[NetBehaviour] Sleuth Work, An Adventure into Early Airmail Delivery

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Tue Nov 30 03:17:07 UTC 2021

Sleuth Work, An Adventure into Early Airmail Delivery


On the way back across the country, we stopped at a small
antique store in Wyoming. It doesn't matter where exactly. It
was nondescript and there were some interesting items on the
first floor. Upstairs, there was hardly anything, but I found
a dusty shelf with a few books on it. One of them was an old
stamp catalog from 1966, The American Air Mail Catalogue,
Volume One of Four Volumes, A Reference Listing of the
Airposts of the World, An Official Publication of The American
Air Mail Society. See the image. The title page would not open
flat for the photograph; I didn't force it.

I looked through the book somewhat interested. I'm always
looking for signs of webs or networks of communication, things
beyond the ordinary, beyond the usual TCP/IP I work with
daily. I've investigated telegraphy networks, shortwave,
amateur radio, VLF radio, and the like, pretty much all
electric. But the book was $10 and that's a lot for us at
times, especially when traveling cross-country.

Towards the back of the book I found two plasticine display
folders, mounted on flat black paper. They each had a letter
in them with a stamp; both seemed original. They were just
placed in the book - they weren't part of it. One had a stamp
and a date, 1931, and I paid little attention to it. The other
was more interesting - it was in French and said PAR BALLON
MONTE. I dismissed the idea that it had anything to do with
balloons. I looked through the book, wondering, and bought it,
hoping the clerk wouldn't notice the inserts; she didn't.

Later I looked more closely of course; there was a date - NOV
10 - but I couldn't read the year. Not yet. I looked through
the catalog and found in fact that the letter was from 1870,
sent out of Paris, which was under siege during the Franco-
Prussian War. It was sent by manned balloon. More research,
now online and using the 1966 guide, There were a number of
balloons used for mail to evade enemy lines and something like
2.5 million letters, each weighing four grams or less (there
were weight limitations), sent out that way. The date and
stamp on this one indicated it was relatively rare.

I haven't unfolded the letter to read it; it's far too
delicate. You can see the cover and back at ballon1 and
ballon2. I'm fascinated by the network that was established:
"In all, 55 balloons, with mail, were released, carrying over
12 tons of mail," "238 passengers, 360 pigeons and 5 dogs.
With the exception of three ballons captured by the enemy and
two lost at sea, all balloons landed safely in friendly
territory." "Because of the regulations adopted for the
expedition of the balloon correspondence, the delays" ...
"shown between the landing of a balloon and the striking of
the receiving mark, vary from two to five days". There is also
information about longer delays and the reasons for them, all
of which is in the 1966 volume.

It's amazing to think of the wartime flight of the balloons
which somehow made it past the siege. I've looked up
statistics and additional information on the flights, but I'm
just beginning that aspect of the investigation. In the
meantime I keep thinking about other forms of communication -
semaphores, fires, and so forth, that were pre-telegraphic.
During the siege perhaps telegraph lines were cut. In any case
I'm awe-struck by this piece of history, a letter airborne by
balloon during a war almost exactly 150 years ago, hidden away
in a book in Wyoming.

The other letter, also in plasticine, seemed uninteresting.
There were some strange things about it - it was sent when the
U.S. was in the Philippines, and a stamp was canceled with a
mark saying "REMIT YOUR MONEY ORDER." It was addressed to
Mr. F.C. CHICHESTER for W. Bruggmann. On the back it said
W. BRUGGMANN, with a Manila address. What was going on here?
Again, I didn't open the letter - it was sealed - but I used a
bright light source and it seemed to indicate there was a
receipt inside.

I first looked up Bruggmann, Walter Bruggmann. It turns out he
was a stamp collector, _the_ stamp collector in the
Philippines, and this was one of the letters he sent out. See
stamp1 for an example of his email. Now if you look at the Air
Post Journal for March, 1944, you will see an obituary for
Bruggmann, who was a "good friend of the Aero-Philatelists"
around the world. He died in Manila on October 24, 1943, as
reported by Max Kronstein. His mark is all over the field of
Aerophilately, a word I have not heard before nor since. He
did "historical research about airmail in general and the
Philippine area in particular." (From the obituary.)

But of course it's stamp4 (see image) that's most of interest
here; the letter, with the exception of the signature and
notice, is almost identical to mine. So who is or was Mr. F.C.
CHICHESTER? This is where it gets fascinating. On a hunch, I
looked up Bruggmann and Chichester, and found they were linked
- from Wikipedia: "Sir Francis Charles Chichester KBE (17
September 1901 26 August 1972) was a British businessman,
pioneering aviator and solo sailor. He was knighted by Queen
Elizabeth II for becoming the first person to sail
single-handed around the world by the clipper route and the
fastest circumnavigator, in nine months and one day overall in
1966-67." And more: "In July 1967, a few weeks after his solo
circumnavigation, Chichester was knighted, being appointed a
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for
'individual achievement and sustained endeavour in the
navigation and seamanship of small craft'. For the ceremony,
the Queen used the sword used by her predecessor Queen
Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake, the
first Englishman with his crew to complete a circumnavigation.
Gipsy Moth IV was preserved alongside the Cutty Sark at

Clearly the two men knew each other, and it's most likely that
Chichester was carrying the post for Bruggmann on that circum-
navigation, or a related one. The receipt in the envelope
might well be an indication that the letter ultimately reached
its destination - where Chichester was born "in the rectory at
Shirwell near Barnstaple in Devon, England, the son of a
Church of England clergyman, Charles Chichester, himself the
seventh son of Sir Arthur Chichester, 8th Baronet." I assume
he had been living there at the time.

I have no idea the worth of any of this, of course, but for me
its historical value is great - two different stamps from two
different navigations in two very different forms of trans-
port, sent under very different conditions, but both operating
within the genesis of new forms of communication networking.
I'm not sure either what to do with the letters, but that's
another issue. At the moment I'm literally amazed at the odd
historical relationship they have (in my mind only), as new
forms of communication increasingly opened up in the past two
centuries, both of them using new forms of mail, both of them
under some duress.

This is where my sleuthing stands at the moment.

(For further information on balloon mail, also see 'New
Studies Of The Transport Of Mails in Wartime France 1870-71,
by Gardner L. Brown, Ernst M. Cohn, and Steven C. Walske,
Vaurie Memorial Fund Publication No. 6, The France and
Colonies Philatelic Society, Inc. New York, N.Y. 1986.)

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