The story begins on May 9, 1918, when the Post Office Department published a routine press release. It stated that on May 13, 1918, the US would issue a new, twenty-four-cent postage stamp in Washington, D.C. Though “intended primarily for the new aeroplane mail service,” the stamp would be valid for all postal uses. Its border would be red. The center would feature a blue “mail aeroplane in flight”–a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, to be exact.
The “new aeroplane mail service” was a ninety-day experiment scheduled to open on May 15. The experiment would test whether it was feasible to fly mail between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York on a scheduled basis, “one round trip daily except Sundays.” The Army Air Service provided pilots. [See “The Day the Airmail Started,” December 1989 issue, p. 98.]
Word of the forthcoming stamp soon reached W. T. Robey, an ardent collector who lived in the Capital. On May 14, Robey went to the window of a downtown post office. He bought a full sheet of the new stamps, 100 in all, paying for them with money just withdrawn from savings. The clerk passed the stamps through the window. Upon looking at the sheet, Robey later recalled, “my heart stood still.” On every stamp, the entire 100, the image of the Jenny had been engraved upside down!
Robey called this to the clerk’s attention. The clerk left the window and ran to a telephone. “Needless to say,” Robey recalled twenty years later in Weekly Philatelic Gossip magazine, “I left that office in a hurry with my sheet of inverts tucked safely under my arm.”
Once outside, Robey was struck with the thought that other branches might have more of the strange stamps. He hurried off to another post office on Eleventh Street, six blocks away. No inverted stamps, however, were found. Robey returned to his office to tell a co-worker about his find. The colleague rushed out to search for more.
For a while, it appeared that Robey’s good luck would be short-lived. His co-worker told the postal clerks about Robey’s find and where he worked. “Within one hour of my return to work,” Robey said, “two postal inspectors called to see me.”
The inspectors offered Robey “good” stamps in trade. He refused. He felt he was within his rights to hold on to them. As soon as the news spread among stamp collectors, Robey began to receive offers. The sums ranged from $2,500 to $15,000 for the entire sheet. Robey finally sold the sheet to Eugene Klein of Philadelphia for $15,000–625 times the amount of his investment. Klein himself later sold the sheet for $20,000 to Colonel E. H. R. Green. Green broke up the sheet so that other collectors could obtain some of the stamps.
It is believed that only eighty-one of these stamps exist today. A single stamp recently traded hands for $100,000. No section of more than four stamps survives. Only seven of these four-stamp blocks exist; each is worth about $500,000. Attempts are sometimes made to counterfeit the twenty-four-cent inverts, but the frauds always have been quickly spotted.
The famous stamp error received enormous publicity. The Post Office Department was not pleased. All remaining sheets in other post offices were called in. The printing plate was altered; plate-makers added the word “TOP” so that the printers could run the paper through the red and blue printing process properly.
The US executed a limited printing of this stamp, the first definitive airmail stamp in the world. It also was the first to display an airplane, the first airmail stamp to be printed in two colors, and the first airmail stamp to contain an error.
For philatelists–those who collect and study postage stamps–the original twenty-four-cent airmail stamp is the best known in the world. It has been reproduced on jewelry, ashtrays, posters, T-shirts, pillows, and wall hangings. It is better remembered than the fact that Air Service pilots were the pioneers of scheduled airmail service, the origin of the world’s great air transportation network.
C. V. Glines, a retired Air Force colonel, is a free-lance writer; a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Squadron in the Ice,” which appeared in the June 1990 issue.