It’s difficult to overstate just how much the rise of aviation changed twentieth-century life. The first air mail flight departed Washington, D.C. on May 15th, 1918: only 15 years after the Wright Brothers’ flight from the dunes at Kitty Hawk. When air mail was instituted, the country was divided into three zones, and postage increased for every zone traversed.
The first air mail stamp in the United States was actually sold before the first air mail flight, becoming available in post offices on May 13th of the same year; it was the iconic red and blue 24 cent “Jenny” stamp, designed by C.A. Houston. (In 1912, Houston had designed a parcel post stamp with an airplane on it; it was the first stamp in the world to feature the airplane.) The Jenny stamp was the first true air mail stamp, the first air mail stamp printed in the United States, the first two-color air mail stamp, and the first air mail stamp to have an error. The famous upside-down Jenny stamp, one of the most desirable in the world, was from this design. Errors were easy to make with the bi-color printing process, but none were so egregious as the plane being printed upside-down in the frame. In another ironic note, the actual mail plane used as a model from the stamp actually broke down on the initial flight.
The de Havilland DH-4 biplane began to replace the Curtiss Jenny plane on air mail routes, as it could cover much longer distances; in fact, it had nearly twice the flying range of the Jenny. In recognition of this, new airmail stamps featuring the de Havilland propellers were issued in late 1923; over 6 million were printed.
The first time “air mail” appeared on a US stamp was with the Air Service Emblem stamps of 1923. These single color stamps featured the insignia of the Air Mail Service: an open circle with outspread wing. The 16-cent stamp covered postage up to one ounce through any two zones of the Transcontinental Mail Route. A later stamp, in a new long rectangular format, showed a map of the continental United States, with air mail planes on both coasts. The 10-cent stamp covered an ounce of postage up to 1,000 miles; over 42 million were printed.
The first US stamp to honor a living American was also an air mail stamp, printed in celebration of Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Since US law prohibits a living American’s image appearing on postage or currency (because of this incident), the design featured only Lindbergh’s name and his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. The stamp was issued in June of 1927, only a month after Lindbergh’s ground-breaking flight; over 20 million were printed.
In the late 1920s, the post office realized that high air mail rates were limiting the use of the service, and began to look into lowering rates. In August of 1928, rates were cut from ten cents per half-ounce to five cents for the first ounce. Just prior to the new rates, the post office printed the Beacon stamp, the first bi-color air mail stamp since the Jenny, depicting one of the beacons that helped air mail planes find their way at night. The particular beacon on the stamp is the one on Sherman Hill in Wyoming.
The stamp design was based on a publicity photo of the beacon from 1924; however, in the original photo, the top of the beacon tower had been cut off. Photographer Nat Dewell was sent to photograph the beacon in Wann, Nebraska, while pilot Slim Lewis flew around it in a biplane. Dewell combined the photos, creating a composite with complete tower and circling biplane. Later, when A. R. Meissner of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving designed the stamp, he changed the biplane to a monoplane, so it would appear more modern. The new stamp and lower rates worked, and the post office saw air mail use increase, allowing them to introduce new routes. However, the Beacon stamp was expensive to produce due to the flat plate method needed for the two colors, and a single color stamp replaced it in 1930.
In late 1930, the post office began issuing long rectangular stamps again, with the Winged Globe design. Again using the insignia of the air mail service, this single color stamp was immensely popular, with printings over 97 million. In 1932, postage rates were raised, requiring a new 8-cent stamp. The post office retained the Winged Globe design, changing only the denomination and print color.
By the 1930s, airplanes were not longer a dangerous new technology; they were just part of the modern way of life. Air mail was commonplace, and airplanes themselves were being used for every facet of government work, from war to reconnaissance to transportation. Today, air mail is taken for granted, but these stamps are reminders of the early years, when daring pilots made dangerous flights to transport mail with the latest technology.
Stamps listed here are available in the Stamp & Coin Place store on eBay.