Provisional Series of Surcharged Airmails (1929-1931)
A product of the first flights into and out of the Canal Zone, the first five Canal Zone airmails are known by collectors as 'The Provisionals' or the 'First Air Mail Series Surcharges'. Charles A. Lindbergh's flight from Miami on a circuitous route via Cuba and Central America during the first week of February 1929 initiated the period.
On the initial return flight to Miami a few days later, letters were charged a total of twenty-seven cents—that is, two cents for the 'postage' and twenty-five cents for the airmail service to the United States. Accordingly, a supply of existing Goethals 2-cent regular stamps were surcharged at the Mount Hope Press with a new value of twenty-five cents. Furthermore, it was decided that only airmail stamps should be used on airmail letters, although this was not strictly followed at all times. By the end of 1929, three other surcharged airmail stamps had been issued in denominations of 10-cent, 15-cent, and 20-cent on other regular Canal Zone stamps. In March 1931 a second variety of the 15-cent stamp was prepared when exiting stocks ran short.
This 15-cent airmail stamp was revalued by overprinting stocks of the current 1-cent Gorgas regular stamp. Mount Hope Printing Press overprinted 100,000 stamps. Post offices could first purchase the stamps on April 1, 1929. At the time only airmail stamps were authorized for use on airmail letters, and it was originally intended for mail addressed to destinations along the west coast of South America and into Central America and the Caribbean. For example, on the first flight in May 1929 a single 15-cent stamp was required for service to Ecuador, a pair for Peru, and three to Chile. It was also used only a few days later on the first flight to Central America, where a single stamp was required for each half ounce.
It is believed that almost all of these stamps were used on mail, although to find it on a non-philatelic airmail letter is not an easy task. However, it is quite common even today on covers flown on the many first flights throughout the Americas. It was also used, primarily into the early 1930s, on mail to other locations as the postage rates and routes changed fairly frequently. The last remnants still in post office stock were destroyed by burning in 1932.
The Type II 15-cent airmail (Scott C2) as it is commonly known, was issued without fanfare in March 1931. It was accomplished by surcharging 50,000 of the current 1-cent Gorgas regular stamps at the Canal Zone Press, Mount Hope. There are two major characteristics of this stamp. First, the basic 1-cent stamp is a definite yellow green, whereas the C1 Type I variety, which is far more common, is on dark green stamps. Second, and more definitive, is the shape of the "5" in the surcharge. On Type I stamps the top of the "5" is a horizontal stroke with a serif at the right rising up like a knob. However, on a Type II that horizontal stroke is a gentle curve with no serif.
The differences in scarcity and value of the two stamps is significant as it is believed the great majority of the Type IIs were used on regular mail and not saved since at first there was no recognition of the differences. In addition, most dealers who had already stocked up on the Type I surcharges were unaware of the differences and as result did not get involved in them until the remnants were turned over to the Philatelic Agency in 1932. The relative abundance of Type I is that it was the first airmail of this denomination and many thousands of them were saved after being used on first flight covers to a variety of Latin American countries, the rates to which were in many cases figured in 15-cent increments. In contrast, it is likely that many of the existing stocks of the C2 in collector or dealer hands are from that 1932 sale. It is significant that the number of first flights for them to be used on after 1931 was greatly reduced and the relatively few sold at Canal Zone post offices probably went out on commercial or personal letters that were not saved. Be that as it may, examples of the C2 Type II on any cover are truly scarce and greatly sought after by collectors.
It is believed that at least one-third of the 50,000 Type IIs were destroyed after stocks of the Provisional airmails were withdrawn from sale at Canal Zone post offices at close of business November 17, 1931, the day before the first permanent series stamps featuring the Spirit of St. Louis over Gaillard Cut were released for sale. On two occasions in June and October 1932 burnings of the 15-cent surcharged airmails totalling just under 19,000 stamps took place. From this known point estimates for the survival of C2 in any form are made. Since the C2 Type II was made due to the pending shortage of 15-cent airmails we can only surmise that the great majority of the burned stamps were indeed from their ranks.
The first Canal Zone airmail stamp was created in anticipation of Charles Lindbergh's February 1929 flight, which was the initial airmail flight from the Canal Zone to the United States. Since no airmail stamps existed at the time, it was decided to surcharge existing stocks of the 2-cent Goethals stamp with the new value of twenty-five cents, the amount required at that time for a half-ounce airmail letter to the United States.
Printing was accomplished locally at the Mount Hope Printing Press in a series of jobs totaling 290,000 stamps. Of these, over 223,000 copies were actually sold, and the remaining stamps were destroyed by burning in 1932, after the permanent series of airmails had been received and placed into use.
Examples of this stamp honoring Lindbergh's first flight are quite common, but covers originating from the smaller towns are rare. This stamp is found used on very scarce non-philatelic airmail letters together with the 2-cent 'postage' through March 20, 1929, when the requirement for the 2-cent was dropped. Then, effective on January 1, 1930, the rate per half-ounce was reduced to twenty cents. After that date the 25-cent stamp is usually seen on heavier letters or covers to foreign destinations.
The ten-cent surcharge on this stamp was applied to existing stocks of the 50-cent Blackburn regular issue stamp. The surcharge, numbering 130,000 in three printings, was done locally at the Canal Zone Press, Mount Hope. The resulting stamps (Scott C-4) were first issued on December 31, 1929.
This stamp covered the new reduced airmail rate to places such as Costa Rica and the coastal cities of Colombia and was also useful for 'make-up' rates on overweight or foreign letters as well as more commonly in pairs to the United States. It is sometimes seen on first flight covers to Central and South America. However, covers not inspired by philatelic interests are rarely seen. By the time the remainders were burned in 1932, only about 116,000 copies had been actually sold.
This is the most common of the surcharged provisional stamps, 650,000 copies having been printed by the Canal Zone Press, Mount Hope. This stamp (Scott C5) was placed into service on January 1, 1930, when the twenty-five-cent airmail rate for letters to the United States was reduced to twenty cents. Many other rates were also reduced at that time, and consequently the 20-cent provisional is frequently seen on first flight covers. Of the stamps printed, all but approximately 11,000 were actually sold, with the remainders burned in 1932.
Most non-philatelic usages of this stamp are common because it was in use a relatively long time. Specialists, however, look for it in conjunction with more interesting usages such as registry, special delivery, and foreign airmail, including letters from Colombia by the local German-owned airline known as SCADTA. The airline brought mail into the Canal Zone for forwarding worldwide using the 20-cent provisional stamp. It was taken off sale on November 17, 1931, when the new Permanent Series was placed on sale. It continued in use for several years, however, as people depleted their remaining supplies.