The History of Airmail in Poland and Its Contribution to Airmail Services of Europe (1914-1939) by Jerzy W. Kupiec-Weglinski. Published by Collectors Club of Chicago, Chicago 2021. Xxxvii+385 pages, color illustrations, 29 cm. Price $79.50 available from collectorsclubchicago.org.
Do not flip through the hundreds of impressive illustrations of postal artifacts and then relegate this book to your philatelic library. Perhaps I too-casually use the term “contribution to the literature” to describe any philatelic topic that has not been written about thoroughly in the past. But Jerzy Kupiec-Weglinski presents a very different contribution to the literature.
There are many great philatelic books being published on specialized areas of collection. And if you look at the first part of Kupiec-Weglinski’s title, “The History of Airmail in Poland,” you will think that this book falls neatly into that category. But it is the second part of the title, “…and its contribution to Airmail services of Europe” that points to the seminal nature of this important work.
The foreword, written by famed Polish historian Prof. Norman Davies, sets the stage. He notes that the postal history field is often filled with Eurocentric and Orientalism biases. The Kupiec-Weglinski book transcends these biases. Three other introductory notes by philatelist James Mazepa, Prof. Ludwik Malendowicz, and aerophilatelist/dealer Wolfgang Porges all speak to the importance of what Kupiec-Weglinski has written. Porges is president of the International Federation of aero- and astrophilatelic associations and is intimately familiar with the literature of aerophilately. His affirmation of the importance of this work is confirmation enough.
The effectiveness of a book’s content can be enhanced or degraded by many factors. Key among those is organization. Kupiec-Weglinski has structured this book to ensure that researchers can maximize their efficiency when referencing any section. The table of contents is indicative of the focused explication that is to follow. This is a book about postal history. But, as I’ve often pointed out, it is historical context that creates the understanding of the world within which postal artifacts were created.
For many of the book’s chapters, Kupiec-Weglinski begins with an introduction to the local history, followed by the development of the postal services that evolved into airmail services. Most chapters have concluding remarks that refocus the reader on what has preceded. The author’s major points are driven home with these brief summaries. Refreshingly, each chapter is concluded with its own bibliography. While predominantly philatelic in origin, there are many broader academic titles and governmental publications included. The breadth of the author’s research is very evident. I must also mention the important contributions offered by the extensive tables and appendices. There are significant philatelic insights to be found in them.
The opening Synopsis frames the book’s twelve chapters into four segments. We start with three chapters on the forerunner period of Polish airmail (1914-1920). These were trying times for any Airpost service, if for no other reason than the crudeness and dangerous unreliability of the aircraft themselves. But these were also dangerous and brutal times for the nation of Poland. The first three chapters treat the development of airmail services against that historical background.
Figure 1. A seldom seen Polish dispatch carried by the first all-air AF service to South America (January 5, 1936).
The pioneer period in the evolution of Polish airmail (1921-1928) consumes the next three chapters. One of the striking things here is the early importance of international routes in the focus of Polish postal authorities. The vision of Poland as an important player on the international political stage is demonstrated through a postal history lens. But, of course, domestic routes are of primary importance to the citizen consumers of postal services. Interestingly, there were a great many experimental flights and participation at early air rallies that necessitated an entire chapter.
Those same three themes reemerge in the next four chapters, covering the pre-WWII period of 1929-1939. Here we see the expansion of services that were defined during the pioneer period. While it might be a default assumption among airmail collectors, Kupiec-Weglinski elaborates upon the important role that philatelists played in postally using – and indeed supporting – many of these experimental flights and first flights. That frame of reference may be somewhat surprising to non-students of aerophilately. But it is the chapter on Poland’s role in transcontinental route development that is especially important. The author’s treatment of the many air links is definitive. (I’ll return to this chapter momentarily.)
This third section concludes with a chapter on Polish Crash Airmail. While equipment reliability continued to improve during this period, air transport remained a somewhat risky proposition. Kupiec-Weglinski offers many examples of both domestic and international air tragedies on Polish aircraft as well as foreign aircraft crashes on Polish territory. For the Crash and Wreck Mail collector, this is a very important chapter.
There is little of greater aerophilatelic interest than the subject of Zeppelin mail. Kupiec-Weglinski includes an expansive treatment of Polish Zeppelin mail in the 1932-1937 period. He ends the book with a chapter on the interesting Zeppelin mail from Gdańsk, on the Baltic coast of Northern Poland (1932-1936). This very narrowly-focused chapter is a deep philatelic dive. Its many cover illustrations (typical of the entire book) portray a stamp collecting population that continues to influence philately today.
But let us have a more detailed look at Chapter 8, “Polish Airmail in the Transcontinental Postal Networks (1929-1939).” The chapter touches on each populated continent and establishes a link between LOT, the Polish national airline, and nearly every other air service flying worldwide at that time. Indeed, it was the formation of LOT that enabled the Polish Ministry of Post and Telegraphs to reach out internationally and place Poland in the midst of the explosion of air postal services.
Figure 2. Both sides of Łódź dispatch flown by DLH to Buenos Aires (April 14, 1935).
From the very end of World War I, another war always seemed to be looming on the European political horizon. Commerce and politics were evolving in two very different directions. In retrospect, the oppressive terms of the Treaty of Versailles led inexorably to the Second World War. But one could have easily missed those war winds if one focused exclusively on international commerce. Throughout the 1920s the recovering world had a voracious appetite for foreign goods. Trade and transport boomed. Airmail services grew to facilitate such trade. Even into the depression of the 1930s, businesses continued to focus on international trade. And airmail routes expanded unabatedly.
Take, for example, the French routes from Europe to South America that Dan Gribbin writes about in this issue of the AP. The German Deutsche Lufthansa (DLH) was developing a very competitive service beginning in 1934. But by late 1935, the two competitors were route sharing and coordinating their schedules. The Polish LOT airline had already coordinated its own schedules to meet both Air France departures from Paris and DLH departures from Berlin and Stuttgart.
Kupiec-Weglinski illustrates examples of both linkages. His Figure 8.17 (Figure 2) shows a cover from Łódź to Buenos Aires carried by DLH, while his Figure 8.18 (Figure 1) shows a cover from Warsaw that just missed the DLH flight. Instead, it traveled to Paris for transit via the French route.
LOT demonstrated similar synchronization with routes that originated throughout Europe and transited the globe. The illustrated covers speak worlds about the enormity of Kupiec-Weglinski’s philatelic vision. But he goes beyond the covers and provides route maps that facilitate an understanding of the logistical complexity that Polish airmail was an integral part of.
Everywhere you look in The History of Airmail in Poland and Its Contribution to Airmail Services of Europe, you see a dynamic world economy driving the demand for airmail services and evidence of international cooperation among commercial enterprises. Had it been up to those commercial interests, WWII might never have happened. This book provides another example of the ultimate dominance of political motivations over the commercial aims of a peace-enjoying world. And Poland was among the first victims.