What is a commemorative stamp? It’s a stamp specifically issued to celebrate a special event, or sometimes a place or person. Whatever subject is celebrated on the stamp, it has to be something special.
The first-ever commemorative stamps emerged from the Columbian Exposition. The exposition celebrated Christopher Columbus discovering the New World, and the stamps reflected that theme. Sixteen stamp designs were printed for the series in 1893.
Observant collectors noted that these stamps had discrepancies among them; different artists designed them and therefore the stamps did not have consistent details.
The denominations of the stamps came under criticism as well. Some came in $2, $3, $4 and $5 denominations – but the most one could spend on a first class postage was $1.36. It would have to be a pretty large, heavy package to use the $5 Columbian.
Some stamp collectors protested against commemorative stamps after the release of the series, criticizing the raised prices. To affirm their stance they formed the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps (S.S.S.S.). The Society fought against unnecessary stamps made specifically for collectors. Needless to say, the S.S.S.S. did not get very far in its cause, and broke up in 1897, two years after its formation.
Another stamp possibly considered one of the first commemorative stamps was a 15 cent black stamp featuring Abraham Lincoln. It was printed after Lincoln’s assassination, but as the stamp was not proclaimed to be an official memorial, it’s difficult to say whether it was really a ‘commemorative’ stamp.
Of course, many commemorative stamps followed after the Columbian series.