Airmail Service

Topical Reference Page
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From left to right: Pilots Jack Knight, Clarence Lange, Lawrence Garrison, “Wild” Bill Hopson and Andrew Dunphy, head of the Omaha-Salt Lake City Division posed in front of an airmail hangar in Omaha.

At the end of the First World War, aviation pioneer William Boeing was on the verge of abandoning his fledgling and failing aviation business to return full time to the more profitable furniture business. In 1927 Boeing won one of a handful of US Post Office Department airmail contracts. At a time when few were willing to risk their lives as passengers in the developing commercial aviation industry, airmail contracts provided companies like Boeing with the financial cushion that allowed them to develop stronger, more reliable aircraft.

Not only did America’s Post Office Department fund the nation’s commercial aviation industry, but from 1918-1927, the Department operated the nation’s airmail service. Postal officials hired pilots and mechanics, purchased airplanes and equipment, established aviation routes and led the nation into the commercial aviation age.

Object Spotlight

On July 2, 1918, Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger sent this letter to U.S. Army Captain Benjamin B. Lipsner, appointing him to the newly-created post of Superintendent of the U.S. Airmail Service.

Exhibition

Political leaders purposefully use print culture to promote political agendas, solidify authority, and fire patriotic emotions. The stamps issued by Mexico after its 1910-1920 revolution offer a compelling example. Among the postage stamps issued for this purpose, Mexico's airmail stamps played a significant role. This virtual exhibition is bilingual (English and Spanish) and features stamps and mail of Mexico.

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May 1, 2018 - August 18, 2019
Exhibition

May 15, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail service. President Wilson was on hand in Washington, DC to watch the historic take off. At first the service only operated between Washington, Philadelphia and New York. By 1920, airmail raced from New York to San Francisco. It was dangerous work. More than 30 pilots died doing their best to fly the mail. Americans recognized the bravery of these Postmen of the Skies, treating them as heroes. In 1927 the Post Office handed off the last of its routes to private contractors, paving the way for what became the nation’s commercial aviation system.

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Seven airmail pilots posing in front of a plane.
Exhibition
Constantly challenged to move the mail faster and faster, the United States established airmail service in 1918. Those who undertook the perilous task of flying the mail found it a dangerous and deadly business.
postage stamp featuring an illustration of Amelia Earhart standing with a plane in the background
Take a look at pilot Amelia Earhart’s compelling story. Educators explore Earhart’s life and accomplishments through museum objects and a children’s book.
Benjamin Lipsner, the nation's first Superintendent of the Air Mail Service decided to expand service to Chicago for several reasons.
Lipsner's career as First Superintendent of the United States Air Mail Service and his personal collection of documents, photos and other items from that time are summarized here.
Location: 
Atrium

In 1918 the Post Office Department requested 100 de Havilland airplanes from the army. These airplanes were not designed for the demands of airmail service. Its greatest flaw was the placement of the cockpit.

Location: 
Atrium

Fred Wiseman took off on February 17, 1911 with a handful of mail, flying from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California. He flew about 100 feet off the ground at a maximum speed of 70 mph.

Object Spotlight

Although airborne mail transport had occurred during the nineteenth century, the first official airmail flown by airplane took place in India in 1911.

Related Blogs

Thanksgiving in the Air

On November 28, 1918, a group of aviation fans and the Superintendent of the US Airmail Service held the first Thanksgiving dinner on board an airplane. At 1 p.m., the group took off in a three-ton Handley Page bomber that had been transferred to the Post Office Department. The plane, which was intended for use carrying mail on the upcoming New York and Chicago route, instead carried a group of men and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

"Wild Bill"

William Hopson flew the mail for the Post Office Department from 1920-1927. After a brief stint out of the New Jersey fields, Hopson was assigned a permanent spot on the Omaha-Chicago route. Nicknamed “Wild Bill,” Hopson was...

Airmail, Through the Lens of Charles Townley Chapman

Pilots, mechanics and photographers- oh my! Airmail required multiple people to keep the mail soaring through the air, but one of the most captivating jobs of them all was that of Charles Townley Chapman, a photographer at the College Park Airfield during the advent of...

100 Years of Airmail: May 1918

As Fleet appraised the work ahead of him in early May he faced a deadline of May 15 to start the new airmail service with concern. The bulk of the work for this project had been focused on...