When you start thinking of postal history, vintage letters, general post office imagery, it probably won’t take you long to envision that classic red and blue border around an envelope. For many years, this border was used to identify an envelope for air mail delivery. Today, however, it is merely decorative. The United States Postal Service ended separate domestic air mail service in the 1970s, and separate international service in the 1990s. Since then, letter delivery by air is done whenever practical with no additional charge. Specific air mail stamps and envelopes are no longer required, but there is something romantic about the classic air mail letter look.
Airplanes opened up a whole new era of transportation, and it’s partially thanks to air mail contracts that many early airlines were able to succeed. The creation of air mail routes in the United States helped to encourage growth in the very new aviation industry. As someone who enjoys traveling and meeting friends around the world, I have a personal reason to admire pioneers of air travel.
At the AmeriStamp Expo, I was excited to browse through several dealers with boxes of $1 covers for sale. This provided me a very affordable starting point for a personal collection of air mail covers. Although most covers were sent with international stamps that I currently know little about, I was drawn to these pieces because of that iconic air mail look.
Who came up with that look? It’s hard to say. A 2014 article in Linn’s Stamp News notes that red and blue striped designs were mentioned in a 1928 Postal Guide.
Two “distinctive designs” of envelope were pictured as having received postal approval for airmail use. One featured three horizontal stripes running the whole length of the envelope, with the blue on top and red on the bottom.
The other design, which turned out to be much more widely adopted, featured the familiar border of shapes that are variously described in period documents as diamonds, lozenges and parallelograms.
There was never a requirement that airmail envelopes had to match the officially approved designs, and airmail covers from earlier than 1928 with red and blue stripes also exist.
Indeed, there never was a requirement that air mail had to be marked with these stripes. One of the earliest references that I was able to find on to how air mail should be marked was from a June, 1924 Postal Bulletin. This said that the envelope only needed to be clearly marked with “Via Air Mail”. While “Via Air Mail” was common for domestic deliveries, the French “Par Avion” is more common for international deliveries. This is because French is the official language of the Universal Postal Union.
So if specific air mail envelopes weren’t required, why were they used at all? In my search for the answer to that question I’ve found several possible reasons. For one, special designs around the edge or across the middle made the envelopes stand out in a way that insured they would be sorted into the proper delivery type. Another reason is that because early airplanes had limited space, the rate per ounce on air mail deliveries were expensive. To save money, most early air mail envelopes were made with thin, lightweight paper (some early envelopes are practically see-through). Designs helped easily differentiate these envelopes from standard ones when writers selected their stationary.
The first air mail envelopes produced by the United States Post Office Department were issued in 1929. These envelopes all included the classic striped border design. This was probably why the bordered envelope became the iconic look of the air mail, rather than the striped across design.
Aside from the borders, there are many other images used to decorate these envelopes. Images of birds, planes, globes, or gazelles were used to emphasize the “Par Avion”.
While purchasing covers, I tried to collect as many different designs as I could. I enjoyed scanning through the boxes to find new and different labels in various languages. I’ve scanned the covers and isolated the designs to use as decorations on my personal craft projects.
Since these designs could potentially be others, I’m providing them for free to download [HERE]. Within the file there are twenty “Par Avion” labels; five air mail borders; and two miscellaneous icons. Most of the images in this file are quite large. Aside from isolating them from the covers they were printed on, I’ve done very little editing to them.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of the United States Air Mail Service, I recommend checking out the National Post Museum’s online exhibit, Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America.
- Excerpts featured in this post are from Linn’s Stamp News; The US Postal Bulletin; and Scott’s Catalog. The 1926 St. Louis air mail cover image is a public domain image taken from Wikipedia. All other images from personal collection.
- If you do make something with the images I’ve provided for download, please let me know. I’d enjoy seeing what you’ve created!