THE 1918 U.S. AIRMAIL STAMPS
During the early 20th century and into the teens, the U.S. public was fascinated by flight and was thrilled by local air shows and exhibitions. The public also became avid about airmail because the pilots carried souvenir mail on their daring flights. Souvenir cards, flown by air, became very popular.
Another, even greater, springboard for the expansion of airmail service came with World War I. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, our nation trained more pilots and manufactured greater numbers of aircraft for the war effort. New training facilities and airfields supported the modern soldier. It soon was apparent that the new skills transferred easily to the commercial sector, including mail transport. Transporting mail by air, more time-efficient than by rail, appealed to bankers and other businessmen, as well as members of the general public, who enjoyed the idea of cards, letters or packages being delivered “Via Aeroplane”.
Plans for the first U.S. airmail service were underway by early 1918. The inaugural cities were to be Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, with a targeted launch date of May 15. A new postal rate was set for 24¢ per ounce, or fraction thereof, and that fee included special delivery service to the recipient. The new rate required a new postage stamp, and with a flush of patriotism washing over the nation, the colors chosen were red (actually carmine rose) and blue, to be printed on white paper. The Curtiss JN-4HM (“Jenny”) biplane, modeled after the thousands of aircraft being produced for the war effort, was selected for the stamp’s vignette. The 24¢ rate, however, was a huge increase over the 3¢ surface rate, not including 10¢ for special delivery.
Quickly, but beautifully produced, the Jenny stamps went on sale May 13, 1918, just in time for the May 15th inaugural flights. The aircraft depicted on the stamps was the Curtiss JN-4HM biplane, designated number 38262. Six specimens of this model plane had been modified by removing the second pilot’s seat to make room for bags of mail and by increasing the fuel capacity. Those six airplanes constituted the entire U.S. Post Office Department air fleet! Ceremonies were held at all three airfields, with President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson in attendance at the Washington, D.C. departure. Mail flights took place every day except Sunday and, at least initially, the service was financially successful.
The three inaugural airmail flights were filled with thrills and minor disasters. Piloting the flight out of Washington, D.C. was U. S. Army Lieutenant George Boyle. That morning, Boyle had made considerable preparations for his historic flight and he boarded his biplane at the appointed time. He was unable to start his aircraft – it had not been fueled for the flight! Carrying 124 pounds of airmail and assigned to fly to Philadelphia (midway between the Washington, D.C. and New York City ends of the mail service), Boyle finally took flight. He did not arrive in Philadelphia that day. Lost and low on fuel, the novice pilot crash landed in rural Maryland fewer than 25 miles from takeoff in Washington, D.C. Boyle repeated his “lost, out of fuel, landing” performance until he was finally removed from the Post Office Department’s roster of airmail pilots.
High postage rates began to slow the use of airmail despite its efficiency and novelty. As postal authorities watched the volume of airmail dwindle, they dropped the rate to 16¢, still with the 10¢ special delivery fee included, effective in mid-July 1918. Greater volume was needed to justify expanding the fleet and to inspire pilots who risked their lives delivering airmail. To pay the 16¢ rate, a single-color Jenny stamp was produced in green, with its design identical to the 24¢ value. Other airfields were added to expand the airmail delivery points and the flights spanned increasingly longer distances in an effort to compete against ground transportation. In December of 1918, the decision was made to reduce the rate again, this time by eliminating the mandatory built-in 10¢ special delivery fee. On December 10, the third and final Jenny was issued at 6¢, this time bright orange in color and with the same design as its predecessors.
The “other” Jenny stamps
The hurried production of the 24¢ Jenny stamps – engraving began on May 4, 1918 and printing on May 10 – resulted in a number of anomalies that were soon noted. Because the stamp was bicolored, the sheets had to be placed into the flat-bed printing press twice, an error-prone process that had resulted in invert errored stamps in previous issues. The Jenny stamps were printed in sheets of 100 stamps vs. the usual format of the day which was to print 400 stamps to a sheet and cut those into panes of 100 each. During production, three sheets of stamps were discovered misprinted and they were destroyed as was the policy of the U.S. Post Office Department (subsequently the U.S. Postal Service). It is believed still today that only one sheet of 100 invert errored stamps went through unnoticed and stamp collectors have spent the ensuing years trying to locate those stamps.
Many collectors long thought the blue plane portion of the stamp (the vignette) was printed first and, thus, that it was the red frames that were inverted. However, much research has revealed that the frames were printed first and it is the blue Jenny planes that are upside down.
The first stamp supplies went to post offices on Monday, May 13, 1918. Aware of the potential for invert errors, a number of collectors went to their local post offices to buy the new stamps and keep an eye out for errors. Collector William T. Robey was one of those. Robey, having entered his local post office to buy the new stamps, was assisted by a clerk who had never before seen an airplane! The clerk brought out a full page of inverts and Robey later said, “My heart stood still”. He paid for the sheet, asked to inspect more, but the remainder of the sheets were normal.
The philatelic literature has long followed the travels of the inverted Jenny stamps. Generally speaking, it is accepted that six of the 100 stamps have been lost. One was inadvertently used for postage and is cancelled. One was sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Several others have been damaged. Many of the stamps, both singles and blocks of four, are in the hands of private collectors, their provenance unknown. It is generally accepted that only five of the stamps exist in original condition, except that each of the 100 stamps from the errored sheet has a lightly penciled number written on the back (the gum side) to show which plate position that particular stamp occupied. Stamp collector or no, many American adults react with instant awareness when the inverted Jenny is mentioned. The philatelic literature abounds with stories and anecdotes about the inverted Jenny stamps. For such a rare stamp, much is known about many of its specimens.
So how much is one of those rare and exciting inverted Jennys worth, anyway? A single Jenny was sold at auction in 2007 for $977,500. A block of four inverted Jenny stamps sold at auction in 2005 for $2.7 million. The recession of 2008 affected the values of rare stamps as well as other segments of the market, but those values are once again trending back upward. In 2016, a particularly spectacular Jenny, graded 95 (XF-Superb), sold at auction for a hammer price of $1,175,000! With such high values placed on such rare stamps, are there known forgeries? The answer is “yes”. People don’t buy these types of stamps on a whim, or without professional advice.
OK, so you don’t have $1 million or more lying around – are there other types of Jenny errors that make the stamps even more intriguing than simply a typical 1918 stamp?
Well, the answer to that is “yes”, as well! The Jenny stamps show some almost-expected flaws from time to time, as did the bicolored 1901 Pan-American Exposition Issue stamps. The anomalies are not sufficient to cause the stamps to be destroyed, but they add a little extra interest for the collector who may want to collect both normal and errored versions of a particular stamp. The Jenny stamps are known to exist in a number of these “misregistrations” ranging from “fast Jenny” to “slow Jenny”, from “barely grounded” to “totally grounded” and from “high-flying” to “landing” Jenny. Discuss the possibilities with your stamp professional to find what may be available.
Jenny stamp anomalies: “fast Jenny” (almost flying off of the paper), “grounded Jenny” and totally grounded Jenny.
2013 – Jenny returns!
On September 22, 2013 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp souvenir sheet featuring six stamps, each in the $2 denomination and each showing the 1918 Jenny biplane purposely inverted as with the 1918 errored stamps. Each sheet was sold at face value – $12 for the six stamps. No individual $2 stamps were sold. Various special packaging for collectors was offered for a premium cost.
In addition to the 2.2 million sheets printed with the inverted biplane, the Postal Service announced it had also printed 100 sheets of non-inverted Jennys, with the plane flying right side up. All of these souvenir stamp sets are individually wrapped in sealed envelopes to build a feeling of excitement over the possibility of finding the far more rare right-side-up-Jennys when a customer makes a purchase. The lucky individuals who get the right-side-up Jennys in their package find a congratulatory note inside. The note asks the purchaser to call a phone number to obtain a certificate of acknowledgement signed by the U.S. Postmaster General. One non-inverted, right-side-up sheet was purchased by a Richmond, Virginia, couple and was auctioned in June 2014 for $51,750!
It is known with certainty that not all of the 100 printed sheets of upright $2 Jenny stamps have been distributed. For example, one USPS stamp fulfillment center accidentally failed to distribute some 23 of the 30 sheets it was meant to randomly mix with other purchases of the “correct (inverted)” Jennys. Therefore, far fewer than the 100 sheets printed showing the upright biplane have reached the hands of the public.
The idea behind commemorating the most famous “misprinted” U. S. stamp was to spur the interest of more potential stamp collectors. Calling on the mystery and romance of the Jenny story seemed a natural to U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. Additionally, the stamps serve as a reminder that the transport of U.S. airmail helped to create the entire American aviation industry which went on to reshape the world.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made a decision to keep America neutral when war exploded across Europe in August, 1914. Neutrality proved difficult to sustain, however, and for 2½ years the United States found itself caught in a series of diplomatic crises that gradually edged our nation nearer to war. Whether Wilson asked Congress to declare war in April, 1917 due to the nation’s strong financial ties to the Allied nations, growing concerns about increased German aggression, or a desire to shape the peace remains a subject of debate among historians.
The U.S. quickly found itself embroiled in the escalating violence that transformed a European war into a global conflict during its period of neutrality. With European armies locked in a stalemate along the Western Front, in 1915 both Britain and Germany tried to gain the advantage by using their navies to disrupt the trade of their enemy. The British established a naval blockade that included mining the North Sea, while Germany turned to its new weapon, the U-boat (submarine) to launch surprise attacks against merchant and military vessels approaching Great Britain. The United States trade with Europe was disrupted by both tactics, although only German U-boats threatened American lives. This proved a fateful distinction as the United States passed through a series of diplomatic crises related to the naval war.
Germany’s intermittent policy of unconditional submarine warfare dramatically worsened its relations with the neutral U.S.A. Wilson protested that unconditional submarine warfare (which relied on undetected and submerged U-boats firing torpedoes) denied civilian passengers the internationally sanctioned right to vacate a merchant ship before its cargo was sunk.
On May 7, 1915 a German-fired torpedo sank the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, killing 1,198, 127 of whom were Americans. The extensive publicity over the Lusitania disaster prompted much domestic debate over what neutrality meant. Wilson demanded that Germany pay reparations and accept the right of Americans to travel on any ship they wished. Wilson interpreted neutrality as bestowing irrevocable rights that gave neutral nations the right to travel and trade when they wished. Not all elected government leaders agreed with that definition.
Citizens in portions of the Midwest and the South opposed any involvement in the war. German-American farmers openly criticized a British blockade policy that reduced food for civilians and often flouted international law. Millions of other rurals saw the makings of “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight” as a preparedness movement formed to lobby for increased funding for the peacetime army. Anti-interventionists worried that northeastern banks and businesses were pushing the nation into war to continue their profitable war trade with Great Britain and ensure repayment of war loans. Leading female reformers joined the Women’s Peace Party to seek a diplomatic solution to the war. They also offered a new argument for female suffrage by claiming that women’s peaceful dispositions would strengthen the pacifist voice in foreign policy decisions. Wilson’s diplomatic efforts to protect the nation’s honor and economy by bringing Germany into line were strongly endorsed by urban elites. The dividing line with the American populace was how vigorously to pursue economic opportunities created by a bottomless war trade, not direct intervention, which was a step that few Americans considered either possible or desirable.
Germany diffused growing diplomatic tensions over unconditional submarine warfare by temporarily halting surprise attacks on merchant and passenger ships in 1915 and 1916. The recurring crises with Germany, however, convinced President Wilson that mere ocean were no longer sufficient barriers to protect the United States. Wilson’s proposals to change the rules of international politics served complementary goals: he viewed peace without victory, spreading democracy and establishing a league of nations would terminate the current conflict and, equally important, ensure the national security of the U.S. by rendering another European-instigated global war impossible.
The independent financial ties that American banks established with the Allies tied American economic fortunes to the war. Throughout the period of neutrality, American banks disproportionately financed the Allied war effort. In January, 1915, the financial giant J.P. Morgan became the purchasing and contracting agent for the British government within the United States. Over the next two years, the House of Morgan worked closely with British military and financial officials to award more than 4,000 contracts worth more than $3 billion to American businesses. In addition, American banks extended commercial credit to the Allies that averaged nearly $10 million a day. By 1916, American trade with Germany was less than 1% of what it had been in 1914, but had tripled with Britain and France.
In Germany’s view, the privileged trade and financial relations between the U.S. and the Allies undermined the Americans’ claim of neutrality. Germany accepted the risk of a formal rupture in diplomatic relations by resuming unconditional submarine warfare on January 31, 1917. Wilson formally broke diplomatic ties with Germany on February 3, 1917. The Germans believed they could put enough economic pressure on the Allies to end the war quickly. On April 6, 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany. Wilson succinctly framed the war’s purpose in one phrase that has resonated in American foreign policy ever since. The world, he declared, “must be made safe for democracy”. Scholars agree that Wilson’s vision shaped 20th century American foreign policy, but they differ on whether it left a positive or a negative legacy.
During the period of neutrality the United States had made few preparations for war. Now it faced the challenge of raising a mass army, transporting it overseas, mobilizing the economy to support the expeditionary force and unifying a divided public behind the war effort. The nation raised 72% additional armed forces through conscription (the draft), a first, because previously the U.S. had waited until volunteer enlistment waned before enacting a draft. A flood of patriotic posters, pamphlets and films were disseminated to keep the war fresh in the minds of Americans, even though it was fought a world away. Liberty bonds and war savings certificates were established to offset additional war costs. Community food drives abounded. Labor unions grew due to wartime mobilization. The government built housing in areas deluged with war workers and for a time government agencies managed social welfare and medical care programs. Dissenting opinions about Americans involvement in the war was not tolerated. Legislation was passed to make criminal acts of encouraging mutiny, obstructing military recruitment, criticizing the government or aiding the enemy by spreading lies.
By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918 the U.S. had managed to raise an army of 4 million, transported 2 million to France and commanded a field army of 1.2 million in major operations on the Western Front. American operations were somewhat hampered by disorganization resulting in high casualty rates and constantly changing leadership. These problems stemmed from having an army forced to fight before it was fully trained and formed. The 47-day Meuse Argonne Offensive engaged 600,000 men, 4,000 artillery guns and 90,000 horses on the first day of engagement. Nearly 45,000 troops were killed in the first four days of battle and more U.S. troops died in September and October, 1918 than in any other single month during the Civil War or World War II.
NOTABLE EVENTS (1918)
- March 4 – A soldier at Camp Fuston, Kansas falls sick with the first confirmed case of the Spanish flu in the U.S. Eventually 50 million people worldwide will die from the flu.
- March 19 – The U.S. Congress establishes time zones and approves daylight saving time.
- May 15 – The United States Post Office Department (later the United States Postal Service) begins the first regular airmail service in the world (between New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.).
- June 8 – The total solar eclipse of June 8, 1918 crossed the United States from Washington State to Florida.
- August – A deadly second wave of the Spanish flu starts in France, Sierra Leone, and the United States.
- September 11 – The Boston Red Sox defeat the Chicago Cubs for the 1918 World Series championship, their last World Series win until 2004.
- October 8 – In the Forest of Argonne in France, U.S. Corporal Alvin C. York almost single-handedly kills 25 German soldiers and captures 132.
- November 11 – World War I ends.