Even new collectors have probably heard of the Inverted Jenny. This stamp has the special honor of being one of the most well-known rare stamps in the world; it was the most asked-for item in the 2007-2009 'Rarity Revealed' exhibition at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. In 2019 a Spink USA auction predicted a hammer price of $650,000 for a single Inverted Jenny stamp.
The story of the Inverted Jenny starts with a single full sheet of 100 stamps. Since then, they’ve been divided up, bought, sold, and traded. Some have been stolen, while others have been lost or locked away in vaults. One was even worn as part of a piece of jewelry! In fact, Don Sundman of Mystic Stamp Company and the American Philatelic Research Library offered a reward in 2014 for anyone able to find one of the stolen stamps from this sheet, a reward that was handed out in 2016 for the recovery of Position #76. #76, below, was returned to the ownership of the American Philatelic Research Library. Expert philatelists determined that this stamp is genuine, despite attempts after it was stolen to disguise its appearance.
In this first installment of an Inverted Jenny series, let’s look into the fascinating origin of the Inverted Jenny stamp and its place in history.
What is an Inverted Jenny?
The Inverted Jenny stamp shows two colors printed on white paper. First, there is an ornate red frame, denoting the issue's denomination, 24¢ and "U.S. Postage." Second, printed in blue is a biplane, the Curtiss JN-4, also called a “Jenny.”
This 24¢ stamp was the first dedicated airmail stamp. The JN-4 was chosen because that was the same plane first modified to carry mail between cities. What modifications were necessary? The biplane’s second pilot’s seat was removed so mail could be stored there, and the fuel tanks had to be enlarged for longer flights.
Of course, there were many “Jenny Stamps” printed in 1918 to be affixed on mail sent by air. But only one sheet of 100 displayed the airplane upside down. The stamps on this sheet are called Inverted Jennys.
How Was the Jenny Stamp Created?
Since this was the first U.S. airmail stamp, it had to be designed from scratch. The special airmail postage rate of 24¢ that necessitated the stamp's creation was only approved by Congress and President Wilson on May 10, 1918, a mere eight days before the first scheduled flight. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing began work on the stamp in early May, and designed and created the printing plates in less than two weeks.
Some say that the stamp's chief designer, Clair Aubrey Houston, used a photo of the same Jenny that would be used to transport mail from Washington D.C. to New York; however, magnification of the design shows that the stamp does not picture the JN-4 modifications for airmail service.
In the rush to production and distribution, one of the sheets of 100 24¢ Jenny stamps that had an inverted printing error was missed by postal and printer inspectors. This famous mistake means that the 100 stamps from this sheet were distributed to the world - for generations of collectors to enjoy.
Stay tuned for a second installment about the Inverted Jenny and its discovery on May 14, 1918.