Written by Henry M. Holden
All stamps copyright United States Postal Service
Inaugurated in the early 20th Century, airmail was a premium service which required paying special postal rates. U.S. airmail stamps document the early history of commercial aviation – from biplanes to Zeppelins, flying boats, and jets.
In the Early years of commercial aviation, the revenue from airmail was used to subsidize the airlines who were losing money on the inefficient passenger aircraft.
It took a few years for the post office to realize that certain kinds of stamps were not only to pay postage with but many of the stamps were done so well artistically that people would collect them and build stamp albums where uncancelled stamps would grow in value.
Between 1917 and 1918, there were four airmail stamps issued. One of them was a printing error, where the airplane, a JN-4 Jenny was printed upside down. Today these uncancelled stamps would garner thousands of dollars.
Between 1920 and 1929, eight airmail stamps were issued. As the popularity of airmail began to grow, and the successful solo transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh more commemorative stamps were issued. The decade between 1930 and 1939 which some called the “Golden Age of Aviation”saw 15 airmail stamps issued.
In the decade that followed the world went to war. Twenty-one stamps were issued with one stamp being issued in seven different colors.
Things began to slow down in the decade of the 1950s with 12 airmail stamps issued.
Things picked up in the 1960s with 20 stamps issued. The end of that decade saw an airmail stamp acknowledging the first man on the Moon. Many more space-related stamps would follow.
In the 1970s 14 airmail stamps were issued but instead of featuring airplanes or famous aviation people, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and other non-aviation related people and places became part of the philatelic landscape. Only seven stamps featuring airplanes made the hall of fame that year.
In October 1903, Samuel P. Langley made two failed attempts at powered flight in his Aerodrome, from a houseboat on the Potomac River. Langley received $50,000 from Congress to develop his aeroplane, and his years of experiments provided inspiration for later innovators, including the Wright brothers, Glenn L. Martin and Glenn Curtiss.
On Sept. 25, 1911, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock presided over the first airmail flight, 1.7 miles from Garden City, N.Y., to Mineola, on Long Island, N.Y. A year later, the first aviation stamp, a 20-cent parcel post stamp, was released. It coincided with the first unofficial airmail flight in the nation from one post office to another, South Amboy, to Perth Amboy, in New Jersey, a leap of 3.8 miles.
In 1917, Congress appropriated $100,000 for an airmail service. The first airmail stamp – a 24-cent stamp that covered postage from New York to Washington, – was issued in May 1918. The new stamp was supposed to promote airmail. The rate was 24 cents per ounce, and the stamp received a great amount of publicity—more publicity than many stamps that followed. The stamp pictured a Curtiss Jenny JN-4 that carried the mail. It is widely recognized today because a pane of 100 was accidentally printed and sold with the plane inverted.
New airmail stamps appeared irregularly at first, usually to commemorate a historical event. An 8-cent stamp, appearing in 1923, featured an airplane radiator and a wooden propeller, acknowledging the famous, although unreliable Liberty engine.
Also, in 1923, a de Havilland biplane was pictured on a 24-cent stamp, one of the few times foreign-built aircraft appeared on a U.S. stamp. The Jenny and de Havilland were mainstays of airmail until William Boeing and Donald Douglas introduced their mail-planes.
On July 1, 1924, regular airmail service across the country was established. Airmail was divided into three zones: New York to Chicago, Il. Chicago to Cheyenne, Wy. and Cheyenne to San Francisco, CA. Mailing a letter cost eight cents per zone, so stamps were issued in denominations of 8, 16, and 24.
In February of 1926, the Post Office contracted private companies to distribute airmail. Three stamps were issued for use on these contract airmail routes (CAMs), each depicting the U.S. map.
Charles Lindbergh’s historical flight in May 1927 inspired one of the most popular airmail stamps issued, which featured his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
By the time of the International Aeronautical Conference in Washington, D.C., in December 1928, high and low-wing monoplanes were in use, but the Post Office chose to mark the conference event with a stamp picturing the Wright brothers’ Flyer. Over the years, the Flyer has appeared on six stamps. The Wright brothers themselves were first honored on a stamp in 1949, and again on a matched set of stamps in 1976.
Airmail service across the Pacific was taken over by the Post Office Department in November 1935, and Pan Am was chosen as the carrier. A stamp was issued for the three trans-Pacific zones: San Francisco to Hawaii, Hawaii to Guam, and Guam to the Philippine Islands. It originally cost 25 cents per zone.
Cross-Atlantic airmail began on May 20, 1939, as Pan Am delivered mail from New York to Marseilles, France, traveling through Portugal on the way. Although this service didn’t last long because of World War II, a 30-cent stamp was issued specifically for this route.
Between June 25, 1941, and October 29, 1941, a tri-tailed “Twin Motored Transport Plane” was featured on U.S. airmail stamps in 6-, 8-, 10-, 15-, 20- 30 and 50- cent dominations. Each denomination appeared in a different color. The actual plane was only an artist’s conception and is an amalgam of several different designs, but apparently largely based on the Douglas DC-3 aircraft, the Lockheed Electra, and the Beech 18.
After World War II, many commemorative stamps were released, such as a stamp to honor the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union in 1949 and another to honor the 50th anniversary of airmail service in 1968.
As new airplanes were built, some found their way onto stamps, but many did not. The same was true for famous aviators. Women and African Americans have been part of aviation from its earliest days, yet only a few of either have made this hall of fame.
Although domestic air mail became obsolete in 1975, and international ai mail in 1995, when the USPS began transporting First Class mail by air on a routine basis the commemorative commercial aviation stamps continued. .
Amelia Earhart, probably the world’s most famous female pilot, showed up twice; her Lockheed Electra was in the background on her first stamp. Blanche Stuart Scott was the first American woman to solo in 1910; Scott’s 1910 Curtiss pusher was in the background on her stamp, which appeared in 1980. Glenn Curtiss was honored with a stamp that same year.
Harriet Quimby, the first American woman licensed as a pilot in August 1911, appeared on a 50-cent airmail stamp in April 1991. Quimby had been scheduled to fly the first airmail from Boston to New York in 1912 but was killed in an airplane accident the day before she was to fly the mail.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. Because of racial discrimination at home, Coleman took her flight lessons and earned her license in France in 1921.
Conspicuously absent until 1996 was Jackie Cochran, a controversial woman who held while she was alive, more speed, distance and altitude records than anyone else, male or female. Cochran believed that women were equal to men in piloting skills and promoted women in aviation throughout her career.
More than a dozen men are honored, but William Boeing, designer of the Model 247, “the world’s first modern commercial airliner,” had a long wait (2005) before the 247 made it to the hall of fame. Boeing’s Stratocruiser appears on two stamps in 1947, and again in 1949 at the height of its popularity.
Donald W. Douglas was responsible for successful commercial airplanes ranging from the DC-1 to the DC-10, and dozens of military planes, but he is also missing from this hall of fame. His Douglas’ DC-4 made it to a stamp at the height of its popularity, in 1945. His DC-3, “The plane that changed the world,” made it to a 36-cent postcard in 1988, 53 years after its birth. The economy of the DC-3 allowed commercial airlines to turn a profit from just passenger fares alone and not have to rely on mail subsidies. However, the subsidies did not stop, and the commemorative stamps continue today albeit fewer in commercial aviation. The DC-3 earned its own stamp in 1997, as part of a 20-stamp commemorative sheet of Classic American Aircraft.
Leonardo da Vinci left drawings of a helicopter, dating back to 1410, yet he never made a stamp. Igor Sikorsky, the Russian emigrant who pioneered the first practical helicopter design, earned a stamp in June 1988. His VS-300, which first flew in 1939, was in the background on his stamp.
Lawrence and Elmer Sperry were responsible for development of the autopilot and the directional gyroscope in the late 1920s. They were honored in 1985. Alfred V. Verville’s contribution to aviation was a plane called the Packard-Verville with a 638-hp engine, billed as the “wonder plane of the Army.” This low-wing monoplane was, in its day, a leap in technology. In the first Pulitzer Trophy Race in 1920, it averaged 156.5 mph over the 116-mile closed course. Verville was honored with a stamp on Feb. 13, 1985.
In 1933, Wiley Post set a round-the-world speed record of eight days, 15 hours, 51 minutes, beating the Graf Zeppelin’s longstanding record by more than 12 days. Post flew his way onto a pair of stamps in 1979. One stamp showed his Lockheed Vega, Winnie Mae. Because Post was also a pioneer of high-altitude flying, the second stamp showed him in a pressure suit.
A stamp in 1927 marked airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh’s first transatlantic flight. But Lindbergh and his aviator wife and flying partner, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are absent from this hall of fame, although not from stamps in Gambia, Ghana and a few other countries. The Ryan monoplane Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic showed up twice, but the plane’s designer, T. Claude Ryan, is absent from the hall of fame.
1977 USPS First Day Cover issued to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. Postmarked May 20, 1977. Glenn L. Martin is also absent but his Martin 202 shows up.
This hall of fame is far from complete, but it does provide a small overview of aviation history. In the years to come, more aviation stamps will be produced, but some events and persons who justifiably should earn a spot will never be thus honored. Such is life, and aviation history, as told by the U.S. Postal Service.
Rocket Mail – a Postscript
One of the first successful delivery of mail by a rocket in the United States was made on February 23, 1936, when two rocket airplanes were launched from the New York side of the frozen Greenwood Lake and landed on the New Jersey side, less than 100 yards away. This event was preceded by several other successful short range rocket mail experiments in the early 1930s.
During the mid-1950s, “amateur” rocketeers flew several solid propellant mail- carrying rockets interstate, from California, across the Colorado River, and into Arizona. The postal covers were printed for each occasion and franked at the nearest destination post office.
In 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the Post Office Department, in its search for faster mail transportation, with the only delivery of “Missile Mail”. On June 8, 1959, Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile — its nuclear warhead having been replaced by two Post Office mail containers — targeted at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Naval Station Mayport in Florida. The Regulus cruise missile was launched with solid-propellant boosters. A turbojet engine sustained the long-range cruise flight after the boosters were dropped. Twenty-two minutes after launch, the missile struck its target.
The USPS had officially established a branch post office on Barbero and delivered some 3,000 pieces of mail to it before Barbero left Norfolk, Virginia. The mail consisted entirely of commemorative postal covers addressed to the President and government officials.
Upon witnessing the missile’s landing, Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield stated, “This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation.” Summerfield predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail”, he said.
Despite the Postmaster General’s enthusiasm, the Department of Defense saw the measure more as a demonstration of U.S. missile capabilities. Experts believe that the cost of using missile mail could never be justified especially since airmail crossed the Atlantic Ocean in as little as a day.