28 October 2018
In the early 20th century, the Graf Zeppelin airship made pioneering flights across South and North America, creating an array of collectable covers in the process. We chart the rise and dramatic fall of the gentle giants, and provide a starting point for collecting zeppelin postal history
Named after Wurttemberg cavalry general, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, whose first airship made its maiden flight over Lake Constance in 1901, the vast airships that have become synonymous with Nazi propoganda and the infamous Hindenburg disaster, offer postal history collectors a great variety of covers and postcards to pursue.
As early as November 1909 the Zeppelin construction company's sister organisation Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktein Gesellschaft (German Airship Transport Company) or DELAG for short, became the first civilian air transport company and by 1910 giant dirigibles were giving demonstration flights and even carrying souvenir postcards with special postmarks, now highly prized as the forerunners of the Zeppelin period.
Although the Wright Brothers eventually proved that powered flight was practical by heavier-than-air machines, there was still a great future for the dirigible balloon, as the Germans showed to devastating effect during World War One when Zeppelins carried out bombing raids over London.
Ironically, shortly before the outbreak of war, an Anglo-German expedition to survey New Guinea was projected, using an airship, and stamps were even produced showing the Zeppelin flanked by the flags of the two countries. The expedition was aborted on the outbreak of war and very few of the stamps have survived.
Zeppelins after World War One
During the war, the power and range of aircraft advanced meteorically, but Germany persisted with long-range dirigibles, and by 1921 the Zeppelin Company was back in business, constructing airships for delivery to the Allies as part of war reparations.
In 1924 the giant LZ-126, later named the Los Angeles, was completed and flown across the Atlantic. An oval datestamp was applied to mail carried on this flight, with the New York arrival mark of 15 October.
Four years later the LZ-127 was completed and named the Graf Zeppelin after the pioneer of German airships. This huge craft, with a capacity of 3,708,600 cubic feet, took to the air on 18 September 1928, and made five flights over various parts of Germany in its first month, on each of which a special cachet was applied to souvenir mail thrown overboard and posted wherever the mailbags landed.
These preliminary flights were followed by the first double crossing of the Atlantic, for which Germany issued a set of stamps showing the Graf Zeppelin over the northern hemisphere. During the winter of 1928-9 the Graf Zeppelin made nine flights over Germany and souvenir mail was jettisoned as before. These flights were followed by the Orient flight in March 1929, from Germany to Egypt and Palestine via Athens. A pictorial cachet showing the airship over the Pyramids was applied to mail on this flight.
Zeppelin round-the-world flights
After various cruises across the globe, Dr Hugo Eckener, Zeppelin’s colleague and successor, commanded the airship on its famous round-world flight. A distance of 21,700 miles was traversed in just twenty days, travelling via Tokyo, Los Angeles and Lakehurst, New Jersey. Numerous flights by the Graf Zeppelin were also carried out in 1930, the most spectacular being the South America flight between May 18 and June 6.
For this occasion Germany re-issued the Zeppelin stamps of 1928 with a two-line overprint SUDAMERIKA FAHRT. Mail was picked up or dropped off en route, with distinctive postmarks and cachets at each stage and Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil jumped on the bandwagon and issued special stamps to mark their participation in this epic flight. Prior to that, the USA issued a set of three high-value stamps for the Europe-Pan-American Flight, in April 1930, in denominations of 65c, $1.20 and $2.60.
This established a precedent which other countries were quick to follow. Russia and Finland issued stamps later in 1930, followed by Hungary, Egypt, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Brazil and Paraguay in 1931. For the flight across the North Pole in 1931 Germany re-issued the Zeppelin stamps with the overprint POLAR-FAHRT 1931, while Russia released a set of four showing the airship over the Soviet ice-breaker Malygin.
In 1932 and 1933 Graf Zeppelin made further South American flights, with the usual spate of souvenir covers, postcards, cancellations and cachets, with a further set of five stamps from Paraguay. Italy and her colonies, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, issued Zeppelin stamps in May 1933.
The ninth South America flight took place in October. From Rio de Janeiro the Graf Zeppelin flew on to Miami, Akron and Chicago in connection with the Century of Progress World’s Fair, and from Chicago flew back to Friedrichshafen across the North Atlantic. For this flight Germany once again re-issued the Zeppelin stamps overprinted CHICAGOFAHRT – WELTAUSSTELLUNG 1933 (Chicago Flight, World Fair).
The USA produced a 50c airmail stamp on this occasion featuring the Graf Zeppelin between the Chicago Exposition building and the airship hangar at Friedrichshafen.
In its first five years of service the Graf Zeppelin’s international flights accounted for almost a thousand different souvenir covers, postcards, cachets, postmark and stamps.
The Hindenburg disaster
The Graf Zeppelin was decommissioned in 1937 and her successor, the LZ-128, did not get beyond the drawing board, but in 1936 the stupendous LZ-129 Hindenburg, with a capacity of 7,063,000 cubic feet, was completed.
This 803-foot long airship operated the first truly commercial air service across the North Atlantic by carrying 1,002 passengers on ten scheduled trips between Germany and the USA, the eastbound crossings averaging 65 hours and the westbound crossings 52 hours.
Germany issued two stamps in March 1936 depicting the Hindenburg in flight over the Atlantic.
On May 6, 1937, while landing at Lakehurst on the first of her 1937 season flights, the hydrogen-inflated Hindenburg was ignited by static electricity in the atmosphere and burst into flames. The airship was completely destroyed with the loss of more than thirty lives – the first passenger fatalities in the history of commercial aviation. Although sabotage was suspected, Germany ended its airship programme.
A number of charred mail bags were recovered from the wreckage of the Hindenburg and all letters recovered were placed into a so-called 'ambulance' envelope, sealed with US Post Office official sealing labels and forwarded to the addressee, as long as the address was still legible.
One particular envelope, sold by Warwick and Warwick auctioneers in 2005, had never been removed from its ambulance envelope, which was sealed on the reverse with three official seals. There are many rare and poignant reminders of the historic event, but they do not come cheap, with this example selling for £5,635.
To aerophilately, the often charred and partially burnt Hindenburg disaster covers are what the postcards from the maiden voyage of the Titanic are to maritime buffs. More recently, in February 2008, a Hindenburg crash cover was sold for €10,500 (approximately £8,250)) by Ulrich Felzmann of Dusseldorf, while the same auction saw a cup and saucer from the flight fetch €600.
This was by no means the end of the Zeppelin. The LZ-13o, christened Graf Zeppelin, was completed and tested in September 1938, for the North Atlantic service, but the tense international situation at the time, and the refusal of the USA to export the helium required, prevented this airship being brought into service.
Subsequently she was modified for hydrogen operation but was only used for demonstration flights over Germany and saw neither commercial nor military service. German airship construction came to an end in July 1939 and in April the following year the LZ-130 and her namesake, the old LZ-127, were dismantled and the scrap steel and aluminium from their hulls used for the Nazi war effort.
In July 1944 Allied bombing raids on Friedrichshafen destroyed the airship hangars and installations. The destruction of the Zeppelin Luftshiffbau works in World War Two undoubtedly saved the Zeppelins from the ignominy of neglect and decay in the post-war years, but developments in trans-oceanic, heavier-than-air machines during and after the war rendered the airships obsolete in any event.
In their heyday of the Twenties and Thirties, however, the Zeppelins captured the imagination of the world and they are fondly remembered today by the astonishing wealth of souvenirs engendered by their flights.
Today, not only the stamps and souvenir covers are keenly sought after but also the ephemera, from in-flight menus to route maps, the distinctive crockery and cutlery, the uniforms and equipment and even pieces of their fabric fetch extraordinary prices at auction. But with a variety of covers and mail to seek out, each of differing scarcity and price, the theme provides something for everyone.