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Pioneer Period (1783-1918)

The history of airmail dates to the first manned balloons of the late eighteenth century. American physician John Jeffries (1744-1819), who dropped four letters from a balloon floating over London on November 30, 1784, holds the distinction of sending the oldest known messages delivered by airmail. French balloonist J. P. Blanchard (1753-1809) accompanied Jeffries the day of the mail drop. The Physics Museum of Amherst College holds one of these letters.

President George Washington wrote the first letter flown in the United States. J. P. Blanchard carried the letter of introduction as he ascended in a balloon from Philadelphia's Walnut Street Prison Yard on January 9, 1793. Its location is unknown.

The first official US airmail delivery took place sixty-six years later, on August 17, 1859. On that day, veteran balloonist John Wise (1808-1879) carried 123 letters and twenty-three circulars from Lafayette to Crawfordsville, Indiana, a distance of thirty miles, in his balloon 'Jupiter.' Wise's intended route would have carried him to New York City, for which the mail pouch was tagged, but inclement weather grounded him at Crawfordsville. A train transported the mail from that point onward.

Though semi-official, the first airmail stamp issued anywhere in the world was used on mail flown by Samuel Archer King (1828-1914) in the balloon 'Buffalo' near Gallatin, Tennessee, on June 18, 1877.

Speed and reliability improved considerably early in the twentieth century. "Heavier-than-air" crafts helped reach this watershed, introducing the Pioneer Period. Dozens of mail-carrying events, held mainly at aviation meets and fairs between 1911 and 1916, played a key role in this accomplishment.

On February 18, 1911, Frenchman Henri Pequet (1888-1979) flew about 6,500 pieces of official mail from Allahabad to Naini, India, a distance of about five miles. A short time later, on September 23, 1911, Earle Ovington (1879-1936) flew official US airmail between Garden City and Mineola, New York.

The Pioneer Period ended in the United States on November 3, 1916, when Victor Carlstrom (1890-1917) completed a mail-carrying flight from Chicago to New York. The flight proved the viability of carrying mail by air, and Post Office Department officials began planning for regular, scheduled airmail service. World War I delayed the service for two years, and it began on May 15, 1918.

Stephen Reinhard