The Columbian Issue, often simply called the Columbians, is a set of 16 postage stamps issued by the United States to mark the 1893 World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. The finely-engraved stamps were the first commemorative stamps issued by the United States, depicting various events during the career of Christopher Columbus and are today highly prized by collectors.
Opinion regarding the Columbian Issue at the time was mixed. The set sold well and did not face the sort of criticism that led to the withdrawal of the 1869 Pictorial Issue. However, approval was not universal. An organization 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. 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, as of 2006, depending on condition, a full set might be valued at $10,000 or more.
Entitled "Columbus in Sight of Land", this lowest value in the set was based on a painting by William Powell and was one of several to be engraved by Alfred Jones. This stamp 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's appearance changes dramatically between this stamp, where he is clean-shaven, and the 2-cent value, where he sports a full beard, despite the depicted events occurring only a day apart.
John Vanderlyn's painting "The Landing of Columbus", originally commissioned by Congress, and already used on five dollar banknotes and the 15-cent stamp from the 1869 Pictorial Issue, was again pressed into service. By a substantial margin, this is the most common stamp of the Columbian Issue. More than a billion copies were printed, over seventy percent of the total number of Columbian Issue stamps, in part because it paid the first-class rate for domestic mail.
Damage to one transfer roll resulted in a chevron-shaped notch in Columbus's hat on some copies of this stamp. This variety, known as the "broken hat", is no longer considered significant enough for the Scott catalogue to provide it with its own minor number listing, although the catalogue still tracks separate, slightly higher, prices for the variant, which is popular with collectors.
Entitled "Flag Ship of Columbus", this value depicts the Santa Maria. 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. Although over 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.
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 authors researching the issue have stated that it is not possible to conclusively determine the origins of the design with the information known. The stamp itself paid the first-class rate for double-weight mail.
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-cent stamps were printed in error using the wrong color ink, a significantly darker shade that more closely resembles the blue of the 1-cent stamp. At least two error sheets, totalling two hundred stamps, are thought to have been produced, although significantly fewer copies are known to have survived. The "4-cent blue" is thus considered a great rarity, regularly selling for thousands of dollars.
Alfred Major created the design for this stamp, entitled "Columbus Soliciting Aid of Isabella", basing it off 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.
In 1857, Randolph Rogers was commissioned to produce a number of door panels depcting Columbus's voyages, to be hung at the United States Capitol building. The 6-cent 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's return. Robert Savage was the engraver for the printed design.
Slight variations are known in the purple color of this stamp. The most dramatic, a color called red violet, is considered significant enough to be given a minor number listing by Scott. However, this variation is not considered to be an error like the 4-cent blue and so does not command substantial premiums.
When originally issued, there were only fifteen stamps in the Columbian Issue. However, when the fee for registered mail was lowered on January 1, 1893 it necessitated the introduction of 8-cent 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.
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-cent 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.
"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. Although it 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.
The title of painter Felipe Maso's work, "Columbus before the Franciscans at La Rabida" was 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.
A painting by A. G. Heaton was the basis for "Recall of Columbus", the first 50-cent 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.
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 been issued with a value above 90 cents. This stamp, like all five dollar-value stamps 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. Most uses of the dollar-value Columbians were on philatelic covers.
"Columbus in Chains", its imaged 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-cent). Here, he is shown facing charges of administrative misconduct after his arrest in San Domingo by Don Francisco de Bobadilla.
"Columbus Describing Third Voyage" was one of five designs engraved by Robert Savage. All of which were his sole work, 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-cent 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-dollar value.
Like with the 6-cent Columbian, a color variety exists that is awarded minor number status. While this stamp is normally described as yellow green, the variant is considered to be olive green.
"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 equalled until Martha Washington was depicted on a 1902 definitive. 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.
Like with the 6-cent Columbian, a color variant exists that is awarded minor number status. While this stamp is normally described as crimson lake, the variety is considered to be rose carmine.
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. 27,350 were printed, of which 21,844 sold. Like all the dollar-value Columbians, copies sell for many times the original face value, even adjusting for inflation, with the finest examples auctioning for tens of thousands of dollars.