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Airmail Etiquettes

by Bonnie & Roger Riga

Airmail etiquettes have long soared in popularity

As flying the mail becomes the rule rather than the exception, the airmail etiquette also becomes superfluous and more collectible. Interesting on cover, these small (usually) cinderellas also are sought after in their mint state. Not just aviation buffs can appreciate the adhesives that directed "Via Air Mail" in many different languages, styles and colors. Booklet collectors can hunt down the many varieties of etiquettes which were issued in that form. Country collectors will enjoy adding their particular nation's etiquettes to a good all-around collection. One can collect by specific airline as well. Topical collectors will find a gem now and then and advertising and charity collectors can also find material to spice up their collection.

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fig. 1: A grouping of eight airline-specific ettiquettes for airmail service.

Begun as a way to alert the postal authority that a piece of mail required specific handling, the air mail etiquette, like other postal labels, soon went beyond the utilitarian in design. Early examples were most often simple words on a colored background - many still are. Soon other refinements made their appearance. Colors, shapes, graphics all added to the variety and interest of these labels. Issued in sheets of stamps, booklet form, even enclosed in small matchbox-like containers, airmail etiquettes were in every home and office. No wonder that Man, the Collector, began to gather as many different examples of these little pieces of paper as he could. A collection is born.

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fig. 2:  Commemorative airmail etiquettes memorialized special events - along with the airline's name. These commemorate Air Mail Week, the New York World's Fair and the Swedish Pioneer Centennial.

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fig. 3: Many labels were highly decorative both in color, design and shape.

So what are some of the varieties that our collector can find? It is possible to go all the way from the throw-away common to types that cost hundreds of dollars a sheet. We can find types so simple that, without reference material, we would dismiss as nothing and others elaborate and colorful and commemorative of special events. This is an area that, at first glance, appears very straight forward and upon closer examination, becomes a fly-specker's nirvana. Language differences - Par Avion vs. Per Via Aerea - type faces, paper and perforations all make a difference when determining the provenance of the lowly airmail etiquette.

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fig. 4 Not to be outdone by airlines, many hotels also offered their customers airmail labels with their names prominently displayed.

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fig. 5: Even the most mundane post office labels can catch the attention and do a little advertising.

At least we have some help available to aid our search. In 1947, Frank Muller's catalog ( in French) of Airmail Etiquettes , 2nd edition, was published. For many years this was not only the Bible of this collectible, it was the only reference available. That is changing. "Etiquettes: Par Avion - By Air Mail" by Frank G Jones came out in 1992 as an overview of the collecting area. In 1998, "Les Etiquettes Postales Suisses" by Georges Guignard and Louis Vuille covered a very specific area with a considerable amount of depth. In the U.S., The Postal Label Study Group has produced "The Mair Airmail Label Catalog" and five supplements covering 201 countries with 3289 illustrations.

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fig. 6: The language identifies the Italian connection of both of these labels. Without a catalog, it would be impossible to know that the top label was for use in the Italian Colonies, whereas the bottom example comes from the Vatican.

Are you ready to extend your horizons and undertake a voyage of discovery? It isn't a completely uncharted realm as some cinderella collecting has been. But it is an area of expanding knowledge, so that we can define a great many of the pieces of paper we own, but many areas of this fascinating collectible remain Terra Incognita. Grab your pith helmet and tongs and start your journey.

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fig. 7: A Swiss air parcel post label is one of many special handling etiquettes.

This column first appeared in Stamp Collector and has been edited for online presentation.
This page was last updated July 7, 2016.
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