Last night I was working on an exhibit that I have entered in an airmail philatelic exhibition coming up in October. I thought I would try to explain the fascination with the collection of airmail material to non-collectors.
First of all a definition. Simply put “Airmail” or “Air Mail” is mail that is carried to its destination by aircraft. Obviously this is faster than by truck or train. It was one of the great innovations of mail delivery which was made possible by the invention of the airplane.
Until recently airmail was a premium service of the post office and the user paid more for it. Special airmail postage stamps were issued to indicated payment for this service. These stamps were only allowed to be used on airmail, not for other mail. Later on that changed.
The first regular airmail flights in the U.S. began between New York City and Washington, D.C. in 1918. The planes were operated by Army pilots. Later the government contracted the routes out to private contractors. Some famous aviators who carried mail were Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart.
Early commercial airline routes were really paid for by the carriage of mail. There were not enough passengers to pay for the airlines expenses. Even today mail is a lucrative cargo for airlines. Passengers do take precedence today though. If weight is an issue the first thing off the plane is not passengers or their baggage, but mail bags.
Today in Canada and the United States airmail has been abolished as a separate service. All first class (lettermail) mail is delivered by the speediest method of transportation. International letters are charged a premium for airmail service, but it is still technically not an airmail service. Both countries charge substantially more for international lettermail than domestic lettermail.
Collectors have always been fascinated with mail and aviation. So much so that specialist societies exist dedicated to the pursuit of airmail stamps and covers (envelopes). One such society is the American Air Mail Society. For the first time ever the American Philatelic Society (APS) is hosting an exhibition that is entirely airmail related. It is called Aerophilately 2007 and has been given “World Series of Philately” status. This means that it has national level judging and standards. The grand award winner is entitled to compete against the award winners of all the other WSP shows. It is being held October 19-21, 2007 at the APS headquarters in Bellefonte, PA. Coincidently, Bellefonte was one of the mail refueling stations along the first trans-continental airmail route in the United States.
My exhibit is entered in this exhibition and I am very proud to have mine displayed alongside some of the greatest airmail collections of our time.
Above: Early airmail pilot “Wild Bill” Hopson.
Here are some facts about early airmail:
- messages were carried prior to airplanes by homing pigeons.
- first mail to be carried by an air vehicle was January 7, 1785 on a balloon flight from England to France.
- first official airmail delivery in the U.S. took place August 17, 1859 via balloon from Lafayette, Indiana to New York City. Weather forced him to land and the mail was carried by train to its final destination.
- first official airmail flight was February 18, 1911 in India. 6,500 letters were carried a distance of 13 km (7.8 miles).
- first international airmail delivery flown by Theodoro Fels from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Montevideo, Uruguay on September 2, 1917.
- Scheduled airmail flights begin between New York City and Washington. DC May 15, 1918
-first airmail flight in Canada was June 24, 1918 from Montreal to Toronto.
- first woman to fly airmail: Katherine Stinson from Calgary to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on July 9, 1918.
- regularly scheduled transcontinental U.S airmail flights begin in 1924.
- In 1927 regular international airmail flights begin.
- Trans-Pacific airmail begins in 1935.
- In 1939, Canada implements regular trans-Canada and trans-Atlantic airmail.
So remember when you mail that letter that today it flies to overseas destinations in hours. Before air transport it went by train or ship and took days or weeks to arrive. Of course now it is possible to send an e-mail letter to someone anywhere in the world and it will arrive in seconds. The only thing about an e-mail is that it doesn’t have a colorful airmail stamp on it that I can collect.