Landmarks on Paper

Like many anniversary celebrations, National Airmail Week, May 15-21, 1938, commemorating the twentieth anniversary of official airmail service in the United States, was a great commotion, but quickly forgotten. But unlike some anniversary celebrations, National Airmail Week left a fascinating residue. The crowning event of the celebration on May 19 was originating airmail flights from as many towns as possible throughout the nation. Participating communities were encouraged to develop distinctive local cachets, commemorative designs stamped or printed on their airmail envelopes. The more than five hundred cachets in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society are not simply commemorative, but also reflective of the self-image and sense of identity of the communities that created them.

The largest group is made up of envelopes that locate the point of origin on a map of the United States. By participating in this national event, individuals and towns were declaring themselves part of the greater American community. A subset of that group features a map of Nebraska on which the originating town or county is highlighted. Like the towns locating themselves on the national map, these communities were also announcing themselves to the world, often with an additional point of pride or two added-a landmark on paper that announced county and state pride, and often, as on the Dakota County cachet, with an additional illustration and a slogan: “The Agricultural Center of America. A Sure Crop County.”

Town and county booster cachets also abound. Some brag about local industries: Louisville, its limestone quarries; Cherry County, its “Million Cattle.” Others focus on their history or distinctive features. All promote community strengths and points of pride. A few spotlight a famous son or daughter. Stuart, in a particularly elaborate cachet, calls itself “The Bright Spot in the White Spot” (referring to low-tax Nebraska in 1938) and boasts “Butter in Boxes, Hay on the Hoof, Silver Fox Capital of the Midwest.”

The scale of National Airmail Week in Nebraska (it was one of the states with the highest per capita participation) and what can be read between the lines in the Nebraska cachets show a state proud of its past and its present, and eagerly anticipating the future. In thirty-four years aviation had progressed from the Wright Brothers to airmail and the beginnings of commercial air travel. For communities celebrating their first-and many their only-air pickup, the event had a meaning well worth celebrating.

For illustrations of selected Nebraska airmail cachets see John Carter’s “Landmarks on Paper,” in the Winter 2005 issue of Nebraska History magazine. 

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