While doing some philatelic research for my friend Daniel, I came across this odd sequence of episodes in stamp history.
Most everyone knows about the “inverted Jenny,” right? It’s the 24-cent US airmail stamp from 1918, carmine rose and blue, with the single-engine Curtiss Jenny airplane in the center — flying upside down. There are only a few examples of this kooky error, which seems to portray the fledgling US Airmail Service as some kind of daredevil barnstorming rumpus!
Inverted Jennys go for zillions of dollars these days — that is, when they go up for sale, which is rarely. The stamp comes from the first airmail set, which is quite valuable in itself — worth hundreds, not thousands.
In 2013, the US Postal Service issued a souvenir sheet depicting the inverted Jenny — the same engraving and colors as the accidental error back in 1918, as far as I can tell, only with a $2 value instead of 24 cents. It’s a beautiful, interesting sheet, full of information on the back. The stamps showing the famous upside-down plane are worth at least, well, two dollars each.
I stumbled on the last episode of this mini-saga as I was researching the potential value for Daniel’s rare philatelic item. I went to eBay and began scanning US stamps, starting at the most valuable. I was down around $13k when I came upon this item (see illustration below): “The Un-Inverted Jenny.” Bear with me, this takes some explaining.
When the USPS put out its souvenir sheet in 2013, it printed a beautiful engraved replica of the classic error from 1918. All six stamps in the sheet feature inverted Jennys. So how come THIS stamp, clipped from that same 2013 souvenir sheet issue, depicts the Jenny flying right side up, as proudly as it did on the original issue of 1918? Unraveling this philatelic mystery is similar to Sherlock Holmes’ M.O. in the Baskerville yarn — remember, the one about the dog that didn’t bark. In this case, the error is that the stamp is not an error. The plane, in short, is not just flying right-side-up, it is also flying “un-inverted” (though it does look like it’s flying a bit lower in the frame than it should).
Without caring to engage in more research at the moment, I will now speculate and reflect. This new error could have resulted from an unintentional skewing of the blue engraving plate. Some sheets inadvertently may have passed through before a correction was made. It could have been a repeat of what happened in 1918 — only in reverse, so to speak. But who’s kidding who? Was this really an accident? Did some malefactor create a secret stash of un-inverted Jennys? Is there a bureaucratic explanation involving specimens and proofs, alternate designs and essays, where something slipped through? Was a surrealist experimenting with concepts of “error”?
I prefer to think some folks at the USPS have a wry sense of philatelic wit. These four episodes in US stamp history — the original 1918 issue, the original invert, the 2013 invert, along with with “un-invert” — ring with irony and resonate in and out of symmetry. They take us from the dawn of air service well into the space age, on the wings of the steadfast — if not always upright — Jenny. And we have come full circle — with a twist. As T.S. Eliot might say, we have explored far to arrive at the place where we started. And we are seeing it for the first time, since now things are out of joint:
Back in 1918, Jenny flew proudly. Then she tipped over. Oops. That was a philatelic accident, a misprint. Very embarrassing. It was a rare philatelic event that Made News, that became part of the broader culture — and cultural memory. It was an event worth memorializing in the USPS tribute sheet in 2013. On this sheet, the “error” is intentional, a historic reminder. Except now — this! Another error, you say? But how? The plane, she flies, right? Wrong! On this sheet, Jenny should be upside-down. That’s the whole point of the tribute. The “un-inverted” Jenny on this sheet is a mistake. Should the USPS now be embarrassed because it printed a stamp right side up? How has it come to this, that up is down, wrong is right, an error is not an error, a non-mistake is a mistake … ? My brain is reeling.
OK, it’s not that dramatic. But interesting, no? Provocative, just a bit? Unsettling, maybe? That’s why they call stamp collecting “quiet excitement” (!)
NOTE TO FMF FROM GEORGE
Dear Fred: The right side up Jenny in the new $2.00 issue was intentional to create an artificial scarcity. See USPS explanation below.
I have saved several unopened sheets to sell to collectors who wish to gamble that the sheet includes the right side up version. Wanna buy one?
(USPS news release) Postal Service Announces Very Limited Edition Stamps Circulated with Recent Issue of Famous ‘Upside Down’ Jenny Stamp
Customers who purchased Inverted Jenny stamps could have one of only 100 stamp sheets printed with plane flying ‘right side up,’ First recipient comes forward
October 02, 2013 …
Postal Service Announces Very Limited Edition Stamps Circulated with Recent Issue of Famous ‘Upside Down’ Jenny Stamp
WASHINGTON – The Postal Service announced today that it printed 100 additional sheets of stamps of the recently issued Inverted Jenny stamp but with the plane flying right-side up. These very limited edition stamps were circulated with the recent issue of the most famous “misprinted” stamp. Customers who have recently purchased the new Inverted Jenny stamp could have a very limited edition of the famous stamp.
Unique to this stamp issuance, all sheets were individually wrapped in a sealed envelope to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase.
“We are leveraging the incredible story behind the rare collectible as a creative way to generate interest in stamp collecting while highlighting the role the Post Office Department had in developing the commercial aviation industry,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.
Individuals purchasing ‘corrected Jenny sheets’ will find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping asking them to call a phone number to receive a certificate of acknowledgement signed by the Postmaster General.
Just days after the Postal Service issued the new $2 version of the most publicized stamp error in U.S. history — the 24-cent 1918 Curtiss Jenny airmail stamp depicting a biplane flying upside down, Glenn Watson of Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, purchased the new $2 version with the biplane flying right side up.
“I’ve been collecting U.S. and Canadian stamps for more than 50 years,” said Watson, who ordered his Inverted Jenny stamp sheet through the Postal Store on eBay. “By far this was a total surprise, and I can now relate to how stamp collector William Robey felt when he purchased the original sheet of 100 inverted Jennys in 1918. Clearly this right-side-up version will be the treasure of my collection. I hope this stamp will encourage younger generations to get involved in this educational hobby.”
The Backstory on Creating the Misprint’s ‘Misprint’
The idea for creating the “misprinted misprint,” came to light after the Postmaster General mentioned the stamp to customer groups shortly after it was previewed in January.
“Our customers were enthusiastic about printing a new version of the most publicized stamp error in U.S. history as a great way to spur interest in stamp collecting,” said Donahoe. “Some jokingly commented that we should be careful to avoid repeating the same mistake of nearly a century ago. That was the impetus behind this initiative. What better way to interest a younger generation in stamp collecting?”
Donahoe added the stamp serves to communicate the Post Office Department’s role in developing the nation’s commercial aviation industry. Air mail turned out to be one of our most successful innovations.
“By showing that air travel could be safe and useful, we helped create the entire American aviation industry, which went on to reshape the world.”
Pan Am, TWA, American, United, Northwest and other airlines originated as air mail contractors before passenger service began. Additionally to help commercial aviation get off the ground and to speed the mail, the Post Office Department helped develop navigational aids such as beacons and air-to-ground radio. Today the Postal Service continues as the commercial aviation industry’s largest freight customer. Mail also flies on FedEx and UPS cargo aircraft.
The Jenny Story
Two eerie occurrences took place surrounding the nation’s first airmail flight that took place 1918. The pilot got lost, flew in the wrong direction and crashed. And due to a printing error of the 24-cent Curtiss Jenny airmail stamp created to commemorate this historic event, the biplane was depicted flying upside down on one sheet of 100 stamps that was sold to the public.
In 1918, in a rush to celebrate the first airmail flight, the Post Office department issued the 24-cent Curtiss Jenny stamp. Because the design required two colors, sheets were placed on the printing press twice – first to apply red ink and a second time to apply blue ink. This process was given to human error – as stamp collectors at the time well knew.
A Washington, DC, Post Office clerk – who had never seen an airplane – sold a sheet of 100 stamps mistakenly showing the biplane upside down. For nearly a century, stamp collectors have chased the Inverted Jennys and have accounted for nearly all 100 of them.
The 100 sheets were distributed randomly among the nation’s Post Offices and at the Postal Service’s Stamp Fulfillment Center which accepts stamp orders online at usps.com/stamps, and by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724). Additionally, some of the 100 also were randomly distributed at ebay.com/stamps …
FMF TO GEORGE —
OMG George. This is very interesting — and a bit embarrassing. I mean, here I am, the guy writing the FMF Stamp Project commentaries, for gosh sake, and you fill in the blanks with a little astute research, after I just gamboled off into the glen of idle speculation, disdaining further research on the subject. I suppose I will have to add this tidbit to the growing oeuvre. for which I will give full credit to you and the USPS.
Does this story strike you as a bit, well, anti-climactic? It was sort of a bureaucratic decision, it turns out, based on focus groups and a marketing plan — “to generate interest in stamp collecting.” Kind of takes the drama and romance out of it. An intentional correction of a misprint apparently is not the same thing as the original boo-boo. There are only 100 sheets, so the scarcity factor makes all the difference. As you put it, an “artificial scarcity,” cynically (whimsically?) engineered by the USPS as a marketing gimmick. It reminds me of a couple of episodes from philatelic history. One was in the 1930s, when Postmaster Farley, a buddy of FDR’s and like the president a stamp collector, issued a slew of imperforate souvenir sheets and distributed them to his cronies and caused a mini-scandal that I believe resulted in much wider distribution of the sheets, which today have little value … The other episode came in the 1960s with the stamp honoring Dag Hammerskjold, the UN guy killed when his plane went down near the Congo in 1961. The original US 4-cent stamp featured a startling error: some sheets had one color printed upside down, which created the specter of Hammerskjold sitting at a desk before the UN building in a world whirling upside down. When the postal service learned of its mistake, the powers-that-be decided to print millions more of the “error” stamp, thus turning “genuine scarcity” into “artificial plenty.”
And speaking of artificial scarcity, some countries used to put out sets of stamps with a limited printing of one value in the set, resulting in higher prices to collectors. Among the offenders: Congo and East Germany
George, your timely and on-point unraveling of the latest Jenny episode leaves untouched the ironic twists of the story. I like the postmaster’s term — “misprinted misprint” — but his news release does get a little tangled between right and wrong. Example: “Individuals purchasing ‘corrected Jenny sheets’ will find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping …” Corrected, in quotes? An ironic reference in itself, no? Does “correct” mean correct, or something else?
Also … “… all sheets were individually wrapped in a sealed envelope to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase.” Wait a minute. Which is more exciting, to find the inverted Jenny, as expected, or a corrected Jenny? I should say, “corrected” … Or is the excitement level the same, only in reverse? As for “recreated excitement,” I imagine that’s a term the late Daniel Boorstin would banish to the realm of pseudo-events, don’t you think? …
p.s. I discover that I, too, have one of the sheets still sealed in its envelope. It could be one of the 100 sheets of “corrected” Jennys. If so, and if a single “corrected” Jenny is offered on eBay fort $13k, a full sheet of six might bring .. uh, let’s see … $78k. Wow! Wonder how many sheets are still out there …
ADDENDUM: When checking eBay for “Jenny sheet” and the like, it turns out there are more errors! The $2 stamps are being offered showing the inverted Jenny with “flat tires” — at least that’s the gimmick. Actually, it’s an inking error or a chip in the plate or something, such that tires on the upside-down airplane seem to have chunks missing. This doesn’t seem like a major error, though the stamps are selling for $30 or more. There also is a claim of a “red wing” error or some such — i.e. the ink on the red border bled into the blue of the airplane. Yeah yeah, big deal. And there are imperforate sheets on the market, for sale on eBay at about $70.
(from internet ad) RARE FIND, AT LEAST 5 ERRORS ON THIS INVERTED JENNY SHEET. BULLET HOLES, FLAT TIRES, RUNNING INK, BLUE LINES, RED WING TIPS AND MORE. LOOK FOR YOURSELF AND COUNT. COMES WITH ORIGINAL ENVELOPE AND BAG. POST OFFICE FRESH, MNH. $169.66
APPENDIX: Only marginally Jenny-related, but still a good story …
The rarest cover in my collection is one addressed to my Uncle Reddy, in Needham, Mass. (see below).
It bears the 24-cent “Jenny” airmail stamp, issued just three weeks before on May 13, 1918, cancelled with the message in the circular cancel: “Air Mail Service; New York; Jun 3, 1918; First Trip.” The return address is the “Aerial League of America,” 297 Madison Avenue. A rubber stamp in the lower left corner of the envelope announces: “VIA Aeroplane Mail.” Quaint! While the envelope isn’t in particularly good shape, a similar “first flight” cover was offered on eBay recently — for $250!
The Jenny stamp itself, an excellent used example, sells for $100 or more. The cover has a story of its own. The letter was supposed to be carried on an experimental flight June 3, 1918, that was aborted. But then, how did this cover reach my Uncle Reddy, then a lad in his 20s, at his family home in Needham? Or was Uncle Reddy, a stamp collector himself, living in New York by then? Hmm. Here’s some speculation: My clever Uncle Reddy found out about this experimental flight via the NYC grapevine. Perhaps as a game fellow, he was a member of that “Aerial League of New York.” He got hold of one of the colorful new 24-cent airmail stamps, stuck it to an envelope, addressed it to his Ma and Pa’s house in Needham, and had it cancelled for the “first flight” from New York to Boston. (Presumably Boston — the plane surely did not land in Needham, the leafy western suburb where the Fiske lived.) Though the flight reportedly was aborted, my uncle still managed to get back his cancelled cover, whether or not it ever actually went through the mail. Whatever happened, it’s quite a curiosity item … (Perhaps my Cousin Phineas, Uncle Reddy’s son, has more details and can fill me in on this some time; perhaps he even will claim the cover!)
For comparison purposes: A U.S. airmail cover from Otis Elevator in Washington, D.C., addressed to Otis Elevator in New York City, postmarked “first flight” 5/15/18, was offered on eBay for $750.
Also, a New York City to Washington, D.C. “first flight” was offered for $850.
TO BE CONTINUED