1901 Pan-American Exposition Issue

1901 Pan-American Exposition Issue 2020-07-09T09:27:36-06:00


Buffalo, New York hosted the Pan-American Exposition which opened May 1, 1901. On the same day, the U.S. Post Office Department unveiled what it called “the most artistic series ever issued by the (Post Office) Department” – a series of six commemorative stamps intended for a use life of only six months (until the Exposition ended in November). Printed with a bicolor process by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, each stamp was a nod to a different transportation technology of the era. Each is labeled “Commemorative Series 1901” and each features a black vignette with frames in varying colors according to denomination.

294-2996Three of the Pan-American Exposition stamps are known to have produced inverts – the 1¢, 2¢ and 4¢ denominations – not uncommon in bicolored stamps. The printing technology of the day required that each sheet of stamps pass through the press twice, once for each ink color. Handling and printing each stamp sheet twice increased the odds of inverts occurring: it only took an accidental reversal of direction of a stamp sheet to cause the vignette (design) portion of the stamp to be upside-down relative to the frame. It should come as no surprise that that occurred!

About 250 of the 1¢ variety and 150 of the 2¢ variety are known to have been printed as naturally occurring inverts and the Post Office Department had the Bureau print an additional several hundred inverted of each denomination. It is unknown how the existence of inverts originally came to light.

No naturally occurring invert was ever discovered at a Post Office in the 4¢ denomination. However, the Post Office Department ordered that contrived, or purposeful, 4¢ inverts be printed. Most of the intentional inverts were stamped “Specimen” which was correct Department policy, however it is known that perhaps 400 of the 4¢ inverts were not marked “Specimen”. It was intended that the specimen stamps, whether marked as such or not, be used as reference examples. The journey taken by each of the contrived inverts is unknown. Many were given to various Washington, D.C. and Pan-American Exposition VIPs and more than half of them reside in our national postal archives today. The Assistant Postmaster General of the day gave away about 172 examples, keeping one for himself, and it is estimated that about 97 of the purposely created errors are in the hands of private collectors today.

Invert 2      Invert 3
The naturally occurring 2¢ invert; the contrived and controversial 4¢ invert

In addition to the invert stamps, other errors related to the difficulty of aligning the vignette within the framework are widely recognized. The 1¢ stamp, featuring a lake steamer in the vignette, is well known to exist in “fast ship”, “slow ship”, “sinking ship” and “flying ship” variations as shown below.

error fast1           

The 2¢ stamp also features “fast”, “slow” and other variations.




The 5¢, 8¢ and 10¢ stamps are also known to have centering issues, but not as many and not as recognizable as those in the smaller denominations. The variations shown are relatively common and most people interested in philately have at least seen some of them. Many collectors, don’t consider their Pan-American stamp collection complete until they have a representative group of the variations.

All stamps in the Pan-American series were within the reach of most collectors at the time because the highest denomination was only 10¢. The first bicolored  commemorative stamps, the Pan-Americans were visually attractive and very popular. They remain a firm favorite of philatelists to this day!

1¢ Stamp: Fast Lake Navigation

1cThe first bicolor U.S. commemorative ever printed, the 1¢ Pan-American featured a black steamship (the “vignette” or “center”), printed first, surrounded by a green frame, printed second. The placement of the ship could vary from sheet to sheet due to the two-step printing method – in fact, it could appear anywhere within the green frame. There were 600-700 accidental inverts that are highly valued today. While the invert stamps are considered to have inverted centers (the ship), it’s actually the frame that is inverted since it was printed second. Additionally, due to printing anomalies, there are a number of variants including “fast”, “slow”, and “sinking” ships, depending on where the ship image was printed within the framework.

The ship pictured on “Fast Lake Navigation” was the “City of Alpena”, a steamer that plied the Great Lakes. Built in 1893, its home port was Detroit, Michigan. One cent was the postcard rate, and this stamp was also very useful for adding to postage on other more expensive pieces of mail. A large number of these stamps were printed: 91,401,500 in all. The 1¢ “Fast Lake Navigation” always ranks highly in consideration of the “100 Greatest American Stamps”.

2¢ Stamp: Fast Express

2cOne of the nation’s most luxurious and modern trains of the day, the New York Empire State Express, was the subject of the carmine and black 2¢ Pan-American stamp. Part of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroads system, it traversed New York State and it has been estimated that this train carried more than 60% of the visitors who attended the event. The image on the stamp derives from a photo taken of the train moving at 60 miles per hour.

The 2¢ stamp was the most commonly used in the series because it paid the first-class domestic postage rate. With a total print run of 209,759,700, the 2¢ “Fast Express” ranks highly in consideration of the “100 Greatest American Stamps”.

Like the 1¢ stamp, the “Fast Express” had its share of “fast” and “slow” varieties, along with a few inverts, treasured by collectors. The inverts occurred on two sheets of 100 stamps each, one carmine and the other scarlet. Only 158 “Fast Express” inverts are known to exist today.

4¢ Stamp: Automobile

The image featured on the 4¢ stamp came from an “Electric Vehicle Service” flyer of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It features a chauffeur and passenger riding in an electric hansom cab used to transport travelers to and from the railroad station. The U.S. Capitol Building can be seen in the background of the vignette. The orange-brown and black 4¢ Pan-American was the first stamp to depict an automobile.  electric2

The 4¢ “Automobile” stamp paid double the first-class domestic rate. The United States Bureau of Printing and Engraving produced a total of 5,737,100 of them. The 4¢ “Automobile” is another stamp mentioned as a favorite when the “best” stamps are discussed.

Like the earlier stamps in the series, the printing of the 4¢ “Automobile” produced approximately 200 – 400 inverted centers. This time, however, they were produced intentionally, and made available only to collectors rather than being sold at post offices. Many inverts were further distinguished by being hand-stamped “Specimen” in violet ink. Because they were not true errors, these “inverts” caused a great uproar in the philatelic community of the time. The result was an official investigation into the printing of these special variety stamps. The investigation culminated in a report from the Assistant Attorney General to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, officially exonerating postal officials from wrongdoing. The stir, however, was sufficient to derail Postal Department plans to issue intentional “inverts” in the higher denominations of Pan-Americans. Single sheets of 5¢, 8¢ and 10¢ “inverts” were printed but subsequently destroyed. Despite the clamor at the time, the 4¢ inverts are highly valued by collectors today.

5¢ Stamp: Bridge at Niagara Falls

Bridge collapse

Collapse of the bridge

5cThe blue and black 5¢ Pan-American stamp depicted what was then the longest single-span steel bridge in the world, crossing the Niagara River near Buffalo, site of the Pan-American Exposition. Five cents covered the first-class letter rate to Europe. The vignette shows two trolley cars on the bridge, passing between the United States and Canada, set in an ultramarine frame. The Upper Steel Arch Bridge, also known as Honeymoon Bridge and the Falls View Bridge, collapsed during an ice-melt flood on January 27, 1938.  In all, 7,201,300 stamps were printed. As with other stamps of this issue, the 5¢ “Bridge at Niagara Falls” ranks consistently high with philatelists as a favorite.

8¢ Stamp: Canal Locks at Sault de Ste Marie

8cCompleted in 1895, the “Soo Locks” were, at the time of the printing of this stamp, the largest in the world, and the first to be operated electrically. They were part of a navigation system which connected the Great Lakes region to the Atlantic Ocean, opening interior Canada and the Upper Midwest to shipping. The brown-violet and black 8¢ Pan-American shows the canal locks at Sault St. Marie, Michigan, with a tug and two ore boats. A total of 4,921,700 of these stamps were produced; they covered the cost of domestic registered mail. Once again, as with the other Pan-American stamps, the canal stamp is a firm favorite of philatelists and collectors.

10¢ Stamp: Fast Ocean Navigation

10cThe first commercial vessel commissioned for the Spanish-American War, it was 553 feet long and weighed 14,810 tons. While deployed near Cuba, it captured a British steamer and sailing ship and disabled a Spanish torpedo boat destroyer. After the war ended, it became an ocean liner again, surviving two collisions. While being outfitted for World War I military service, it capsized. It returned briefly to civilian use, and was finally scrapped in 1923. The brown and black 10¢ Pan-American stamp depicts the ocean liner “St. Paul”, built in Philadelphia in 1894.

Ten cents paid both the domestic registered mail fee and first-class postage. In all, 5,043,700 of these stamps were printed. Philatelists and collectors not only place high regard in each of the Pan-American stamps individually, but also in the collection as a whole.


ed0aadc6d4166a726d76a8e548c49a69The changes, and access to those changes, in the world of technology and innovation between the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition and the 1901 Pan-American were stupendous! Among many, many other innovations, the Kodak Brownie camera had been introduced in February, 1900 and it was affordable so that the average personimages (1) could own one, operate it and have their film developed into photographs or “snapshots”. Americans became shutterbugs both at home and on their travels. Moving pictures, while not at the fingertips of every vacationer as in modern times, were becoming more and more common, with most Americans having some experience with the (very short) films offered for entertainment at the time.

With the purpose of promoting the economic interests and solidarity of the Western Hemisphere, the Pan-American Exposition occurred at a time of U.S. commercial, political and military expansion. Just on the heels of the Spanish-American War (1898) the festival was similar to previous world’s fairs in emphasizing technology, but differed from them in not celebrating a historical event and in the focus on more regional advances.

Though delayed by the Spanish-American War, planning for the Exposition began with the formation of the Pan-American Exposition Company in 1897. In July 1898, Congress allocated $500,000 for the project after Buffalo, New York, was chosen as the venue. Buffalo boasted more paved streets, with electric streetlights, than any city in the world, was easy to reach by train and was close to the popular tourist attraction of Niagara Falls. In 1899, Exposition organizers leased 350 acres of farmland a half-hour drive from downtown and began construction of the buildings and landscaping of the grounds. Opening ceremonies were held on May 20, 1901 although the gates had opened to the public on May 1. Over six months, 8 million visitors paid the 50¢ entrance fee (half-price on Sundays) and daily attendance averaged more than 40,000 between August and closing day on November 1, 1901.

People in 1901 were frugal and the Exposition challenged visitors to avoid emptying their purses. Leaving the grounds to return later in the same day was only allowed with the payment of an additional charge so many visitors brought their lunches in shoeboxes to avoid paying food concessionaires on the grounds. Some visitors from neighboring states tucked their picnic baskets away in their respective state buildings on the Exposition grounds until lunch time. While it was possible to stroll along the Midway and resist the calls of the carnival barkers into exhibits, likely many visitors found that difficult.

Visitors could find free samples of food or beverages or free souvenirs in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, free sample soap bars in the Larkin Building, free machine-woven ribbons, bookmarks, and more. These, in addition to free brochures and advertising cards, enabled those who could afford only the costs of getting to the Exposition to carry away remembrances of their experience. For others, there were seemingly endless opportunities to purchase souvenirs both small and large, dramatic and mundane.

Rainbow cityThe grounds of the Pan-American Exposition were called the Rainbow City due to the colorful buildings. Intending the wood-framed buildings to be temporary structures, designers fashioned plaster on chicken wire to resemble stone facades (creating a gooey problem during the rainy summer). The only exception was the New York State Building, which was built to last in white marble and today houses the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. A 375-foot-tall electrical tower, topped by a Goddess of Light statue, was powered by Niagara Falls and illuminated the entire area.

Shown below are videos of events at the Exposition.

Three buildings were constructed by the U.S. government to showcase exhibits from federal departments and agencies as well as from the new American dependencies of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. The most popular exhibit was the Patent Office where visitors enjoyed seeing electric typewriters, a telephone switchboard in operation, X-rays revealing their skeletons, pictures sent by telegraph, various types of motion-picture machines and other modern advances. Some of these continued to be developed and used into the future and others never got a foothold.

The Mines Building presented extraction machinery, mineral ores, and metallurgy. Nations and states also had their own buildings.The Machinery and Transportation Building housed agricultural machinery, automobiles, bicycles, boats, horse carriages, railroad cars, and steam engines. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building showcased manufactured products from the exhibiting nations. Among the interesting gadgets on display were cash registers, automatic addressing machines, shoe-making machines, gas stoves, decorative fixtures for the formerly austere bathroom, and food-processing and -packaging apparatuses. The building also contained exhibits of jewelry, glassware, silverware and textiles. The Agriculture Building addressed the advances and challenges of scientific and mechanized farming, while the Horticulture Building sheltered an array of flowers and plants from different nations. A nearby conservatory housed food-plants, including teas, spices, fruit trees, and a miniature coffee plantation. Athletic competitions, livestock and automobile exhibitions, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show took place in the Stadium. Music concerts on holidays of the participating nations were held in the 2,200-seat auditorium of the ornate Temple of Music, as were daily recitals on one of the largest pipe organs in the United States. The Ethnology Building concentrated on American Indian artifacts, while paintings and sculptures were found in the Art Building.   The Liberal Arts department featured mechanical musical instruments, such as electric organs and player pianos.

The videos below offer an organized tour through the Exposition.

The complete “Official Catalogue and Guide Book to the Pan-American Exposition with Maps of Exposition and Illustrations” is available online. The Catalogue is a resource for much information about the organizers of and suppliers to the Exposition, with descriptions of the buildings, the attractions and the many, many exhibitors. No detail was spared in 1901!

Exciting sights and sounds at the Exposition

In addition to the many beautiful buildings and the almost unimaginable setting, visitors were exposed to literally thousands of exhibits and attractions. Some of the favorites were:

  • Night sceneElectric lighting: The Exposition was the country’s first extensive display of electricity and it had a profound effect on people accustomed to gas, kerosene, oil and candlelight.  The fantastaic light show was achieved using hydroelectric power generated 20 miles away at Niagara Falls and was a fascination to many. Recorded by Thomas Edison, or his assistants, on early motion picture cameras, hundreds of thousands of eight-watt light bulbs gradually illuminated and outlined the buildings, reflecting pools, fountains and sculptures that occupied the grounds each evening.
  • Calamity Jane

    Both Calamity Jane and the great Sioux leader Red Cloud were present for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and another Indian Congress. The Indians demonstrated war and ghost dances, with their songs and musical accompaniments. Mock battles were featured in the Stadium between the Indians and the frontiersmen of Buffalo Bill’s Show.

  • In the Esquimaux (Eskimo) Village a large company of natives appeared in traditional dress, showing the manners and customs of their homeland, and from the shops and stores they sold their merchandise. Below are videos not only from the Esquimaux Village, but also from other exhibits on the Midway.

  • Trip to the Moon: Every visitor who boarded the airship “Luna” was in for thrills, courtesy of the man the moon. While the fantasy was exciting, all were returned safely to earth to continue exploring the Exposition.
  • The Aerio-cycle consisted of two revolving wheels at the ends of a structural beam resembling a “teeter-totter of boyhood days”.  As it operated, when one wheel was down, the other was at an altitude of 275 feet, affording a wonderful view of the Exposition.
  • Darkness and Dawn was a then-regarded realistic representation of a departed spirit, whose life on earth has not been exemplary. The visitor witnessed the punishment meted out to scandal-mongers, umbrella borrowers and other offenders. After the seas of fire were passed, beautiful scenes to delight the eye appeared.
  • Old PlantationThe Old Southern Plantation replicated the real thing in its minutest detail, giving the visitor an interesting glimpse of the sunny South. Real slave quarters and log cabins were brought from the South and were occupied by African Americans whose predecessors may have been slaves in the South. Dancing and other pastimes were featured, as well as displays showing the work of a plantation.
  • Darkest Africa was a collection of some 35 different native tribes with their ancient weapons, household gods and primitive handicrafts. Native workmen showed their skill in working of gold and silver. The enclosure contained sections of villages in their authentic state, with a theater where free exhibitions of native dances and entertainment were given.
  • The House Upside Down was the oddest attraction on the grounds and represented a castle standing on its roof and battlements. The visitor entered through the roof and after going up – or down – several flights of stairs, reached the cellar, which was converted into a garden. The apartments were elaborately furnished, and the topsy-turvy arrangement appeared throughout.
  • Cleopatra’s Temple was a splendid building of Egyptian architecture with grand paintings illustrating events in the life of the Egyptian Queen.
  • The Beautiful Orient feature was a dazzling, realistic display of the charms of the East, representing the salient characteristics of Eastern countries, with Oriental streets, buildings, costumes, animals, natives, and authentic artifacts.
  • Dreamland was also known as the Mirror Maze. Behind mirrors was plenty of fun for those who attempted to explore its recesses. No illusion on the Midway was more amusing or confusing.
  • Alt Nurnberg represented the quaint old German town of Nuremburg. A street of this old town was reproduced with strict attention to the details of the original and within the buildings were shops, restaurants and other places of business in exactly the same manner as found in the actual old town.
  • Food and drink: Reportedly, popcorn was first widely introduced at the Pan-American. The Exposition was home to restaurants suited to every budget – there were ample opportunities to try food from far-away lands and to have a beer or two. Exposition visitors were introduced to a variety of foods from distant lands at various concessions and exhibits. These included chilies and tamales from Mexico, tea flavored ice cream at Fair Japan, red peppers and tropical products from across Latin America, and a host of beverages. The types of foods served, some prepared with seasonings unfamiliar to most North Americans probably shocked many a conservative palate. One could also enjoy a sandwich at a stand or a multi-course meal in swank surroundings. Local hotels and boarding houses also offered meals.
  • IncubatorsAmericans were still fascinated by the Infant Incubator as they had been at earlier world’s fairs. Many new and original devices were displayed, and a medical team cared for actual premature or fragile babies in the exhibit.
  • Fair Japan was a Japanese village that featured girls in native costumes serving tea, and geisha girls entertaining with dancing. A free outdoor performance ran continuously and in the theater was a performance by native jugglers, dancers, and other entertainers.
  • Venice in America was a perfect replica of the living city in Italy, with palaces, shops, bridges and canals, gondolas and gondoliers. Visitors could ride in the gondolas and be steered through the winding palace-lined waterways, while the ear was charmed with sweet songs and the music of the mandolin or guitar.




VotesThe Progressive movement aimed to eliminate corruption in government, regulate monopolies and corporations through anti-trust laws (trust busting), provide woman suffrage and removing corrupt politicians from power. Another element of the Progressive Era was the Efficiency Movement – a plan to modernize old ways of doing things. The Progressives strongly supported scientific methods and felt that old-fashioned ways meant waste and inefficiency. A time of intense political and social change in U.S. society, 1901 was just about in the middle of the Progressive Era (1890s – 1920s).

Drawing support from the middle class, lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers and business people, Progressives transformed, professionalized and made “scientific” the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science.  Many activists joined efforts to reform local government, public education, medicine, finance, insurance, industry, railroads, churches, and many other areas.  Initially, the movement operated chiefly at local levels; later, it expanded to state and national levels.

The Philippine-American War had gone on since 1899 and would finally end in 1902.


  • January 5 – Typhoid fever breaks out in a Seattle jail, the first of two major typhoid outbreaks in 1901.
  • January 10 – In the first great Texas gusher, oil is discovered at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas.
  • March 4 – United States President William McKinley begins his second term. Theodore Roosevelt is sworn in as Vice President of the United States.
  • April 25 – New York State becomes the first to require automobile license plates.
  • May 1 – The Pan-American Exposition world’s fair opens in Buffalo, New York, running through November 2, 1901.
  • May 17 – The U.S. stock market crashes for the first time.
  • June 22 to July 31 – The worst heat wave in recorded U.S. history until that time is estimated to have killed more than 9,500 people.
  • President RalliesSeptember 6 – American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley dies eight days later.
  • September 14 – Theodore Roosevelt succeeds William McKinley as President of the United States.
  • September 26 – The body of President Abraham Lincoln is exhumed and reinterred in concrete several feet thick.
  • October 24 – 63-year-old Michigan schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survives.
  • taylor-boat-1901October 29 – Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, is executed by electrocution.
  • December 3 – U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt delivers a 20,000-word speech to the House of Representatives asking Congress to curb the power of trusts “within reasonable limits.”


McKinley in stadiumPresident and Mrs. McKinley visited the Pan-American Exhibition in September, 1901. It would be their last trip together.

Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old anarchist who believed government leaders squelched individual liberty, also traveled to Buffalo. His purpose was to kill the popular president. Resentful over losing his job in the Panic of 1893, he had spent some years on his parents’ farm, working little. He had attended a speech by anarchist Emma Goldman in May, 1901 but it did not encourage violence.

McKinley's last speech

McKinley’s last speech

On September 5th, McKinley gave a speech at the Exposition. He urged an end to American isolationism and proposed trade agreements that would allow U.S. manufacturers new markets. “The period of exclusiveness is past. The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem. Commercial wars are unprofitable.” The crowd of some 50,000 greeted his speech with loud applause; at its conclusion, the President sent his wife to rest at the home where they were being hosted while he remained to see the lights at the Exposition.

The next day, shortly after 4:00 p.m., McKinley was greeting people at the Temple of Music in the Exposition. In line to shake McKinley’s hand, Czolgosz pulled out a .32 caliber short-barreled Johnson revolver, hidden in a handkerchief, and shot the President twice.

Ambulance that carried McKinley from the Temple of Music

Ambulance that carried McKinley from the Temple of Music

As doctors, in a state of shock, tried to save the president, an X-ray machine was idling in the Exposition Patent Office. Had physicians known how to use that device, it may have helped to save McKinley’s life. Instead, he died eight days after the shooting. The official cause of death was “gangrene which affected the stomach around the bullet wounds.”

Czolgosz had been convicted of murder by month’s end and was condemned to die in Auburn Prison’s electric chair. Sentence was carried out on the 29th of October, 1901. His remains were doused with sulfuric acid so no one would steal the body or Czolgosz’ clothes.

As with all the great expositions and world’s fairs, the Pan-American’s presence was temporary, but its impact was lasting. In preparing his final report, Exposition Director General Buchanan was lavish in appraising the Exposition’s benefits. For the nation and the hemisphere it had fulfilled the mission projected by its sponsors – the promotion of “commercial well-being and good understanding” among the American Republics. For western New York it had brought general growth in bank deposits and trust accounts, steady employment and rising wage scales to labor, and new prestige to Buffalo as “a city of enterprise, stability, and business energy.”