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A Trio of Graf Zeppelin Covers from 1930

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

One of the technological wonders of the 1920s and 1930s was lighter-than-air transport. Indeed, there was a race between which would dominate long distance air travel: the airplane or the airship like those manufactured by the Zeppelin Airship Works of Germany. At the time, it looked like the airship would win that race because airplane technology was not up to the task of carrying any substantial number of people or cargo for any distance. Airships like the Graf Zeppelin, on the other hand, were capturing the public’s attention with intercontinental and round-the-world flights.

Operating an airship like the Graf Zeppelin was expensive. There were customers that paid handsomely for the privilege of traveling long distances by air, but those fares did not come close to covering total costs. The gap was filled by cargo, especially mail.

The US, among other countries, issued special postage stamps that were exclusively for the delivery of mail carried abroad the Graf Zeppelin. In the US’s case, the stamps were issued for use aboard the Graf Zeppelin’s European-Pan American trip planned for May 1930. This trip would take the Graf Zeppelin from its base in Friedrichshafen, Germany to Seville, Spain, Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Havana, Cuba, and Lakehurst, New Jersey and then back to Friedrichshafen via Seville. As a goodwill gesture towards Germany, the US committed to provide 93.5% of the revenue generated by the sale of those stamps to the Zeppelin company.[i]

The three stamps that the US issued had denominations of 65-cents (#C13 in the US Scott catalog), $1.30 (#C14), and $2.60 (#C15). The stamps were available at post offices from April 19, 1930, to June 7, 1930, and were also sold to collectors through June 30, 1930, from the postal service’s Philatelic Agency. One million copies of each denomination were printed but given that this was in the midst of the Great Depression, just about 7% of these relatively high-value stamps were actually sold. The rest were destroyed, which makes C13 through C15 sought-after items for many philatelists.

Each stamp had a specific purpose. The 65-cent stamp would carry a postcard from Lakehurst to Friedrichshafen on Graf Zeppelin’s return journey. The $1.30 stamp would pay for a letter carried on the same leg. For $2.60, a letter - or for $1.30, a postcard - would travel from Friedrichshafen to Rio de Janeiro to Lakehurst on Graf Zeppelin’s outbound journey.

I am fortunate to have one of each in my collection.

C13 is affixed to a postcard that was postmarked in Milwaukee on May 20, 1930 (Figure 1). The postcard probably traveled by train from Milwaukee to Lakehurst, New Jersey where it was entrusted to that city’s postmaster. The Graf Zeppelin arrived at Lakehurst on May 31 after its outbound journey (see below for more detail on that journey) and departed on June 2 for its return to Friedrichshafen with this postcard in its mail cargo. The Graf Zeppelin landed in Friedrichshafen on June 6 (a fast but not record-setting Atlantic crossing for the Graf Zeppelin) where this postcard received another cancellation, this one dated June 6, 1930, Friedrichshafen. The postcard then made its way back to the US via ship and arrived in New London, Wisconsin on June 20, 1930, (see backside cancel, Figure 2) and was delivered to “Miss Helen Knapstein.” The postcard includes two cachets celebrating this flight: a German one in red and an American one in purple.

Ms. Knapstein was a lifelong resident of New London, a small town about 114 miles northwest of Milwaukee. She was born there in 1891 and died there in 1988 at the age of 97. In the 1910 census, her occupation is listed as “teacher,” but in the 1920 census, she is listed as “assistant postmaster,” a position she held until her retirement, probably sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. As a postal service employee, she must have taken great pleasure in receiving this postcard!

The back of this postcard pictures Milwaukee’s “The Auditorium.” The Auditorium is in use to this day and is now called the Miller Hill Life Theatre. The building has hosted many prominent orators and entertainers. The most noteworthy may have been Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, the former president and then current presidential candidate delivered a 90-minute speech after being wounded in an attempted assassination attempt![ii]

C14 is affixed to an envelope that had a similar journey to the postcard (Figure 3). It was postmarked in Milwaukee on April 22, 1930, and then made its way to Lakehurst when it was put aboard the Graf Zeppelin and traveled to Germany where it was postmarked in Friedrichshafen on June 6, 1930. It then made its way back to the states where it received a receiving postmark of June 18, 1930, in New York. It then traveled back to Milwaukee where it was delivered to Jack D. Dorner at 311 Knapp Street.

In 1930, Jack Dorner was a 16-year-old who was likely enamored with aviation and stamp collecting, so this letter must have been a prized possession. A couple of years later, Jack was attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where he met and married Margaret Granville. By 1940, he was back in Milwaukee where he stayed until his death in 2000.

The return address on the letter is his father’s, Fred H. Dorner (1881-1942). Fred was a lifelong resident of Milwaukee. He was a prominent engineer who was featured in a 1930 issue of The Wisconsin Engineer (Figure 5).

The final item is #C15 affixed to an envelope-sized postcard that was carried on the Graf Zeppelin from Germany to Brazil to the US (Figure 6). It was cancelled in New York City at the Varick Street Station post office on April 25, 1930. It then traveled via ship and rail to Friedrichshafen, Germany where it was placed aboard the Graf Zeppelin. The Graf Zeppelin, with about 60 people aboard (with a 2-to-1 ratio of paying customers to crew) and a cargo of mail departed Germany on May 18. Its journey was closely followed in the US. Its departure was covered on page 3 of the May 18, 1930, New York Times, and its trip was a front-page story in the Times by May 19.

By May 20, the Graf Zeppelin had left Seville, Spain and was on its way across the Atlantic and for its first-ever crossing of the equator. It arrived in Pernambuco (Recife), Brazil on May 22. It made a short stop in Rio de Janeiro on May 25 and then returned to Pernambuco on May 26 to prepare for its journey north. It finally left on May 28 with delays due to weather. Because of changing winds, the Graf Zeppelin skipped the scheduled stop in Havana (which was quite controversial) and proceeded straight to Lakehurst where it landed on May 31. It covered 13,400 miles in 204-1/2 hours. A log of the Graf Zeppelin’s complete flight as published in the Times on June 7, 1930, is shown in Figure 8.

This letter’s arrival in Lakehurst on May 31 is evidenced by the green circular May 31, 1930, Lakehurst, New Jersey date stamp in the lower left.

The letter then proceeded to Milwaukee to be delivered to Mr. William Kohrer, who lived at 308 North Avenue. Mr. Kohrer was a janitor at a department store, per the 1930 Milwaukee City Directory and 1930 US Census. He was born in Stuttgart, Germany on September 1, 1872. He sailed on board the President Lincoln from Hamburg to New York, arriving August 25, 1913. His final destination was Milwaukee where his sister lived. He became a naturalized US citizen on June 13, 1922. I believed he died in Milwaukee on December 8, 1954.

The back of the postcard is an aerial photo of downtown Milwaukee circa 1930 taken by Northwest Airways, Inc. Northwest Airways was founded in 1926 and was merged into Delta Airlines in 2010. Several of buildings pictured still stand in Milwaukee, including City Hall on the right, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in the middle and the Cudahy Tower, the white building in the upper right.

The Graf Zeppelin was retired from service in 1937 after the Hindenburg disaster. But by that time, airplane technology had advanced considerably, and the days of people and cargo traveling across the ocean by light-than-air transport were over.

P.S. The C13 postcard was acquired for $300.00 at a spirited Rasdale auction February 19-20, 2022. The C14 cover was purchased for C$410.00, or roughly $297.00 as of October 2022, at a Vance auction July 20, 2022. The C15 postcard was purchased from Richard A. Houser for $520.00 on December 11, 2021.

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Back

Figure 3 - Front

Figure 4- Back

Figure 5 - Fred H. Dorner

Figure 6 - Front

Figure 7 - Back

Figure 8 - Travel log of Graf Zeppelin from the New York Times

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