Arago: Air Post Semi-Official Issues

Air Post Semi-Official Issues

Perhaps the most enigmatic of all American stamps, the Buffalo balloon stamp is certainly among the premier rarities in aerophilately. This stamp begs the question, “What is an airmail stamp?” Described variously as “experimental,” “semi-official,” “a carrying label,” and even as a vignette or cinderella, the fact remains that it was the first of its kind ever issued. Since it was privately issued for use with a standard U.S. postal service 3-cent stamp to pay for air handling of a mailed piece, it was (if one includes both private and government issues) the world’s first airmail stamp.

False information abounds about this stamp. Original reports confirm that Wheeler Brothers Printers and Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, printed the stamp. The stamp is an accurate representation of the enormous 92,000 cubic foot “Buffalo” balloon of Professor Samuel Archer King (1828-1914), and was designed by John B. Lillard, a clerk in the Wheeler firm and a passenger on the great flight. Interestingly, the engraver of the stamp was John H. Snively, a scientist who provided apparatus for experiments on the flight. The stamps were printed tete-beche format—that is, they are shown right side up and upside down below on one sheet. It is likely that in printing the stamp, one side was printed, and then the sheet was taken out and turned round and fed back in the press to produce a mirror image of the first row. These tete-beche pairs are pretty uniformly approximately 35mm in width. The spacing between the mirror images varies from 6mm to as much as 9mm, the majority being about 7-7.5 mm.

An 1894 letter by Lillard states that three stamps were printed, and while he states further “23 used,” most scholars agree there were probably about two hundred carried, and twenty-three might refer to his private usage. The Buffalo balloon launched from Nashville, Tennessee, on June 18, 1877. A number of covers were dropped, probably in containing envelopes or drop bags sewn to brightly colored nine-foot streamers.

After the Gallatin, Tennessee, landing, there was a second flight the next morning. There were also other, later flights of the Buffalo, and covers could have been flown on any of those flights.

There are four varieties of the Buffalo stamp—a proof version, a standard issue, one with die flaws, and another with corrected die flaws. The stamp was issued as deep blue, but at least one black proof version exists. The stamp is known in singles, tete-beche pairs, and unreliably, it is reported that a block of four still exists. At this writing, there are two postally used covers known with the Buffalo stamp, although a third cover, almost certainly flown but uncancelled, also exists.


Robert Schoendorf, The Buffalo Balloon Mail 1873-1877, privately printed, 1979.

Additional Records