In addition to its permanent exhibition on the nation’s airmail service, the Postal Museum has a temporary exhibition, Postmen of the Skies.
In 1918 the first regularly scheduled airmail service began operations. Planes carried mail between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. The nation greeted the new service with enthusiasm. Crowds surrounded airfields in all three cities, eager to watch history in action. The nation became more enamored with their postal pilots as the service grew. By September 8, 1920 mail was flying between New York and San Francisco.
The Post Office operated the service until 1927, having begun in 1925 to turn over some routes to private airlines. The new airlines built their businesses on the postal routes, infrastructure and pilots. Over the next decade, airmail contracts financed the fledgling airlines, serving to help build the nation’s commercial aviation industry.
The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access created the Smithsonian Learning Lab to inspire the discovery and creative use of its rich digital materials—more than a million images, recordings, and texts. The curator of Postmen of the Skies has created a few Learning Lab collections to get visitors and teachers started exploring the items and images in our collections that we didn’t have room for in the exhibition. But there is so much more. Explore our collections, but be sure to make your own.
The nation's first regularly scheduled airmail service began on May 15, 1918. Planes carried mail between Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York City. The Post Office Department worked with the U.S. Army to run the service, using army pilots and planes for the first three months of operations. In August 1918 the Post Office took complete control of the service and ran it until 1927.
The Army provided the pilots and planes for the airmail service from May 15 to August 9, 1918, then the Post Office Department took over all aspects of the operation. The Washington airfield was moved to College Park, MD. The Post Office hired four pilots at the start of the service, Max Miller, Eddie Gardner, Maurice Newton and Robert Shank. Former Army Captain Benjamin Lipsner was hired by the Post Office to be Superintendent of the Airmail Service. Otto Praeger, 2nd Assistant Postmaster General, was in charge of the operations.
Shortly after the Post Office gained full control of the airmail service and the route from Washington to New York via Philadelphia, officials began planning their next steps. Second Assistant Otto Praeger announced their intention to create an airmail connection between the nation's two top financial centers, New York and Chicago. Linking New York and Chicago, the nation's major financial centers, would help prove the service's worth to Congress, which held the Post Office Department's purse-strings. But first they had to figure out the best route between the cities.
Postal officials were determined to create regular airmail service between New York and Chicago. Eddie Gardner had made a death-defying trip from Chicago to New York to prove that it was possible to fly the mail between the two cities in one day. But that had been a stunt, not an organized system to support flights six days a week between the two cities. Now Praeger wanted to set up regular flights along that 750-mile route at a time when the planes he was using had a range of 280 miles.
Learn how the U.S. Post Office Department created the framework for America's commercial aviation industry. From 1918-1926, a few daredevil pilots and some aging aircraft made history and bound the country together by air.