The United States initiated the world's first airmail delivery service on May 15, 1918. Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York City benefited from the service before other cities. People soon realized, however, that the service did not necessarily surpass that offered by railroad transport. A letter posted in Washington, DC, for instance, at 11:30 a.m. arrived in New York City 4:30 p.m. or later, when the business day was over. Consequently, it would probably not be acted upon until the next business day. It would then be carried from the airmail field to the post office and delivered to the recipient. On the other hand, a letter sent by night train to or from the same locations would be in the hands of the recipient the next morning at approximately the same time at one-twelfth the cost (two cents surface mail vs. twenty-four cents airmail).
Two events between May 15, 1918, and July 1, 1924, made airmail competitive with surface mail: 1) the reduction in the airmail postage rates from twenty-four cents per ounce to two cents per ounce and 2) an increase in the distance planes could travel vis-a-vis the distance that surface transportation could travel in a like amount of time and/or over night.
The first attempt to extend the airmail route to Boston in June 1918 ended in failure. The second and third attempts, intended to reach Chicago via Lock Haven/Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland and Bryan, Ohio, in September and December 1918, ended with increased knowledge if not success.
The airmail route to Chicago was realized in May 1919. The quest to reach the west coast then assumed priority. That transcontinental goal was first attained, east to west, on a September 8-11, 1919, flight. The name of the route was the 'Woodrow Wilson Airway' to honor Wilson, who was president when the first scheduled airmail service began on May 15, 1918. By October 1919 a schedule was published for transcontinental airmail service which offered the public coast-to-coast service in three days rather than the five days required by an all surface system. The route was New York-Chicago, Chicago-Cheyenne, and Cheyenne-San Francisco-the three Transcontinental Air Mail Route zones. With the service's success, airmail became a 'premium' service and could command higher fees. The airmail postage rate for each zone (or portion of a zone) was eight cents per ounce (or fraction thereof) in which the item was carried.
A series of three airmail stamps was issued for use on the Transcontinental Air Mail Route involving night flying between New York City and San Francisco. Each of the stamps is about 7/8" in width by 3/4" in height, arranged horizontally in sheet format. The sheets consisted of four hundred stamps each, divided into four panels of one hundred by horizontal and vertical guidelines. None of the three stamps in the series were issued to postmasters in the sixteen post offices selected as mailing points on the airmail route until August 24, 1923.
The mailing points were the fifteen stops along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route:
New York City; Bellefonte, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Bryan, Ohio; Chicago; Iowa City, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; North Platte, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Rawlins, Wyoming; Rock Springs, Wyoming; Salt Lake City, Utah; Elko, Nevada; Reno, Nevada; San Francisco; and Washington, District of Columbia.
Since the Transcontinental Air Mail Route was not officially opened until July 1, 1924, postmasters were instructed to withhold sale of the new stamps until directed by the Post Office Department. Once the inaugural date of the Transcontinental Air Mail Route was determined, the airmail stamps were placed on sale to the public on June 16, 1924.
The second issue of airmail stamps was issued on unwatermarked paper stock with 11 perforations per inch. Five large die proofs are known to exist of each of the three denominations.
American Air Mail Catalogue. Vol. 1, 1947.
American Air Mail Catalogue. 5th ed. Vol. 5, 1985.
United States Postage Stamps. U. S. Postal Service, Stamps Div., rev. December 31, 1976.
Files of the United States Postal Service Library. L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC.
Files of the National Archives. Washington, DC.