Air mail is the class of mail that uses air transportation, by request of the consumer, to be delivered. It is not mail that just happened to be transported by an an aircraft at the discretion of the postal service. Typically, air mail requires either a specialized stamp, label, or envelope indicating that the item is to be sent via air mail.
Homing pigeons were probably man's first attempt at using the air to speed up delivery of communications. This was followed by the use of hot air balloons, which had the unpleasant distinction of being at the mercy of the prevailing weather. But air mail really expanded shortly after the invention of the airplane; just a scant eight years after the airplane was invented, Henri Pequet, a Frenchman, delivered over 6000 pieces of mail after flying a distance of about 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) in India.
In an effort to create a way to identify that the mail should be sent via the air, Italy and Austria overprinted Special Delivery stamps for air mail service in 1917 and March, 1918, respectively. The United States issued the world's first definitive Air Mail postage stamp in May, 1918. This stamp was to later become immortalized by a printing error on one of the sheets of stamps.
In May, 1918, the United States issued the 24-cent air mail stamp featuring the Curtiss' Flying Jenny airplane. To differentiate this stamp from non-airmail stamps, it was printed in patriotic colors of red, white and blue. The white was achieved by the paper; a red border and frame were printed upon it, and then the red and white sheets were run back through the press to receive a blue airplane. A few sheets were rotated by mistake and resulted in the blue airplane appearing upside down.
Quickly spotting the error after the original purchaser returned for more, a postal clerk withheld the sale of other sheets just like it and notified the postal authorities. All but the original sheet of 100 stamps were destroyed, leaving behind 100 famous "inverted Jenny" stamps. While not the rarest stamp in the world (100 had been sold), it is without a doubt the most recognized stamp rarity by the non-stamp collecting public.
Airplanes weren't the only mechanized way in which mail was delivered. Dirigibles such as Germany's Zeppelins were used to transport mail as well. Special stamps were created by a number of countries to use on dirigible mail.
As more and more advances are made in the field of aeronautics, there have been correspondingly novel attempts to deliver mail. Mail has traveled via missiles and even spacecraft. These methods are used mainly for promotional purposes as they are quite impractical for actual mail delivery.
Most airmail stamps have a theme of flight on them. Sometimes it is an airplane, a zeppelin, or in the case of the Irish airmail stamp shown above, an angel. The stamp depicts Victor, the guardian angel for St. Patrick, symbolized as having wings and carrying the voice of Ireland (Vox Hibernia). This particular stamp shows the angel flying over the Rock of Cashel, a famous landmark in Ireland.
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