Digest>Archives> April 2006

Lighthouse Envelope Reveals Air Mail Scandal of 1934

By Timothy Harrison


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This envelope addressed to the Commissioner of Lighthouses recently came into my possession. Since there was never a real need to save envelopes and most were thrown in the trash when a letter was received, envelopes addressed to the Commissioner of Lighthouses are quite rare.

As I looked at the envelope and admired my recent acquisition, thinking what a neat artifact it was, I noticed a penciled statement written on the front of the envelope, which was probably the reason the envelope was saved and tucked away. A clerk in the Commissioner’s office probably wrote the penciled writing, but I’d like to think it was actually penciled by Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam himself.

The pencil-written remark stated, “Next to last day of commercial,” and nothing else. Unfortunately, the correspondence that was originally in the envelope was no longer there. However, my curiosity got the better of me and before long, I had the answer to the mystery of the penciled writing.

It seems that in 1930, Postmaster General Walter Brown awarded Air Mail contracts only to the airlines that he favored for one reason or another, without allowing other smaller airline companies to compete for Air Mail contracts.

A newspaper reporter later revealed that one of the Air Mail bids that was awarded was three times higher than the bid denied by a smaller airline. A Senate investigation was held and soon reached such epic magnitude that President Franklin Roosevelt issued a presidential order that cancelled all mail contracts and immediately turned over all Air Mail delivery to the U.S. Army.

The President’s plan turned into a disaster. The Army pilots were unfamiliar with the mail routes that they were assigned to, and this, coupled with the harsh winter months of 1934, caused numerous plane crashes, as well as many delays in getting the mail delivered.

Congress acted quickly in those days and within 30 days, the Air Mail Act of 1934 was passed, which returned the delivery of Air Mail to the private sector. According to the National Postal Museum, this caused a significant impact on the industry. Bidding was structured to be more competitive and the former contract holders were not allowed to bid at all. This caused many companies to be reorganized. The result was a more even distribution of the government’s mail. This forced the airlines to inadvertently place more attention on passenger travel, which in turn led to the amazing fast growth of passenger air service in America.

Amazingly, we learned all this from one envelope that was addressed to the Commissioner of Lighthouses. This goes to prove once again what I have been saying for years: “One can learn more about early American history by studying lighthouses than from any other single source.”

The envelope has now been donated to the American Lighthouse Foundation and will go on display at their Museum of Lighthouse History in Wells, Maine.

This story appeared in the April 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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