The First Commemorative Stamps

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.

Farley’s Follies

James A. Farley was the Postmaster General during the 1930s, but that’s not the only thing he’s remembered for. In the stamp collecting world he’s known for his “Farley’s Follies.”

It’s worth mentioning that Farley himself was not a stamp collector, and so probably had no idea of the ruckus he was about to cause.

During his time as Postmaster General, Farley bought a number of imperforated and ungummed stamp sheets with his own money. He signed the margins of the sheets, as did President Roosevelt. The first sheet went to FDR himself, an avid stamp collector; another went to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, also a stamp collector; and the rest went to Farley’s family as well as friends of the Administration.

James A. Farley during National Air Mail Week in 1938, marking the 20th anniversary of the first scheduled airmail service.

James A. Farley during National Air Mail Week in 1938, marking the 20th anniversary of the first scheduled airmail service.

Unfortunately for Farley, some of these sheets found their way to the market as high-priced rarities.

Enraged stamp collectors protested, as did political opponents. They spoke accusations of corruption and lobbied Congress.3cNewburgh

To prevent the pot from boiling over, Farley ordered the twenty sheets of unfinished stamps he’d signed to be reprinted and available for stamp collectors to buy. These sheets were printed in 1935, earning the nickname “Farley’s Follies.” The sheets are, however, far from rare.

Many years ago, Farley himself donated fifteen of the original signed sheets to the Smithsonian Institution for viewing.

A slight mess-up for an otherwise brilliant businessman, Farley quickly saved his reputation and created another story for the stamp collecting world.