Air Mailing It In: Rediscovery in the Archives

Posted on Sat, December 17, 2016
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There are many ways to find information about the collections held by the National Air and Space Museum Archives. There are finding aids with box and folder listings for over 100 collections. We are providing access to more and more of our scrapbooks and photographs. And while we archivists would like to believe that we know everything about everything in the National Air and Space Museum collections, the truth is, with over 17,000 cubic feet of documents, we are frequently discovering, or, should we say, rediscovering items in our collections. The stories behind some of these finds are fascinating!

One such story is that of the air mail envelope sent around the world via American commercial airlines to celebrate the 46th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1949. Photo archivist Melissa Keiser was reviewing a large batch upload of low-resolution videodisc frame capture digital images from the Videodisc Imagery Collection when one particular image caught her eye—three men holding a card that read “December 4, 1949.”  Curious, Keiser looked at the images on either side of this one, which also featured men posing with large dated cards, and then pulled the box of original photographs.

videodisc image capture Lanphier with two men in Delhi

The original low-resolution videodisc frame capture image viewed by Keiser.

Original Photo Lanphier with two men in Delhi

The actual photograph from the collection.  Note the sliver of a world map in the background.

It became apparent to Keiser that these images were from a National Air Museum exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building on Colonel Thomas Lanphier’s December 1949 around the world flight as part of the festivities surrounding the 46th anniversary of the first flight of the Wright brothers. The photographs were mounted on a large world map depicting Lanphier’s route. When the exhibit was disassembled, the map was cut into individual photographs and placed in the videodisc collection. But, Keiser wondered, where was the air mail envelope Lanphier carried, which had been so prominently featured in the display?

Air Mail Envelope Exhibit

National Air Museum exhibit created for a display of the Air Force Association’s Wright Brothers 46th Anniversary Air Mail Envelope [NASM 9A13800], carried by Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. on the AFA’s Around the World Flight, December 2-7, 1949, made using commercial airlines as a round trip from Washington, D.C., in 4 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes. Display was located in the North Hall of the Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution, beneath the Wright 1903 Flyer; Washington, D.C. circa mid December 1949 to early 1950.

The Museum supported a Historical Research Center in the Arts and Industries Building before the construction of the building on the National Mall in 1976, but the Records Management Division, which eventually became the Archives, did not come into organizational existence until the mid-1980s. Although the Archives hold most of the paper documents in the Museum, the envelope had been displayed as an artifact, so reference archivist Elizabeth Borja’s first thought was to check the Museum’s curatorial records. But searches for “envelope,” “Air Force Association,” “Kill Devil Hills Society,” “Wright brothers anniversary,” etc. came up empty.

Visitors look at exhibit

Visitors look at a National Air Museum exhibit created for display of the Air Force Association’s Wright Brothers 46th Anniversary Air Mail Envelope, in the North Hall of the Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution, beneath the Wright 1903 Flyer; Washington, D.C. circa mid December 1949 to early 1950.

Borja then turned to archival collections. There was no specific collection record that exactly matched the envelope’s description. But there was an artificial collection of philatelic (stamps) materials and first day covers. The typed inventory was not particularly descriptive, but there were two oversized boxes. Nestled in the second box was a brightly colored envelope!

Air Mail Envelope with Stamps from 1949

Air Force Association Wright Brothers 46th Anniversary Air Mail Envelope, carried by Colonel Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. on the record-setting AFA Around the World Flight, December 2-7, 1949, made using commercial airlines as a round trip from Washington, D.C., in 4 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes. The envelope was first sent from the president of the AFA in Washington, D.C., to the president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Following the world flight, the envelope was presented at a luncheon in Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1949, to the Curator, National Air Museum, and flown the same day back to Washington, D.C., for delivery to the Smithsonian Institution. The envelope carries international air mail stamps cancelled at each of its 21 stops, including a first day cancellation of four US Air Mail 6-cent Wright Brothers commemorative stamps. A group of 6 US Air Mail stamps affixed at top has been oversigned by James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle attesting to Lanphier’s round trip departure and arrival times from New York, NY. 

Once the envelope itself was found, the story of the envelope’s flight around the world was revealed in several archival collections. Paul Garber, of the National Air Museum the precursor to the Naitional Air and Space Museum, was responsible for delivering the envelope to the Museum. In a letter to his mother-in-law, Mary “Mother” Tusch, he shared his recollections of the whirlwind day that was December 17, 1949. Early in the morning, he left Washington, DC, to fly to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to be present for the cancellation of the new Wright brothers air mail stamps. He then attended the anniversary festivities at the Wright Brothers Memorial, featuring the presentation of President Truman’s statement and an Air Force and Navy flyover. By the afternoon, Garber had been reinstated as an air mail pilot (having first been appointed in 1918) for the purposes of escorting the envelope back to Washington, DC. He made it back in time for the annual Wright brothers’ banquet at the Aero Club, honoring Charles Lindbergh. 

The Archives’ Technical Reference Files Collection file on “Wright Brothers 1st Flight Anniversary, 1949 (46th)” contained additional copies of the Air Force Association photographs, with additional caption information; a galley copy of Thomas Lanphier’s article on his flight for the January 1950 issue of Air Force magazine; and press releases from the White House and the Air Force Association regarding President Truman’s statement and the flight. All of these resources helped to piece together the story that began with one eye-catching image!