Collecting U. S. Air Mail and Other Flown First Day Covers
Professor C. R. (Bob) Helms, Ph.D.
This collecting area is the intersection of two major collecting areas: air mail covers on the one hand, and first day covers on the other. First Day Cover (FDC) collecting is a broad area and well represented by the American First Day Cover Society (www.afdcs.org) and the discussion here will be limited specifically to air mail and other flown FDC’s, air mail date of rate change covers, or air mail first know use. Of particular interest are FDC’s that are also First Flight covers (FFC’s). I recall the great excitement I experienced years ago on finding that some C20 FDC’s were also FAM 14 first flights from San Francisco to Honolulu, Guam, and Manila, on November 11, 1935.
U.S. Air mail FDC’s.
Collecting FDC’s for air mail stamps in the U.S. spans the period from May 13, 1918 to January 20, 2012, when the USPS issued the last air mail stamp. We saw the last domestic air mail stamp issued on December 27, 1973, and in October 11, 1975, domestic air mail rates were “abolished.” All U.S. air mail stamps issued from January 2, 1974 – January 20, 2012, were for foreign mail.
The first known US air mail FDC is the (Scott #) C3, issued on May 13, 1918. Since the first flights associated with the C3 did not occur until the May 15th, the Postmasters held the covers in Washington, New York, or Philadelphia, so they could be flown on the 15th. Such covers for the C1 – C3 are exceedingly rare. The USPS issued the next series of US Air mail stamps, C4 – C6, in August of 1923. We show an example of a C4 plate number single FDC here (US FDC C4 Fig 1). Interestingly enough, the air mail rate at that time was only $0.02 and it is very unlikely this cover or others like it ever flew.
Subsequent issues of air mail stamps occurred at the beginning of the heyday of FDC collecting and cachet making. For example, Mellone’s Planty
Photo Encyclopedia shows 25 different cachets for the C10, issued on June 18, 1927. Cachet makers made numerous copies of their FDC’s making them easily collectable on a reasonable budget. Some, of course, are quite rare and valuable such as the early Dorothy Knapp C31 FDC from 1941 shown here (US FDC C31 Fig. 2). Given they tell the story, not only of air mail history, but aviation history itself, the collecting area can be quite interesting and educational.
Flown U. S. Regular Mail FDC’s
May FDC cachet makers and collectors prepared covers for regular mail FDC’s on air mail envelopes with sufficient postage to be flown air mail. This is a relatively unexplored area of collecting that will likely lead to many “finds.” We show an example for a combination FDC of Scott #’s 551 and 576 (US FDC Fig. 3). A total of $0.08 is affixed which is the correct postage for the Government flights from New York to Chicago on April 4, 1925. Not shown is a backstamp in Chicago the next day. We show another example for the Kansas overprint stamps issued on May 1, 1930 (US FDC Fig. 4). This Scott # 658 and 650 combination FDC was also a first flight from Kansas City to Omaha (CAM 28W2). The cover has the correct $0.05 postage for the air mail rate at that time. Wecan build flown regular mail FDC collections through the 1950’s. For FDC’s after about 1960, few cachet makers went to the expense of preparing covers with the correct air mail rates.
Summary, Conclusions, and Next Steps
The area of collecting air mail first days covers, other flown first days, rate change covers, etc., remains quite active. For the first day cover collector it provides another interesting collecting area; for the first flight collector adding combination first days and early use covers is a great way to broaden the scope.
First day covers are available from numerous sources. The APS Stamps.org StampStore lists 200 US air mail FDC covers; a popular auction site currently has over 7000 listed, with about half US, of which 2000 covers are listed at less than $5.00.
US Air Mail FDC’s
- A listing of all US Air Mail stamps through 1983 with lots of detail is found in the American Air Mail Catalog, Vol. 5, 5th, American Air Mail Society, 1985.
- Each edition of the Scott Specialized Catalog of US Stamps and Covers (Amos Media) has a table of air mail rates and a separate section of air mail FDC’s.
- Each edition of the Brookman Price Guide (Brookman/Barrett & Worthern) has a a separate section of air mail FDC’s.
- Mellone’s Planty Photoencyclopedia of Cacheted First Day Covers (F.D.C. Publishing Co.), various volumes, has listing for most US air mail
- See the website for the American First Day Cover Society (afdcs.org).
Flown Regular Mail FDC’s
- Many references above are helpful. The task is comparing FDC, FFC, and other flight dates, and backstamps, and franking and rates to verify that a cover was actually flown.
- Most air mail routes of interest are discussed in Volumes 1 and 3 of the 7th Edition of the American Air Mail Catalog.