America's postal service took a giant leap on May 15, 1918 with the inauguration of the world's first regularly scheduled airmail service. This exciting new step in mail transportation began on that date with U.S. Army pilots flying mail for the Post Office Department between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York.
Eager spectators crowded as near as possible to the fields in each city, awaiting the start of the new service. In Washington, officials present for the event included Postmaster General Arthur Burleson, DC postmaster Merritt O. Chance, and U.S. President Woodrow and Mrs. Wilson.
Weeks before, Noah W. Taussig, President of the American Molasses Company and an enthusiastic philatelist, arranged for the creation of a special envelope for the upcoming flight. Taussig arranged for Postmaster General Burleson to place a letter to New York Postmaster Thomas Patten on that flight. In return for President Wilson's signature on the envelope, Patten would give the envelope to Taussig who would arrange its sale at auction. The proceeds would go to the American Red Cross. According to the Washington Post, Burleson purchased the first of the new 24-cent U.S. airmail stamps for this envelope. In the enclosed letter Burleson asked Postmaster Patten to "please deliver the envelope to Mr. Noah Taussigg [sic] . . . who will arrange to have it sold at auction for the benefit of the Red Cross, and who will start the bidding at one thousand dollars."¹
The historic flight out of Washington was fraught with difficulties. The airplane used for the flight had arrived in the city earlier that morning. No one involved in the hectic day's activities thought to check the craft's fuel gage. The pilot spent several minutes trying to start the engine before someone realized it was out of gas. While an impatient President Wilson looked on, mechanics quickly fueled the vehicle and it taxied across the Potomac Polo Grounds for takeoff. The first pilot, Lieutenant George Boyle, was engaged to the daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord and was selected for his social position than his flying abilities. After only about 20 minutes in the air, Boyle was lost and headed south instead of north. Boyle landed in a rough field near Waldorf, Maryland to get his bearings but nosed his plane over on landing, breaking the propeller. Burleson's letter would not arrive in New York City that day.
Despite Lieutenant Boyle's rough start, the day's other flights were completed successfully and heralded in a new era of mail transportation. The envelope bearing President Wilson's signature was trucked back to Washington, D.C., where it was placed on a train for New York where it was auctioned off and purchased by Noah Taussig for $1000, proceeds to go to the Red Cross. The envelope remained in the Taussig family's hands until it was donated in 1977 to the Smithsonian Institution by Mr. Richard S. Taussig.
1) Washington Post, May 13, 1918, page 9, column 8.
Written by Nancy A. Pope