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The World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 provided the Post Office Department with its first opportunity to capitalize on the growing hobby of stamp collecting with a new issue. In late 1892 and early 1893 the Postmaster General in the Harrison administration was John Wanamaker, who was no stranger to commercial promotion. In words that sound like a true marketing executive, his Third Asst. Postmaster General reported:
“The collecting of stamps is deserving of encouragement, for it tends to the cultivation of artistic tastes and the study of history and geography… The new stamps [Columbian Issue] will be purchased in large quantities simply for the use of collections, without ever being presented in payment of postage; and the stamps sold in this way will, of course, prove a clear gain to the Department.”— Brookman Vol. III, pp. 50 — 51
The sixteen Columbian stamps were issued in denominations ranging from 1¢ to $5.00, for a total face value of $16.34, a sizable sum in 1893. Fifteen of the stamps were ready for sale on January 2, 1893. The 8¢ was issued in March to meet the reduced registry fee. Although the lower values sold well and the high values were bought by speculators, high-value sales to the general public were a disappointment to the post office.
Aesthetically, the stamps commemorating the 400th anniversary (1492–1892) of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America were a significant departure from previous issues. Information on the issue, including the design sources, issued quantities and American Bank Note Co. engravers, is provided in the table below.
The Columbian Issue was the last produced by a private security printer before stamp production was turned over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1894. Today, it is regarded as the last issue of the classic period of American philately.
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