Columbus Sighted on Stamps from Near and Far

Today, October 10, is Columbus Day, once regaled as the opening of the Western hemisphere to the Old World and now the focal point among historians to reflect and interpret the archaic practices of territorial expansion of that time. Political and social views notwithstanding, Columbus certainly has a place in the world of stamp collecting.

When the 400th anniversaries of Christopher Columbus’ voyages were observed starting in 1892, there were celebrations noting the Italian-born explorer’s excursions to the Americas. Of particular note was the World’s Columbian Exposition, essentially a world’s fair, in Chicago. That’s when the United States Post Office Department issued its first-ever commemoratives, a handsome engraved set of 16, including several unprecedented high-denomination stamps. The stamps are called “Columbians” among collectors.

Only a handful of countries were issuing commemoratives at that time, or noting personalities other than monarchs and founders. Among the exceptions were Venezuela, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico, which issued its only commemorative stamp in 1893. The stamp was sold only on one day and honors Columbus. Chile’s first stamps in 1853 featured Columbus and it issued dozens more with several designs into the early 20th century.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day — traditionally October 12 and later changed to the second Monday in October — a holiday in the United States, and the day was celebrated with school lessons, parades, and festivals.

By 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyages, many more countries were issuing stamps and commemoratives, including many in the Americas with connections to Columbus, not to mention Spain and Italy.

The 500th anniversary also brought historical and political criticism of what happened to indigenous peoples during Columbus’ time. In reaction, celebrations were curtailed, some locales eliminated the holiday, and social awareness and school lessons were altered to reflect a more realistic view of the era, including the tragic loss and drastic changes in lives and lifestyles of indigenous peoples.

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