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Who was the person credited with the concept of a world's fair?

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World's Fair
by E.L. Doctorow

This novel tells the story of Edgar Altshuler, a 9-year-old boy from the Bronx, and his adventures at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On his first visit to the fair, Edgar is enthralled by industry's vision of the futuresafe, secure and prosperous cities, speedy and cheap transportation and modern invention to make life easier. On his second visit, he sees that the exhibits are constructed of gypsum whose paint is peeling and that the displays are really toys.
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1964 NY World's Fair

Travel back in time to the 1964 New York World's Fair and take a tour of the fairgrounds. Though not sanctioned by the World's Fair Committee, it was still a spectacular exposition.
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1939 NY World's Fair Snowglobe

From World's Fairs to Mailboxes
Around the World
Collecting World's Fair Postal Memorabilia
by Bob Brooke


On June 1, 1933, James A. Farley, Postmaster General, opened the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s official representative. He probably visited the post office display with its complete set of U.S. proofs in the Federal Building and one of the many postal stations where fairgoers could purchase stamps and obtain special postmarks, including one in a railway mail car exhibit.

The United States Post Office Department (United States Postal Service since 1971) played a major role in America’s world’s fairs by issuing postage stamps to promote and honor the international expositions and their themes, by exhibiting the history of postage stamps and postal operations in the Federal Building. It operated postal stations on the fairgrounds for both visitors and concessionaires. The U.S. Postal Service issued its first commemorative postage stamps for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, thus creating a change in the postage stamp program.

The Beginning of Commemorative Stamp Collecting
Stamp collectors who collect U.S. commemorative postage stamps begin their collections with stamps issued to honor the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, held in 1893. Most stamp collectors, however, don’t collect World’s Fair stamps as such—known as a topical collection—but instead collect them as part of a more general collection.

In addition to regular and commemorative postage stamps, collections may also include die proofs, certified plate proofs, postal stationery, and special exposition postmarks on envelopes, known as First Day Covers.. All of these objects document the postal history of the Fairs and provide graphic imagery that depicts the various themes and aesthetic styles of the Fairs.

Besides the Fair commemorative stamps themselves, some collectors specialize in collecting First Day Covers issued and postmarked at the Fairs. A First Day Cover is an envelope with a particular commemorative stamp attached that’s postmarked, or franked, by hand with the official frank of the day the stamp first appeared.

These can range from one with the official stamp of a particular fair to stamps commemorating specific pavilions, exhibits, shows, groups, distinguished guests, and events held at the Fairs. They can even honor specific topics related to a Fair.

While a First Day Cover can show just the stamp and its special First Day cancellation, most also include an illustration, called a cachet, covering the left front side of the envelope. While some of these are rather plain images, perhaps one of a Fair’s distinguishing features, such as the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, others are quite elaborate color designs by noted cachet artists.

Fairgoers could take a letter or postcard, with a message to the folks back home, to one of the Fair’s postal stations and have it cancelled and mailed home right from the Fair. If they did this on a particular First Day of issue, they essentially received their very own personal First Day Cover. And many stamp collectors did just that.

The Postal Service issued First Day Covers every day a Fair was open of all the American World’s Fairs beginning with the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Each one commemorated a different topic, pavilion, or event at the Fair, and received its own special ceremony marking the event.

Of course, foreign nations participating in each Fair also issued their own commemorative stamps which fairgoers could often purchase at their pavilions.

The First Set of Commemorative Stamps
The U.S. Post Office Department outdid itself with that set of 16 postage stamps, plus a special delivery stamp and postal stationery, publicizing the World Columbian Exposition. While many collectors loved the set, just as many did not, mostly because of the number of stamps, their large size, and the high face values for which there was doubtful need at the time.

The total cost of a mint set of the 16 postage stamps was $16.34 at a time when the average worker made less than that in a week. The set included stamps denominated at $1, $2, $3, $4 and $5.

This caused the philatelic press of the time to suggest that the Columbian issue would cause the death of stamp collecting. Stamp clubs passed resolutions condemning the issue, and the issue gave birth to the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps.

Yet, today, the Columbian issue is one of the jewels of a high-level U.S. stamp collection, each stamp selling for hundreds and often thousands of dollars, the higher denominations going for the most.

The Post Office Department, as the U.S. Postal Service was known at that time, did pay attention to the criticisms. In 1898 when it celebrated the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, there were “only” nine stamps in the set and the top denomination was $2.

But there was still negative feedback. The Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps recommended that collectors refuse to purchase these stamps and thus assist in preventing future issuance of stamps intended mainly for the purpose of sale to stamp collectors and speculators. Although the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps faded away, it may have had an effect as exposition issues were much more restrained after 1898.

Favorite World's Fair Postal Issues

One that’s a favorite of many collectors is the Louisiana Purchase Exposition issue of 1904. Held from April 30 to Dec. 1, 1904, it was also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. The set included five stamps, with the highest denomination being 10 cents.

For most expositions, collectors can collect cancellations, postcards, and Cinderellas, or labels that look like stamps, in addition to the commemorative stamps and First Day Covers.

The Postal Service produced a series of postal items for the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. In addition to the individual stamps, it issued commemorative sheets.

The U.S. Post Office Department issued three stamp designs for the 1933 fair, with a total of seven varieties. On May 25, 1933, a 1-cent stamp for the postcard rate and a 3-cent stamp for the letter rate promoted the fair just days before it opened. The green 1-cent stamp depicted Fort Dearborn, which had protected the mouth of the Chicago River in the pioneer days and had been restored in 1816. A replica of the fort was a popular attraction at the fair. The violet 3-cent stamp’s vignette featured the fair’s streamlined Federal Building. Its three fluted towers represented the three branches of federal government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and inside it housed government exhibits. The 3-cent denomination was in Roman numerals, the first U.S. stamp since the 1847 10-cent George Washington to feature that.

Another stamp issued to honor an event at the Fair was the 50-cent green Graf Zeppelin stamp, depicting the famous German airship over the Atlantic Ocean with the hangar at Friedrichshafen at right and the Federal Building from the Fair at left. The Zeppelin Company (Luftshiffbau Zeppelin G.m.b.H.) agreed to fly to Chicago during the Fair if the U.S. Post Office Department issued a special postage stamp to help offset the expenses of the flight. As a result, 42½ cents of the 50 cents went to the Zeppelin Company.

The stamp had its First Day of issue on October 2, 1933, in New York City, in time for mail to be sent by ship to Germany for transport by the zeppelin. Washington, Miami, Akron, and Chicago also had first days of issue. U.S. mail could also be dispatched from Miami, Akron, and Chicago for various legs of the flight, using a combination of one to four stamps to pay the different rates. Envelopes received different rubber-stamped postal cachets as evidence that the mail had been carried on different legs of the flight.

The Federal Building shown on the stamp is similar to the one on the 3-cent stamp. Victor S. McCloskey, Jr., designed both stamps, but different engravers translated the models to dies. The Federal Building on the Zeppelin issue had different proportions with a shorter center tower and an elevated entrance. Perhaps to reflect the popularity of the fair, it shows more fairgoers on the steps. The stamps had flat plate printing in plates of two-hundred subjects with four panes of 50 each.

The three stamp designs not only promoted the Chicago World’s Fair, they also promoted the idea of progress. The 1- and 3-cent stamp images contrasted the old federal government to the New Deal government of 1933, emphasizing the changing and improved role of government services. The Zeppelin embodied technological progress as the world’s largest flying craft.

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