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Combination letter and envelope ready for mailing. Courtesy of the National Archives
What is black and white and red all over? Answer: V-Mail stationery.
The first letter sheets were printed with black ink when the V-Mail service began operations on June 15, 1942. A more vibrant red soon replaced the somber black. As well as being more patriotic in look, the red also helped to flag the V-Mail letters for sorting, processing, and preferential transport.
The stationery was custom designed to meet the functions of V-Mail service, which postal and military officials introduced to handle the dramatic increase in wartime overseas mail exchanges. V-Mail used standardized stationery and microfilm processing to produce lighter, smaller cargo. Less space needed for mail made more space available for other war supplies. And, more letters could reach their destination faster around the globe. The lighter letters (whether dispatched in original form or microfilmed) allowed V-Mail to travel aboard swift airplanes rather than slow boats.
As an aerogramme made for air transport, V-Mail forms combined the letter and envelope into one single sheet. The earliest forms, in addition to being printed in black, filled one entire side with instructions for use while the opposite side provided space for addresses, censor marks, and correspondence. That was fine for microfilming, but not for mailing. To convert the form into a more effective envelope, officials reduced the instruction text and added space for addresses and postage.
In addition working as an efficient, light-weight mailing piece, the letter sheet also had to meet the specifications for the microfilm equipment. The 8 ½ by 11 inch sheet had to be of uniform weight, grade, and grain to fit in the Eastman Kodak Recordak machines used to copy the letters to microfilm. For the majority of the service’s operations, 20 pound paper was used. A 16 pound paper was developed later with the opacity and the durability required for microfilming. The number of sheets per pound increased from 90 to 120.
Officials estimated that microfilm saved up to 98% on cargo space. However, not all letter sheets underwent microfilm processing. If a letter sheet was damaged, the writing too illegible to be copied, or a V-Mail processing plant was not available, then the letter was usually forwarded as it was. Even if they were dispatched in their original form, the V-Mail letters took 42% less space and weighed 45% less than regular mail.
To encourage the use of V-Mail, the Post Office Department and the military made the stationery available for free to the armed forces and civilians. Patrons could get two sheets per day from their local post office. The Government Printing Office (GPO) supplied the stationery. In addition, private companies with postal permits printed the letter sheets. The permit number or GPO mark was generally placed in the bottom right margin. The Sheaffer Company produced a clever packaging format, selling a mailable tube filled with V-Mail stationery, ink, and other writing necessaries.
The paper’s design allowed for maximum space for the correspondent’s writings. Between 300 handwritten and 700 typed words could fit between the margins required for the microfilm processing and below the lines for addresses and the spot for the censor’s stamp. But not all writers had to face filling in a blank page. Pre-printed contents also came readily available in a variety of cartoons, holiday messages, official change of address forms, and more. Units with talented artists and access to printing facilities produced V-Mail sheets with greetings. The Seabees, Naval Construction Battalions, often replaced the usual "V-Mail" in the bottom margin with their own name. And despite all the standards for these forms, some V-Mail stationery made overseas employed whatever paper and inks were on hand, such as forms printed on old map paper.
Use of V-Mail began to decline in the spring of 1945 and microfilming ceased November 1, 1945. Authorities arranged for the disposition of materials. A portion of the stationery was salvaged, and some letter sheets retained to be used for correspondence in the near term.
For further reading about the V-Mail service, photographic prints, and envelopes
Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1943. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944.
Cosentini, George. “Modern Commentary: V-Mail Notes.” The United States Post Office in World War II: The U.S. Government’s Classic ‘A Wartime History of the Post Office Department’ in a New Illustrated Edition with Modern Commentaries. Ed. Lawrence Sherman. Chicago: The Collectors Club of Chicago, 2002.
United States Army Service Forces. Adjutant General’s Office. Army Postal Service During World War II. December 31, 1945.
United States Post Office Department. A Wartime History of the Post Office Department: World War II 1939-1945. Washington, DC: Post Office Department, 1951.
Walker, Frank S. “Mail Service for Our Armed Forces.” The Postal Bulletin Vol. 63 No. 18450 (June 15, 1942): 1-5.