Arago: First Airmail Issues

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First Airmail Issues
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The public's fascination with flight spread quickly during the twentieth century's first decades. Across the country, local air shows and exhibitions thrilled onlookers. The demand for these aviation exhibitions inadvertently produced increasingly more capable pilots and improved aircraft. They also expanded the public's enthusiasm for airmail because pilots carried souvenir mail on their daring exposition flights, and souvenir cards or covers flown by air became very popular.

World War I provided another, even greater, springboard for the expansion of airmail service. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the nation trained more pilots and manufactured greater numbers of aircraft for the war effort. New training facilities and airfields supported this modern soldier. It soon became obvious that the new skills transferred readily to the commercial sector, including mail transport. Conveying mail via the air, more time-effective than by rail, appealed to not only bankers and other businessman but also to members of the general public, who enjoyed the idea of cards, letters, or packages being delivered 'Via Aeroplane'.

By early 1918, plans were underway for airmail service, with Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York as the inaugural flight locations and May 15 as the launch date. A new postal rate was set at twenty four cents per ounce (or fraction thereof), the fee including special delivery service to the recipient. The new rate required a new postage stamp, and with full patriotism in mind, the colors chosen were red (actually carmine-rose) and blue, to be printed on white paper. The Curtiss Jenny biplane, modeled after the many thousands being produced for the war effort, was selected for the vignette. The twenty-four cent rate was, however, a huge increase over the three-cent surface rate, not including ten cents for special delivery.

The new Jenny stamp was hurriedly—but beautifully!—produced and went on sale May 13, 1918, just in time for the May 15th inaugural flights. Ceremonies were held at all three airfields, and President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson attended the Washington departure. Flights took place every day thereafter, except on Sundays, and they were, at least initially, financially successful.

Despite its efficiency and novelty, high postage rates soon constrained airmail's use. As postal authorities watched the volume of airmail actually decrease, they dropped the rate to sixteen cents (still with the ten-cent special delivery fee included), effective mid-July 1918. They needed greater volume to justify expanding the fleet and to inspire pilots, who risked their lives delivering the service. To meet that rate, a single-color Jenny stamp was produced in green, identical in design to the twenty-four cent value. In an ongoing competition against surface transportation, other airfields were also included to expand the delivery points, and flights spanned increasingly longer distances. In December of 1918, the decision was made to reduce the rate again, this time by eliminating the mandatory built-in ten-cent special delivery fee. On December 10, the third and final Jenny was issued, this time being orange in color and the same design as its predecessors.

References:

Johl, Max Q. The United States Postage Stamps of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3. New York: Lindquist Publishing, 1935.

American Airmail Catalog, 5th ed. Vol. 5. American Air Mail Society, 1986.