The first postal pilots and their boss. From left to right: Eddie Gardner, Benjamin Lipsner, Superintendent of the Airmail Service, Maurice Newton, Max Miller and Robert Shank.
Courtesy National Postal Museum
“Postmen of the Skies,” opening Tuesday, May 1, at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first regularly scheduled airmail flights. The exhibition, on view through May 27, 2019, invites visitors to step into the exciting and memorable stories of the airmail pilots whose pioneering flights set the stage for today’s advanced airmail system and commercial aviation.
Pilot goggles, leggings, helmets and logbooks, along with route maps, telegrams and airmail-related pop culture artifacts, will invite visitors to witness and experience the birth of commercial aviation. Visitors will also experience rare historic photos and see an archival “you-are-there” video that tells the story of the origins of airmail.
In 1918, the first regularly scheduled airmail service began operations. Planes carried mail between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. The nation greeted the new service with enthusiasm. Crowds surrounded airfields in all three cities, eager to watch history in action. The nation became more enamored with their postal pilots as the service grew and news of the service traveled. By Sept. 8, 1920, mail was flying between New York and San Francisco.
The U.S. Post Office began turning over some routes to private airlines in 1925 and officially operated the service until 1927. The new airlines built their businesses on the postal routes, infrastructure and pilots. For the next decade, airmail contracts financed the fledgling airlines, serving to help build the nation’s commercial aviation industry.
“The early years of the nation’s airmail service are filled with dynamic individuals and fascinating stories,” said Elliot Gruber, director of the museum. “Few realize that the Post Office Department was instrumental in the development of our nation’s air-travel system.”
“Postmen of the Skies” links to several of the museum’s large-scale, iconic artifacts found in the central atrium, including an original de Havilland DH-4 airplane, originally built for military use during World War I and then used for mail. After several crashes, the fleet was modified with major upgrades for safety and reliability. The de Havilland on display at the museum was flown by one of the pilots featured in the exhibition.
“Dozens of pilots sacrificed their lives to fly the mail for the Post Office,” said Nancy Pope, curator of the exhibition. “At a time when mail was the central communication system, moving it securely and speedily was critical to businesses and important to individuals.”
The museum will host several onsite events and programs May 1 in support of the exhibition opening:
The U.S. Postal Service will honor the beginning of airmail service by dedicating two U.S. Air Mail Forever stamps this year. The first, depicted in blue, commemorates the pioneering spirit of the brave pilots who first flew the mail in the early years of aviation. The first-day-of-issue ceremony will take place May 1 at 11 a.m. at the museum. The event is free and open to the public.
Airmail-Themed Scavenger Hunt/Self-guide—The museum will feature a gallery self-guide that will direct visitors to artifacts and exhibitions throughout the museum that highlight the history of airmail in the United States. Exhibitions, including “Postmen of the Skies” and “Airmail in America,” will be featured, along with objects throughout the museum.
Airmail Game Time—A gallery activity will feature airmail-themed board games as part of the story of how airmail affected American pop culture; visitors will be able to try their luck and test their skill at some of these vintage and reproduction games.
The National Postal Museum and the American Philatelic Society will host the launch of Stamp of the Century, a book about the famous philatelic error, the Inverted Jenny. This will be the first readable, popular study of this iconic postage stamp to appear in nearly 30. The authors, Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher, will be on hand from noon to 2 p.m. to talk with museum visitors and sign copies of their book, which will be for sale in the museum gift store. (The authors will also be part of the museum’s “History After Hours” program May 2, 6–8 p.m., for an evening book talk and signing.)
The National Postal Museum is devoted to presenting the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of stamps and philatelic material in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., Washington, D.C., across from Union Station. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). For more information about the Smithsonian, call (202) 633-1000 or visit the museum website at www.postalmuseum.si.edu.
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