Updated: Jul 13
Airline travel was once glamorous, but today it is ho-hum. Airlines for America, a trade association for the biggest airlines, estimates that roughly 90 percent of all Americans have flown commercially, and more than 2.5 million people take to the sky every day.
The other feature in our lives that is ubiquitous is the national day/week/month of…fill-in the blank. A website by the name of NationalDay365.com, which has great fun tracking this sort of thing, claims there are currently 4,852 national days to celebrate something. The first full week of July 2023, for example, was dubbed “Be Nice to Jersey Week,” which as a Pennsylvania resident I could tolerate for a week.
But there was a time when air travel and national weeks of celebration were novelties. National Air Mail Week (NAMW) that ran from May 15 through May 21 of 1938 is a case in point.
NAMW has been the topic of other articles in the philatelic press; those are cited at the end of this article. What distinguishes this piece from the others is additional detail and photos on the week’s events from The Postal Bulletin and newspaper reports and the sample of covers presented.
NAMW Plans and Events
NAMW was the brainchild of Postmaster General (PMG) James Farley. Farley (Figure 1) was a bigger-than-life figure in the history of the Post Office Department (POD). He was a political kingmaker, serving as then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaign manager in 1932. After winning the election, President Roosevelt appointed Farley PMG, a position Farley would hold until 1940. Farley would chair the Democratic National Committee at the same time. After leaving office in 1940, Mr. Farley remained active in politics. He passed away in 1976 at age 88.
Figure 1 - PMG James A. Farley is shown sitting with some of the hundreds of thousands of letters mailed during National Air Mail Week (NAMW), May 15-21, 1938. The national celebration honored the 20th anniversary of the first regularly scheduled airmail service. President Franklin Roosevelt and his Postmaster General encouraged everyone to send an airmail letter during the week-long event. Farley gifted a collection of some 7,350 items from NAMW to the National Postal Museum. Source: National Postal Museum.
Postmaster General was a cabinet-level position at the time (it would remain so until 1971), so this was a prominent appointment with significant patronage power. Indeed, per the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, the PMG was fifth in the line of succession after the Vice President.
Farley is rightly credited with keeping the POD operating during the Great Depression, but he also had a knack for self-promotion - one of which, the "Farley Follies," landed him in a bit of hot water. That was the episode during which he gave unusual examples of postal items to associates like President Roosevelt and family members.
Designating a week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of air mail service in the United States and encouraging every American to send a letter by air mail was too good of an opportunity to pass up for Farley. So, on February 15, 1938, the POD announced NAMW. Newspapers across the country picked up the announcement including the New York Times:
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the inauguration of regular air-mail service in this country, the Post Office department has announced plans to observe the first “National Air-Mail Week” from May 15 to 23 [sic].
At that time hundreds of smaller communities which never have had the benefit of direct-mail plane connections will be served temporarily through the employment of privately licensed pilots, who will become air-mail carriers for a day, flying the mail from “interior” offices to the regular air-mail stops.
Another part of the observance will be the authorization of an “official cachet,” or envelope decoration, for mail originating at Kitty Hawk, N.C., known as the birthplace of aviation because of the pioneering experimental flights made there by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Philatelists and other souvenir collectors are expected to mail thousands of such commemorative covers from Kitty Hawk.
Every other post office in the country, of which there are more than forty-five thousand, will be authorized to arrange its own local cachet appropriate to the occasion, if desired. …
On May 15, 1918, air-mail service was started between New York, Philadelphia and Washington. From a small beginning this service has spread to cover all key points in the nation and some foreign cities.[i]
That was followed on February 23, 1938, by an official order from Second Assistant PMG Harllee Branch (Figure 2) that appeared in The Postal Bulletin:
The Post Office Department will celebrate the Twentieth Anniversary of the inauguration of regular air mail service on May 15, 1918, by observing the first National Air Mail Week from May 15 to May 21, 1938. …
A national organization is now being set up to plan and carry on the campaign. Every postmaster in the country will be chairman of the campaign in his respective city. It is hoped that all other postal employees will give their fullest cooperation to make this anniversary and National Air Mail Week a complete success. I am sure you can be counted on to do so. It is expected that as a result of this campaign every American will be impressed with the air mail service and the progress which has been made in aviation since the air mail service was established. It is also expected that every citizen will be acquainted with the advantages which the air mail service affords.[ii]
Figure 2 – Second Assistant PMG Harllee Branch, who was in charge of airmail service, is pictured in the far right as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (with the white fox scarf) marks the opening of NAMW on May 15, 1938, by airmailing the first letter from a temporary post office installed in a large transport plan in front of the Department of Commerce. To the left of Mrs. Roosevelt is Vincent C. Burke, Postmaster for Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress.
A frenzy of planning ensued. Farley was the honorary chairman of the committee in charge of plans, but Paul R. Younts (Figure 3), the postmaster of Charlotte, North Carolina, and director of the National Association of Postmasters, was named active chairman. (I’m sure it was just a coincidence that Second Assistant PMG Branch was a former newspaperman from Charlotte.) While each postmaster oversaw the campaign at the local level, one postmaster was named to be chair of the campaign at the state level.
Figure 3 – Paul R. Younts, Postmaster of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Active Chairman of the NAMW Committee. Younts served as postmaster of Charlotte from 1933 to 1940. He served in the Army during World War I and in the Army Air Force during World War II, achieving the rank of Colonel. During his civilian life, he was a successful businessperson in Charlotte.
NAMW Chairman Younts declared on the opening day of NAMW that he was “confident that the Air Mail week will add a glorious chapter to the history of American aviation and will so impress upon the American people the great value of air mail that the time will be brought rapidly nearer when a large percentage of all first-class mail will bear the distinctive air mail stamps.”[iii] Younts was certainly prophetic but not as he expected. Domestic air mail as a distinct service became obsolete in 1975. All first-class mail, in effect, had become airmail.
A full-court press was made to ensure that post office employees supported the event. Every Postal Bulletin had a banner at the bottom of the first page with the reminder: “NATIONAL AIR MAIL WEEK—MAY 15 TO 21.” Posters advertising the event were displayed throughout the country (Figure 4), and the event was heavily promoted at local post offices (Figure 5). The post office in Decatur, Illinois, for example, scattered stamp exhibits throughout the building and suspended model planes from the ceiling to mark the event.[iv] In Stockton, California, each of the 175 local post office employees wore a lapel pin inscribed, “Put Wings on Your Mail. National Air Mail Week May 15 to May 21. Send your Letters Air Mail.”[v]
Farley emphasized in the March 15, 1938, Postal Bulletin, “It is my desire that every postmaster, and every official and employee of the postal service, give his whole-hearted support to make this campaign in which the public is being invited to participate a complete success. I know that it is only necessary to request your cooperation.”
As an aside, note the use of the pronoun “his” by both Harllee and Farley. I wonder what the 15,600 female postmasters and assistant postmasters thought of that! Women accounted for about a third of all postmasters at the end of 1938 and managed some of the largest post offices in the country, including Los Angeles, the sixth largest. Women also held positions as post office clerks and carriers.[vi]
Figure 4 – NAMW advertising poster. Source: National Postal Museum.
Figure 5 – Main Post Office, New York City, during NAMW. Source: National Postal Museum.
Even the White House chimed in, no doubt at the encouragement of Farley. President Roosevelt’s March 14, 1938, letter to Farley was reprinted in the Postal Bulletin of April 5, 1938:
I have noted with much interest the plans of your Department to observe the twentieth anniversary of the inauguration of Air Mail Service on May fifteenth and to celebrate this event by the observance of a National Air Mail Week. We have seen the Service which was begun so modestly 20 years ago with small 80 miles-an-hour planes on a short 218-mile route grow into the world's greatest air-transportation system, with 62,826 route miles over which the most modern planes last year flew a total of more than 70,000,000 miles, transporting not only mail but also passengers and express at speeds undreamed of in 1918. With such remarkable growth in these two decades of pioneering we may, with assurance, look to the next decade to bring even more remarkable progress. I shall observe with a great deal of interest the commemorative events which will bring to the attention of the public the great strides made in aviation and the benefits which our people enjoy through the Air Mail Service. Very sincerely yours, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The POD even produced a short film promoting NAMW that probably ran before or after the main feature at local theaters. The National Archives has preserved the film, and you can view it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/v5hRE08qgpc. It's just under two minutes long.
This campaign struck a chord with Americans, which was captured well by an editorial in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph:
Commercial aviation, which means so much to us already, and is going to mean a great deal more, as additional air service is developed, was made possible by giving aviation transport companies contracts to carry the mail.
It was air mail service that made it possible to carry passengers. Had it not been for the Post Office Department’s aid, commercial aviation would have languished.
That is but one of the things to think of in connection with the observance of National Air Mail Week.
The importance of aviation in national defense is another subject that calls for attention.
It is none too soon to begin preparations that will make the local observance of National Air Mail Week an educational and patriotic rally long to be remembered.[vii]
Local newspapers carried boiler plate language provided by the national committee to promote the event. Here’s an example from The Berwyn News in Illinois:
Various spectacular events are being planned for the purpose of demonstrating not only the speed, efficiency and value of air mail service to commerce, industry and population of the United States but to emphasize the historic and patriotic appeal of these “wings across America” to the present and future generations of Americans.[viii]
Those “spectacular events” included the fanfare of air mail traffic in just about every hamlet in America. The POD licensed thousands of individuals to become air mail pilots for one day, which turned out to be May 19 weather permitting, to fly mail from hundreds of locations that never had air mail service before – “interior offices” to use the New York Times’s term. Many newspapers ran photos of postmasters, pilots, and planes that would carry mail for the first from these “interior” locations (Figure 6). If the pilot was female, that would garner special attention because it showed “women were capable of holding their own as aerial mailmen with the other sex.”[ix]
Figure 6 – First outgoing air mail from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, May 19, 1938. Pictured prior to takeoff are John Sweeney, mayor; Bill Webb, pilot; and Francis Fonash, postmaster. Source: Milton Rutherford Collection.
In Honolulu, four carrier pigeons were released to carry mail to Maui (they arrived 2 hours and 45 minutes later) as a stunt to promote NAMW.[x] Not to be outdone, in Portland, Maine, they held a race between an airplane and a carrier pigeon![xi] Sadly, there was no follow-up story, but I assume the airplane prevailed – that is, if the pilot did not get lost.
Other towns arranged for mail to be carried from horse to stagecoach to airplane to illustrate the progress in speedy mail delivery. Those events did not always go as planned. In Detroit, the horse bucked upon seeing the stagecoach. Once the mail was safely loaded onto the stagecoach, the stagecoach nearly turned over when the driver tried take a turn a little too sharply. Fortunately, calm was restored, and the stagecoach and its load of mail eventually found its way to the Detroit city airport.[xii]
Print media was not alone in its fascination with NAMW. The Mutual Broadcasting System, which had more than 100 affiliate radio stations nationwide, scheduled special radio programs for NAMW including:
The dedication of the first airplane post office where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt mailed her letter on May 15 (see Figure 2);
A description of an aerial parade over the Chicago loop district that was broadcast from an American Airlines plane in the parade; and
A reenactment of the first air mail flight in the United States that was preceded by an address from Farley.[xiii]
There was a nationwide high school essay contest on the subject of “Wings Across America” that attracted more than 500,000 entries. The essay winner in each state was awarded an airplane trip to Washington, D.C. That was quite a prize considering that in 1938 a coast-to-coast roundtrip flight priced out at around $260, which was about half the price of an automobile. No wonder that in 1938 commercial airlines carried only 1.2 million passengers, a tiny fraction of the traveling public.[xiv] The state winners were feted at a dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. the night of May 14.
The national winner was Perry Morrison, a senior from Arcadia, California (Figure 7). His winning “Wings Across America” essay was printed in the Visalia Times-Delta on May 18, 1938:
A nation is no stronger than the ties that bind it together. Air transportation and communication constitute such a tie – an agent in binding our country into one unit. Moreover, it helps to maintain within that unit a social, cultural and economic as well as a political democracy. For instance: The Federal Reserve Bank’s resources in New York are being taxed. Money lies idle in San Francisco. An adjustment is made – by air. A government official is in Chicago. Urgent matters of state call him to Washington. He is there in less than twenty-four hours – by air. Serum from Boston is needed for an epidemic in Florida. It gets there in a few hours and saves many lives – by air. Junior cut his first tooth. Full particulars are sent – by air. Even such trivial matters as information about Junior’s tooth help to bind us together as a nation. Wings Across America help to keep us united yet democratic; efficient yet free – an ideal much of the world has given up.
Wings Across America also makes for more gracious living for the individual. One has breakfast in Los Angeles; dinner in New York. A letter mailed on one coast is delivered on the other in an astonishingly short time. Loved ones or business connections, days away by land, become but a matter of hours by air. Scenic wonders take on even greater glory when viewed from above. Speed and dispatch are now at every man’s disposal for the purchase of an air mail stamp. To what end? United for the nation; more abundant life for the individual.[xv]
Figure 7 – NAMW essay winners with Postmaster Vincent Burke, Washington, D.C.: Ellen Peak of Manhattan, KS, 2nd prize; Perry Morrison, of Arcadia, Calif., 1st prize; and Homer Still, Jacksonville, Fla., 3rd prize. Source: Library of Congress.
There also was a contest to design a poster which was won by Rosemary Niederle of Portland, Oregon (Figure 8). I cannot find a good quality photo of her poster (Figure 9), but news reports said her poster depicted “a map of the United States on a blue background with a transport plane soaring overhead with the words ‘U.S. Air Mail.’”[xvi]
Figure 8 – Rosemary Niederle. Source: Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), May 20, 1938, p. 13.
Figure 9 – Rosemary Niederle’s winning NAMW poster. Source: Wausau Daily Herald, May 19, 1938, p. 7.
One contestant’s poster that did not win but made big news was one drawn by 10-year-old Shirley Temple, the famous child actor (Figure 10). Time magazine’s story was snarky, although I suspect its target was really Farley:
Shirley Temple will not be a voter for another dozen years. But last week, from the hands of farseeing Politician James Aloysius Farley, Shirley had a lofty New Deal sinecure, viz, honorary national sponsor of the Post Office Department’s current National Air-Mail Week. In appreciation, Shirley promptly did more to justify her Federal job than many a dauber on a Federal art project. Dimpling industriously between scenes of Little Miss Broadway, she toiled with brush and paint-box, turned out a sample of poster art which Postmaster General Farley lost no time circulating in all corners of the nation.
Looking no more like a bug-eyed flying fish than an airplane should to a nine-year-old [note: Temple turned 10 on April 23, 1938] who has never flown in one, Shirley’s conception of an airliner has the indubitable distinction of having a self-portrait of the artist in the foreground, an autograph in the lower right-hand corner.[xvii]
Figure 10 – Shirley Temple’s entry for the NAMW poster contest. Source: Time, May 23, 1938, p. 49.
Shirley Temple was not the only Hollywood star that Farley roped into the event. On the morning of May 15, 1938, Marion Weldon, a Paramount Studio actress who was filming a movie apropos to NAMW titled, Men With Wings, landed in Washington, D.C. After a tour of the city, she stopped by Farley’s office to present him a model airplane, courtesy of William Wellman, producer-director of Men With Wings (Figure 11). Farley signed for the delivery with a photo caption that could only be from the 1930s (Figure 12).
Figure 11 - PMG Farley receives airmail plane model from Marion Weldon, Paramount Studio actress. Source: Library of Congress.
Figure 12 – Original caption from 1938: “Blonde airmail package for the Postmaster General. Washington, D.C., May 18. Postmaster General James A. Farley, signs for a package of loveliness sent, via airmail, from the former airmail pilots who are taking part in the Paramount production of "Men With Wings" a story of the history of the air mail. The package happens to be Miss Marion Weldon, who is in Washington taking part in National Airmail week, and is also starred in "Men with Wings," 5/18/38.” Source: Library of Congress.
While the POD strictly prohibited postmasters from displaying or distributing any materials from private businesses promoting NAMW, it did not discourage such advertising tie-ins. You can find numerous ads from the time where retailers like Sears, Roebuck & Company and Walgreen’s ran ads trumpeting NAMW (Figure 13). You can also find envelopes sent that week with ads from sponsoring companies.
Figure 13 – Walgreen’s NAMW Ad. Source: Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1938, p. 4.
Of course, what would be a major philatelic event without the issuance of a postage stamp? Well, the POD did not disappoint. On April 11, 1938, the POD announced:
Postmasters and employees of the Postal Service are hereby notified that a new issue of 6-cent air-mail stamps has been authorized in larger size and more distinctive design than the stamp heretofore available. …
The new air-mail stamp will first be placed on sale on May 14, 1938, at Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Wright brothers, builders of the first successful airplane, and St. Petersburg, Fla., where the first passenger flight was made.[xviii]
The stamp that was issued is now known as U.S. Scott C23 (Figure 14). This stamp was one of several designed by President Roosevelt (Figure 15).
Figure 14 – Air Mail Stamp Issued May 14, 1938, for NAMW. it is number C23 in the U.S. Scott Catalog.
Figure 15 – Air mail stamp design sketched out by President Roosevelt. Source: National Postal Museum.
The POD expected record sales for this stamp. Consequently, for the first time in its history, the POD’s Philatelic Agency, which was established in 1921 to cater to the interests of collectors, opened on a Sunday, May 15, to process orders. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving produced just under 350 million of the 6-cent airmail stamp, the most of any airmail stamp up to that time.
The issuance of this stamp combined with NAMW caused the American Air Mail Society (AAMS) to reschedule the dates of its ninth annual convention. The convention was planned for May 26-28 in St. Petersburg, but it was rescheduled to May 14-16. The March 1938 issue of the AAMS’s Airpost Journal, the cover of which featured the official NAMW cachet, discussed the change in dates and a revised schedule for the convention. The June 1938 Airpost Journal covered the convention in detail, including the first day ceremony.
There was not a first day ceremony in Washington, D.C. (there would be a “second day” ceremony the next day), but the 6-cent stamp was available for purchase there on May 14. In fact, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s purchase of the first sheet of the new airmail stamp at 1:00 p.m. that day was deemed the kick-off to NAMW. (That sheet, by the way, was destined for President Roosevelt’s collection.) Immediately after that, a plane with postal and airline officials departed for Newark, New Jersey to reenact the first airmail flight of May 15, 1918.[xix]
The First Lady’s role in NAMW was not over, however. She also is credited with mailing the first letter of NAMW when she posted a letter on May 15 from a temporary post office that was housed in a large transport plane outside the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. (see Figure 2).
The public responded enthusiastically to NAMW. More than 230,000 first-day covers (FDCs) for C23 were cancelled in Dayton and St. Petersburg, and the amount of air mail that week was mind-blowing: Nearly 16.3 million letters, bearing over 10,000 different state and local cachets, and 9,000 parcels were carried that week according to Farley in the POD’s 1938 annual report.[xx]
Media coverage of the event was overwhelmingly positive, and the week’s events were pulled off with nary a hitch. NAMW whetted the appetite for regular air mail service in smaller communities, and complaints were few and far between. One newspaper lamented the delay in regular air mail delivery because of the volume and a postal employee in New York complained about being asked to send a congratulatory postcard to Farley as “propaganda,” but those were exceptions.
As for problems, this may have been one of the more humorous reported in The Boston Globe on May 26:
The words, “First Flight,” were taken literally by one patron of the local post-office last week when the initial air mail flight from this city [Haverhill] to Boston was made, Assistant Postmaster Clarence B. LeGacy disclosed this afternoon.
LeGacy said the patron went to the Civil Service office up one flight in the Federal Building and inquired where he should deposit his air mail. He was told that all mail should be deposited on the main floor, but insisted he had followed instructions, pointing to the sign, “Air Mail – First Flight.”[xxi]
To close out NAMW, a celebration dinner was held in Indianapolis on May 21. Farley and Younts flew to the city to dedicate a new post office in the afternoon and in the evening about 3,000 people attended a dinner in their honor. Younts commented that the week had been tremendously successful. Farley said he was “pleased beyond all expectations and expressed to Mr. Younts his great pleasure and satisfaction at the success of the week’s emphasis upon the nation’s great system of air-mail transportation.”[xxii]
Farley expressed his thanks to all postal employees in The Postal Bulletin of June 7, 1938:
Because of the enthusiastic cooperation which the Post Office Department received from postal officials and postal employees as well as the general public, National Air Mail Week was one of the most successful Nation-wide campaigns ever conducted in this country. Speaking for the Post Office Department, I gratefully acknowledge this cooperation.
I received such a deluge of air-mail greetings and cachet covers that for the first time in my life, I am unable to write a personal acknowledgement to every sender. The greetings and covers sent me number many thousands. Other officials of the Post Office Department also received thousands of such greetings and covers and they, like me, find it impossible to reply to all of them. Therefore, we hope that all those who so kindly remembered us will accept this notice as evidence of our appreciation.
The fact that Farley admitted he could not respond personally to the deluge says a great deal because he was known to dispatch “a daily average of 200 personal letters, all signed in his special green ink in his own hand.”[xxiii]
Collecting Possibilities Galore
I have about 40 random covers in my collection, but from that small set, I can see a broad range of collecting possibilities, most of which can be amassed at a reasonable cost even 85 years after the fact.
Start with FDCs for Scott C23. There is by one count 389 cachets for that issue, many but not all listed in Planty.[xxiv] The FDC shown in Figure 16 is Planty number C23-32.12. The cover is franked with a center line block and is postmarked Dayton, Ohio May 14, 1938. Beverly Hills produced this cachet and several others like it with different color combinations.
Figure 16 – Scott C23 FDC, Planty number C23-32.12. Source: Author’s collection.
When it comes to covers from NAMW, the collecting combinations are almost endless because of the vast number of covers sent and the number of cachets. The definitive compilation of NAMW cachets is without a doubt that assembled by The National Air Mail Historical Society under the direction of the late Jon E. Drabyk. First released in 1986 and updated eight times through 2005, the compilation encompasses all 48 states (as of 1938), seven possessions, railroad post offices, ship cancels, and foreign cancels (two from Tijuana, Mexico) in nine books totaling almost 1,200 pages. Over 10,000 cachets are listed with many subvarieties (i.e., color, printed, hand-stamped, etc.). This compilation is only available on CD. For this article, I borrowed the CD from the American Philatelic Research Library. I include Drabyk’s identification numbers with each of the covers pictured below.
You could collect cachets from a single town, state, or even territory like Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico. You could collect covers to specific destinations, including foreign destinations, or covers that traveled over certain Contract Air Mail routes. “First Flight” covers are an obvious collecting niche. Many covers are franked with the 6-cent airmail stamp issued for NAMW, but because some post offices ran out of those stamps, there are many covers franked with other stamps from 1930s. You could build a collection just around those. Then there are covers that are signed by postmasters, pilots, or both. I’m sure there are thematic cachet collections like for a particular plane model. You name it, you can probably create it in the vast array of NAMW covers.
My collection of NAMW covers is paltry, but there are several that I find quite interesting.
Figure 17 is a cover signed by PMG Farley. It was addressed to him by Ralph Gatchel who was a letter carrier in Glouster, Ohio. I do not know why this cover was not among those Farley gifted to the National Postal Museum, but it could be because it was mailed to him on the first day of NAMW. The deluge probably hit him after the fly-ins on May 19, so early in the week, he may still have had time to sign and acknowledge individual covers.
Figure 17 – Cover from Glouster, Ohio to PMG Farley. Drabyk OH143b. Source: Author’s collection.
Given the leadership Charlotte Postmaster Paul Younts provided to NAMW, a cover signed by him would be a nice complement to Farley’s. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those in my collection, but shown in Figure 18 is a Charlotte cachet citing its “National Headquarters” status. This was one of the covers that introduced me to NAMW. It was one of about a half dozen NAMW covers in a boxful of 19th and 20th century covers that I acquired in an auction in 2022. The cover is franked with a trio of the Army Issue of 1936-37: Scott 785, 786 and 787.
Figure 18 – Charlotte, N.C. Drabyk NC019b. Source: Author’s collection.
Of course, a cover with the “official” NAMW cachet would seem to be a must. Figures 19 is a cover with the official cachet that was postmarked in Kitty Hawk on May 19 and arrived in Dayton on May 20 before traveling to its final destination in New Jersey.
Figure 19 – Kitty Hawk to Dayton cover with official NAMW cachet. Drabyk NC079a. Source: Author’s collection.
It is interesting that a special cachet was not designed for use on the original air mail route of Washington, D.C. to New York via Philadelphia. That was, after all, the main purpose for NAMW. The POD recognized that late in the game and on May 6 authorized the use of the official cachet on airmail covers dispatched from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. on May 15.[xxv] I have not seen any covers like that for sale, but you can find covers like the one shown in Figure 20 that flew the original route during NAMW.
Figure 20 – Washington, D.C. to Long Island NY. Drabyk DC003a. Source: Author’s collection.
Signed covers are common from NAMW, and you can find covers autographed by famous figures from early aviation. Figures 21 and 22 are two examples. These covers were flown on May 19 from Danbury, Connecticut to Newark, New Jersey in a plane piloted by Frank Hawks (Figure 23). Hawks was a pilot for the Army Air Service during World War I and became famous for speed records that he set in the late 1920s and 1930s. He was billed as the “fastest airman in the world.” He died just three months after NAMW flying an experimental airplane.[xxvi] His passing was lamented in an article in the September 1938 issue of the AAMS’s Airpost Journal.
The noteworthy feature of the cover shown in Figure 22 is that it is franked with Scott 797 (a souvenir sheet issued in 1937 for the 43rd annual convention of the Society of Philatelic Americans, promoted at the time as an alternative to the American Philatelic Society for young collectors in the south) and is canceled with Danbury’s cachet.
Figure 21 – Cover flown from Danbury, Conn. to Newark, N.J. by Frank Hawks. Drabyk CT031a. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 22 – Cover flown from Danbury, Conn. To Newark, N.J. by Frank Hawks. Drabyk CT031b. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 23 – Frank Hawks (1897-1938). Source: San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Figure 24 is another signed cover – this one by both the pilot, Richard DePew (Figure 25), and the postmaster of Garden City, New York, George A. Wagner. DePew was an aviation pioneer and is one of 598 aviators granted membership in “Early Birds of Aviation,“ an organization that recognized individuals who piloted a glider, gas balloon or airplane prior to December 17, 1916. There is a reason for the date: December 17 corresponded to the Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight and 1916 was chosen as a cutoff date because of the large number of people trained as pilots for World War I.[xxvii] DePew made his first solo flight in 1911 and worked as an instructor and test pilot.[xxviii]
The interesting feature about this cover’s cachet is its bravado. It was sponsored by the Garden City Chamber of Commerce and commemorated not the first air mail flight from Washington D.C. to New York on May 15, 1918, but an experimental airmail flight on September 23, 1911. That flight carried 1,280 postcards from Garden City, New York to Mineola, New York – a grand total of 2 miles!
Figure 24 – Cover signed by Pilot Richard DePew and Garden City Postmaster George A. Wagner. Drabyk NY215. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 25 – Richard DePew (1892-1948). Source: Find-A-Grave.com.
Figure 26 is an example of a “First Flight” cover. This envelope was designed by the Postmaster Association of DuPage County, Illinois.[xxix] Around the edge of the cover are the names of all the towns in DuPage County, and the cachet design pictures a DC-3 taking off. The DC-3 was a workhouse plane that entered service in 1935. More than 16,000 were built, and a small number remain in commercial use today.
Figure 26 – First Flight Cover from DuPage County, Illinois. Drabyk IL078a. Source: Author’s collection.
The cachets for NAMW range from whimsical to somber. On the former end of the scale, there is Hope, Arkansas that boasted it was home to the world’s largest watermelons (Figure 27). While that may seem hyperbole, Hope is indeed known for growing some of the largest watermelons in the world. Its other claim to fame: It’s the birthplace of former President Bill Clinton, although he was born well after NAMW.
On the latter end of the scale, there is Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s memorial for the 49th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood that killed more than 2,200 people including 777 that were never identified and buried in a common grave (Figure 28).
Figure 27 – Hope, Arkansas. Drabyk AR022a. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 28 – Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Drabyk PA353c. Source: Author’s collection.
The cover depicted in Figures 29 and 30 from San Pedro, California is an example of a company sponsorship during NAMW – Chicken of the Sea and White Star Tuna. The cachet, I believe, was designed by Walter G. Crosby, a well-known cachet maker.
Figure 29 –San Pedro, California. Drabyk CA546a. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 30 –Back of San Pedro, California cover. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 31 might be considered another private advertising cover. KEX radio station in Portland, Oregon aired a special program on May 7, 14 and 21 from 11:00 p.m. to midnight featuring Portland Postmaster E.T. Hedlund. Hedlund set-up a temporary post office at KEX – thus the claim as the “world’s first radio post office.” All letters sent to the station received the special KEX cachet and were postmarked that evening. Note the circular date stamp on this cover: May 14, 1938 at 11:30 p.m. [xxx]. The cover is franked with two Scott 790 (Navy Issue), one Scott 785 (Army Issue), and one Scott 798 (Constitution Sesquicentennial), all issued between 1936 and 1937.
Figure 31 – KEX Radio Station, Portland, Oregon. Drabyk OR101k. Source: Author’s collection.
Figure 32 is an example of a cover from Hawaii, which was a U.S. territory at the time. It is franked with a 6-cent “Winged Globe” airmail stamp issued in 1934.
Figure 32 –Honolulu, Hawaii. Drabyk HI003d. Source: Author’s collection.
The vast majority of covers from NAMW were philatelic, i.e., they were prepared for collectors. However, there are no doubt covers from that week with cachets that were sent for legitimate personal or business purposes. Figure 32 might be an example. It is franked with a 16-cent Special Delivery air mail stamp issued in 1936 (Scott CE2). I think it is unlikely, especially in 1938 when the U.S. economy experienced a sharp recession, that a collector would pay an extra 10-cents for special delivery for a purely philatelic item. The cover also was a business-to-business item: from the Higbee Company, the Cleveland-based department store made famous in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, to River Downs, a horse racing track in Cincinnati. If I had the enclosure, I could determine for certain if this was a non-philatelic item, but alas, no such luck.
Figure 33 – Cleveland, Ohio. Drabyk OH079. Source: Author’s collection.
There are many resources for collectors to learn more about NAMW:
For an online source of NAMW cachets, albeit much less comprehensive than Drabyk’s, the website “Aerodacious” is worth bookmarking: http://www.aerodacious.com/NAMW.HTM.
For a listing of Scott C23 FDC cachets, you cannot go wrong with Douglas H. Henkle’s compilation at https://www.folklib.net/fdc/bibliog/planty-c23.shtml.
The National Postal Museum has a description of the NAMW covers Farley gifted at this link: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/finding-guide/james-a-farley-%E2%80%9Cnational-air-mail-week%E2%80%9D-may-15-%E2%80%93-21-1938.
Finally, here are other write-ups on NAMW that I located:
The AAMS’s Airpost Journal, available at https://www.americanairmailsociety.org/, has had several articles on NAMW over the years. Issues to peruse include March, May, and June 1938; May 1988; March 1990; November 2003; January and April 2019; and September and December 2021.
The AAMS website has two detailed write-ups on NAMW cachets from Massachusetts and Wyoming.
If you cannot access the AAMS materials because you are not a member, your best option would be to join the AAMS. But if you opt not to do so, you can read this article on Stamporama.com by Steve Swain, a frequent contributor to the Airpost Journal on NAMW: https://stamporama.com/articles/display_article.php?id=RAbK0s3pGc8SQ.
Ron Breznay wrote, “Trending? Viral Videos? Influencers? All Old News When You Consider James Farley and National Air Mail Week 1938” for the May 2018 edition of The American Philatelist. That issue is available on the American Philatelic Society’s website https://stamps.org/ and at https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/64035251/the-american-philatelist-may-2018.
Tony L. Crumbley authored “National Air Mail Week Revisited on the 100 Anniversary of the First Air Mail Service” for the Summer 2018 issue of the North Carolina Postal Historian. You can access his article here: http://www.ncpostalhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/NCPHS_Journal-143-2018-Summer.pdf.
Some online collecting forums have a thread on NAMW. One with some interesting covers is https://thestampforum.boards.net/thread/4979/national-mail-week-covers-cachets?page=3.
[i] New York Times, February 20, 1938, p. 166. [ii] The Postal Bulletin, February 25, 1938. Vol. LIX, No. 17384, p. 1. [iii] The Grand Island Daily Independent, May 16, 1938, p. 8. [iv] Herald Review, May 19, 1938, p. 3. [v] Stockton Evening and Sunday Record, May 17, 1938, p. 4. [vi] Women Postmasters, Historian United States Postal Service, February 2021 https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/women-postmasters.pdf and https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/files/docs/publications/women/b0182_dolwb_1941.pdf. [vii] Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 1, 1938, p. 44. [viii]The Berwyn News, April 1, 1938, p. 6. [ix] Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1938, p. 3. [x] Honolulu Sat-Bulletin, May 17, 1938, p. 7. [xi] Portland Press Herald, May 19, 1938, p. 5. [xii] Lansing State Journal, May 20, 1938, p. 1. [xiii]Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1938, p. 48. [xiv] National Air and Space Museum [xv] Visalia Times-Delta, May 18, 1938, p. 8. [xvi] Decatur Herald (Illinois), May 20, 1938, p. 13. [xvii]Time, May 23, 1938, p. 40. [xviii]Postal Bulletin, April 12, 1938. [xix] Evening Star, Washington, D.C., May 16, 1938, p. 2. [xx] The Aircraft Year Book for 1939, Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America, p. 171. [xxi] The Boston Globe, May 26, 1938, p. 1. [xxii]The Charlotte Observer, May 21, 1938, p. 13. [xxiii]Life, September 19, 1938, p. 26. [xxiv]https://www.folklib.net/fdc/bibliog/planty-c23.shtml. [xxv] Postal Bulletin, May 6, 1938, p. 1. [xxvi]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Hawks. [xxvii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Birds_of_Aviation [xxviii] https://dmairfield.org/people/depew_rh/index.html [xxix]DuPage County Register, May 13, 1938, p. 22.
[xxx] The Columbian, May 7, 1938 p. 4 and The Fresno Bee, May 14, 1938, p. 5.