The Graf Zeppelin was the greatest of the lighter-than-aircraft of the twenties and thirties. This dirigible first flew in September 1928, and wasted little time in setting records. One month later, the Graf Zeppelin made the first trans-Atlantic flight to carry paying passengers from Europe to the United States. The next year, 1929, the Graf Zeppelin set out to circumnavigate the world. Financed by a variety of backers, including William Randolph Hearst, the airship made an uneventful trip around the world, completing the loop in little more than three weeks. Later, the Graf Zeppelin would also fly over the North Pole. In all the airship clocked over a million miles in 590 flights, and only ended its service after a series of dirigible tragedies soured the public’s idea of lighter-than-air flight. No deaths resulted from the operation of the Graf Zeppelin, nor did it ever crash, and only once was it seriously delayed due to damage.
The one issue the Graf Zeppelin struggled with was funding its flights. The high-profile circumnavigation of the world had the benefit of Hearst’s deep pockets, but less than a month after the successful completion of the around-the-world trip, Black Tuesday hit, the Great Depression began to build up steam, and less newsworthy trips — nobody sends reporters to cover the twelfth trans-Atlantic flight — the huge dirigible needed to find a way to fund its trips.
Hugo Eckener, captain of the Graf Zeppelin, knew how to make ends meet: “How could we finance this flight?” he asked rhetorically, “Not an easy problem to solve. We could carry about 200 kg mail. I put my hope in the philatelists, who had contributed so much to the round-the-world flight…” Stamp collecting had begun to spread during the 1920s, and the shrinking of the world via international travel, now thanks moreso to aircraft, made more distant stamps available across the planet. Rarity was also a better-documented status for postage stamps, making speculation possible; collectors were beginning to buy stamps at the time of issue for the purpose of storing them in mint condition as an investment.
At first, mail traveling by dirigible didn’t receive any special treatment, but the postal service soon realized that there was an interest in identifying mail that had been transported by air. Custom franking for airship delivery created a unique identifier for collectors to pursue; this so-called “zeppelin mail” didn’t start with the Graf Zeppelin, but by the time the Graf Zeppelin began zipping around the world, they could not ignore the financial benefit of carrying the mail: the postage revenues were adding up to a significant part of a flight’s budget. Mail which rode on the airship for the ‘around the world’ flight got a custom cancellation to prove its attendance: the stamp for the flight cost $3.55 — equal to over $40 in today’s dollars.
In order to accommodate this high price for airmail delivery, without covering the front of the letter with stamps smaller increments, postal services created special airmail stamps with higher denominations, and even for specific dirigible flights. The most famous and rare of these U.S. stamps are the Europe Pan-America flight of the Graf Zeppelin. Issued in three different values – 65¢, $1.30, and $2.60 – the stamps were created specifically to be used for mail going to any stop between the US, South America, and Europe on the Graf Zeppelin. These stamps were first made available on 19 April 1930 and continued to be sold until June 30th, after the flight had already been made. After June 30th, without any practical use for the stamps, the Postal Service destroyed all remaining postage. With the Great Depression becoming more entrenched, the face value of these stamps was too rich for most collectors. Combioned with the short purchasing window, very few of these stamps survived in mint condition and are quite valuable today.
The Graf Zeppelin saw one more custom U.S. postage stamp, at the time of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, although it was nearly nixed. The proposed stamp would specifically reference the Century of Progress, the World’s Fair’s title, and 42½¢ of the 50¢ postage would fund the Graf Zeppelin’s flight. The Fair had already been given commemorative 1¢ and 3¢ postage stamps, and President Roosevelt felt the third stamp was unnecessary. Roosevelt was warned by both his advisors and the German attache that refusal to create the stamp and fund the Graf Zeppelin’s visit could result in an international incident. Hitler had taken power the year before, tensions were already high over his unpopularity in the international scene, and a snubbing of the German flagship of modern transportation would not be taken lightly. The U.S. relented, allowing the Graf Zeppelin stamp to go to press — but without the Nazi swastika on its fins.
During its decade of flight, the Graf Zeppelin produced enough variations to fill a dedicated collection devoted only to dirigible-related postage. ‘Zeppelin mail’ comes in innumerable forms and is still widely available today, often with franking from each stop the mail made on its route, and each nearly all unique to the flight made. The U.S. wasn’t the only country to mint special stamps to fund zeppelin postal service, and during the late 1920s and 1930s countries at many points on the airship routes produced commemorative stamps, and not just for the Graf Zeppelin. In particular the zeppelin mail, collectors have preserved the postage of this lighter-than-air form of mail delivery , recognizing at the time the potential rarity of the mail, and their desire for the unique stamps and franking helped fund the zeppelin’s trips by increasing the volume of mail carried by the airships. This symbiotic relationship didn’t help the dirigibles survive long after the Hindenburg disaster, but philately has benefited from the unique and special ways that the Graf Zeppelin, and other airships, changed how mail was delivered during the 1920s and 1930s.