Recognizing Progress: The 1938 Celebration of Airmail Week
Today, e-mail travels in a matter of moments, text messages arrive in real time, and almost all items sent through the U.S. Mail spend at least part of their time on an airplane. With our present day sensibility, it is hard to think back to a day when air travel for letters was a rarity–a special service promising speedy delivery and therefore worthy of an extra postal fee.
The first scheduled airplane service for mail delivery began on May 15, 1918, and the route ran between Washington and New York; the plane was scheduled to stop near Philadelphia for fuel and more mail and sometimes to switch planes as planes at that time lacked range and reliability.
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the advent of airmail, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Postmaster General James Farley established National Airmail Week for May 15-21, 1938 to celebrate and promote the fact the U.S. Postal Service moved mail reliably and with speed.
Postmasters were directed to bring to the attention of the public “the wonderful network of air lines operating day and night throughout the country, and the speed and economy with which letters and parcels may be dispatched over immense distances…”
Every citizen was encouraged to participate in the week’s celebration by sending an airmail letter. In addition, each town was invited to create its own “cachet,” a commemorative design to mark the event printed or stamped on the envelopes mailed that week. (The best way to sample a range of the cachets that have been made is to do an image search for “postal cachets.” You’ll find everything from old images of Disney characters to the latest in sports imagery.) Today these envelopes are prized by collectors.
Thursday, May 19, was established as the focal day of the celebration. All post offices across the nation were to provide airmail service to as many towns as possible. The postmaster in each town worked in advance, to identify appropriate landing fields in communities where planes had rarely or never landed before; maps of suggested landing strips were submitted for approval to each state’s Department of Aeronautics. The postmasters also solicited the help of volunteer pilots to help pick up the mail.
The state of Nebraska organized the state into four districts for purposes of the celebration, establishing a hub city in each quadrant. Airmail letters from each of the smaller towns were picked up by one of the sixty volunteer pilots and taken to the hub city so that they were ready to go out on a transcontinental flight on the 19th.
In Packanack Lake, New Jersey, the community organized a way to dramatize the progress of postal transportation by having a horseback rider deliver a pouch of airmail letters pony express-style to an airplane waiting at Paterson Airport. They then publicized the fact that the horseback-rider covered his two-mile trip in 25 minutes. The pilot then flew his 15 mile leg of the trip to Newark Airport in only seven minutes (New York Times, May 16, 1938).
The week also included a tribute to the first night airmail flight. Postmaster General Farley noted that the flight would take place on the night of May 20 and would follow the route of the little single-seater plane that flew between North Platte, Nebraska and Chicago on February 21, 1921. Though the plane used in 1938 would be a much larger plane that could accommodate 21 passengers and a crew of three, the lighting system used in 1921–that of bonfires lit as beacons along the way–would be duplicated as a reminder of the challenges faced by these pioneer pilots.
The Postal Service also sponsored an essay contest for high school students who were to write about “Wings Across America.” More than a hundred prizes, including about 50 airplane trips to Washington, D.C., Hollywood, California [sic] or Miami were to be awarded to the winners.
The Postal Service promotion successfully inspired increased interest in airmail. As they tried to expand airmail service while keeping the transport time down, one of the innovative plans used was “skyhooking.” In towns that were too small for an airport, outgoing mail was hung on a rope suspended between two posts. The plane then flew low enough to use a hook that swung from the plane’s tail to grab the bag of mail. This method required clear weather so the posts could be clearly seen, and pilots required great skill at maneuvering. Incoming mail was simply dropped out of the plane. Starting in May 1939, All-American Airways Company made 23,000 mail pickups using this method during a one-year trial. Shortly thereafter, they got a contract to continue their service for ten years.
Though the Internet makes airmail delivery seem quaint, the Postal Service led the way for progress in the commercial aviation industry–something we all very much benefit from today. (For more on this topic, click “airplane” in the tag cloud on my site: