The First Christmas Stamps

Those who celebrate Christmas traditionally send Christmas cards, so why shouldn’t there be Christmas stamps, too?

It’s a little unclear what country made the first Christmas stamp, but it was most likely Canada, though it’s not the most festive stamp around – it’s only considered a Christmas stamp because of the inscription “XMAS 1898” near the bottom. The stamp features a map highlighting the British empire in red, with the words “Canada Postage” at the top.

The reason for the “XMAS” addition to the stamp reportedly comes from a story of quick-thinking on William Mulock’s part: he proposed the stamp be issued on November 9th to “honor the Prince” (the Prince of Wales). But Queen Victoria asked “What Prince?” in a critical tone, and Mulock countered with “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace.” That’s some quick thinking, Mulock.

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Austria issued its own Christmas stamps in 1937 featuring a rose and zodiac signs. And in 1939, Brazil issued its own, decidedly more Christmassy, stamps featuring the three kings, a star, and an angel. The first Nativity stamp emerged from Hungary in 1943.

The U.S. had its own Christmas stamp debate in the 1960’s. To that date the country had never issued stamps honoring the holiday, and the USPS hesitated due to the separation of church and state. But high demand for Christmas stamps won out. The USPS printed 350 million four-cent stamps with a wreath and two candles. The stamps quickly sold out. By the end of the print run that year, a billion of the stamps had been issued, the most special stamps printed at that time.

Christmas stamps are popular among collectors. There’s no doubt that holiday stamps have made a mark in the stamp world.

Do you collect Christmas stamps?

All About the 1804 Silver Dollar

It’s one of the rarest coins in the world: the U.S. issued very few 1804 silver dollars. And they were minted long after their face date of 1804. Only fifteen 1804 silver dollars are known to exist.

How did this all start? The records of the United States Mint show that 19,750 of the coins were struck in 1804, but used dies dated 1803. Paradoxically, dollars dated 1804 didn’t appear until 1834. These were created because the U.S. wanted to create sets of the coins to present to some rulers in Asia.

 

 

The King of Siam coin.

The King of Siam coin.

This included the King of Siam at the time, sparking the rumor that King Rama IV of Siam gave Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame the same silver dollar. According to legend, Anna passed the coin down to her children, and them to their children’s children, and so on through the generations. In the 1950’s two British women claiming to be descended from Anna sold the coin. The Smithsonian Institution displayed the coin as part of the “King of Siam” collection in 1983. They nicknamed it the “King of Coins”. In 2001, an anonymous collector bought the whole King of Siam set of coins for more than $4 million.

Class I of these silver dollars was minted in 1834. Class II of these coins was minted from 1858-1860 illegally by a man named Theodore Eckfeldt, who sold them to coin collectors from his shop in Philadelphia. The U.S. Mint tracked down and destroyed all but one of these coins. Class III was also minted from 1858-1860 by Theodore Eckfeldt, their distinguishing features including a reverse design and a lettered edge as found in Class I. Many Class III silver dollars found their way to collectors before the Mint seized the rest of them.

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!

Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design

We use coins constantly, even if half of them disappear into the couch cushions. But think about it — who designed the images on these coins that we’re so familiar with?

Sometimes coins are designed with the artistic qualities in mind – and sometimes not.

In the early 20th century, the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar all had the same bust design. But soon there was an effort to make coins just as pretty as they were useful.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a private letter in 1904, “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” He suggested an artist instead of a government employee to redesign the coins to add a little pizzazz.

The designer and sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had already designed the World’s Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation medal. From Roosevelt’s request he designed the $20 double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head gold coins. Many numismatists consider these some of the most beautiful coins produced by the U.S. Mint.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

The process for U.S. coins starts with an outline by Congress of what the coins should look like, as well as the metal they’ll be struck from. The Mint then asks its artists to create the described designs.

Some methods of designing look quite impressive to an outside observer.

The sculpted design, or galvano, for the Kennedy half dollar was over two feet in diameter!

In fact, much of coin designing involves a method of sculpting. Once a design is sketched out, it’s then transferred to a large scale model sculpted in layers of plaster or epoxy. The U.S. Mint in Philadelphia uses both clay and high-tech computers; designers often start out in clay then make small changes on their computers.

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden's eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden’s eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

Once the artist’s renderings have been sent in, they are reviewed for factors such as historical accuracy. A final design is chosen and tweaked by the artist. Although the Mint has been known to change the design immediately before putting it to production without the artist’s permission, usually everything goes smoothly. A new, shiny coin has been produced to add to the collection of coins under couch cushions.

Next time you rifle through your change, take a moment to appreciate the work a designer has gone through to make those coins pleasing to the eye.

Sources:

A Visit to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia

Basic Steps of Coin Design

A Useful Summary of Coin Design History