No singular even in America during the 20th Century had more philatelic content than the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Originally intended to commemorate Chicago’s past, the Century of Progress Exposition came to symbolize hope for Chicago’s and America’s future in the midst of the Great Depression.
This was Chicago’s second world’s fair and as Chicago had done with its 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Century of Progress Exposition responded to an atmosphere of economic, political, and social crisis, shaped this time by the economic recession that followed America’s victory in World War I, the ensuing Red Scare, Chicago’s 1919 Race Riots, and Chicago’s notorious gangster violence.
Chicago held the Century of Progress Exposition to celebrate the 100thanniversary of its founding, in 1833. To mark the occasion, the United States Post Office released two commemorative stamps, a 1-cent stamp (Scott #728) depicting Fort Dearborn an early outpost that was used to protect the area’s first settlers and a 3-cent stamp (Scott #729) depicting the Federal Building, symbolizing Chicago’s place in the future.
Each stamp was issued in the traditional sheet of 100 perforated stamps. An additional souvenir sheet was issued for each stamp (Scott #730 and #731), consisting of a sheet of 25 stamps imperforate. the second stamp being the purple three cent Chicago Century of Progress: Federal Building stamp. The exposition highlighted the progress that Chicago and the United States had made in technology and other fields over the preceding 100 years. The design of the stamp features the Federal Building, one of the iconic structures featured at the Exposition.
A third issue for the Century of Progress Exposition was the airmail issue known today as the ‘baby zeph’ Scott #C18, this new stamp had the same dimensions and printing characteristics as the previous three zeppelin stamps issued in 1930. The new 50 Cent stamp depicted the Graf Zeppelin over the ocean, with the Federal Building, in Chicago, on the left, and its hangar, in Friedrichshaven on the right. The inscription reads A CENTURY OF PROGRESS FLIGHT.
The new issue became part of a most notable event of interest to stamp collectors, the visit of the Graf Zeppelin German airship on October 26, 1933. After circling Lake Michigan near the exposition for two hours, Commander Hugo Eckener landed the 776-foot airship at the nearby Curtiss-Wright Airport in Glenview. After only 25 minutes on the ground the airship departed for Akron, Ohio ahead of an approaching weather.
For some Chicagoans, however, the appearance of the Graf Zeppelin over their fair city was not a welcome sight, as the airship had become a prominent reminder of the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler to power earlier that same year. This triggered dissension in the days following its visit, particularly within the city’s large German-American population.
Another interesting event of note for stamp collectors was a new system for the concept of snagging mailbags on the fly, without having to land. Promoted by inventor Lytle Adams and Braniff Airways the system reduced by four-fifths the time necessary for picking up mail from small towns. An exhibition of this improvement in the speed and efficiency of the air mail system was given at the Exposition Lagoon, October 4, 1934. Apparently the idea worked, given the right combination of equipment and pilot.
Another European Aviation visit to the fair that generated a lasting legacy in the stamp collecting world was the visit of the Italian Aviators, led by Italian Air Marshal Italo Balbo, to the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition.
One of the highlights of the fair occurred when Italian aviator Italo Balbo led a squadron of 24 Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats in a historic transatlantic flight from Rome to Chicago, landing on Lake Michigan near the fairgrounds.
In honor of his journey to the Century of Progress, Chicago renamed 7th Street Balbo Drive. However, the street name is not the only lingering reminder of Balbo’s visit. In an additional gesture of generosity, Mussolini plundered a Roman column, dating from the second century A.D., from a portico near the Porta Marina of Ostica Antica, the ancient port city of Rome. The column was shipped to Chicago and erected in front of the Italian pavilion of the Century of Progress fair in 1934, after Balbo’s flight.
Today the Balbo Monument, as it is known, is one of, perhaps even the only structures remaining from the Century of Progress. It can be found in lonely isolation in Burnham Park, near the lakefront bike trail just east of Soldier Field. The 2,000 year-old column from Ostica Antica stands on a travertine marble base with a fading inscription in both Italian and English that reads, “This column, twenty centuries old, was erected on the beach of Ostia, the port of Imperial Rome, to watch over the fortunes and victories of the Roman triremes. Fascist Italy, with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini, presents to Chicago a symbol and memorial in honor of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo, which with Roman daring, flew across the ocean in the 11th year of the Fascist era.”
Balbo’s armada of 24 Savoia Marchetti S. 55X hydroplanes flew from Italy to Montreal, Canada. On July 14, 1933 the armada departed Montréal for their final destination, the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. This Canadian visit is commemorated on an overprint of the Newfoundland Air Post issue, Scott #C18
Overshadowed in history by the visit of the Zeppelin German airship on October 26, 1933, a previous visit by an airship, the United States Airship Macon occurred in the Spring of 1933. Just one more event showing the link between aviation, progress and stamp collecting.
Another even at the Exposition that is commemorated for philatelists is the high altitude ascent of the Stratosphere balloon ‘Century of Progress’. Introduced to the public on August 5, 1933 in the skies over the Exposition, on November 20,1933 the ‘Century of progress’ reached a height of 61,000 feet (18,592 meters). The balloon carried two instruments to measure how gas conducted cosmic rays, a cosmic ray telescope, a polariscope for study of the polarization of light at high altitudes, fruit flies to study genetic mutations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and an infrared camera to study the ozone layer.
All totaled, the Chicago Century of Progress was an overwhelming success, with 40 million visitors and a range of philatelic items that touch nearly every stamp collection today from the novice to the specialists, and particularly in the area of flight covers.
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(NOTE: Some of the scans in this blog are from our stock and some were copied from sources on the internet)