The History of the Panama Canal Zone Stamps

Here’s a little piece of history embedded in a postage stamp.

When the U.S. built the Panama Canal in the Republic of Panama, they of course wanted to commemorate the event. Its first stamps came out in 1904, but they didn’t have any special design at first. Instead, the stamps came as the current stamps of Panama or the U.S., with an overprint that said “CANAL ZONE”. Not the most creative method of celebration, perhaps, but it got the job done. Over 100 types of these overprints have been found, plus counterfeits.

Then in 1928, the Canal Zone created a regularly issued series that said “CANAL ZONE POSTAGE”. The series showed the faces of those who helped with the canal’s construction. One stamp also showed the Culebra Cut (at the time called the Gaillard Cut), a valley that makes up part of the Panama Canal.


In 1939, the Zone issued 25th anniversary stamps showing the before and after of the creation of the canal.

The four cent Canal Zone stamp was the most famous of the canal zone stamps thanks to an error. The stamp was issued in 1962 to commemorate opening of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, a bridge that connects two sides of the Panama Canal. But some of the stamps were printed without the silver ink meant to illustrate the bridge. In response, the Canal Zone proposed an issue of intentional errors to offset the value of the original errors. However, a stamp dealer named H.E. Harris, who owned some of the original errors, filed a lawsuit and stopped the intentional errors from being printed.

The Zone printed its last stamp in 1978, which showed a train and a ship in a lock. After that, Canal Zone stamps ceased to be printed.

San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

The Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915 was a sight to behold. It took three years to build what turned out to be one of the most impressive expositions in America.

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You can get this postcard and the ones below at this link.

The official reason for the exposition was the newly finished Panama Canal, but many saw the event as the showcasing of the recovery of San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. The earthquake set the city back significantly in a financial sense, and dimmed the city’s optimism for growth. But the exposition changed all that by bringing in millions of visitors and once again establishing San Francisco as a prominent city in the U.S.

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Twenty-four countries participated in the expo. The Tower of Jewels stood as the centerpiece of the event. Fake glass jewels covered all 435 feet of the tower, causing the tower to sparkle in the sunlight and shine under spotlights at night. In front of the tower stood the “Fountain of Energy”, right next to the Palace of Horticulture and the Festival Hall. Many other “Palaces” and “Halls” featured areas of growth in recent years, like transportation and agriculture. The Palace of Fine Arts particularly shone in its showcase, and it was the only building to be kept from the exposition. The building slowly fell into disrepair over the years, but it was renovated in the 1960’s and can still be visited today.

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The U.S. Post Office issued a set of four stamps in honor of the exposition, including a profile of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Pedro Miguel Locks of the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco Bay.

The U.S. Mint also issued commemorative half dollar and gold coins.

Overall, the exposition was a huge success, pulling in over 18 million visitors over the event’s 10 months in session. And if you want to experience a piece of the glory of the fair, you can still visit the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

You can find more Pan-Pacific postcards at this link!