“Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest. ”
The mistake that helped promote aviation
Manned flight in powered aircraft was only 15 years old when the idea of carrying mail in airplanes seemed doable to the bureaucrats in Washington. The airplane's success during the Great War in Europe-still ongoing- showed a promise of peacetime applications. So it happened on May 1, 1918, that the U.S. postmaster general, Albert Burleson, announced that America's first public airmail service would begin on May 15.
Burleson had cut a deal with the War Department to furnish airplanes and pilots, which would give new recruits badly needed flight experience. The Army Air Service was notified on May 3, and Maj. Reuben Fleet was put in charge.
"The best plane we have is the Jenny," Fleet protested, "and it will fly only an hour and 20 minutes." Burleson stood firm. Fleet was charged with creating a revolution in communications in just 12 days.
The JN-4 Jenny biplane was a product of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Hammondsport, N.Y., which at that time was America's leading airplane manufacturer. Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft, of course, but they were loath to share their secrets. The U.S. patent for their invention prevented anyone in the States from building an airplane without their blessing.
The patent did not, however, deter Glen Curtiss, who figured it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Already an experienced builder of engines, he designed and flew an improved airplane in 1908. The Wrights sued him, but by the time a settlement was reached, Curtiss was well established.
One reason for his success was the Jenny, a trainer he built for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The Jenny had its shortcomings, but it was everyone's favorite. Powered by a 100-hp Curtiss V-8 engine, the wood-and-fabric machine was simple to build and to fly, though it provided mechanics and pilots with much field repair experience after its frequent "off airport" landings.
The Post Office decided that 24 cents-12 times the first-class rate-was a good price for the new service. The problem was that it didn't have a 24-cent stamp, so the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) began creating one.
On May 9, BEP engravers produced a design featuring a blue Jenny surrounded by a red frame. The next day, printing began with the red. Then the plates and ink were changed and the previously printed sheets were hand-fed to the press for the second color. The new stamp went on sale on May 13, generating much interest. The idea of airmail-combining the romance of aviation with the sober practicality of the mail-was exciting.
Meanwhile, the Curtiss factory had installed 150-hp engines and additional fuel and oil tanks in the Jennies and added hoppers for the mail bags.
The plan was for one Jenny to depart from New York and fly south while a second departed northbound for Washington. They would meet in Philadelphia to exchange mail bags and refuel. Fleet made arrangements with Belmont Park to use the
Long Island racetrack's infield. The Philadelphia rendezvous was Bustleton Field and the Washington site was the old Polo Grounds. He was allowed to pick four of the six pilots required; the remaining two were selected by the Post Office, which opted for two new flight school graduates, whose cross-country experience consisted of just one 10-mile flight.
The Post Office chose Lt. George Boyle to be the lead pilot. After reviewing the route with Fleet, Boyle climbed into the cockpit as President Woodrow Wilson and a crowd of Washington dignitaries watched.
The Jenny's engine refused to start because the fuel tank was empty. With no other fuel available, the crew siphoned gasoline from vehicles in the parking lot. At 11:42 a.m., Boyle lifted uncertainly off the ground and headed south.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia was north. Hours later, word came that Boyle and the mail had crashed. He was unhurt, but his biplane lay upside down in a field, a genuine inverted Jenny.
Boyle's mailbags were flown to New York the following day. Meanwhile, Lt. Torrey Webb, Fleet's chosen pilot, flew from New York to Philadelphia without incident and America's airmail service was officially open for business.
Two days later, Boyle was given another chance to reach Philadelphia from Washington. But he ran out of gas 125 miles south of the capital, landing on a Virginia beach. He borrowed some gas and took off, but again ran out of fuel and landed south of Philadelphia.
"The Atlantic Ocean and a lack of gas kept him from going further," wrote a disgusted Fleet, as he filled out papers relieving Boyle of flight duty.
Despite an inauspicious beginning, airmail service expanded rapidly, and because of its volume, postage was dropped to 16 cents in July and then to six cents by the end of the year. With each decrease, a new single-color stamp was issued.
But we're getting ahead of the story about that first airmail stamp featuring a blue Jenny surrounded by a red frame. Back on May 14, stamp collector William Robey, a clerk in Washington, withdrew $30 from his meager savings and went to a branch post office to buy a single sheet of 100 "Jennies." The clerk placed a sheet on the counter. Robey gasped. The airplane on the stamp had been printed upside down, an error that would make any collector's heart stop. He paid without comment, and then casually asked whether any more were available. Suspicious, the clerk closed his window and contacted his supervisor.
As it happened, before releasing the 20,000 sheets of Jennies, BEP inspectors had found a few other sheets with the error. The BEP destroyed these, but had missed the one Robey bought.
Word spread quickly. Sales were halted so a search could be made for other error sheets. Postal authorities visited Robey's office within an hour, threatening to confiscate his stamps.
Robey resisted the threats and went looking for a buyer, fearful that discovery of similar inverts would decrease the value of his "Inverted Jenny." After a frantic week of contacting dealers and collectors, Robey accepted an offer of $15,000.
The buyer quickly turned the 100 stamps to a client for $20,000. That man broke up the sheet, retaining some singles and the plate-number block. After his death in 1944, the block sold for $27,000, and in 1971 it fetched $150,000. At a 1989 Christie's auction, it brought $1.1 million and two years ago, the price of ownership escalated to nearly $3 million.
Today, the Inverted Jenny plate block resides at the Mystic Stamp Co. in Camden, N.Y. Company president Donald Sundman got it the old-fashioned way, by swapping a stamp worth $3 million. If you're of more modest means, Mystic will sell you a regular 1918 24-cent Jenny in mint condition for $160, or a used one for $100.
As for airmail, it was the cat's meow. After its faltering start, it soon became a boon for American business. And it wasn't much later that the country realized the airplane could carry other things, too-like fare-paying passengers.