Errors and Missteps

Everyone makes mistakes.

Learn more about the
unique errors and missteps
in our mail’s history.

Inverted Jenny stamp
The 1918 Inverted Jenny Stamp, America’s most famous stamp printing error.

Location: National Stamp Salon, Pullout Frame 238

Inverted Jenny stamp
The 1918 Inverted Jenny Stamp, America’s most famous stamp printing error.

The Inverted Jenny is a famous stamp error in which the pictured “jenny” airplane was accidentally printed flying upside down. A single sheet of 100 stamps with this error was sold. The sheet was broken up and the 100 stamps separated. One of seven of these stamps on display in the museum is from famed philatelist Benjamin K. Miller’s collection. Part of Miller’s collection of rare stamps was stolen from the New York Public Library in 1977, including the Inverted Jenny stamp shown here. The stamp was from the middle of the original sheet of 100 stamps, and so had perforations on each side from where it was separated from other stamps. The Inverted Jenny recovered by investigators in the early 1980s appeared to be different, it has a straight edge on one side. Investigators wondered if this was a different stamp, one originally from the edge of the sheet of 100. As it turned out, the thieves had cut off the top row of perforations, thus disguising the stolen stamp’s true identity.

About nine people pushing a Jenny off of a runway
What is a “Jenny?” The Jenny, or the Curtiss-Jenny JN-4, was the most flown airplane of the 1920’s and originally intended for military use. After World War I, they were used for the first regularly scheduled Air Mail Service.
What is a Jenny? »

Location: National Stamp Salon, Pullout Frame 174

The 1979 Rush Lamp stamp invert made headlines when the news broke that nine CIA employees, who had noticed that 95 stamps purchased for general government use contained an error, replaced those stamps, taking the inverts for themselves. The employees sold the inverts to a stamp dealer for a large profit and split the proceeds. The scandal resulted in the firing of four of the employees for lying to agency investigators and converting government property to private use.

Inverted Rush Lamp stamp, CIA variant
The so-called CIA inverts were an example of a particular error where both the lamp and text were inverted but the coloration for the lamp was printed correctly. This leads to a stamp that looks like it has 2 candles, one colored and floating and the other, in black lines, upside down.
Inverted Rush Lamp Stamp »
Inverted Rush Lamp stamp
Think you’re seeing double? There are actually 4 different variations of errors in the Rush Lamp stamp that were printed and sold. Can you tell what makes the invert here different from the CIA invert?
Inverted Rush Lamp Stamp #2 »
Rush Lamp Stamp without error
This is an example of the 1978 Rush Lamp stamp without error. The Glowing candle represents light fueled by truth and reason.
Original 1978 $1 Rush Lamp Stamp »

Location: Mail Call, “From Horseback to Helicopter”

Camouflaged letter bag
While these bags carried paper letters, audio recorded “letters” increased in popularity during the Vietnam War.
Camouflage Mailbag »

Due to the importance of mail’s role in boosting morale during times of war, the U.S. military has always looked to find new ways to make sure mail gets to service personnel. An experiment during the Vietnam War saw drab green mailbags dropped from helicopters to troops in the field. The project was short-lived due to the bags’ color. Intended to camouflage the bags to protect them from enemy interception, it was a bit too effective. The mailbags were nearly impossible to find in the dense brush, even for their intended recipients. The experiment was discontinued, but other innovations such as “Space Available Mail” and “Parcel Airlift” helped move mail more swiftly to and from U.S. troops serving Vietnam.

Soldiers reading the newspaper
Soldiers take a break with their hometown newspapers, delivered with their regular mail in Vietnam, 1967.
Courtesy National Archives.
Vietnam War Soldiers Reading Newspapers »

Location: Moving the Mail, “Aircraft in America”

Stinson-Reliant mail airplane
Used to pick up and drop off mail without landing the airplane, the Stinson-Reliant planes were equipped with a hook that could latch onto mail containers attached to rope. While the Stinson Reliant’s mail hook did not cause any pilot deaths, the mechanism was another airmail invention that never quite took off.
Loan to the National Postal Museum from the National Air and Space Museum.

Early airmail delivery was dangerous, with 34 pilots dying between 1918 and 1926. Part of the danger came from the airplanes themselves, which were originally designed for the military and not mail service. Although the airplane design was improved as the years went by, bad weather, difficult landings, and developing technology conspired to give early airmail pilots their ominous nickname: the “suicide club.”

Historic photo of Stinson Reliant airplane in action
This image shows the Stinson Reliant airplane attempting to hook the rope attached to the mail container it is picking up. The rope is strung between two posts to make this possible. You can also see the container floating behind the airplane that has just been dropped out of the hatch, the incoming mail.
Stinson Reliant Monoplane »

Location: Customers and Communities, “Moving the City’s Mail”

Glass mailbox
Early mailboxes were full of trail-and-error mistakes. The glass mailbox for personal use shown here was unpopular because people did not like others being able to see their mail.
Glass mailbox »

Prior to 1863, most postal patrons picked up their mail at the post office. The introduction of City Free Delivery Service was an instant success, but it faced a number of challenges in getting established. Namely, people didn’t have mailboxes! Early designs for home mailboxes experimented with how to notify patrons they had mail when checking one’s mail was not yet a daily habit. In the case of this glass mailbox, patrons could easily see when they had mail—unfortunately, so could everyone else.

a child putting a letter into a Doremus-style mailbox
Long before the ubiquitous blue drop off box of today, The Postal Service commissioned several different manufacturers to create the perfect postal drop box. The different boxes were tested in different cities, and it was a good thing, because they each had unique flaws. The Doremus-style public mailbox, shown here, was not very durable and easy for thieves to break into, as well as leaving mail exposed to the elements through the easily broken lip over the letter slot.
Early Mailboxes »

Location: Moving the Mail, “Mail by Rail”

RMS employee prepping mail crane
A RMS employee preps the mail crane, circa 1930s.
Mail on the Fly »

Railway Mail Service (RMS) clerks were considered an elite class of postal workers that were responsible for sorting the mail as well as catching and throwing mailbags on and off the moving trains. However, operations didn’t always run smoothly. Sometimes the clerks would miss their mark while tossing the bags and the mailbag would tear open underneath the wheels of the moving train, causing a “snowstorm.” There were also instances of windows shattering as mailbags were tossed from the train into them, trains tipping into rivers, and mailbags tumbling into canyons—all in a day’s risk of doing “mail-on-the-fly.”

Mail clerk catching a mailbag
Mail clerk grabbing mail “on-the-fly."
Mail on the Fly »

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