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The Benjamin B. Lipsner Airmail Collection

Kevin Allen, National Postal Museum

Lipsner (second from left) on airfield with four other men
Lipsner (second from left) on airfield

History

Benjamin B. Lipsner (September 15, 1887 – December 24, 1971)

Although employed by the Post Office Department for less than four months, Captain Benjamin Lipsner was an integral figure in the development and success of the world's first regular Air Mail Service. Born on 15 September 1887 in Chicago, Illinois, Lipsner was interested in mechanics at a young age. He attended the Armour Institute in Chicago where he received a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

In 1910 he began working as a mechanic at various automobile manufacturers, specializing in operational maintenance and procedure. At the same time he became interested in the new field of airplane mechanics, working on airplane engines in his spare time. When the United States entered World War I, Lipsner's expertise in lubrication and mechanics placed him in the Army Signal Corps, the aviation division of the United States Army. 

In 1918, Congress appropriated $100,000 to begin a regular air mail service between New York and Washington. The Army was given the responsibility of providing and maintaining the service and Lipsner was named Captain of the Air Service Production. He was in charge of the maintenance of the airplanes used in the service and was present when the first plane left from the Polo Grounds in Washington, DC on 15 May 1918.

On 10 August, the air mail service was officially transferred from the Army to the Post Office Department. A month earlier, Lipsner resigned his commission in the Army and was named First Superintendent of the world's first regular permanent civilian air mail service. The civilian service began on 12 August 1918 with Lipsner in charge of the day to day operation of the service; his tasks included creating schedules and choosing pilots and mechanics. Lipsner's organization skills kept the service, which initially operated between New York and Washington, on schedule and casualty free. 

One of the highlights of Lipsner's tenure as superintendent was the New York to Chicago pathfinding mission in September 1918. The flights were originally intended by the Air Mail Service to be a test of a new extension of the existing service. However, the test became a cross-country race between the two best pilots, Max Miller and Eddie Gardner. Although the test flights didn't immediately lead to the extension of the service, the well-publicized flights gained national attention and public support for the fledgling air mail service.

Despite the success of the service, the relationship between Lipsner and Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger began to sour. Lipsner complained that important decisions, such as the hiring of new personnel, were being made without his consent or approval. And he felt that Praeger was improperly spending money on unnecessary new planes and equipment. The conflict led Lipsner to resign from his position on 5 December 1918. His letter of resignation was critical of the Post Office Department and was printed in newspapers across the country. Praeger and Postmaster Burleson responded by claiming Lipsner had misrepresented the facts. The resignation sparked a public war of words between Lipsner and the Post Office Department.

photo of Benjamin Lipsner
Original photographic print signed in ink in the lower right “Orville Wright / Dec. 11. 1928”

Lipsner went on to a career in the private air industry, serving as an engineer and consultant to a number of oil companies and airlines. He became the head of Chicago's American Legion Aviation Post #651 and continued to educate and entertain people with his stories of the early days of the Pioneer Air Mail.

He appeared on a number of radio and television shows and at numerous commemorative conventions, air shows and testimonials. Despite his limited tenure during the early years of the permanent airmail service, he was remembered by many of those who knew him as the "Father of the Regular Air Mail Service." Lipsner died on 24 December 1971 at the age of 84.

Scope and Content

This collection contains material relating to the career of Captain B. Benjamin Lipsner and his involvement in the development of the first permanent air mail service. Much of the collection came to the Museum on a set of exhibition panels that Lipsner had created and displayed at various commemorative air mail functions and conferences.

Most of the material relates to the period between May and December 1918 -- the period of Lipsner's official involvement with the Air Mail service. The collection includes letters, covers, telegrams, schedules, photographs and documents. Additional material relates to Lipsner's activities later in life which also document his period of service. The bulk of the material has been grouped by the following subjects:

  • Lipsner's service in the Army Signal/Air Corps from 8 December 1917 to 15 July 1918

  • Lipsner's service as superintendent of the civilian Air Mail Service, 15 July 1918 to 6 December 1918

  • The New York to Chicago path-finding flights, 5-10 September 1918

  • The pilots that flew under Lipsner's command

  • Lipsner's life after his 6 December 1918 resignation

Provenance

Milton Lipsner, son of Benjamin Lipsner, donated his father's collection to the Smithsonian's National Philatelic Collection in 1982. A list exists of the objects as they were arranged on Lipsner's original exhibit panels. Although only one panel remains, most of the removed objects correspond with the list.

In addition to the accessioned material listed below, there are over 500 accessioned and cataloged covers from Lipsner's personal aerophilately collection that are located at the National Postal Museum.

Twelve scrapbooks, photographs and miscellaneous biographical material are held by Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Postal Museum branch. Some aviation related material was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum. And a number of foreign bank notes were transferred to the National Museum of American History's National Numismatic Collection. The National Museum of American History also was given a set of stateroom keys used by Orville Wright while attending the 1937 Aeronautics Conference.

Inventory

Lipsner and the Army Signal Corps Service
(December 8 – July 15, 1918)

Aerial Age Weekly pamphlet

The material in this section relates to the first days of the Regular Air Mail Service. The Army Signal Corps was contracted by the Post Office Department to supply planes, pilots and mechanics for the first regular mail service between New York and Washington. The first plane left Washington for New York on 15 May 1918.

Lipsner was present that day as a Captain in the lubrication division of the Signal Corps. He took a leave of absence to work exclusively with the mail service. On 15 July 1918, the Service was turned over to the Post Office Department and Lipsner resigned his army commission to accept the civilian position of Superintendent of the Service.

Folder 1.
Seven (7) photographs of first flight, 15 May 1918
Flight report from pilot J. C. Edgarton, Philadelphia to New York leg, 15 May 1918

Folder 2.
Cover bearing 24-cent stamp, flown on first flight, 15 May 1918, with comments by Lipsner
Cover bearing 24-cent stamp, carried on 3 July 1918 New York to Boston test flight with comments by Henry Woodhouse of the Aerial League of America
Two (2) Covers bearing 16-cent stamp, dated 15 July 1918, first day of air mail rate change from 24- to 16-cent – one to W. T. Robey, who purchased the original sheet of inverted Jenny airmail stamps; one signed by Lipsner and pilot Bob Shank

Folder 3.
Lipsner's letter requesting leave of absence from Army, 3 July 1918
Letter appointing Lipsner Superintendent, 2 July 1918
Four (4) telegrams:
1 appointing Lipsner to Signal Corps, 18 December 1918
1 from George Kelly, 29 January 1918, regarding a mechanic
2 regarding Lipsner's resignation from Army

Folder 4.
Aerial Age Magazine, sent on June 3, 1918 on New York to Boston test flight with eleven 24-cent air mail stamps, with comments by Henry Woodhouse

Lipsner and the Civilian Air Mail Service
(August 12 – December 5, 1918)

Lipsner shows Maj. Cushman Rice the flag carried aboard the first U.S. air mail flight
Lipsner shows Maj. Cushman Rice the flag carried aboard the first U.S. air mail flight

On 12 August 1918, all aspects of the regular Washington to New York air mail service had been transferred completely to the Post Office Department, ending its relationship with the Army. Lipsner was named first Superintendent of the Service and became responsible for its day to day operation.

The following material relates to events and personnel of the Air Mail Service under Lipsner's tenure.

Folder 5.
Notes, used by Lipsner in selecting pilots and crews
Schedule for first week of civilian service, including time, pilots and mail loads
Photo, plane taking off from College Park, Maryland on 12 August 1918 for first flight of the civilian service
Three (3) covers from 12 August 1918 flight; all with comments by Henry Woodhouse; one backdated 11 August 1918
Pamphlet reporting arrival times for the regular Washington to New York Service during September 1918

Folder 6.
Photo of Lipsner handing American flag (see 3-D material) to pilot Max Miller, 28 November 1918
Photo of Lipsner and Major Cushman A. Rice and American flag
Notes written by Miller concerning the flag
Letter from Max Miller, addressing the need for emergency landing fields between New York and Chicago
Letter to General Superintendent of the South Park Commissioners in Chicago regarding a permit for a landing field at Grant Park
Permit from South Park Commissioners for landing field, dated 30 October 1918 newspaper articles concerning Lipsner's resignation as superintendent

The New York to Chicago Pathfinder Flights
(September 5 – 10, 1918)

Western Union telegram, 1918
Western Union telegram, 1918

On 6 August 1918, the Post Office Department announced plans for a new Chicago extension to the existing New York to Washington route. Lipsner chose his two premier pilots, Eddie Gardner and Max Miller to establish a safe route.

Miller and Gardner turned the flights into a personal competition. They left on the morning of 5 September 1918 from Belmont Park, New York. Despite numerous delays and mechanical failures, the pilots and the mail arrived safely in Chicago on 8 September. Lipsner and Assistant Postmaster General Otto Prager closely followed the flights from telegrams sent from Chicago, New York and the refueling sites in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania and Cleveland and Bryan, Ohio. Miller landed in New York on 10 September, a day after Gardner.

The following folders contain many of the original telegrams sent between Lipsner in Chicago, Praeger in Washington and the contacts at the refueling sites between 4 and 11 September 1918.

Folder 7.
Eleven (11) telegrams from 4 September 1918

Folder 8.
Thirteen (13) telegrams from 5 September 1918
Two (2) covers flown on first leg of flights, with comments by Woodhouse and signed by Gardner, Lipsner, Miller and Augustus Post

Folder 9.
Eighteen (18) telegrams from 6 September 1918

Folder 10.
Eight (8) telegrams from 7-10 September 1918
Cover, dated 9 September, flown on Chicago to New York trip
Mail Report from Gardner's one day return flight from Chicago to New York

Related to Pilots

Close-up photo of pilot in cockpit of airplane
Close-up photo of pilot in cockpit of airplane

This section of the collection contains miscellaneous items related to the pilots that worked under Lipsner.

Folder 11.
Two (2) telegrams concerning pilots refusal to fly in bad weather, leading to firing of Eddie Gardner and Bob Shank
Letter and cover from pilot H. Knox Martin, concerning his dismissal from the service for intoxication
Two (2) letters and 1 cover from Eddie Gardner to his sister
Photo reproduction of Max Miller, signed
Photograph of E. Hamilton Lee, signed
Letter from Eddie Gardner concerning his dismissal from the Air Mail Service

Life After the Air Mail Service
(after December 7, 1918)

Air mail post route map given as a memento by pilot Henry Woodhouse
Air mail post route map given as a memento by pilot Henry Woodhouse

Due to a number of disagreements with Second Assistant Postmaster Otto Praeger, Lipsner resigned his position as Superintendent on 6 December 1918. Throughout the rest of his life, however, he continued to be involved in preserving the memories of his 111 days in the service.

The following folders contain material from a sampling of the aviation-related events Lipsner participated in before his death on 24 December 1971.

The International Civil Aeronautics Conference, Washington D.C. (December 1928)

Lipsner's convention badge
Lipsner's convention badge

Folder 12.
Seven (7) first day covers from the Conference, signed by attendees, including Lipsner, Orville Wright, Amelia Earhart, James Edgarton and Bob Shank

Folder 13.
Two (2) sheets of 36 stamps (U.S. Scott Number 194), each tab (8) signed by Orville Wright

Folder 14.
Lipsner's souvenirs from the Conference, including membership card #265; ferry tickets for day trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; Lipsner's nametag and guest ribbon; conference pamphlet and a Conference program signed by Orville Wright

Folder 15.
Photo, Wilbur Wright
Photo, Orville Wright, autographed by Orville Wright

Aeronautic Events

Folder 16.
Around-the-world letter to Lipsner from Chicago Mayor Martin Kennely dated 1 December 1953
Newspaper article concerning event (letter sent around the world from Chicago and back by air)
Four (4) covers carried in around-the-world flight, postmarked in Chicago, Paris and Tokyo

Folder 17.
Letter to Lipsner from Merrill Meigs concerning dedication of new airport dated 5 July 1950 
Airport dedication cover dated 30 June 1959

Folder 18.
Cover with cachet commemorating Chicago to Mexico flight, dated 1 October 1928

Folder 19.
Letter to Lipsner from Second Assistant Postmaster General Paul Aiken concerning helicopter/pigeon race from Brookfield to Chicago, Illinois 
Paper carried by pigeon bearing postmark from Brookfield dated 6 October 1949

Honors

Folder 20.
Photo, Winged America Trophy received by Lipsner, backing for Air Mail Pioneer Award, given to Lipsner by the Aerial League of America, 19 August 1939 
Cover with cachet commemorating Lipsner's 33rd Anniversary as Superintendent dated 15 July 1951

Oversized and 3-Dimensional Objects

Dispatch Board, designed and used by Lipsner to keep track of planes, pilots, weather conditions, arrivals and departures

Mail Sack, carried by PMG Summerfield from Washington to Chicago 
Mail Pouch, used on first helicopter mail flight, 20 August 1949

Flight suit, worn by Douglas Fairbanks and later by Gardner on all flights, also helmet, face mask, leggings, goggles and case

Bronze badge worn by Lipsner on Kitty Hawk Pilgrimage, 1928

One of Lipsner's original exhibit panels

Route Map, New Jersey, 1918

Silk flag carried aboard numerous flights

Two (2) placards from silent film, "The Air Mail"

Flight Record log, Max Miller

Bibliography

Books

Jackson, Donald Dale. Flying the Mail. Alexandria, VA, 1982
Jones, A. D. Aerial Mail Service: A Chronology of the Early United States Government Air Mail, March-December, 1918. Mineola, NY, 1993
Leary, Robert. Aerial Pioneers. Washington, 1985
Lipsner, Benjamin B. The Airmail – Jennies To Jets. Chicago, 1951
Nielson, Dale (ed.). Saga of the U.S. Airmail Service, 1918 – 1927. Privately printed, 1962
Scheele, Carl H. A Short History of the Mail Service. Washington, DC, 1970

Manuscripts

United States Post Office. Records. Record Group 28, National Archives, Washington, DC
National Postal Museum Library, Historical Files. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
United States National Air and Space Museum, Historical Files. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC