1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue

MiniatureArtWorksUSA.com 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue

Stamp Collecting: 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue


The United States was far into the Progressive Era by 1915 and many of its ideal reforms had been implemented or soon would be. America would enter World War I in April, 1917 by declaring war on Germany and would remain in the fight until the end - November, 1918. Prohibition, a major reform to ban the sale or manufacture of alcohol, had been in the making since the 1840s. It finally was implemented in January, 1919 by means of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. American women would finally win the vote through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress in June, 1919 and ratified in August, 1920. The "New Era" was on the horizon as the Progressive Era began to run its course. The "Roaring 20s" would soon roll in, and the Jazz Age. The Great Depression would begin in fewer than 20 years.

President Theodore Roosevelt's two terms in office epitomized Progressivism and he became more radically progressive with the passage of time. At the end of his second term, Roosevelt hand-selected William Howard Taft as his successor, but the two politicians split along ideological lines when it became apparent that Taft was comparatively conservative. Roosevelt and Taft exchanged many barbs - Roosevelt even broke away from the GOP and formed a new Progressive Party - and effectively split the Republican vote, allowing Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to easily win the White House in the 1912 election. Interestingly, the 1912 election also included a fourth contender who could not easily be ignored or dismissed: Eugene Debs, who ran for the Socialist Party.

The son of a devout Presbyterian family, seeing the ravages of the Civil War and its aftermath were part of Wilson's childhood. A dedicated scholar (our first President to have earned a Ph.D.) and enthusiastic orator, he earned multiple degrees before embarking on a university career. In a fast rise politically, he spent two years as governor of New Jersey before becoming the two-term 28th president of the United States. Wilson saw America through World War I, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and crafting the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to keep the world free of conflict. Wilson suffered his second stroke during the last year of his presidency and died three years after leaving office, with sweeping reforms for the middle class, voting rights for women and precepts for world peace - these the fruition of many Progressive Era campaigns - as his legacy.


-Average life expectancy was about 53 years for men and nearly 57 years for women.
-One in 10 babies died before their first birthday; for every 1,000 births, six mothers died during labor.
-1915 Model T Town Car. From the collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. (4/22/08)A new Model T Ford could be purchased for $440. This was the first year they were equipped with electric lights and they were available "in any color as long as it was black." There were about 2.5 million cars registered in the United States.
-The House of Representatives rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote.
-The first transcontinental phone call was made when Alexander Graham Bell, in New York City, called his assistant, Watson, in San Francisco on January 25th.
-Corning Glass introduced the first glass ovenware made of a new, clear, heat-resistant material they named Pyrex.
-What did union workers earn? - Bricklayers: 87-1/2¢ an hour. - Carpenters: up to 65¢ an hour. - Painters: as high as 70¢ an hour. - Plumbers made up to 75¢ an hour. - Structural iron workers earned up to 70¢ an hour.
-Few homes had indoor plumbing. It took until 1940 for the number of homes with complete indoor plumbing to reach 55%.555
-Maytag added a gasoline engine to their washing machines for homes that did not have electricity.
-Close to 60% of children were enrolled in school. 13% earned a high school diploma.
-The yearly median household income was $687.
-The average costs for some common consumer purchases were: - Round steak: 23¢ a pound. - Eggs: 34¢ per dozen. - Milk: 35¢ per gallon. - Bread: 7¢ a loaf. - Coffee: 30¢ per pound. - 10 pound bag of potatoes: 15¢. - Gasoline: 25¢ per gallon. - A first class postage stamp: 2¢. - A median house: $3,200.


-January - While working as a cook at New York's Sloane Hospital, a maternity institution, under an assumed name (her real name was Mary Mallon; she was working as "Mary Brown"), Typhoid Mary infects 25 people, killing some, and is placed in quarantine for life.
-February 12 - In Washington, D.C. the first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is laid.
-February 20 - In San Francisco, California the Panama-Pacific International Exposition is opened.
-May 6 - Babe Ruth (Boston Red Sox) hits his first career home run off of Jack Warhop (New York Yankees).
-May 7 - The RMS Lusitania is sunk on passage from New York to Britain by a German U-boat, killing 1,198.
-July 28 - TheUnited States occupation of Haiti begins.
-November 18 - Release of Inspiration, the first mainstream movie in which a leading actress (Audrey Munson) appears nude.
-Undated - The first stop sign known appears in Detroit, Michigan.


World's Fairs originated in the European tradition of national exhibitions, starting in France and England in the 1850s. They were a way for different countries to show customs, national identity and advancements to one another. The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition was San Francisco's chance to prove that it could pick itself up after the 1906 earthquake and fire, transorming from a rough-and-ready Western pioneer town into a global metropolis.

San Francisco wasn't the only city hoping to host the 1915 Fair. ("Hoping" included urging voters to prevail upon their Congressmen to vote for San Francisco.) New Orleans gave it a run for its money, and San Diego also lobbied since it was the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing through the Panama Canal. Even though San Francisco got the official backing of Congress to host, San Diego put on its own simultaneous Fair on a much smaller scale in Balboa Park, the Panama-California Exposition.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, its physical location referred to as "The Jewel City," ran between February 20 and December 4 in 1915. The stated theme for the Exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and also the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by the Spanish explorer, Balboa, but most saw it as a way for San Francisco to demonstrate its recovery after 1906. Organizers decided to build the fairgrounds in what's now the Marina District by filling in mud flats and clearing city blocks. It took more than three years to build, and the structures were made out of "staff", a temporary building material. As with previous Fairs, the buildings were designed to be temporary and dismantled after the Fair was over. The reasons Exposition structures (including the others' before San Francisco) were designed to be torn down after the Fair are complicated and vary by city event. In the case of San Francisco, much of the land used for the Expo was leased. There were hundreds of property owners expecting to get their land back within a year or a year-and-a-half of the Fair's end.

The Exposition's Palace of Machinery was the largest structure in the world at the time, and was the first building to have a plane flown through it. At the heart of the Fair was one of the most ambitious art exhibitions ever presented in the United States. Encompassing more than 11,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs, in addition to a significant array of public murals and monuments (there were some 1,500 statues on the grounds), this showing was a vital moment in the inauguration of San Francisco as the West Coast's cultural epicenter.

The Exposition was a nearly 10-month celebration of music, arts, history and the latest innovations of the time including telephones, typewriters, electricity, automobiles and airplanes. General Electric designed a new lighting scheme with thousands of colored spotlights to give the buildings a magical glow in the evenings. When the fog came in, 48 spotlights of seven different colors lit up the sky. The Expo's main attraction was the 435-foot Tower of Jewels, which was covered with 102,000 cut-glass "jewels" (Novagems) dangling individually to shimmer in the light. There were other palaces, courts, and state and foreign buildings throughout the 635-acre fair, which possessed its own railroad system. The Palace of Fine Arts, the smallest of the palaces, stands today, one of very few remnants of the grand buildings. Still on its original site, it was rebuilt in the 1960s; renovation of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009. In addition to hosting art exhibitions, it remains a popular attraction for tourists and locals, and is a favorite location for weddings and wedding party photographs. The Palace is such an icon that a miniature replica of it was built in Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.

Since Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893, carnival-like entertainment areas had become standard expectations at these events. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition would be no different. "The Zone", a.k.a. "The Joy Zone," filled 65 acres and cost the Exposition Company approximately $3,500,000. It was the largest Exposition amusement park ever built. More than 7,000 applications for concession space were filed, and fewer than 100 granted; $12,000,000 was invested in these concessions by their operators, and an army of more than 7,000 was employed to run them. Visitors were welcomed to The Zone by Ghirardelli's Chocolate and Welch's Grape Juice exhibits, which were positioned on either side of the entry gate. The Zone's main street was 100 feet wide and 3,360 feet long. Its size lent well to parades and so it was the site of many over the life of the Exposition.


-Numerous "living exhibits" were featured in The Zone. Both humans and animals from around the globe were brought to inhabit them. Native Americans, Samoans, Maoris, Somalis, Japanese, Chinese and Egyptians were among the people represented while ostriches, alligators, manatees, lizards and opossums were among the many animals.

-"The Grand Canyon", a splendid spectacle installed by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad; The "Panama Canal", an enormous working model of the canal; Submarines Under Water; "Yellowstone Park," hosted by the Union Pacific Railroad, with geysers going off routinely ; "The Grand Trianon of Napoleon"; "Creation," from the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible; Frederic Thompson's"Toyland;" "Nuremberg"; an "Ice Palace," in which ice skating and hockey matches were held; an Oriental Village; "Forty-Nine Camp"; "The Battle of Gettysburg"; "Mohammed's Mountain"; "Aeroscope"; "Chinese City"; a submarine restaurant; and much more.The Liberty Bell traveled by train on a nationwide tour from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend the exposition. After that trip, the Liberty Bell returned to Philadelphia, and has not made any further journeys since.

-Meals were available in abundance, including 50¢ full dinners at several restaurants or such a la carte choices as crab salad for 15¢, 5¢ coffee, a slice of roast beef for 30¢, asparagus for 10¢, a slice of pie for 10¢ or cake and ice cream for 15¢ and a Rainier beer for 5¢.

-Animals were used in many different exhibits. There were alligator wrestling demonstrations and simulated bull fights (simulated due to the public's aversion towards the type of gore normally associated with them). Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show performed, including shoot-outs and a rodeo. One exhibit featured a genius horse named Captain who could count, match colors, ring bells to play music and answer questions by stamping his hooves.

-The Zone was home to many "villages". These were intended to be realistic displays of people from around the globe. The Maoris, Somalis, and Samoans struggled financially to remain open while the Grand Canyon's inhabitants survived thanks to their corporate sponsor. Woeful attendance, due to lack of interest and the overtly offensive nature of many of the villages, led to the closure of many of them long before the Fair ended.

-The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was teeming with music. Its concert calendar included appearances by countless musical ensembles, including the Boston Symphony and John Philip Sousa's Band; concerts on the Exposition's mammoth organ, which comprised some 6,500 pipes; and a stream of famous singers and instrumental soloists, choral groups, and military bands. Innumerable pieces of sheet music were written about the Exposition, played and some even recorded by popular artists of the day.

By the time the Panama-Pacific International Exposition officially closed on December 4, 1915 nearly 19 million people had visited the Fair (at a time when California's full population was 3 million). On the last day of operation, the Expo experienced a record-setting 450,000 visitors (Opening Day had seen 255,000). The Exposition generated nearly $4.8 million total revenue, and the Exposition Company made a modest profit of approximately $1,300,000. Construction had cost $50 million, with sponsors and exhibitors footing the bill for much of that and many related costs. All 48 U. S. states, 50 California counties and 21 countries participated in the Fair.

Once the Fair was closed to the public, the Exposition Company had the enormous task of cleaning out the entire site. Hoping to recoup some additional revenue, they sold every fixture, piece of equipment, plant and building off to the highest bidder. A few agencies and municipalities purchased the smaller buildings that could be transported by boat to new locations. Due to the temporary nature of those buildings, they eventually deteriorated and had to be demolished. Today the City of San Francisco still benefits from some construction and infrastructure improvements originally associated with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. As originally promised, the Exposition Company spent some of its profit on a civic building; they paid for the construction of the San Francisco Civic Auditorium.

Although the elegant Fair buildings did not withstand the test of time, many of them inspired permanent copies. Exhibition architects based the design for the elegant French Pavilion on Paris' Palais de la Legion d'Honneur. Alma Spreckels, wife of sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels, so admired this pavilion building that after its demolition, she and her husband gifted an exact replica to San Francisco. The Spreckels couple funded the Legion of Honor Building as both a memorial to honor the fallen World War I soldiers as well as a museum to house much of the city's great art.

As with a number of the previous World's Fairs, the Panama-Pacific Exposition boasts a comprehensive catalogue of photos and information about the event. This is called The Blue Book by The Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company. It can be enjoyed online in its entirety.


Discovery of the Pacific Ocean

Bounded by five continents, the Pacific Ocean is Earth's single largest feature, but it was generally unknown to Europeans until Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa sighted it in 1513 from a peak in the region of Darien, Panama. Balboa was a poor, uneducated man born in 1475 in Jerez de los Caballeros in the Extremadura area near Castile, Spain. In 1501, he set sail on an expedition commanded by Rodrigo de Bastidas to explore the northern coast of present-day Colombia. He settled on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and became a planter and a pig farmer. When he failed at farming, he stowed away on a ship headed for the colony of San Sebastian on the coast of modern-day Colombia to avoid his creditors. This expedition, headed by Martin Fernandez de Enciso, led to the settlement near present-day Cartagena. Balboa found San Sebastian nearly destroyed. He soon learned that most of the colonists had been killed by native peoples and the governor had fled. Balboa suggested that the colony move to the western side of the Gulf of Uraba, a place he had visited on his original voyage with Bastidas. This location had abundant food resources and a considerable amount of gold. Balboa became the interim governor of the new settlement they named Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien on the Isthmus of Panama.

On September 1, 1513 Balboa left the settlement with almost 200 Spaniards and 1,000 Indians in search of a great body of water he had heard about from a native friend. As they crossed the isthmus of present day Panama, they encountered dense jungles, swamps, violent natives, and rough mountain terrain. Balboa succeeded in defeating many tribes of natives without losing any men. On September 25th Balboa climbed alone to the peak of a mountain, and for the first time saw the "South Sea" or what is now the Pacific Ocean. Four days later, he and his men reached the ocean he called "Mar del Sur" (South Sea) and claimed it, and all the lands that it touched, for Spain. He also found a fortune in gold, pearls, and slaves and returned proudly to Santa Maria in 1514.

King Ferdinand of Spain, before hearing of Balboa's achievements, had appointed a new governor for the Darien area named Pedro Arias de Avila. Avila was reportedly jealous of Balboa and ordered him to be arrested on charges of treason; on inquiry Balboa was acquitted. Balboa gained much popularity in the settlement and became engaged to Avila's daughter in 1516. And despite, or perhaps because of, the magnitude of Balboa's discovery, he quickly fell victim to Spain's New World power struggles. Avila disliked Balboa both for his good reputation and for the favor found in one who had made such a discovery for Spain. Avila framed Balboa for disobedience and treason, abetted by the betrayal of one of Balboa's friends. He was found guilty of treason and beheaded along with four friends considered to be his co-conspirators in 1519.

The legacy of Vasco Nunez de Balboa is brighter than that of many of his contemporaries. While many conquistadors, such as Pedro de Alvarado, Hernan Cortes and Panfilo de Narvaez are today remembered for cruelty, exploitation and inhumane treatment of natives, Balboa is remembered as a fair administrator and popular governor who made his settlements work. As for relations with natives, Balboa was guilty of his share of atrocities, but in general he dealt with his native allies very well, treating them with respect and friendship which translated into beneficial trade and food for his settlements.

Although he and his men were the first to see the Pacific Ocean (at least while heading west from the New World), it would be Ferdinand Magellan who would get the credit for naming it when he rounded the southern tip of South America in 1520.

Completion of the Panama Canal

In 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa's discovery of the Pacific coast of Panama and the Pacific Ocean soon had merchants and empire-builders dreaming of a shortcut that would allow ships to sail westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific without making the difficult 12,000-mile journey around the tip of South America.

Over the next 200 years, visionaries including Benjamin Franklin encouraged the digging of a channel. After Latin America won independence from Spain in the 1820s, the revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar hired engineers to map a possible canal route. Some, such as German explorer Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, argued that Panama was too wild and mountainous, and that Nicaragua would be a better location. U.S. Army Col. Charles Biddle, sent by President Andrew Jackson to Central America in 1835 to evaluate the matter, concluded after four days of hiking in the jungle that the impracticality of building a canal in Panama ought to be clear to anyone, "whether of common or uncommon sense." While the debate continued whether to build a canal in Nicaragua or Panama, Colombia allowed a group of entrepreneurs from the United States to build a railroad across their province, Panama. After their experiences in Panama, however, the railroad builders argued for an altogether different location for the canal as, for them,"Panama was the worst place possible to send men to build anything." Nevertheless, over the next 40 years, a parade of speculators dreamed up canal-building schemes.

For perspective:
-Estimated canal cost if completed in 1785: $200,000
-Estimated canal cost if completed in 1843: $26 million
-Estimated canal cost if completed in 1850: $60 million

Disease was an even bigger foe: by 1884, yellow fever was killing 200 laborers each month, ultimately claiming more than 20,000 lives. By 1887, the French had picked up the excavating pace, but they were running out of money. Their project collapsed two years later after a stock lottery garnered only a fraction of the $100 million needed to continue. French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps envisioned La Grande Tranchee ("the great trench") as a sea-level canal without locks, similar to the one built by the French at Suez in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the tropical green jungles and mountainous terrain of Panama proved far more difficult to conquer than the African desert. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was disorganized from the start, beginning work without a blueprint and laying down railroad tracks that didn't fit the gauge of the existing Panama railroad. By 1883, the French had 20,000 laborers at work at any given time, but they had trouble digging up even 10% of the 2,615,901.24 cubic yards of earth called for in their own projections. And the work was plagued by disasters. The French canal-builders' excavation method of simply chopping the tops off hills in their path and piling the dirt on either side led to disastrous landslides.

In 1898, with the United States and Spain on the brink of war, the U.S.S. Oregon, the U.S. Navy's first true battleship, took 67 days to "rush" back from San Francisco to the Caribbean. That stuck in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt who had been the Assistant Secretary of the Navy until he resigned to fight in the Spanish-American War himself. When William McKinley's assassination made Roosevelt President in 1901, he vowed to build a canal - not for commerce, like the French, but to ensure that U.S. naval power could dominate two oceans. He favored Nicaragua at first but abruptly changed his mind to Colombian-owned Panama when the French made it known they were willing to unload their partly dug ditch at a bargain price of $40 million. A skeptical Congress was eventually swayed with a high-powered lobbying campaign by France's former chief engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who'd made it his mission to see the project completed. At the last moment, Colombia nearly threw a wrench in the deal by insisting that the United States pay for the right to dig on Colombian soil, but the White House and the Panama Canal lobby were not to be stopped. In late 1903, revolutionaries organized and financed by Bunau-Varilla staged a coup on the isthmus, and a U.S. warship, U.S.S. Nashville, suddenly steamed into Panama City's harbor to keep the Colombians from squashing the revolt. The new, independent nation of Panama quickly gave the United States the go-ahead for the canal. The Americans, however, could only use a portion of what the French had excavated. Countless cubic yards of earth moved through back-breaking French labor was useless as the Americans began to dig.

For perspective:
-Killed in the Panamanian revolution: 1 human, 1 donkey
-Earth moved to date: 29,700,000 cubic yards
-Total canal cost to date: approximately $337 million

J. Pierpont Morgan, the American financier and banker, like other leaders of the early 20th century, believed that a canal bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was a commercial necessity. When, in 1904, the U.S. government agreed to pay the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama (New Panama Canal Company) $40 million for the company's assets, including the right to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, J.P. Morgan & Co. was selected by the U.S. Treasury Secretary to arrange the funds' transfer. To do so, Morgan organized an "exchange syndicate" comprised of eight banks, five in Paris and three in New York. The firm's Paris affiliate, Morgan, Harjes & Co., managed the business in France, and J.P. Morgan & Co. headed the New York account.

In 1905, workers on the American canal project began to fall ill with yellow fever, the deadly disease that had decimated the French work force 20 years before. But the Americans, unlike the French, had a way to fight the disease.

In 1900, U.S. Army tropical disease expert Walter Reed proved what previous scientists had suspected - that the fever was transmitted not by poor sanitation or contact with infected people, but by the female member of the mosquito species Stegomyia fasciata. The following year, in fever-ridden Havana, Cuba, a Reed protege named Col. William C. Gorgas staged a successful campaign to eradicate the mosquitoes. Yellow fever disappeared.

Gorgas was assigned to Panama but ran into stiff resistance at first from budget-conscious U.S. bureaucrats who thought, incredibly, that he wanted tons of old newspapers, which he needed to seal windows for fumigating, as reading material for fever patients. Finally, in April 1905, after the fever outbreak had killed 47 workers, Gorgas got the go-ahead and funding he needed. Over the next few months, he installed $90,000 worth of wire screens on windows and sent teams of health workers on a door-to-door search for mosquitoes and their eggs. They fumigated houses, several times if necessary, and mounted a campaign against the old Panamanian custom of keeping water indoors in uncovered containers. They traced the movements of victims to determine where they'd been infected. By December, yellow fever had vanished from the Canal Zone.

For perspective:
-Supplies for eradication of yellow fever:
-1. Gallons of kerosene oil per month: 50,000
-2. Tons of sulfur: 300
-3. Brooms: 1,000
-4. Fumigation pots: 1,200
-Total canal cost to date: about $407 million

The American canal builders started out almost as badly as the French: the first wave of laborers had to drive railroad spikes with axes because they hadn't been given sledgehammers. The Roosevelt administration appointed the illustrious John Findley Wallace as head engineer. This former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers was accustomed to building low-stress projects in urban areas, and he left after just a year to take ea job in the private sector.

His successor, John Stevens, lacked a college degree, but he was a rough-hewn outdoorsman who'd extended the Great Northern Railroad through the Rockies, using a mountain pass he himself had discovered. Stevens stopped digging and spent two years methodically building the infrastructure needed to stage the massive project - everything from sewers for Panama's two cities to a bakery to supply his workers with bread. By early 1907, when Stevens was ready to resume digging, the effort was so well-organized that soon the workers were excavating 500,000 cubic yards of soil a month, more than double the best performance of the French. Stevens astutely realized that a sea-level canal would be too difficult, and convinced Roosevelt to opt for a canal with locks instead.

For perspective:
-Earth moved to date: 46,000,000 cubic yards
-Total canal cost to date: approximately $437 million

In 1907, Chief Engineer Stevens, tough as he was, began to crack under the pressure; he wrote a stinging letter to President Roosevelt accusing bureaucrats and politicians of stabbing him in the back and complaining that, "to me, the canal is only a big ditch." Roosevelt quickly replaced him with Army officer Lt. Col. George W. Goethals, who led the project through its most arduous stages, including the excavation of the mountainous Culebra Cut. During this stage of excavation workers had to brave massive landslides that sometimes set work back for months at a time.

Even so, Goethals took the efficient system that Stevens had built and pushed it to ever-astonishing levels of performance. From 1907 to 1914, Goethals' work force excavated nearly 215,000,000 cubic yards of earth, nearly three times what the French had accomplished. Goethals also supervised the construction of the locks advocated by Stevens, the biggest and most technologically advanced devices of their kind ever built. In August 1914, a cement boat, the S.S.Cristobal, made the first actual passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with Philippe Bunau-Varilla onboard. Two weeks later, on August 15, a ship named S.S. Ancon sailed on the first official interocean transit through the Panama Canal.

For perspective:

On August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal - 10 miles wide and 51 miles long - officially opened for business, forever changing the face of global trade and military power, as well as the role of the United States on the world stage. The Canal's creation is often seen as an example of U.S. triumphalism, but the story is more complex than just that.

The Canal produced great economic dividends for the first 25 years after its opening, despite massive cost overruns and delays. Relying on geographical advantage and military might, the United States captured most of these benefits. By the 1970s, however, when the Carter administration negotiated the eventual turnover of the Canal back to Panama for December 31, 1999, the strategic and economic value of the Canal had disappeared. And yet, contrary to skeptics who believed it was impossible for a fledgling nation plagued by corruption to manage the Canal, when the Panamanians finally had control, they switched the big ditch from a public utility to a for-profit corporation, ultimately running it better than their northern patrons.


The U.S. Post Office authorized a set of four postage stamps to commemorate the Panama-Pacific Exposition, with designs depicting a profile of Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1¢ - green), the Pedro Miguel Locks of the Panama Canal (2¢ - carmine), the Golden Gate (5¢ - blue), and the Discovery of San Francisco Bay (10¢ - orange yellow, and later dark orange). Except for the 2¢ denomination, the stamps were first put on sale January 1, 1913 to promote the coming Exposition and perforated 12. The 2¢ stamp was made available for sale two weeks later. These 1913 stamps are Scott Catalogue #397 - 400 and 400A.

The chief designer for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Clair Aubrey Huston, designed all four stamps which celebrated people, places, and events significant to the histories of San Francisco and Panama. Each of the stamps was inscribed "San Francisco, 1915", despite being offered for sale two years before that.

1¢ Stamp: Balboa, 1513

The 1¢ Panama-Pacific stamp commemorated the "discovery" of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519) in 1513. At age 38, Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, arriving at the shore of what he named the "South Sea" in late September. Upon making his discovery, Balboa raised his hands, his sword in one and a standard with the image of the Virgin Mary in the other, walked knee-deep into the ocean, and claimed possession of the new sea and all lands adjoining it in the name of the Spanish sovereigns. Five years later, Balboa was accused of high treason by a jealous rival, and beheaded. The vignette on this stamp was engraved by John Eissler, and the frame by Edward M. Hall. This stamp paid the postcard rate in 1913. More than 330 million of these stamps in the twelve perforation format ("perf 12") were produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.


Due to an error, the 2¢ Panama-Pacific was not released until two weeks after the others in this set. The original photograph used for the engraving showed the Pedro Miguel locks along the Panama Canal, but the first stamps printed were mistakenly labeled "Gatun Locks" instead. Those stamps were recalled and destroyed, though a few very scarce and valuable proofs remain as evidence that this mistake was made. The stamps were re-printed with the generic label "Panama Canal".

How the stamps were changed into useful condition is a marvelous philatelic story, told by Max G. Johl in Volume I of "The United States Commemorative Stamps of the Twentieth Century", published in 1947 by H. L. Lindquist, New York. Johl explains that " . . after it was decided to use a picture of the Canal on the 2¢ stamp, the Gatun Locks were selected as a subject, but the photographs sent from Panama were not usable. Director Joseph E. Ralph of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing visited the Canal model made by the Bureau of Insular Affairs (then on exhibition at the War Department) hoping to get a picture that could be used. The water was turned on, miniature ships placed in the model locks, and then photographed."

Unfortunately, the resulting image, used by Marcus W. Baldwin to engrave the vignette was not of the Gatun Locks after all! The error escaped detection until between 20 - 30 million of the stamps were printed. The Postal Department managed to destroy all of them, although a very few "Gatun Locks" proofs have survived.

Most of the 2¢ Panama-Pacific stamps were printed in the conventional shade of red used at the time, carmine. However, a very small number were printed in darker red, or "carmine lake". These stamps are exceedingly scarce and quite valuable. (Out of a pane of 70 carmine lake stamps once sold by the San Francisco Post Office, fewer than 40 still exist.) There are some purported additional color varieties in the 2¢ denomination about which philatelic experts do not necessarily agree. 2¢ was the domestic first class postage rate, so this stamp was one of the most commonly used of the Panama-Pacific series. About 500 million perf 12 Panama-Pacific 2¢ stamps were printed.


The dark blue 5¢ Panama-Pacific stamp, bearing a design engraved by L.C. Schofield, depicts the Golden Gate entrance to the San Francisco harbor at sunset. The image does not include the Golden Gate Bridge, which was not constructed until 1933-37. Five cents paid the international first-class postal rate. About 29 million perf 12 Golden Gate stamps were printed.


Original plans for this stamp's design called for using a portrait of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who discovered California in 1542, but no pictures of him could be found. Instead, the 10¢ Panama-Pacific stamp depicts the Discovery of San Francisco Bay by Gaspar Portola, another Spanish explorer. On November 4, 1769, de Portola glimpsed the bay from atop Sweeney Ridge near present-day Pacifica, California. Based on a painting by Arthur F. Mathews, the image was engraved by Marcus W. Baldwin. The stamp was printed first in orange yellow (Scott Catalogue #400) and then in darker orange (#400A) in August, 1913, causing the design to be more visible. Ten cents paid the double weight Universal Postal Union international rate or the domestic registered mail fee. It was also commonly used to pay for large weight and destination rates. About 17 million of the 10¢ stamps in perf 12 were printed, including both the orange yellow and the dark orange colors.

Because the alternate color version of the stamp was not considered a separate variety by the Postal Department, collectors did not snap up as many copies at the time, but the darker orange edition commands a much higher price today. This stamp consistently ranks in surveys for the "100 Greatest American Stamps".

During the time that the Panama-Pacific stamps were available in Post Offices, the U.S. Postal Department had been experimenting with perforation 10 stamps for a variety of reasons, one being that postal clerks found sheets of 12 perf 397stamps separated too easily. The Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue was reprinted in 1914 and 1915 at perf 10 in the green, carmine, blue and dark orange varieties. The denominations paid the same postal rates and the stamps were printed in similar numbers to their perf 12 counterparts. These stamps are recognized as a completely different issue than the first four stamps and have different Scott Catalogue numbers: #400 - 404. Perf 10 stamps are prone to "short perfs" that result from the extra effort it takes to separate them from the sheet of stamps - just the opposite problem that postmasters had complained of with the perf 12 stamps. The perforation teeth of the perf 10 stamps have a shorter, blunter appearance.

The 1¢ green Balboa stamp at perf 10 was issued in late 1914. The 2¢ carmine Panama Canal and 5¢ Golden Gate perf 10 stamps were issued early in 1915. The 10¢ Discovery of San Francisco Bay perf 10 stamp was released some months later and was actually only on sale for about 6 months since the stamps were no longer available after the Exposition closed in December, 1915. Largely overlooked by dealers and collectors at the time, the 1915 10¢ perf 10 stamp is now one of the most desirable "non-errored" U.S. commemorative stamps of the 20th century. It can be far more costly than any of the other stamps in the set.

The Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue are the only U.S. flat plate commemorative ever produced in more than one perforation. However, since the 1914-15 stamps looked the same, collectors purchased fewer of them when they were released - they didn't seem like anything new at first glance. They are scarcer and more valuable today than their perf 12 counterparts.


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Early Postage Stamps

On July 1, 1847, the United States Post Office Department released its first two stamps, marking the beginning...


1869 Pictorial Issue

In March 1869, the Post Office Department issued a set of ten stamps that broke from convention. While the faces of...


1893 Columbian Exposition

1893 marked nearly the end of the Gilded Age (1870 - 1900), the early...


1898 Trans-Mississipi Exposition Issue

The transformation of the United States from an agricultural to an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society brought about...


1901 Pan-American Exposition Issue

1901 found the U.S. still in the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), a time of intense social and political change in American society...


1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition Issue

The United States was well into the Progressive Era (about...


1907 Jamestown Exposition Issue

With the assassination of President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, not quite 43...


1909 Commemorative

The Gilded Age and the first years of the 20th century were a time of great social change and economic growth in the United States...


1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Issue

The United States was far into the Progressive Era by 1915 and many of its ideal reforms had been implemented or soon would be...


1918 Jenny Airmail

When war exploded across Europe in August, 1914, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made a decision...


1920 Pilgrm Tercentenary Issue

The 1920s were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation's...



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-Estimated height of earth excavated if it were piled: 1 city block wide x 19 miles high
-Earth moved to date: 262,000,000 cubic yards
-Total canal cost to date: approximately $639 million