20¢ Cable Car
Transportation Series Coil
Issue Date: October 28, 1988
City: San Francisco, CA
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Engraved
Perforations: 10 vertically
Color: Blue violet
At the turn of the century, cable cars were a common sight in American cities from New York to Seattle. Originally invented by British-born Andrew Hallidie, who felt sorry for the poor horses who struggled to pull streetcars up San Francisco's precipitous grades, these nostalgic cars still take the city's visitors "halfway to the stars."
The Transportation Series
A ground-breaking stamp was quietly issued on May 18, 1981. For the first time in U.S. history, a coil stamp featured its own unique design rather than simply copying that of the current definitive stamp. Fifty more coil stamps would be issued over the course of the next 15 years, each picturing a different mode of transportation.
The various denominations provided face values to exactly match the rates for several categories of Third Class mail (bulk rate and quanity-discounted mail). As the rates changed, new stamps with new values were added. Never before had a stamp series included so many fractional cent values.
Most of the stamps in the Transportation Series were printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, although a few were printed by private contractors. All but a few of the later stamps were produced by engraved intaglio. Differences in precancels, tagging, paper and gum provide a large number of varieties.
San Francisco’s First Cable Car
On August 2, 1873, Clay Street Hill Railroad inaugurated San Francisco’s now-famous cable car system.
The city of San Francisco, California, is known for its steep hills. In the early days, horses pulled streetcars up and down the slopes, which was very hard on the animals. British-born San Franciscan Andrew S. Hallidie felt great sympathy for these horses and sought a better way to transport people around the city.
In years prior, earlier attempts at creating a cable-run train had failed in both London and New York, and were eventually replaced with steam locomotives. Hallidie’s work was the manufacture of wire cable, so it was only natural that he invented the cable car as a solution to this problem.
With design assistance from William Eppelsheimer, Hallidie patented his cable car design in 1871. Hallidie’s cable car was propelled by gripping a continuously moving cable that ran under the pavement. Although similar in principle to a ski lift, the cable car was able to connect and remove itself from the line as needed.
Two years later, Hallidie was ready for a trial run. The maiden voyage was held on August 2, 1873. Hallidie operated the cable car himself, down and back up one of the city’s steepest hills with no problem. The 2,791 foot-long track moved the car at just four miles per hour. Passengers took eleven minutes to travel that distance. The world’s first successful cable car line began regular service one month later.
After that first successful run, the number of cable cars increased until they became a symbol of the city. Hallidie’s Clay Street Line would remain in operation until 1942.
Cable soon cars became popular in many cities. Over time, buses and cars have taken over much of their usefulness. However, the steep hills of San Francisco are still traveled by 37 cable cars.
Click here to view photos of the Clay Street Hill and other cable cars at the Cable Car Museum’s website.