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Stamps That Celebrate the Opening of the Panama Canal

Proof impression from the die for the 5c value in the series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, cropped
Proof impression from the die for the 5c value in the series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, cropped

Proof impression from the die for the 5c value in the series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal
Proof impression from the die for the 5c value in the series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal
Blocks from the proofs showing arrows separating panes on full sheets of 200. These blocks are from the proofs of the full sheets of the 3c and 5c stamps produced just before the stamps are printed. These plate proofs are available for study at the museum.
Blocks from the proofs showing arrows separating panes on full sheets of 200. These blocks are from the proofs of the full sheets of the 3c and 5c stamps produced just before the stamps are printed. These plate proofs are available for study at the museum.

On August 15, 1939, the Canal Zone Postal Service issued a series of 16 commemorative stamps to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the canal.  The stamps were paired, showing before and after versions of the same scenes. The 3c and 5c stamps, for example, shown below, depicted before and after images of the Gaillard cut.(1) The name of this cut, the passage excavated between Contractors Hill and Gold Hill,  was changed in 1915 from the Culebra Cut to the Gaillard Cut, in honor of Lt. Col. David Gaillard. Col. Gaillard was Division Engineer of the stretch of the canal between the Pedro Miguel and Gatun locks, which includes the Culebra Cut.(2)

The story of the development of the designs is as interesting as the stamps themselves. It began in August 1938, aboard the U.S.S. Houston, the U.S. Navy ship shown on the 7c stamp in this anniversary series. When the ship reached Balboa, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was aboard on a visit to the Canal Zone, was presented with a photograph album by a group of “Canal Diggers,” led by Mr. C. A. McIlvaine, Executive Secretary of The Panama Canal.  The album contained photos depicting canal scenes of the construction era matched with pictures of the same area showing the completed job.(3)

Pencil sketches for possible 3c and 5c designs illustrate the before and after idea.
Pencil sketches for possible 3c and 5c designs illustrate the before and after idea.

In a memorandum of August 8, 1938, from Panama Canal Postal Inspector Stacey Russell to the Director of Posts, Mr. Russell recounts a later conversation about stamps with President Roosevelt, an avid philatelist, in which the President stated that he would like to see a special series of Canal Zone stamps issued to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Canal. He elaborated on his remark by stating “for instance, that we might get out a one-cent stamp showing the Culebra Cut in the midst of construction activity, showing as much machinery and trains as possible, and as its counterpart a 2c stamp embracing a view taken from the same relative position at present.” The President commented that “the contrast between things old and new in the Canal Zone was an idea worthy of consideration for use on postage stamps.”(4)

Image of rejected side-by-side design for the proposed 5c stamp(5)
Image of rejected side-by-side design for the proposed 5c stamp(5)
Image courtesy of The Canal Zone Philatelist

The postal authorities immediately started work on this “before and after” concept, initially deciding to have both scenes on the same stamp. The pencil sketches indicating the possible concept of before and after designs for the 3c and 5c values resulted in designs like the combined image of the Gaillard cut labeled 1911 and 1939.

J. C. Benning, Superintendent of the Engraving Division of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, convinced the Canal Zone postal authorities that it was impractical to have both scenes on the same stamp. Thus they decided to have the scenes on separate stamps. The scenes that were used for the individual stamps were from official Canal Zone photographs.

Original photos incorporated in mock-ups for the final designs for the 3c and 5c values
Original photos incorporated in mock-ups for the final designs for the 3c and 5c values

The mock-ups include a frame with a common heading used for all values. This heading read “CANAL ZONE POSTAGE/25th ANNIVERSARY 1939/OPENING PANAMA CANAL 1914” at the top, plus the name of the geographic feature identified across the bottom.

The 1c and 2c stamps show before and after scenes of Balboa, the 3c and 5c depict the Gaillard Cut, the 6c and 7c show Bas Obispo, the 8c and 10c show the Gatun Locks, the 11c and 12c depict the Canal Channel, the 14c and 15c show Gamboa, the 18c and 20c show the Pedro Miguel Locks, and the 25c and 50c depict the Gatan Spillway. There were also six commemorative air mail stamps issued on July 15, 1939 which served two functions. They were part of the 25th anniversary commemoration and also celebrated the 10th anniversary of air mail service to and from the Canal Zone which began in February 1929.

In 1962, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the canal was commemorated by a set of six air mail stamps. The Canal Zone Postal Service ceased operation in 1979. No U.S. or Canal Zone stamps commemorating the 75th anniversary of the opening of the canal were issued, and the 100th anniversary, which occurs in August 2014, will also pass without any commemorative issue by the U.S.

References

1) Canal Zone Stamps, Gilbert N. Plass, Geoffrey Brewster, and Richard H. Salz, The Canal Zone Study Group, 1986, page 197.
2) op. cit., page 180.
3) Canal Zone Postal Stamps, Canal Zone Postal Service/Canal Zone Government/Balboa Heights, Canal Zone, 1961, page 259.
4) Canal Zone Stamps, Gilbert N. Plass, Geoffrey Brewster, and Richard H. Salz, The Canal Zone Study Group, 1986, page 194.
5) Five Rejected Designs of the 25th Anniversary Issue are Found,“ Tom Brougham, The Canal Zone Philatelist 44(2):13, 17-8 (2008).

Written by Richard D. Bates, Jr.
August 2014