Cheryl Ganz is chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, which is open every day of the year except Christmas; admission is free. On November 4, 2009, we spoke with her by telephone to talk about zeppelin stamps and the burnt mail that survived the Hindenburg disaster. Ganz is an expert on these topics. She is also an author—her latest book is “The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress.” For more information, visit The Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s website, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I’ve been a lifelong collector, even as a kid. There are just certain people for whom collecting seems to be part of their nature. My mother always tells the story about when I was three years old they’d give me dolls. I never played mother and baby. Instead, I put my dolls on a shelf and spent every day rearranging them. Collectors not only care about acquisitions; they care about organizing their stuff and figuring out what’s missing and how to make a good story of their collection. And so, as a child, I collected a lot of things, including coins, stamps, and seashells.
In my teenage years, my grandfather gave me some photographs of zeppelins. I got really excited and started reading books about them. I’d go to flea markets and find zeppelin postcards and memorabilia. So I started collecting zeppelin stuff.
After I’d been collecting zeppelin material for maybe two or three years, I discovered that they carried mail, and that you could buy postcards and envelopes with zeppelin stamps on them that had been aboard these zeppelins. It was so exciting to me, I just dropped all my other collections, and I’ve been a zeppelin researcher ever since.
I’ve been at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum approximately four years. We get about a half a million visitors a year, plus another two million on our website. From the “Browse the Collection” page, you can reach photographs and descriptions of every U.S. postage stamp ever made via a very good search engine at www.arago.si.edu. So even people who don’t collect stamps but maybe collect something else like, say, owls can type in “owls” and see every U.S. stamp with an owl on it. It’s very user friendly.
We have about six million stamps, which is the largest collection of postage stamps for a postal museum in the world. We acquire our stamps in three basic ways. First, people donate stamps, but we don’t need any common stamps. We’ve got all those already! We’re really looking for rare stamps or stamps that are famous in history or were owned by famous people. Second, every once in a while we’ll go out and purchase something that we really need if it’s the only way we can get it. Finally, we get transfers from other museums, from post offices, from the Department of Treasury, and from government institutions and organizations.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the museum’s most popular exhibits?
Ganz: Our most popular stamp is the Inverted Jenny. It’s a stamp from 1918 where there was a mistake in production and the airplane in the center of the stamp was printed upside down. And only a hundred, or one sheet, made it out of the post office before the error was discovered.
As far as exhibits go, we have quite a few popular ones. Right now there is a lot of interest in our exhibit devoted to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a stamp collector. It’s called “Delivering Hope: FDR & the Great Depression.” He used postage stamps to reach out to the public during his administration. Today President Obama would do it by using computer websites and Twitter and news conferences on television. But back in the 1930s, if you wanted to get to every American in their home, there were two ways to do it. Either you used the radio or postage stamps.
Another current exhibit that’s proved quite popular is “Alphabetilately.” It contains about a couple thousand stamps. Each letter of the alphabet represents one different kind of stamp collecting. So let’s say you have D for ducks—that part of the exhibit has duck stamps and things related to ducks on stamps. W is for war, so all the mail shown in that section is from different wars that America has fought. That’s been a very popular exhibit.
Collectors Weekly: Has work begun on the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery?
Ganz: Well, not physical work because we’re still fundraising, and there’s still a restaurant in that space. We’re scheduled to open in late 2012. Right now I’m working on the exhibits that will go inside that space, the stamps we’ll use in those exhibits, and the stories we’ll tell. So we’re in what you would call the conceptual-development stage for the new gallery.
Collectors Weekly: Going back to zeppelins and airmail, when was the first airmail stamp issued?
Ganz: The first time mail was ever flown, but not with airmail stamps, was in India in 1911. The first airmail stamp was issued in Italy in 1917, and the first U.S. airmail stamps were issued in 1918. There were three, one of which was the Inverted Jenny, the stamp with the upside-down airplane that I just mentioned. Mail had been flown on airplanes in the United States before that, but not with airmail stamps. Very early on, the pioneer aviators carried souvenir mail as a way to raise money to help pay for their flights. It was only after World War I that the government started to offer airmail service.
Collectors Weekly: How did the use of aircraft change the postal system?
Ganz: Here’s how I see it. A postal system operated before we even had a revolution. You had mail being delivered by horseback and ships primarily. As time went on, roads improved, and there were better means of transportation, but it was all by land and sea. That was in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The first U.S. postage stamps were printed in 1847, so there was obviously mail before there were stamps. The only difference was that it wasn’t prepaid—you would pay when you received your letter rather than beforehand by purchasing a stamp. Airmail service sped everything up.
At first it was just about airmail within the United States, and then, as the decades went on, airmail was offered overseas and globally. Way before you had computers—and long-distance telephone calls were very expensive back in those days—the fastest and most economical way to communicate with people around the world was by airmail. As airplanes got bigger and faster, the distances between people were reduced. I see airmail as one of the first steps in globalization because it’s how we started quickly interconnecting businesses and people all over the world.
In the United States, the first airmail flights were between Washington D.C. and New York. But it didn’t take long before mail was being flown to Chicago, and then you had mail going all the way across the country, transcontinental. Within a couple years, as aviation technologies improved, airplanes began carrying more cargo and passengers. The evolution of aviation in the 20th century is just an incredible story. Flight made our world smaller, brought us all together.
Collectors Weekly: When mail began being sent overseas, what aircraft was used?
“Because Hindenburg mail is so rare, it’s been a target for forgeries.”
Ganz: The first passenger-and-freight flights were by zeppelin. Remember, in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean, he was the only one in the airplane—just him and a lot of gasoline. But at that same time, zeppelins were already flying across the ocean. Two years later, the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world with passengers and a crew.
The big zeppelins were able to fly long distances before airplanes could, so in the 1920s and ’30s, zeppelins were really the international carriers. They’d fly from Europe to North America or South America where, after landing, airplanes would distribute the mail within the country. Collectors avidly collect this airmail. There are whole catalogs listing all the different flights, routes, and rates. It’s a huge collecting field.
Collectors Weekly: How did zeppelin use evolve?
Ganz: The very first zeppelin flight was July 2, 1900 in Germany. Now, there were airship flights before that, but a zeppelin is a very specific kind of airship. It’s one with a rigid framework creating the shape, and inside the framework are gas cell bags. That specific design is called a zeppelin, and it turned out to be the most successful of the airships.
Even before 1910, passengers in Germany would write postcards to their friends, get a special marking on them, and mail them from the flight. So already in the first decade of the 20th century, zeppelins were carrying souvenir mail. The first zeppelin to fly to the United States was a British airship called the R34, which arrived in 1919. The first German zeppelin came here in 1924.
The major routes were from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the Hindenburg crashed. Today it’s a big naval station. The Graf Zeppelin also went over the Arctic Ocean and flew around the world. It went to Egypt. It did all kinds of demonstration flights. The United States had a few zeppelins that were operated by the U.S. Navy—they also carried some mail but were used mostly for naval maneuvers.
When they were planning the global network for zeppelins, they looked for ports or places that were pretty big. The Hindenburg was more than 800 feet long, approximately three football fields. And so they needed a place where there would be room for a hangar. The Lakehurst hangar is still standing today. It’s open two Saturdays a month for tours, and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society has a website with information. It’s pretty amazing.
Collectors Weekly: When were the first zeppelin stamps issued?
Ganz: Well, the first zeppelin stamps in the United States were airmail stamps. You’d buy zeppelin stamps specifically for mail that would be carried on a zeppelin. Many different countries put out zeppelin stamps. The United States issued four stamps (three in 1930 and one in 1933), but Germany put out many more than that, and other countries did, too.
The stamps were only good for use on specific zeppelin flights. Unlike today, where you can buy stamps and use them years later, U.S. zeppelin stamps were intended for particular zeppelin flights.
They were immediately collectible, even with the Great Depression. The cost of zeppelin stamps was very high, so not many people could afford them. Even so, they very quickly became scarce and desirable. For a lot of contemporary stamp collectors, one of their dreams is to be able to own a set of zeppelin stamps because they’re still quite expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Were there a lot of people sending mail by zeppelin overseas, or was it a pretty limited audience?
Ganz: On some flights, let’s say the final flight of the Hindenburg, there would be more than 17,000 pieces of mail on the zeppelin. Only a couple hundred from that flight survived. But on other flights, there might be 80,000 pieces of mail. So, on one hand, you could say that compared to the size of the population, that’s a small number. But for the time, that was considered a really large amount of mail.
Collectors Weekly: How far would a zeppelin stamp take a letter?
Ganz: Let’s take the stamp issued in 1933. The U.S. issued a 50-cent green stamp for the zeppelin flight to the 1933 Chicago world’s fair. If you put four of those on your letter—that means $2 on a single envelope—the stamps would’ve taken your letter from New York by ship to Germany, where it would be put on the zeppelin for the flight to South America, Chicago, and back to Germany, where it would then be put on a ship and sent back to you. So that $2 paid for a round-trip by ship overseas, as well as a round-trip by zeppelin.
Now, you could do just a portion of the flight. If you just put one stamp on, you could fly it from Akron, Ohio to Chicago, because it made stops along the way, as you can imagine. The distance of the flight determined the rates.
Collectors Weekly: What was unique about zeppelin stamps?
Ganz: The first thing was their cost. They were just so incredibly expensive that the average person couldn’t afford them. In the Great Depression you could buy postcard stamps for a penny or letter stamps for three cents. Zeppelin stamps ranged from 50 cents to well over $2. So the price aspect was huge.
Then there was their size. These were jumbo-sized stamps compared to the average first-class stamps of the day. The size made them very attractive, and their long shape made it easy for a clerk at a post office to immediately recognize it as an airmail stamp. They were all engraved, which meant they were beautiful, little works of art. Bureau of Engraving and Printing artists such as Victor McClosky designed U.S. zeppelin stamps.
Collectors Weekly: How was the denomination of the stamp determined?
Ganz: Well, the first time the Graf Zeppelin issued stamps in the United States, they printed three different stamps with three different rates of 65 cents, $1.30, and $2.60 to account for the various postcard, letter, and complete-trip rates. They had all these different combinations, and it was just a little too complicated for the clerks and customers, I think. So, in 1933, they said, “Let’s just put out one stamp, 50 cents, and then people can change the rate by how many they put on the envelope.” It was just a way to simplify things. Why have three stamps when you could do the job with one stamp and add as many as you needed?
Collectors Weekly: Are some zeppelin stamps more collectible than others?
Ganz: Yes. Of the four, the most valuable one is the $2.60 stamp. Which makes sense: It was the most expensive one to buy, so it’s the one that most people could not afford.
Collectors Weekly: Did other countries issue zeppelin stamps?
Ganz: Yes. Germany issued quite a few zeppelin stamps, and they vary quite a bit. There are some that are very modest in value and some that were high-cost and produced in very small quantities, and they, of course, are the ones that are most expensive for collectors today. Usually when you are trying to figure out what a stamp is worth, it’s not about how old it is. It’s about how many were issued and whether people want to own it. It’s the old story of supply and demand.
Collectors Weekly: What about the postcards and letters themselves? What do they tell us?
Ganz: I get really excited about mail written by passengers and crew on board a zeppelin. The passengers write “Hey, I’m flying above Ireland, having a drink, enjoying the weather and the view. Wish you were here,” that kind of thing. I love reading people’s mail.A piece of mail that survived the Hindenburg crash is considered a great rarity. The Hindenburg was the largest zeppelin of its time, able to cross the Atlantic even against strong headwinds. But when it crashed, only a little more than 150 pieces of burnt mail survived. These were delivered to whomever they were addressed to, but letters with illegible addresses were destroyed. So if they could read the address, it was delivered via registered mail to the postmaster of each town to make sure it got delivered.
Because Hindenburg mail is so rare, it’s been a target for forgeries. You have to be very careful that somebody hasn’t taken an envelope that looks like a zeppelin letter, burnt it, and then claimed it was on the Hindenburg. You have to be sure you have something authentic.
Collectors Weekly: Does the museum have a large collection of zeppelin airmail?
Ganz: Yes. We have more than 2,000 pieces. One of my favorites is a piece of mail with three zeppelin stamps on it for a flight in 1930. That one envelope has all three 1930 stamps on it. We also have the Hindenburg crash cover. It’s burned, but you can see that it contains correspondence between brothers, one of whom lived in Germany, with the other in the United States.
Collectors Weekly: What advice would you give to a beginning stamp collector?
Ganz: A lot of people start out by just going to the post office and buying one of everything. Other people take a different approach. They say, “What am I really interested in?” This is how most collectors work. If you’re interested in a specific area—for example, your hometown of Chicago—well, maybe you’ll collect stamps related to Chicago and mail that’s postmarked in Chicago. Or maybe you have an interest in U.S. national parks, so you’ll collect stamps with designs of national parks on them. Or maybe you’ll pick a topic like Amelia Earhart. There are lots of stamps and mail related to her.
So you can pick a subject that you like and collect based on that subject, or you can just collect new stamps when they come out at the post office. Some people collect all the stamps issued the year they were born. One way or the other, you should pick something that appeals to you because if you don’t, you’ll probably lose interest.
Children tend to really like space stamps, animal stamps, and Disney stamps. Adults frequently like to take one area of United States stamp collecting and specialize in that area. So they’ll collect airmail stamps, or very early, 19th-century stamps. The first U.S. stamps were issued in 1847. Those tend to be expensive so before you start spending enormous amounts of money, I recommend joining a stamp club and reading a couple books in order to get to know the landscape. There’s actually a website that’s perfect for the beginner called learnaboutstamps.com. It answers questions about how to get started, sell a collection, or join a club.
(All images in this article courtesy the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)