of Asia.  He set sail with his son Ferdinand.  The company traveled along the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.  Two ships were beached on the northern coast of Jamaica due to leaks, and the crew was stranded for nearly a year before being rescued and returning home.

Columbus returned to Spain in 1504. He died two years later, on May 20, 1506, still believing he had found a water route to Asia. There are no known contemporary paintings, drawings or other representation of Columbus or the ships in his fleet.  Therefore, our modern-day perspectives of the man and the vessels can vary greatly, depending upon artist.


Our nation was 117 years old and the Civil War had ended 28 years previously to 1893. The federal Reconstruction Era had finally ended with the Compromise of 1877. The end of the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) was near, and 1893 marked the early days of the Gay Nineties (1890 – 1899), the early part of the Progressive Era (1890s – 1920s). It was remarkable for the Panic of 1893 (1893 – 1894) among other events.

After Reconstruction, in the North, urbanization and an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe supplied a surplus of labor. The invention of electric light and the telephone were impacting communication and urban life. Telegraph lines and transcontinental railroads spurred economic growth, as well as settlement and development of the American Old West. In 1893, pro-American elements in Hawaii overthrew the monarchy and formed the Republic of Hawaii, which the U.S. annexed later in 1898.

Rapid economic development at the end of the 19th century produced many prominent industrialists, and the U.S. economy became the world’s largest. Dramatic changes were joined by social unrest and the rise of populist, socialist, and anarchist movements. This period eventually led to the Progressive Era, which saw significant reforms in many areas, including women’s suffrage, alcohol prohibition, regulation of consumer goods and greater antitrust measures to ensure competition and attention to worker conditions.


  • January 17 – The U.S. Marines intervene in Hawaii, resulting in overthrow of the government of Queen Liliukalani of Hawaii.
  • February 1 – Thomas A. Edison finishes construction of the first motion picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey.
  • March 4 – President of the United States Benjamin Harrison is succeeded by Grover Cleveland.
  • April 8 – The first recorded college basketball game occurs in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania between the Geneva College Covenanters and the New Brighton YMCA.
  • May 1 – The 1893 World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, opens to the public in Chicago. The first United States commemorative postage stamps are issued for the Exposition.
  • May 5 – Panic of 1893: A crash on the New York Stock Exchange starts a depression.
  • September 21 – Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea drive the first gasoline-powered motorcar in America on public roads in Springfield, Massachusetts.
  • November 7 – Colorado women granted the right to vote.


New York City, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago had all vied for the honor of hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World was actually held in 1893, a year later than planned. It took three frantic years of preparation to produce the extravaganza after President Benjamin Harrison signed the Act naming Chicago as the site of the Exposition on April 25, 1890. Although dedication ceremonies were held on October 21, 1892, the fairgrounds were not opened to the public until May 1, 1893 when President Grover Cleveland thrilled the earliest visitors with his opening speech. The Exposition closed on October 30, 1893.

Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect, was responsible for laying out the fairgrounds. Jackson Park, the product of that effort, is still one of Chicago’s most beautiful parks. The Exposition occupied 630 (some sources claim 690) acres in Jackson  Park and the Midway Plaisance. A distinguished group of architects designed the Exposition’s 200 buildings under the supervision of Daniel H. Burnham. Sophia Hayden, the first woman awarded a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), designed the famous Woman’s Building.


Each building housed 65 exhibits that followed the theme of the building (electrical exhibits in the Electricity Building, etc.). Some of the more popular exhibits were curiosities rather than serious displays of technology and progress. They included an eleven-ton cheese and a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo in the Hall of Agriculture and a 70-foot-high tower of light bulbs in the Electricity Building. The Columbian Exposition was the first world’s fair with a separate amusement area. The noisy and distracting attractions were concentrated on the Midway Plaisance so as not to disturb the parklike atmosphere of the rest of the Exposition. The Midway’s features ranged from a replica “Street in Cairo” to carnival rides. The Street in Cairo, one of the first amusements to introduce exotic dancing to America, was the most successful Midway attraction, featuring the dancer known as “Little Egypt”. The world’s first Ferris Wheel was also on the Midway. The 250-foot high steel structure had 36 cars carrying 60 persons each.

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Following the video: the Ferris wheel under construction, the engines to power the wheel, the finished attraction

Forty-six nations participated in the Exposition, which cost $28,340,700. There were 25,836,073 individual admissions to the fair. The admission price was 50¢; children under twelve paid 25¢ and those under six were admitted free. Prior to the Exposition’s opening, more than 72,000 tons of exhibit materials were shipped to the grounds. More than 250,000 displays, ranging from milk sterilization machines to works of art, were presented by nearly 70,000 individual exhibitors. 716,881 people attended the World’s Columbian Exposition for “Chicago Day” alone on October 9, 1893. This day commemorated the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Of the more than 200 buildings that occupied the Exposition’s grounds, only one remains today. Unlike most of the other buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts was made of more lasting materials. Most of the other structures were made of “staff”, building material made from plaster of Paris and hemp fiber. The remaining building housed the Field Columbian Museum after the fair’s closing until 1920. During the late 1920s the building was reduced to its steel skeleton and brick interior walls and rebuilt in stone. The structure was opened again to the public as the Museum of Science and Industry in 1931.

The original Ferris Wheel remained on the Midway until 1895, when it was dismantled and moved to 2643 North Clark Street, the present site of the Lincoln Park Post Office. It operated there until 1903 and was moved to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. The Ferris Wheel was dynamited and sold for scrap in 1906.

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Although the glory of the World’s Columbian Exposition was short, its influence lived on long after the fair closed. Many of the products displayed at the exposition later became everyday features of American life. Its lectures and exhibits were influential in shaping the nation’s thought. The parklike exposition grounds awakened in many Americans the desire to beautify their neglected cities.

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Exciting sights and sounds at the Exposition

  • Scott Joplin, ragtime pianist from Texarkana, Texas became widely known at the fair.
  • A group of hula dancers led to awareness of Hawaiian music among Americans throughout the country.
  • A 250-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir made its first appearance outside the Utah Territory.
  • The United States Mint offered its first commemorative coins: a quarter and half dollar.
  • The United States Post Office Department produced its first picture postcards and commemorative stamp set.
  • Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jack, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer made their first (or very early) appearances at the exposition.
  • Milton Hershey bought a European exhibitor’s chocolate manufacturing equipment and added chocolate products to his caramel manufacturing business.
  • A device that made plates for printing books in Braille was unveiled by its inventor who met Helen Keller and her teacher at the exhibit.
  • A moving walkway, or travellator, made its debut.
  • The “clasp locker,” a clumsy slide fastener and forerunner to the zipper was demonstrated by Whitcomb L. Judson.
  • The first Ferris Wheel was a major attraction.
  • The first fully electrical kitchen, including an automatic dishwasher, was exhibited.
  • To hasten the painting process during construction of the fair in 1892, Francis Davis Millet invented spray painting, featured in an exhibit.