When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Canada decided it was the perfect opportunity to issue its first commemorative postage stamps. That was a suitable response to the big occasion, you might think. But the postal authority went on to baffle the public by releasing too many high values, and too few low values!
The set was to be made up of sixteen stamps with face values ranging from half a cent to five dollars. Recess-printed by the American Banknote Company in Ottawa, the sixteen stamps would share a common design. The design included facing portraits of the Queen as a young woman in 1837 and one of her in middle age from 1867, over the dates ‘1837’ and ‘1897’, the years of her accession to the throne and jubilee. In between were the initials ‘VRI’ (for ‘Victoria Regina et Imperatrix’) below a crown. Although the design is recognised as a classic today, the issue attracted controversy from the start.
When Canadian Postmaster General William Mulock announced the proposed issue in the Parliament in May 1897, his statement included the denominations and the numbers of each that were to be printed. These figures raised eyebrows for two reasons. Firstly, it was deemed that only 75,000 of the 1-cent and 150,000 of the 6-cent denominations were required, as they were expected to be little used. These were surprisingly small numbers, so demand for the two values was quickly swelled by interest from speculators. Secondly, denominations of both 4-dollars and 5-dollars where included, at a time when the maximum amount that was needed to prepay postage in the highest weight category was 3.59-dollars. In short, the two highest values in the set were not required for any postal purposes.
A huge crowd had assembled at the main Toronto post office by the time the doors opened on the day of issue, June 19, 1897. The first customer was a local stamp dealer who asked for $100 worth of 1-cent and 6-cent values only. This order was refused, and after a while all customers were told they would only be allowed to buy these two values as part of a complete set. That decision was not popular, and police reinforcements had to be called in to control the crowd.
A combination of the issue’s redundant high values and the feeding frenzy over speculation of the lower values led the editor of a contemporary philatelic journal, the Boston Stamp Book, to dismiss the new issue in strident terms. ‘Of all the swindling, outrageously mismanaged, worthless issues of stamps that were ever made available for postage in a civilised country, they are the worst,’ he wrote.
Despite the initial publicity problems surrounding the release of the 1897 Jubilee Issue, these first sixteen commemorative stamps of Canada are among the most recognizable and popular postage stamps ever issued by that country.