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Stamps of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair

Chicago Century of Progress- 1c yellow green Fort Dearborn single, May 25, 1933
1c yellow green Fort Dearborn single, May 25, 1933

In 1933 the city of Chicago staged its second world’s fair, A Century of Progress, to celebrate its centennial. In just one hundred years the city had grown from a small community formed around a trading post and a federal fort to the fourth largest city in the world. The city boosters were proud of their skyscrapers and industrial wares even though the city’s reputation more often conjured images of organized crime.

3c violet Federal Building single, May 25, 1933
Century of Progress, Chicago 1833-1933- 3c violet Federal Building single, May 25, 1933

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 (Scott 728 and 729). 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 (Arthur Brown Jr. and Edward H. Bennett, architects). 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 element.

On June 1 James A. Farley, postmaster general, opened A Century of Progress 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.

1c and 3c on first day of issue with slogan cancel promoting the fair and cachet design by Linprint, addressed to collector Emma Batchelor
1c and 3c on first day of issue with slogan cancel promoting the fair and cachet design by Linprint, addressed to collector Emma Batchelor

For the American Philatelic Society convention, held August 21 to 26 at the Medinah Michigan Athletic Club in Chicago’s central business district, the post office issued the same two stamp designs but in a different format (Scott 730 and 731). The original stamps were printed in plates of four hundred with four panes of one hundred on a rotary press and perforated. On August 25, un-gummed souvenir sheets of twenty-five stamps were flat plate printed in the U.S. government exhibit. They were printed in plates of 225 subjects in nine panes of twenty-five each. These had inscriptions in the margins “Printed by the Treasury Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing—Under Authority of James A. Farley, Postmaster-General, at Century of Progress,—in Compliment to the American Philatelic Society for its Convention and Exhibition—Chicago, Illinois, August, 1933 (plus plate #).”

Two more varieties appeared March 15, 1935, after collector protests following the discovery that complete sheets had been presented as gifts to government officials. The special printing of several stamp issues to make these presentation varieties available for collectors is often called “Farley’s Follies.” The special printing of the world’s fair stamps (Scott 766 and 767) were flat plate printing without perforations from sheets of nine panes of twenty-five stamps, each with vertical and horizontal gutters between the panes.

50c green Graf Zeppelin single, October 2, 1933
A Century of Progress Flight- 50c green Graf Zeppelin single, October 2, 1933

The 50-cent green Graf Zeppelin stamp (Scott C18) depicted the famous German airship over the Atlantic Ocean with the hangar at Friedrichshafen at right and the Federal Building of A Century of Progress at left. The Federal Building 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 fifty each.

The Zeppelin Company (Luftshiffbau Zeppelin G.m.b.H.) agreed to fly to Chicago and 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 fifty 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.

3c violet block with crossed gutters, March 15, 1935
Century of Progress, Chicago 1833-1933, Federal Building- 3c violet block with crossed gutters, March 15, 1935

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. Further, a Chicago Daily Times newspaper editorial (October 26, 1933, page 5) praised the Graf Zeppelin visit to Chicago as emphasizing the internationality of A Century of Progress and the kind of progress the fair was designed to celebrate.


Learn More

Bauer, Brian C. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Stamps of the United States 1933-45 (Sidney, Ohio: Linn’s Stamp News, 1993).

Ganz, Cheryl R. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress (Champaign, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

Written by Cheryl R. Ganz
June 2008

Additional Imagery

  • 1c deep yellow green sheet of 25, August 25, 1933
    Chicago Century of Progress- 1c deep yellow green sheet of 25, August 25, 1933
  • 3c deep violet sheet of 25, August 25, 1933
    Federal Building- 3c deep violet sheet of 25, August 25, 1933
  • 1c yellow green block with crossed gutters, March 15, 1935
    Fort Dearborn- 1c yellow green block with crossed gutters, March 15, 1935

  • 50c Graf Zeppelin stamp on envelope flown by Graf Zeppelin from Miami to Chicago with embossed PMG corner card and autograph of PMG James Farley
    50c Graf Zeppelin stamp on envelope flown by Graf Zeppelin from Miami to Chicago with embossed PMG corner card and autograph of PMG James Farley
  • Bess Dear: The special stamp on this letter was issued to commemorate the transatlantic flight of the Graf Zeppelin to the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, which takes place this month. At the right of the stamp is shown the hangar at Friedrichshafen, and at the left the Federal Building at the Century of Progress Exposition. The central design of this stamp depicts the Graf Zeppelin in flight over the Atlantic enroute to Chicago from Friedrichshafen. It is our sincere hope that the forthcoming flight and this special stamp will serve to strengthen the bond of friendship between the two Nations. Lovingly, (signature). October 16, 1933- Enclosure from flown Graf Zeppelin envelope to PMG Farley's wife on his official stationery
    Enclosure from flown Graf Zeppelin envelope to PMG Farley’s wife on his official stationery