Treasure-Hunting Heaven

01.19.2017
Blog

By Deborah Fisher and Kellen Diamanti

Editor’s note: The National Postal Museum is happy to host two guest bloggers – Deborah Fisher and Kellen Diamanti – who recently spent a chunk of time in the National Postal Museum’s library collecting information for their forthcoming book about the famed Inverted Jenny, entitled Stamp of the Century.

Sticking to the research focus while remaining open to unexpected opportunities produces the most usable material and greatest sense of adventure. During our time in Washington, D.C., Deborah Fisher specifically sought information about preparations for regular airmail delivery, including creation of the 24c two-color stamp with the Curtiss JN-4 vignette, and events that transpired on that first day, May 15, 1918. Kellen Diamanti was chasing stories about collectors, dealers, and others associated with the error version of that stamp, the Inverted Jenny.

We arrived at the National Postal Museum (NPM), having performed our online reconnaissance and ready to read primary sources and knock questions off our lists. What we actually encountered, however, was a dazzling cascade of surprises, many the result of unexpected tips, tidbits, and invitations from generous archivists, librarians, and curators throughout the Smithsonian Institution. As high as our expectations had been, we saw and learned more during our stay than we’d even hoped. Naturally, we each enjoyed very different highlights.

Deborah's Airmail Highlights:

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Dispatch board; image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Spending three whole weeks doing nothing but research for our book was sheer heaven. I loved examining source materials firsthand, allowing me to reach my own conclusions concerning people about whom many others have written. In addition to letters, official documents, and photos, I also got to see—in a few cases even handle—objects related to our story.

One of my favorite objects pulled from the climate-controlled vault at the NPM was Benjamin Lipsner’s dispatch board. Captain Lipsner was on the field in D.C. for the inaugural airmail flights on May 15, 1918. He left the Army a few months later in August to become the Post Office Department’s first civilian superintendent. In charge of day-to-day operations, Lipsner created a pegboard on which he could track planes, pilots, and weather. Learning to track and predict weather conditions became one of the department’s most valuable contributions to safer aviation practices, leading in part to the creation of the National Weather Service.

In the National Air and Space Museum archives at the Udvar-Hazy Center, out near Dulles International Airport, I could actually leaf through Lt. James Edgerton’s pilot log book, starting with his May 14th entry noting his flight, ferrying Curtiss JN-4H number 38274 from Mineola, NY, to Bustleton Field near Philadelphia, “in readiness for inauguration of service on the 15th.” This matter-of-fact entry comes after the six pilots and crews had spent 30 hours straight, assembling their machines, which had arrived in wooden crates from the Curtiss factory.

Edgerton’s concise daily entries continue until August, noting oil problems, spark plug replacements, and the occasional need to tighten control and flying wires. The pilot has the entire plane re-varnished in May, installs a fire extinguisher system in June, and replaces the plane’s engine twice, noting after a particularly rocky trip on July 30th, “Motor bad…ship entirely o.k.”

Among the dozens of photos I examined, two stand out. One I found in first-day pilot Lt. George Boyle’s biographical file at the Air and Space archives downtown. The fact that there was a photo in a bio file at all completely surprised the archivist, and, it turns out, it had never been catalogued. The black and white photo shows six planes in various stages of assembly, and the one closest to the camera is all guts and no skin.

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Ed Gardner; photo by Deborah Fisher, image appears courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

The handwriting in the lower right-hand corner of the photo says “Curtiss A&M Corp/H.S. Maitin Job Shop”; the date is April 16, 1918. The chief photo archivist who went on to catalogue the find speculated that the photo might have shown an area of the Curtiss factory in Buffalo, which had been converted from airplane maintenance to JN-4H production. Could this photo depict the six planes Curtiss was called upon to modify for carrying airmail? The timing is tantalizingly right.

The second photo, found in the NPM vault, confirmed a suspicion of mine. In the wake of the first airmail flights, the Air Service Journal and other periodicals of the time reported thousands of people behind ropes, turning out to see the planes take off. We saw the oft-published photos of all the usual suspects such as President Wilson and other dignitaries, but I wondered where Glenn Curtiss, designer and builder of the airplanes, might have been. His factory was nearby, and this would have been quite a day for his company.

The conservator handed me a small photo of five unidentified men standing on the field with an airplane hangar behind them. NPM staff had wondered about their identities. In the image, one man off to the left, a bit apart from the four others, wears a suit, white shirt with starched collar, and a tie. Slightly balding, he’s holding a Panama hat in his right hand and looking directly at the camera. I knew that face and told the conservator so. It’s Glenn Curtiss, there to witness history.

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Max Miller; photo by Deborah Fisher, image appears courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

The NPM vault also houses material belonging to pilots who became part of the service once the Post Office Department took over airmail from the army in August 1918. Two of these pilots, Max Miller and Ed Gardner, would gain fame flying the first path-finding flights over the treacherous Allegheny Mountains (the “hell stretch”) to push the mail service from New York to Chicago. Miller, well known to Lipsner, was his first hire for this second batch of pilots. A single-page document contains Lipsner’s list of possible pilots with hand-written notes he jotted as he made his selections. Lipsner’s notes also show he planned to pay Miller $4,800 a year and Gardner $5,000 – substantially higher salaries than those projected for other pilots he was considering.

Max Miller’s scorched log book, its inside cover sporting a caricature of the pilot plus Ed Gardner’s phone number, documents the pilot’s training progress. The book covers his military training in early 1918 at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, as well as November airmail test flights from Cleveland to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. The scorch marks tell a sad story.

Miller died in an air crash, as would Gardner. Folders of letters kept in the NPM library contain a series of telegrams and reports encompassing Miller’s death on September 1, 1920. He and mechanic Gustav Reierson left New York’s Hazelhurst Field for what had become a fairly routine flight to Cleveland. Observers reported seeing the plane two hours later, flying low over Morristown, New Jersey, with its engine cutting out and backfiring. Minutes after that, Miller’s plane crashed and the two men were consumed by fire when the gas tanks exploded. How the log book survived the flames, no one knows.

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Log book; image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

Of the many early pilot deaths, Miller’s was perhaps most personal to second assistant postmaster general Otto Praeger, who launched airmail service, because Miller’s wife, Daisy, worked for him. The folder contains a telegram Praeger sent the same day of Miller’s death to his mother in Christiania, Norway, “Deeply regret to say your son Max dead result accident airplane today. Body will be interred here at request wife.” The next document in the folder is a report sent that same day by division superintendent, John Whitbeck, to Praeger, describing the horrifying condition of the two bodies, ending with, “…we suggest great caution in allowing anyone to view them.” A final telegram in the file dated September 4, 1920, came from Miller’s mother who cabled Praeger, saying, “Please mail details regarding death my son Max.”

Author William Leary in his account of airmail service history, Aerial Pioneers, noted that Gardner actually survived one crash while still a Post Office Department pilot in September 1918. Leaving Chicago for Cleveland he had trouble with his plane on takeoff and crashed while trying to make an emergency landing. Unhurt, he later died in 1920 while stunt flying at a Kansas county fair.

At the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space archives I had read Edgerton’s unpublished memoir, Horizons Unlimited, which he wrote later in life. In the preface, he recalled that first day and those heady times, writing, “The pioneer pilot lived with romance at his elbow…he was a new breed, a singular product of World War I.”

Knowing that these materials, photos, and documents are nearly one hundred years old, I fully appreciate that these pilots and other people are long gone. But seeing them “in person” brought immediacy to their existence, gave them voices, made them speak to me as characters in our book, telling me their stories in their own words.

Kellen's Inverted Jenny Highlights:

My focus being stories associated with the stamp itself, I expected all my Washington, D.C., research highlights to come from the NPM collection and library. Many did, of course. Until we arrived, most documents I’d handled were digital. And as exciting as it was to discover some new tidbit while searching old newspapers online, nothing matched immersion in the original journals and catalogs.

Just as Deborah got a kick out of examining all those primary sources, I got a thrill out of wandering through the stacks, looking up references I’d encountered in my reading. To casually open a bound year of the Airpost Journal and see the cover photo of Amelia Earhart handing Dr. Cole his trophy for winning gold at TIPEX gave me a jolt. Sure, I’d seen the image online somewhere, but here was the version subscribers got in their mail in 1936.

Such are the commonplace, nerdy pleasures of library research, but the NPM provides extra incentives as well. One can nip up to the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery to see the repair to the left arrow block (positions 41, 42, 51, 52), and decide for herself whether it should truly be called a block. At some point, I realized I hadn’t seen for myself B.K. Miller’s position 18, whose 1977 theft I’d studied from afar and the recovery of which had been wrapped up with the recovery of a copy from Ethel McCoy’s block of Inverted Jennys stolen in 1954.

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The National Postal Museum's National Stamp Salon;
photo by Deborah Fisher.

In less than five minutes, I had arrived upstairs in the National Stamp Salon with its banks of frames, found the stamp using the touchscreen in the middle of the room, and pulled out the frame. There sat the unfortunate scrap, its top shaved off during its kidnap ordeal to pass it off as position 9 (later discovered in a locket). It was surrounded in the frame by blocks of mint 1918 Curtiss Jenny stamps. The Miller Collection is on loan from the New York Public Library, but the postal museum also holds its own Inverted Jenny positions 2 and 70, which came as gifts from the Franklin Institute and the famous Weill brothers, dealers from New Orleans.

The NPM library also provided the only truly personal reminiscence of Eugene Klein that I have found to date. As one tidbit often leads to another, I was able to find out where Kline was born in Hungary and explore the timing of his immigration to the U.S. Kline is a main character in the history of the Inverted Jenny because he bought the intact sheet from William Robey, marked the 100 position numbers on the backside, sold the sheet to E.H.R. Green, and then dispersed selected copies for him.

Speaking of Robey, his personal haunts are scattered all around Washington, D.C., and they turned out to be easy to find. His 1918 place of work, W.B. Hibbs & Company, still stands on 15th Street, three-and-a-half blocks from the White House. Hibbs & Co. were stock brokers and bankers, and they occupied a lovely 10-story, white Beaux-Arts building erected during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration.

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Former Second National Bank, now District Chophouse & Brewery; photo by Deborah Fisher.

Shortly after Robey got the sheet, he took it to stamp dealer H.F. Colman’s office, upstairs in the Second National Bank Building in Chinatown, 10 blocks away.  The bank is now the District Chophouse & Brewery. If you eat there, you can look skyward from your booth at the remaining structural elements of the old bank. Colman’s assistant in 1918 was Catherine Manning, who went on to become the Smithsonian’s curator of philately. She made sure to be present when Robey showed off his find, as did the curator at that time, Joseph Leavy.

The post office where Robey bought the stamps is gone, but wandering the postal museum itself lands one where many airmail plans were hatched. The NPM occupies the building that served as the main post office from 1914 until 1986. Otto Praeger—Deborah talks about him a lot—occupied a lavish office there, in what is now the Postmasters Gallery, just past the National Stamp Salon. Cruising through the current exhibit, you can see the ornate fireplace, wide-plank hardwood floors, and rich paneling that made the Post Office Department a political patronage plum until it was reorganized in 1971.

For history junkies, academics and amateurs alike, nothing beats the firsthand experience: seeing the real thing, reading original documents, and traveling the actual pathways. It was, indeed, three weeks of treasure-hunting heaven.