Centenary of Airmail & the Inverted Jenny

United States - Scott #4806a (2013)
United States – Scott #4806a (2013)

On May 15, 1918, under the auspices of the U.S. Post Office, an airmail operation was launched as a wartime effort to stimulate aircraft production and to generate a pool of trained pilots. The service started with six converted United States Army Air Service Curtiss JN-4HM “Jenny” biplanes flown by Army pilots under the command of Major Reuben H. Fleet and operating on a route between Washington, D.C. (Washington Polo Grounds) and New York City (Belmont Park) with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia (Bustleton Field). The army pilots chosen to fly that day were Lieutenants Howard Culver, Torrey Webb, Walter Miller and Stephen Bonsal, all chosen by Major Fleet, and Lieutenants James Edgerton and George L. Boyle, both chosen by postal officials. Boyle was selected to pilot aircraft #38262 on the first northbound flight which, unfortunately, turned out to be a somewhat less than successful initial venture.

After an intermittent series of government sponsored experimental flights between 1911 and 1918, domestic U.S. Air Mail was formally established as a new class of service by the Post Office Department on May 15, 1918, with the inauguration of the Washington–Philadelphia–New York route for which the first of special Air Mail stamps were issued.

The exclusive transportation of flown mails by government operated aircraft came to an end in 1926 under the provisions of the Kelly Act which required the USPOD to transition to contracting with commercial air carriers to fly them over Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes to be established by the Department, although during the first half of 1934 the U.S. Army Air Forces temporarily took over the routes — with disastrous results — when all CAM contracts were summarily cancelled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt owing to the Air Mail Scandal. Domestic air mail became obsolete in 1975, and international air mail in 1995, as distinct extra fee services when the USPS began transporting all First Class long distance intercity mail by air on a routine basis.

Army Major Reuben H. Fleet stands in front of a Curtiss JN-4H
Army Major Reuben H. Fleet stands in front of a Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” airplane after flying from Philadelphia to Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1918, the date regularly scheduled airmail service began between Washington and New York City. Fleet brought the plane to Washington in preparation for the first flight. In the photograph you can see Fleet’s map, still strapped to his leg. Working with rough fields, inexperienced pilots, and early planes, Fleet oversaw the Army’s contribution to early airmail.
Cover flown on the first U.S. Airmail flight from Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1918, franked with a copy of Scott #C3 and signed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Cover flown on the first U.S. Airmail flight from Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1918, franked with a copy of Scott #C3 and signed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

During the first aerial flight in North America by balloon on January 9, 1793, from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey, Jean-Pierre Blanchard carried a personal letter from George Washington to be delivered to the owner of whatever property Blanchard happened to land on, making the flight the first delivery of air mail in the United States.

John Wise piloted an unofficial balloon post flight that took place on July 17, 1859, from St. Louis, United States, to Henderson, New York, a distance of 801.5 miles (1,290 km) on which he carried a mailbag entrusted to him by the American Express Company. One month later, on August 17, Wise flew from Lafayette, Indiana, to Crawfordsville, Indiana, and carried 123 letters and 23 circulars on board that had been collected by the postmaster Thomas Wood and endorsed PREPAID but only one of these historic postal covers was discovered in 1957. In 1959, the United States Postal Service issued a 7cent stamp commemorating Wise’s flight in the Jupiter (Scott #C54). Balloon mail was also carried on an 1877 flight in Nashville, Tennessee.

The first official experiment at flying Air Mail to be made under the aegis of the United States Post Office Department took place on September 23, 1911, on the first day of an International Air Meet sponsored by The Nassau Aviation Corporation of Long Island, when pilot Earle L. Ovington flew 640 letters and 1,280 postcards from the Aero Club of New York’s airfield located on Nassau Boulevard near Stratford School in Garden City (Long Island), New York, to the nearby Mineola Post Office in Mineola, located less than six miles away. After being duly sworn in by U.S. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock as the first U.S. Air Mail pilot in history, Ovington took off in his own American-made Bleriot Queen tractor-type monoplane, Dragonfly, at 5:26 PM and dropped the bag of mail over Mineola six minutes later from an altitude of 500 feet. Unfortunately, the bag broke when it hit the ground but all of the mail was eventually recovered and forwarded by regular channels with the cancellation reading AEROPLANE STATION No.1 – GARDEN CITY ESTATES, N.Y. Emphasizing the concept, in 1912 the United States printed a 20-cent stamp in the Parcel Post series showing a flying machine and titled, AEROPLANE CARRYING MAIL. The mailbag behind the pilot is labeled “No. 1”.

Cover flown on the first day of scheduled Air Mail Service in the U.S. and franked with the first U.S. Air Mail stamp, the 24 Cent
Cover flown on the first day of scheduled Air Mail Service in the U.S. and franked with the first U.S. Air Mail stamp, the 24 Cent “Jenny” (Scott #C3). Cancel: “AIR MAIL SERVICE – WASH. N.Y. PHILA.” “MAY 15, 1918 – FIRST TRIP” “PHILA.” (Type: USPOD CDS w/killer bars) Source: The Cooper Collection of U.S. Aero Postal History
“Inaugural Aerial Post” cover with Washington, DC “First Trip” canceled cover carried on the May 18, 1918. Source: Wikipedia.

The first scheduled U.S. airmail service connected Washington, D.C., and New York. This 218-mile route was the first step in establishing a transcontinental route by air. Transcontinental air service was the best opportunity for airmail to provide faster service at lower cost than the existing railroads. Routes like College Park to New York were only slightly faster than the railroad, but were a good laboratory for developing safe and reliable airmail operations.

Throughout the airmail’s planning, the United States was preparing to fight World War I and this exposed deep flaws in American airpower including obsolete aircraft and too few pilots, both in quality and quantity. As a result, Post Office and military officials believed airmail could increase the speed of communication while also improving military pilots. By flying the mail, novice pilots would develop their long distance flying skills including aerial navigation.

First day of the U.S airmail service with Lt. George L. Boy and Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM #38262 at the right, May 15, 1918.
First day of the U.S airmail service with Lt. George L. Boy and Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM #38262 at the right, May 15, 1918.
The first flight on May 15, 1918, is airborne with Lt. Boyle circling the Washington Polo Grounds prior to heading to Philadelphia by flying south.
The first flight on May 15, 1918, is airborne with Lt. Boyle circling the Washington Polo Grounds prior to heading to Philadelphia by flying south.

The first U.S. Air Mail fleet consisted of six converted United States Army Air Service Curtiss JN-4HM “Jenny” biplanes flown by Army pilots under the command of Major Reuben H. Fleet. The “Jenny” was one of a series of “JN” biplanes built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Hammondsport, New York, later the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Although the Curtiss JN series was originally produced as a training aircraft for the U.S. Army, the “Jenny” (the common nickname derived from “JN-4”, with an open-topped four appearing as a Y) continued after World War I as a civil aircraft, as it became the “backbone of American postwar [civil] aviation.” Thousands of surplus Jennys were sold at bargain prices to private owners in the years after the war and became central to the barnstorming era that helped awaken America to civil aviation through much of the 1920s.

Curtiss combined the best features of the model J and model N trainers, built for the Army and Navy, and began producing the JN or “Jenny” series of aircraft in 1915. Curtiss built only a limited number of the JN-1 and JN-2 biplanes. The design was commissioned by Glenn Curtiss from Englishman Benjamin Douglas Thomas, formerly of the Sopwith Aviation Company.

The JN-2 was an equal-span biplane with ailerons controlled by a shoulder yoke in the aft cockpit.[5] It was deficient in performance, particularly climbing, because of excessive weight. The improved JN-3 incorporated unequal spans with ailerons only on the upper wings, controlled by a wheel. In addition, a foot bar was added to control the rudder.

Curtiss Jenny JN-4 #92838
Curtiss Jenny JN-4 #92838

The 1st Aero Squadron of the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps received eight JN-2s at San Diego in July 1915. The squadron was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in August to work with the Field Artillery School, during which one JN-2 crashed, resulting in a fatality. The pilots of the squadron met with its commander, Capt. Benjamin Foulois, to advise that the JN-2 was unsafe because of low power, shoddy construction, lack of stability, and overly sensitive rudder. Foulois and his executive officer Capt. Thomas D. Milling disagreed, and flights continued until a second JN-2 crashed in early September, resulting in the grounding of the six remaining JN-2s until mid-October. When two new JN-3s were delivered, the grounded aircraft were then upgraded in accordance with the new design. In March 1916, these eight JN-3s were deployed to Mexico for aerial observation during the Pancho Villa Expedition of 1916–1917.

After the successful deployment of the JN-3, Curtiss produced a development, known as the JN-4, with orders from both the US Army and an order in December 1916 from the Royal Flying Corps for a training aircraft to be based in Canada. The Canadian version was the JN-4 (Canadian), also known as the “Canuck”, had some differences from the American version, including a lighter airframe, ailerons on both wings, a bigger and more rounded rudder, and differently shaped wings, stabilizer, and elevators.

As many as 12 JN-4 aircraft were fitted with an aftermarket Sikorsky wing by the then fledgling company in the late 1920s.

The Curtiss JN-4 is possibly North America’s most famous World War I aircraft. It was widely used during World War I to train beginning pilots, with an estimated 95% of all trainees having flown a JN-4. It was a twin-seat (student in front of instructor) dual-control biplane. Its tractor propeller and maneuverability made it ideal for initial pilot training with a 90 hp (67 kW) Curtiss OX-5 V8 engine giving a top speed of 75 mph (121 km/h) and a service ceiling of 6,500 feet (2,000 m). The British used the JN-4 (Canadian), along with the Avro 504, for their primary World War I trainer using the Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. indigenous variant. Many Royal Flying Corps pilots earned their wings on the JN-4, both in Ontario and later in winter facilities at Camp Taliaferro, Texas.

Although ostensibly a training aircraft, the Jenny was extensively modified while in service to undertake additional roles. Due to its robust but easily adapted structure able to be modified with ski undercarriage, the Canadian Jenny was flown year-round, even in inclement weather. The removable turtle-deck behind the cockpits allowed for conversion to stretcher or additional supplies and equipment storage, with the modified JN-4s becoming the first aerial ambulances, carrying out this role both during wartime and in later years. Most of the 6,813 Jennys built were unarmed, although some had machine guns and bomb racks for advanced training. With deployment limited to North American bases, none saw combat service in World War I.

The Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York, was the largest such facility in the world, but due to production demands, from November 1917 to January 1919, six different manufacturers were involved in production of the definitive JN-4D. Production from spare or reconditioned parts continued sporadically until 1927, although most of the final orders were destined for the civil market in Canada and the United States.

Like the re-engined ‘JN-4H’ version of the most-produced JN-4 subtype, the final production version of the aircraft was the JN-6, powered by a Wright Aeronautical license-built, 150-hp (112-kW) Hispano-Suiza 8 V-8, first ordered in 1918 for the US Navy. A floatplane version was built for the Navy which was so modified, it was essentially a different airframe. This was designated the N-9. In U.S. Army Air Service usage, the JN-4s and JN-6s were configured to the JNS (“S” for “standardized”) model. The Jenny remained in service with the US Army until 1927.

After World War I, thousands were sold on the civilian market, including one to Charles Lindbergh in May 1923, in which he then soloed. Surplus US Army aircraft were sold, some still in their unopened packing crates, for as little as $50, essentially “flooding” the market. With private and commercial flying in North America unhampered by regulations concerning their use, pilots found the Jenny’s stability and slow speed made it ideal for stunt flying and aerobatic displays in the barnstorming era between the world wars, with the nearly identical Standard J-1 aircraft often used alongside it.  Some were still flying into the 1930s.

Air Mail pilot Eddie Gardner in 1918.
Air Mail pilot Eddie Gardner in 1918.

The JN-4HM variant used to fly the first U.S. Air Mail between May and August 1918 was the communications conversion of JN-4HT, powered by Wright-Hisso E 150-hp (112-kW) and six of these had further modifications made to accommodate their new service carrying the mail.

The first scheduled U.S. Air Mail service began on May 15, 1918. Among those who were on hand for the departure of the first flight from the Washington, D.C. Polo Grounds were President Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Army. Lt. George L. Boyle was selected to pilot his aircraft on the first northbound flight. He had only recently graduated from the flight school at Ellington Field, Texas, and hadn’t yet accumulated more than 60 hours of piloting time.

Lieutenant Boyle, however, had a powerful ally on his side. He was engaged to the daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord. After all his preparations and ceremonies, Boyle hopped into his airplane but was unable to start it. The airplane had not been fueled. It was an inauspicious start. Lieutenant Boyle finally got his Curtiss Jenny, loaded with 124 pounds of airmail, in the air. His assignment was to fly to Philadelphia, the mid-way stop between the Washington and New York ends of the service.

Curtis JN-4HM #38262 airmail plane taking off, May 15, 1918.
Curtis JN-4HM #38262 airmail plane taking off, May 15, 1918.

Almost immediately after taking off at 11:47 A.M., Boyle became disoriented and started flying South when he followed the wrong set of railroad tracks out of the city. Realizing that he was lost, Boyle attempted to find out where he was by making an unscheduled landing just 18 minutes later at 12:05 P.M. in Waldorf, Maryland, about 25 miles south of the city. Unfortunately, however, he broke the prop on his airplane when he made a hard landing, so the 140 pounds of mail he was carrying had to be trucked back to Washington.

However aviators 1st Lt. Torrey H. Webb and 2nd Lt. James C. Edgerton completed the scheduled southbound relay with 144 pounds of mail, and Edgerton then flew Boyle’s mail to Philadelphia the following day. Thanks to his political connections, Boyle was given a second chance to fly the airmail out of Washington, D.C. This time, he was given an escort who flew him out of the city, having given him directions to “follow the Chesapeake Bay” towards Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Boyle followed those instructions too literally, following the curve of the bay over to Maryland’s eastern shore, where he landed, out of fuel again. Not even Boyle’s connections could help him now, and he was removed from the pilot list for the service.

The first regularly scheduled airmail route connected Washington, D.C. and Bew York via Philadelphia from May 15, 1918 to May 31, 1921. The Post Office Department operated the 218-mile route to demonstrate that mail transportation by airplane was possible on a regular schedule in all kinds of weather.
The first regularly scheduled airmail route connected Washington, D.C. and Bew York via Philadelphia from May 15, 1918 to May 31, 1921. The Post Office Department operated the 218-mile route to demonstrate that mail transportation by airplane was possible on a regular schedule in all kinds of weather.

Lieutenant James Edgerton, the other rookie pilot, did much better on his flights and stayed with the service. On another flight, Edgerton managed to keep his airplane aloft during a violent storm, even as the propeller was pelted by hail. He was discharged from the service the next year, and became the Chief of Flying Operations.

The site of the first continuously scheduled air mail service is marked by a plaque in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.. The route was extended to Boston three weeks later on June 4.

After four months of the mail being flown by the Army, all flight operations were taken over by the USPOD’s Aerial Mail Service on August 12, 1918, using a fleet of six purpose built JR-1B mail biplanes designed and constructed by the Standard Aero Corporation of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and flown by civilian pilots hired by the Post Office Department. After a number of “pathfinder” flights made in September, November, and early December, the first flight providing scheduled east-west service between New York and Chicago occurred on December 17, 1918.

JR-1B mail airplane designed by the Standard Aircraft Corporation, December 31, 1918.
JR-1B mail airplane designed by the Standard Aircraft Corporation, December 31, 1918.

Flight operations moved 9 miles east to the College Park Air Field. Already a proven airfield for training military pilots between 1909-1911 and with active civilian flight operations in 1918, it was already a functioning field requiring minimal modification for airmail operations. In fact, College Park was the preferred location when Major Rueben Fleet scouted locations for the Army airmail. However, officials chose the Polo Grounds for its proximity to the White House and Congress.

In 1919, the Post Office built a new hangar and a “compass rose” at College Park (both still exist today). The compass rose was a concrete compass in the ground to continuously display true north. At the time, airplane compasses needed to be calibrated before every flight. Pilots lined up their planes on the roses’ north-south directional axis to check their compass’ accuracy. This was a temporary solution until better instruments and navigation systems were developed for aircraft.

While the role of the DC-NY route was to create an organization and develop reliable operations, the long-term success in aviation both economically and velocity required it to expand across the continent. In 1921, postal officials closed the College Park airmail station to focus on routes where airmail was clearly superior in speed and cost to the railroad. However, the field remained home to researchers, inventors, and businesses focused on developing commercial aviation.

Airmail planes at Omaha, Nebraska, 1920
Airmail planes at Omaha, Nebraska, 1920

The original Air Mail letter rate per ounce between any two points on the route when service began was 24 cents per ounce for which the first special purpose U.S. Air Mail stamp (Scott #C3) was issued on May 13, 1918. The red and blue stamp’s vignette depicted Army JN-4 #38262, the aircraft that made the first Air Mail flight from Washington two days later, and the 24 cent fee it represented was apportioned at two cents for postage, 12 cents for air service, and 10 cents for Special Delivery. On July 15, the rate was dropped to 16 cents for the first ounce and 6 cents for each additional ounce, and on December 15 the rate was dropped again to 6 cents per ounce when Special Delivery was made optional. Additional monochromatic stamps of similar design to Scott #C3 were also issued contemporaneously with these rate changes in 16-cent (green) and 6-cent (orange) denominations. Although these extra fee stamps were issued for use on mails to be serviced by air, the legend AIR MAIL did not appear on any United States stamp until eight years later when the 10-cent Scott #C7 rectangular was issued on February 13, 1926, two days before the first ever mail flight under contract with a commercial carrier was made on February 15, an eastbound trip between Detroit and Cleveland over CAM Route 7.

United States - Scott #4806 (2013) full souvenir sheet and descriptive card; image from active eBay auction [NIMC: 2018]
United States – Scott #4806 (2013) full souvenir sheet and descriptive card; image from active eBay auction [NIMC: 2018]

I have received two copies of the 2013
I have received two copies of the 2013 “Inverted Jenny” reissue on mail from the United States. The Scott catalogue lists a single from the six-stamp souvenir sheet with a sub-letter, #4806a, much as the original 1918 invert has a sub-letter, #C3a, to note it as a variety of the regular stamps.

On September 22, 2013, the United States Postal Service released a souvenir sheet of six $2 stamps (Scott #4086) in conjunction with the opening of the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. The  12,000-square-foot facility houses some of the greatest stamp rarities and has become a mecca for collectors around the world. The stamps in the souvenir sheet depict probably the most famous of all stamp mistakes, the “Inverted Jenny” in which one sheet of 100 24-cent stamps was found with the center Curtiss JN-4 aircraft printed upside down (Scott #C3a).

The 2013 sheet was printed using plates created from the original 1918 dies. The selvage artwork around the stamps pictures the National Postal Museum, aviation pioneer Reuben H. Fleet, a map of the first scheduled Air Mail route, and a compass rose.

In 2005, Gross paid $2.97 million to buy the unique “Inverted Jenny” plate number block. He then exchanged the block of four stamps for the unique 1868 1-cent Z Grill owned by Don Sundman, president of Mystic Stamp Company, in a one-for-one trade that made international headlines. Another block of four Jenny inverts is on permanent display at the National Postal Museum, courtesy of Mr. Gross for whom the gallery is named.

The Inverted Jenny plate block of four (note that the blue plate number is inverted as well). As of June 2015, it was owned by shoe designer and collector Stuart Weitzman.
The Inverted Jenny plate block of four (note that the blue plate number is inverted as well). As of June 2015, it was owned by shoe designer and collector Stuart Weitzman.

In preparing for its upcoming Air Mail service, in May 1918, the United States Post Office Department released a single 24-cent stamp portraying a central vignette of a U.S. Army Curtiss JN-4HM. Registration #38262 of this model, one of six converted for the new service, would become the nation’s first mailplane. The “Inverted Jenny” (also known as an “Upside Down Jenny” or “Jenny Invert”) refers to a stamp in which the image of the airplane in the center of the design was accidentally printed upside-down; it is the most famous error in American philately. Only one pane of 100 of the invert stamps was ever found, making this error one of the most prized in all philately.

A single Inverted Jenny was sold at a Robert A. Siegel auction in November 2007 for $977,500. In December 2007 a mint never hinged example was sold for $825,000. The broker of the sale said the buyer was a Wall Street executive who had lost the auction the previous month. A block of four Inverted Jennys was sold at a Robert A. Siegel auction in October 2005 for $2.7 million. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, prices fetched by Inverted Jennys have receded. Between January and September 2014, five examples offered at auction sold for sums ranging from $126,000 through $575,100. Prices eventually recovered, for on May 31, 2016, a particularly well-centered Jenny invert, graded XF-superb 95 by Professional Stamp Experts, was sold at a Siegel Auction for a hammer price of $1,175,000. The addition of a 15% buyer’s premium raised the total record high price paid for this copy to $1,351,250.

The Post Office had set a controversial rate of 24 cents for the impending Air Mail service, much higher than the 3 cents for first-class mail of the time, and decided to issue a new stamp just for this rate, patriotically printed in red and blue, and depicting a Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM, the biplane especially modified for shuttling the mail. The stamp’s designer, Clair Aubrey Houston, apparently troubled to procure a photograph of that modified model (produced by removing the second pilot seat from the JN-4HT to create space for mailbags, and by increasing the fuel capacity). As only six such aircraft existed, there was a 1-in-6 chance that the very plane engraved on the stamp by Marcus Baldwin — Jenny #38262 — would be chosen to launch the inaugural three-city airmail run. Amazingly, the plane on the stamp was indeed the first to depart on May 15, 1918, piloted by Lieutenant George L. Boyle and taking off from the Washington Polo Grounds at 11:47 A. M. headed in the wrong direction.

The job of designing and printing the new stamp was carried out in a great rush; engraving began only on May 4, and stamp printing on May 10 (a Friday), in sheets of 100 contrary to the usual practice of printing 400 at a time and cutting into 100-stamp panes. Since the stamp was printed in two colors, each sheet had to be placed into the flat-bed printing press twice, an error-prone process that had resulted in invert errors in stamps of 1869 and 1901, and at least three misprinted sheets were found during the production process and destroyed. It is believed that only one misprinted sheet of 100 stamps got through unnoticed, and stamp collectors have spent the ensuing years trying to find them all.

Returned “Inverted Jenny”. Image courtesy of Kathy Willens, Associated Press.

Many collectors long thought the blue plane portion was printed first, thus it was actually the red frames that were inverted. However, research by noted philatelic authors Henry Goodkind and George Amick shows this to be incorrect; in fact, the frames were printed first and it is the planes that are upside down. In examples where the plane is so far off center that it overlaps the frames, it can be seen that the blue ink used to print the plane lies atop the red ink used to print the frames. The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum offers two explanations for how this might have occurred: either a sheet of printed frames was placed in the press upside down for the printing of the plane; or the printing plate used to print the planes was mounted inverted within the printing press.

Initial deliveries went to post offices on Monday, May 13. Aware of the potential for inverts, 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; he had written to a friend on May 10 mentioning that “it would pay to be on the lookout for inverts”. On May 14, Robey went to the post office to buy the new stamps, and as he wrote later, when the clerk brought out a sheet of inverts, “my heart stood still”. He paid for the sheet, and asked to see more, but the remainder of the sheets were normal.

Additional details of the day’s events are not entirely certain — Robey gave three different accounts later — but he began to contact both stamp dealers and journalists, to tell them of his find. After a week that included visits from postal inspectors who tried to buy it back, and the hiding of the sheet under his mattress, Robey sold the sheet to noted Philadelphia dealer Eugene Klein for $15,000. Klein placed an advertisement on the first page of the May 25, 1918 Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News offering to sell copies of the invert ($250 for fully perforated examples, $175 for stamps with one straight edge), but announced in his following week’s ad that the entire sheet had been purchased by an individual collector. The buyer, who paid $20,000, was “Colonel” H. R. Green, son of Hetty Green.

Klein advised Green that the stamps would be worth more separately than as a single sheet, and Green went along. He donated one invert to the Red Cross in support of its war efforts (which was auctioned off for $300), while retaining forty-one of the stamps in his own collection, including the plate-number block (initially eight stamps) and several blocks of four. The remainder of the inverts were sold off at steadily increasing prices through Klein, who kept a block of four for himself. Green had one copy placed in a locket for his wife. This gold and glass locket displayed the inverted Jenny on one side, and a “regular” Jenny stamp on the other. This locket was offered for sale for the first time by the Siegel Auction Galleries Rarities Sale, held on May 18, 2002. It did not sell in the auction, but the philatelic press reported that a Private Treaty sale was arranged later for an unknown price.

Philatelic “Missing” poster

The philatelic literature had long stated that seven of the stamps had been lost or destroyed through theft or mishandling. However, in 2007 a copy came to light that had not been seen since Eugene Klein broke up the sheet, and was offered for auction that June. The number of lost stamps then became six. Several others have been damaged, including one that was sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Apparently Green’s wife mailed one which, while recovered, is the only cancelled sample. Indeed, no Jenny invert is in pristine condition, because Klein lightly penciled a number on the back of each stamp (from 1 through 10 in the top row to 91 through 100 in the bottom row) so that its original position on the sheet could be identified. Only five examples survive, in fact, in never hinged condition. One of these is the locket copy, which, however has another condition problem: a corner crease at the bottom right probably inflicted while it was being enclosed behind glass.

Aside from having the biplane printed upside down, the inverted Jenny has become famous for other reasons as well. Benjamin Kurtz Miller, one of the early buyers of these inverts, 10 in all, bought the stamp for $250. Miller’s inverted Jenny, position 18 on the sheet, was stolen in 1977 but was recovered in the early 1980s though, unfortunately, the top perforations had been cut off to prevent it from being recognized as the stolen Miller stamp. This mutilation made the stamp appear as if it had come from the top row of the sheet, and Klein’s numbering on the back was accordingly tampered with to disguise the stamp as position 9 — an astute piece of misdirection founded in the knowledge that position 9 had never appeared on the market: in fact, the real position 9 emerged decades later as the locket copy. A genuine straight-edged copy would have cost Miller only $175. However, that stolen and missing stamp served to drive the value of the other 99 examples even higher. That inverted Jenny was the main attraction in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s ‘Rarity Revealed’ exhibition, 2007–2009. The “Inverted Jenny” was the most requested postage stamp for viewing by visitors at the museum.

In 2014, the mass media renewed long-dormant public attention to the 1955 theft of an even more spectacular Jenny specimen. This was a block of four (positions 65, 66, 75, 76) with a vertical red guide-line through its center, owned by the collector Ethel McCoy, which was stolen from a stamp show at a Norfolk hotel where it was being exhibited. The top right stamp from this block has never been found; the two left stamps surfaced in the 1970s as single copies offered in auction catalogues and were recovered by the FBI, although they had been camouflaged by minor mutilation: the portions of the right-edge perforations on which parts of the guide line were originally visible had been trimmed off or abraded to remove the red ink. Mrs. McCoy’s will had made the American Philatelic Research Library the legal owner of all four stamps in the block. In 2014, Donald Sundman of the Mystic Stamp Company offered $100,000 in reward money — $50,000 for the two stamps that were still missing — to anyone who could bring them to their rightful owner. The offer was publicized in The New York Times and on national network news.

Position 76 of the
Position 76 of the “Inverted Jenny” (Scott #C3a) next to a regular 24-cent 1918 Air Mail stamp (Scott #C3). Image by Joshua Bright for The New York Times.

In April 2016, a third stamp from the stolen McCoy block turned up for auction at the Spink USA auction house. The seller was a British citizen in his 20s who claimed to have inherited it from his grandfather and knew little about the stamp’s provenance. Examination revealed that the stamp came from position 76 in the pane of 100. The American Philatelic Research Library said it will work to take possession of the stamp once an FBI investigation is complete and other legal matters settled. The only stamp that remains missing is position 66.

It should be noted that philatelic forgers have mutilated at least four additional Inverted Jennys, (positions 4, 5, 6 and 8) disfiguring them with false perforations at the top. These were copies from the first horizontal row of the sheet, all of which originally had a straight edge at the top. The spurious perforations on position 4 have been trimmed away, but traces of them are still discernable along the narrow margin that remains.

At an auction of the Green estate in 1944, the unique plate number block of eight stamps was sold for $27,000 to the collector Amos Eno, who had four stamps removed from it. The reduced block fetched only $18,250 when Eno’s estate was sold off ten years later. By 1971, however, its price had risen to $150,000. Eventually, in late October 2005 this plate number block of four stamps was purchased by a then-anonymous buyer for $2,970,000. The purchaser was revealed to be U.S. financier Bill Gross. Shortly after purchasing the Inverted Jennys he proceeded to trade them with Donald Sundman, president of the Mystic Stamp Company, a stamp dealer, for one of only two known examples of the United States 1-cent Z Grill. By completing this trade, Gross became the owner of the only complete collection of U.S. 19th century stamps.

In November 2006, election workers in Broward County, Florida claimed to have found an Inverted Jenny affixed to an absentee ballot envelope. The sender did not include any identification with the ballot, which automatically disqualified the ballot. Peter Mastrangelo, executive director of the American Philatelic Society, observed that the stamp was at variance with known copies, due in part to its perforations, although the colors had been reproduced accurately. Further investigations, published in the following month, confirmed that the stamp was a forgery.

The USPS 2013 reissue had the six stamps in the souvenir sheet denominated $2 instead of the original 24 cents. The sheets were sold at face value, $12; the issue was sold only as souvenir sheets of six, and not as individual $2 stamps. Various special packagings for collectors were also offered for a premium.

quantities by the U.S. Postal Service in 2013, graces the cover of the catalogue for Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries Sale #1162, conducted on July 25-26, 2017.
A souvenir sheet of “non-inverted Jennys” as released in limited quantities by the U.S. Postal Service in 2013, graces the cover of the catalogue for Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries Sale #1162, conducted on July 25-26, 2017.
Description page for the
Description page for the “upright Jenny” in the July 2017 Siegel auction catalogue. It had an estimated sale price of US $75,000 and sold for $40,000 plus commission.

In addition to the 2.2 million sheets printed with the plane inverted, the Postal Service announced it also printed 100 “non-inverted Jenny” souvenir sheets, with the plane flying right side up. All sheets are individually wrapped in sealed envelopes to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase. Individuals purchasing one of the 100 non-inverted Jenny sheets find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping asking them to call a phone number to receive a certificate of acknowledgement signed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. A non-inverted sheet purchased by Gail and David Robinson of Richmond, Virginia was sold in June 2014 by Siegel Auctions “Rarities of the World” for $51,750, with the 15% buyer’s premium.

In 2015, the Postal Service’s Inspector General called the issuing of a few right side up Jenny airmail sheets improper because regulations do not allow the deliberate creation and distribution of stamp errors. The Service’s general counsel was aware of the plan but formal approval by the legal department did not occur. It was also found that the Service’s stamp fulfillment center in Missouri had accidentally failed to distribute 23 of the 30 sheets it was supposed to randomly mix in with orders (the other 70 went to local post offices). Thus, not even the promised 100 were made available to the public.

Inverted and Upright Jenny stamps released by the U.S. Postal Service on September 22, 2013.
Inverted and Upright Jenny stamps released by the U.S. Postal Service on September 22, 2013.

In 2o1u, the U.S. Postal Service is commemorating the centennial of Air Mail service with the issuance of two stamps bearing the same design, A blue-colored Forever (currently 51 cents). stamp was released on May 1 marking the establishment of the Army-flown Air Mail service. First Day ceremonies were held at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. On August 11, a carmine Forever stamp will be released to note the centennial of the Post Office Department taking over the service from the Army.

Both stamps, printed in the intaglio print method — a design transferred to paper from an engraved plate — depict the type of plane typically used in the early days of airmail, a Curtiss “Jenny” JN-4HM biplane. According to the USPS announcements, the stamp designs evoke that earlier period. The stamps were printed in pressure-sensitive adhesive panes of 20 by Ashton Potter (USA) Ltd. at Williamsville, New York on a Stevens Vari-size Security Press, The designer and typographer was Dan Gretta; Greg Breeding was the art director. There were 7,500,000 copies of the blue stamp issued.

NOTE: I suppose I should mention that some of the images of philatelic material are items that I don’t have in my collection at this time, a deviation from my usual policy to only picture stamps, covers and postcards that I actually own. In this case, that includes all but the two on-cover used examples of Scott #4806a; I do plan on purchasing the souvenir sheet in the near future and, perhaps, a first day cover or two of that as well as the 2018 Air Mail Centennial stamps. I do not, in fact own either a Scott #C3 or a #C3a “”Inverted Jenny”. Of course, if anybody out there has one of the latter to spare, I wouldn’t turn down the gift…

United States Flag 1912-1959

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