1913 5¢ Panama-Pacific Exposition Commemorative
Issue Date: January 13, 1913
City: Washington, D.C.
Quantity issued: 29,088,726
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Method: Flat plate
Watermark: Single line
This 1913 commemorative stamp series was issued to publicize the upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition that was held in San Francisco. The exposition commemorated the discovery of the Pacific Ocean as well as the construction of the Panama Canal.
San Francisco was the Pacific stopover for much of the shipping that passed through the Panama Canal between the East and West coasts. The San Francisco Harbor was once the location from which most ships set sail across the Pacific bound for the Orient. Today, it’s best known as the setting of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Panama-Pacific Commemoratives
The first of the Panama-Pacific commemoratives was issued on January 1, 1913, to publicize the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, a World’s Fair commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal and the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. The new stamps were popular with the public. However, it wasn’t long before the Post Office Department began hearing complaints that the stamp’s paper was too brittle.
In an effort to make the stamps stronger, perforating machines were altered from 12 perforations per two centimeters to 10 perforations per two centimeters. The Panama-Pacific commemoratives were among the first stamps to be reissued with the higher-gauge perforations.
U.S. #399 – one of the early perf. 12 stamps – pictures a sunrise at the world-famous Golden Gate Strait of San Francisco. This 4-mile-long waterway, which links San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean, was discovered in 1579 by Sir Francis Drake. It was named “Chrysopylae” or“Golden Gate” around 1846 by Captain John Frémont because it reminded him of a harbor in Istanbul, Turkey, named “Chrysoceras” or “Golden Horn.” Today, Golden Gate Strait is spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge – one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
Issued When the Engraver’s Art Reigned Supreme
The best way to appreciate this stamp is through close personal examination, as it’s really a miniature masterpiece. You need to look at it closely under a magnifying glass and examine one delicate line of the engraving – imagining the engraver slowly cutting it into a flat metal plate. Then widen your vision just a little and see how the lines begin to blend together forming shadows and shapes. When you examine the entire vignette (the central portion of the design) you’ll really appreciate how the engraver captured – by painstakingly carving all those tiny individual lines – the natural beauty of sunrise on San Francisco Bay.
Many collectors consider #399 one of the most attractive stamps ever issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Some even consider it superior to the 5¢ Bridge at Niagara Falls stamp from the Pan-American series – in spite of the two-color printing of the latter stamp.
On February 20, 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition opened in San Francisco, California.
As early as 1891, businessmen from San Francisco had wanted to host a world’s fair in their city. They wanted to show the rest of the nation the progress they had made in transforming the small frontier town into a growing city complete with the world’s most active mint.
Businessman Rueben Hale first submitted a proposal for the fair in 1904. He proposed that it honor the completion of the Panama Canal, which was not yet done. Congress put off the decision. But then in April 1906, San Francisco was hit with one of the worst earthquakes in US history, destroying about 80 percent of the city. The fair’s organizers rebuilt their businesses but were still set on hosting the fair, now determined to show the world how they would recover from this natural disaster. In 1911, President Taft signed a resolution naming San Francisco the home of the Panama Pacific Exposition.
In just four years, the fair’s organizers would purchase land, demolish over 200 buildings, fill in marshland, and build up the 635-acre fair. Opening day finally came on February 20, 1915. The state’s governor at the time declared the day a legal holiday. Despite the rainy weather, a parade of 150,000 residents and visitors marched through the streets leading up to the fairgrounds. The group stretched about two and a half miles. The gates opened at 10 am, followed by speeches and prayers at the Tower of Jewels. Then at noon, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a gold telegraph key in Washington, DC. That sent a signal to the antenna at the Tower of Jewels that opened the doors of the exhibition palaces and sent water rushing from the Fountain of Energy.
The fair included a number of fascinating attractions. In the Palace of Transportation, the Ford Motor Company had a working assembly line on display that produced a new automobile every 10 minutes. Many people had their first opportunity to see a plane in action with the Loughead (later changed to Lockheed) brothers taking fairgoers on 10-minute flights and Lincoln Beachey and Art Smith performing aerial stunts.
Alexander Graham Bell also had a transatlantic telephone set up. Just a month after he’d made the first transatlantic call, he had a phone set up at the fair connected to one in New York where a person on the other end read newspaper headlines and played music. Visitors were also treated to a 5-acre working model of the Panama Canal Zone.
The fair ran until December 4, 1915. During that time, over 18 million visitors attended the fair.
As early as 1904, the Post Office Department began planning a set of commemoratives to advertise the exposition to celebrate both the discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the completion of the Panama Canal. By 1912, the designs for the 1¢, 2¢, and 5¢ stamps had been prepared and approved. However, the design for the 10c issue posed a problem. Originally, the stamp was to depict Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who discovered the California mainland in 1542. But efforts to find a portrait of him proved unsuccessful. Eventually, a painting of the discovery of San Francisco Bay was unearthed. Found to be an acceptable design, it was adopted by the Post Office Department, and work on the stamp progressed rapidly. Six short months later, the Panama-Pacific Commemoratives were placed on sale.
Due to the fact that the exposition didn’t open until February 1915, the series remained current for nearly three years – longer than any other commemorative! However, the Post Office began to receive complaints that regular issue stamps were too brittle, so they started issuing stamps with 10 perforations per two centimeters, instead of the previous 12. The Panama-Pacific set was reissued with the new perforation size. However, since collectors had already purchased the perf. 12 stamps, the newer issues were mostly ignored. This makes them scarcer today.