Columbian Exposition Issue of 1893

The Columbian Exposition set of 1893 (Scott #230-245) was the world’s first commemorative set and it has become one of the most popular sets not only in United States philately but in the world. But this was not always so. Stamp collectors tend to be a conservative group (at least in their philatelic tastes) and early reaction to the stamps was harsh. Philatelic writers of the 1890’s found the designs fussy and being unused to pictorial issues they questioned the artistic merit of the designs. Up until then, all American stamp designs had pictured dead white men gazing at the collector from a portrait type of background. Scenes of Indians, ships and even women were new to early collectors and it took some time to get used to.

 Hobbies connect to our inner ten year old and on some level when we collect we attempt to recreate that world. This is one of the reasons why collectors of every generation have rarely been happy with newer issue stamps. But most of the fuss over the Columbians had to do with the face value of the stamps. The face value of $16.34 was a high percentage of a working man’s wage in 1893 and very few people could afford the stamps. Higher value Columbians continued to sell at a discount from face value for years in the trade due to low demand. If it wasn’t for the use of dollar value Columbians on controlled mail (where the sender could get the used stamps back from the recipient-such as interbank post of money and documents) the oversupply of mint dollar values might have lasted decades. (In a controlled mail situation a collector can use a $1 stamp that cost him $1.25 on a package if he knows he can sell the used stamp for 50c.) Like most things philatelic, time has been the great healer and the stamps that in Earl Apfelbaum’s childhood people held their nose at are today among the most popular of sets and the cornerstone of every United States stamp collection.

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