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A century ago, mail delivery took to the skies

The airplane — then a relatively new invention — carried letters for the first time.

A pair of Curtiss Jenny (JN-4H) airplanes are shown on the polo grounds at Potomac Park in Washington, DC. This location was used for the first few months of the nation's first regularly scheduled airmail service. (National Postal Museum)

If you want to contact friends who live far away, what do you do? Call them on the phone? Send an email or text?

What you probably don’t do is write a letter and drop it in a mailbox.

But 100 years ago, that’s what people did. Trains and trucks delivered the mail long distances. It took days, but people were happy they no longer had to depend on stagecoaches and steamboats. (Remember the Pony Express?)

On May 15, 1918, nearly 5,000 people jammed a field near the Potomac River in the nation’s capital. President

Woodrow Wilson was there, along with future president Franklin Roosevelt and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. School was canceled so kids could also witness history: the first airmail service between Washington and New York.

It was a big deal in part because it was just 14 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first successful airplane flight. Now, Army pilots would be carrying the mail between the two cities, with a refueling stop in Philadelphia. It was faster than traveling the 200-plus miles by land. More important, it cleared the way for the longer routes that soon followed.

The Post Office Department took over from the Army after a few months, and over the next decade, airmail delivery began to boost the nation’s businesses and new airline industry.

This milestone in communication is being celebrated at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum with a year-long exhibit titled “Postmen of the Skies.”

The half-dozen exhibit rooms are packed with information about those early pilots. Lacking instruments, radios and even parachutes, they flew in all kinds of weather, peering out of open cockpits with maps strapped to their legs.

Airmail was a hit with the public. There were card and board games with tiny metal planes that raced around the country like the Scottie dog on a Monopoly board. For $9, you could get a kid-size Air Mail Racer pedal plane. When Mickey Mouse starred in the 1933 cartoon “The Mail Pilot,” little pilot Mickeys flew off the toy shelves.

Many pilots, almost all of whom were men, relished being daredevils. Crashes were common. Of the nearly 200 who flew the mail between 1918 and 1926, more than 30 died while flying. Don’t show off, warned one of those pilots, E. Hamilton Lee, who added: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”

To honor these airmail aviation pioneers, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing two new stamps this year. The first came out last week. Look for it at your post office. Better yet, write a letter to a friend and mail it using one of those new stamps.

● Visit the National Postal Museum on May 15 and get a free wooden glider.

● Celebrate National Paper Airplane Day at the museum on May 26. Make a paper plane and see how far it will fly.

● Check out the museum’s “10 Fun Things” for kids to do. Create a stamp design with your own photo!

“Postmen of the Skies” runs through May 27, 2019. The museum is at 2 Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, Washington (near Union Station). Admission is free, and the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Learn more at

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