Arago: Exhibits

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Flying Upside Down

24c Curtiss Jenny invert single

The “Inverted Jenny” is America’s iconic stamp and my favorite. It is the most requested stamp for viewing at the National Postal Museum. Even non-stamp collectors have heard about the record prices its sets at auction or how in 2006 a fake of this stamp was used to mail an absentee ballot in Florida. A popular men’s tie in the Smithsonian gift shops has featured this stamp for decades.

This most famous U.S. stamp printing error occurred at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, in Washington, D.C., the week of May 6 13, 1918. The bi-colored 24-cent Jenny stamp paid the rate for the first airmail service, which was scheduled to begin May 15, 1918 connecting Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. One sheet of 100 stamps with an upside-down image of a blue airplane escaped detection. The biplane pictured in the design is the famous JN-4-H “Jenny” modified by replacing the front cockpit with a mail compartment.

When the error occurred, either an inverted carmine frame sheet was fed into the small hand press for the second impression or the plate printer, after inking and wiping, placed an inverted blue vignette plate into the press. The undetected error sheet was sold to William T. Robey on May 14, 1918 at the New York Avenue post office. The lucky collector sold it to Eugene Klein, a Philadelphia stamp dealer, for $15,000. Klein in turn sold the sheet to collector Colonel H.R. Green, who broke it into blocks and singles, kept some, and sold the rest. The discovery and subsequent sales received enormous press attention. At a time when aviation captured headlines and the popular imagination, this first airmail stamp error reminded folks of barnstorming stunt flyers. And the lore for this stunning stamp continues into the twenty-first century.