The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century is the era of stamps primarily printed for collectors. Whereas in the nineteenth century the views of philatelists seldom mattered at all, beginning about 1890, with increasing frequency, the United States Post Office Department gauged its calculations of stamp issues by how many stamps it believed philatelists would buy.


The quality of stamp production improved radically after 1900 as a result of the technological advances in printing and perforating machines, not to mention constant admonishments by collectors. Most twentieth-century stamps can be expected to be reasonably well centered.


The first issue of the new century was the 1901 Pan American Exposition issue. Originally, the Post Office Department planned the Pan American set to contain the same nine values as the Transmississippi set issued just three years before. However, the protests of collectors motivated the department to moderate its plans and issue just six low values with a total face value of 30 cents. The Post Office was being realistic. A new high-value issue, it was feared, would severely reduce the number of collectors.


The Pan Americans (#294-299) were issued to commemorate the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. The set was the first bicolor postage stamps issued since 1869, some thirty-two years before, and like the 1869s there were inverts that were produced accidentally. The one-cent, two-cent, and four-cent stamps are known inverted. The set shows transportation scenes with a steamboat on the none cent, a steam train on the two cent, an electric car on the four cent (remember this was 1901), the five cent with a bridge at Niagra Falls, the eight cent showing canals, and the ten cent a steamship. These issues have always been extremely popular with stamp collectors, and were produced by the Post Office Department in surprisingly excellent quality. Thousands of visitors to the Pan American Exposition bought the set as a souvenir and stamp dealers occasionally still get offered the complete set in the little manila envelope they came in when purchased in 1901. If the current owner was lucky, and he stored the stamps in a cool dry place, they are probably still perfect. But a manila envelope is a poor place for a stamp; with humidity and heat, the stamps can easily stain enough to be worthless. Nearly 5 million sets were issued, and many still exist mint. Because of popularity, not intrinsic rarity, a nice mint set could easily set a buyerback $750 or so, and a used set about $100. As with most early twentieth-century stamps, it is harder to find a good example of this set used than it is mint.


In the opinion of many serious philatelists, the 1902 regular issue (#300-313) is one of the most underpriced sets of stamps the United States has ever issued. The set is beautifully engraved, and was the main regular issue set of the post office for seven years, from 1902 to 1909. But the public did not like the stamps (they seldom do). The designs were considered far too crammed with unnecessary detail and the two-cent stamp in particular was criticized severely.


In 1907, a proposal was made for the overprinting of this large stamp issue with the name of the post office at which it would be sold. The proposal was an attempt to reduce the threat of post office theft, which had reached its peak in a robbery of $100,000 worth of postage stamps from a Chicago post office several years before. None of the culprits was ever apprehended, because, it was surmised, the stamps were easily disposed of throughout the country. Overprinting would solve this problem, as the stolen stamps could not readily be sold outside the city from which they were pilfered. Collectors were outraged. A full set of the 1907 issue with the same 6,000 overprints that were proposed would have cost a collector over $55,000- a sum that in 1907 not only would have bought a person a house but would have carpeted it, furnished it, fed and clothed its inhabitants, and, further, allowed, with the left-over change, for a stamp collection to be made that included every United States issue to that time! The idea was eventually scrapped, because complex bookkeeping and stamp-ordering procedures precluded its working effectively. A good thing, too. It might have killed stamp collecting.


The 1902-03 issue is quite difficult to find well centered. The values above the 8 cent, with the exception of the 13 cent, all sell for a quantity of money, despite the fact that 260 million of the most common high value, the 10 cent, were sold. Of the thirteen-cent stamp (#308) only 31 million were sold, and of the fifteen-cent, 41 million. Yet the ten cent catalogues mint in the 1981 Scott catalogue as $70, the fifteen cent as $165, and the thirteen cent (of which far fewer were issued) at only $37.50. This underscores quite accurately the danger faced by collectors or investors when they indiscriminately rely on quantities issued to determine rarity. Because the thirteen-cent stamp was not a stamp that was commonly used, philatelic speculators, (they existed then too) bought up large quantities in the belief that after this issue was moribund, the stamp would prove scarce. And it would have if they hadn’t bought them! They tucked away thousands of mint copies; even today this one stamp can be found in quantities. Numbers issued are important, but most significant are the numbers surviving in philatelic hands.


The high values of this set were in use until 1917 and were primarily employed on large, heavy parcels to Russia (that country being in the midst of a civil war, Russian immigrants were sending home blankets and food). Ironically, fewer of the two-dollar stamp (#312) was issued than the five-dollar (#313), but the five-dollar sells for about three times as much because fewer survive. These two values were later issued perforated 10, rather than 12, as in this issue, and as such they sell for far less (#479-480).


Three values of the 1902 set (#314, #314A, and #315) were regularly issued to the public in imperforate form. These were intended for use in private coil machines. These stamp machines– which still exist today in drugstores and bowling alleys– could not use the regular stamps because the perforation gauge, measuring 12, is too fine and the stamps tend to split and jam in the machines. Imperforates and imperforate coils were issued to these vending machine coil companies, and these companies in turn perforated them so that they were compatible with their machines. But the imperforate material was made available to the public, too. The 1-cent and 5-cent values are known imperforate, whereas the 4-cent was issued imperforate, but all known copies were privately perforated by the Schermack Vending Machine Company. When buying imperforate stamps, where there are perforated varieties as well, it is always best to buy pairs to prove the imperforate status.


The Pan American series of 1901 has been so popular with collectors and noncollectors alike that in 1904, in a somewhat belated continued tribute to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, the Post Office Department decided to issue a series of five commemorative stamps (#323-327). The post office neglected to look at the reasons why the Pan Americans were popular, and as they did not duplicate any of the successful details in the 1904 series, the Louisiana Set was a failure. Specifically, the Pan Americans were so successful because they were printed in two colors and because their designs illustrated fascinating vehicles that an increasingly mobile America enjoyed. The Louisiana Purchase issue was only printed in one color and commemorated a historical event that was of little importance to most Americans. The Pan Americans were saved by thousands of noncollectors; the Louisiana Purchase issue so laid in post offices that a postal directive finally had to order postal clerks to fill stamp orders with the Louisiana stamps unless the patron specifically objected.


The stamps themselves, to modern tastes, are quite appealing. Over 4 million sets were printed and sold, and again the numbers game can be quite misleading if applied dogmatically. Of the three cent and ten cent, virtually the same numbers were sold, yet the ten cent sells for three times as much. Actually, the three-cent is a genuinely undervalued stamp. The ten cent sells for so much more than the three cent not so much because of its scarcity but because many collectors and investors tend to gravitate toward the highest face value stamp in a set.


The year 1907 brought the Jamestown issue (#328-330), which commemorated the 300th anniversary of the settlement in 1607 by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Plantation in Virginia. The issue has three values, the high value picturing Smith’s Indian love, Pocahontas, the third woman ever to be commemorated on a United States postage stamp. (Queen Isabella of Spain was the first woman, on the $4 value of the 1893 Columbian set; Martha Washington appeared on the eight cent of the 1902 issues.) Originally, Pocahontas was not to be issued, but protests arose from historical groups that the Jamestown set would not be complete without her story.


The entire set is very difficult to find in well-centered Very Fine condition, whether mint or used. Seven million of the high value were printed, though you would not know it from the numbers surviving in collectors’ hands. Perfect mint sets can sell for as much as $1,000, while off-centered, slightly damaged sets sell for as little as $50. Quality always produces meaningful variations in price, but on no set more so than this one.


After 1907, most United States stamps pictured Washington and Franklin which, in a multitude of variations, remained the chief stamp design until 1922. Collectors often specialize in just this issue. Literature is generally very good for this period, starting with the standard Scott catalogue and Max Johl’s excellent book (see Bibliography).


After 1922, the stamps of the United States are almost uniformly not rare, though they are interesting and the Scott catalogue treats them quite well.

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