A Fine Souvenir.

By Sergio Sismondo

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1909. It was a key year for aviators and aviation, and philately played an interesting part in the developments of the year. Pioneers from many countries where breaking records in every dimension and every direction: fastest flight, longest flight, highest flight, heaviest flight, lightest flight, most flights, and yes, even for the slowest flight there were awards. Many such competitions were in progress in many countries. The Frenchman Bleriot was busy traversing the English Channel. Rallys were being organized in all parts of Europe. Count Zeppelin was perfecting his design of dirigibles. With all the perils involved, experimental machines where flying seemingly everywhere.

The Exhibition. The Germans, forever preoccupied with commercial fairs, hosted the International Aviation Exhibition (Internationale Luftshiff Austellung or "I.L.A." for short) in Frankfurt am Main. For the historic event a giant exhibition hall was built, surrounded by hangars and specialized landing strips and pads for balloons, aircraft, and dirigibles. The main building still stands today. In the main building the flying machines of this heroic period where suspended from the ceiling. Every type of lighter-than-air flying object, and every type of heavier-than air contraption which had been invented was displayed. On the floor of the exhibition were booths and stands for clubs, societies and a multitude of manufacturers and their representatives for an equal multitude of objects and commodities associated with flying machines and flying men. The merchandise displayed ranged from airplane motors and gas making equipment to elegant items of clothing and toys related to aviation for children -- seeding the enthusiasm of future aviators. The exhibition opened on July 10th and ran until October 1st. All pioneer aviators of the time made an appearance. Most aviators brought their magnificent flying machines, traveling from all parts of Europe, landing on the fair grounds in the midst of great public approval, and revelling in the demonstration of their newly found capabilities.

The Zeppelin. Among all the machines that arrived none was more awaited and acclaimed than the dirigible constructed by Count Zeppelin, the "L.Z.II". From its permanent housing at Lake Constanz it flew over Heidelberg and onwards to Frankfurt a.M. on July 31st. A great crowd had amassed for its reception. It remained on the grounds for everyone to admire during August 1st. On August 2nd it departed for a round trip flight which would take it above famous cities on the Rhine: Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne.

The Postmark. Exhibition organizers had not overlooked the public's need to carry away souvenirs. A deal was made with the German Post Office to open a facility on the grounds of the exhibition, which was supplied with a special souvenir postmark for the occasion. It read "FRANKFURT (M) / I.L.A." with the appropriate date in the belt. This was only the second time that postal authorities had agreed to a special postmark. Clearly, the I.L.A. was considered a major event, and so it was.

The Postcard. The postcard pictured here is one of many printed, sold and distributed during the exhibition. In front it depicts Count Zeppelin, the exhibition grounds, and the L.Z.II dirigible in flight over the grounds. On the address side it has a 5 pfennig green "Germania" contemporary postage stamp (Scott #82) neatly tied by the special exhibition cancellation dated August 2nd of 1909, 12 (noon) to 1 (pm). And here starts an interesting philatelic puzzle which involves the "drops" ("abwurf").

Drops. The "drops" refers to mail which was tossed from the flying airship, to land helter-skelter where it may, and intended for posting in the regular mail stream after being retrieved -- if ever. There are, in my view, four principal categories of drops. The first is "official", and is made with prior knowledge and approval of postal authorities, usually involving bags with substantial amount of mail. Bags carried instructions for delivering to the nearest post office or police station. Postal employees were instructed as to the procedures to follow when a dropped bag appeared at their footsteps. The second type of drop may be labelled "Semi-official". These drops are similiar to the first type, also usually done in substantial bags. They differ in the fact that post offices did not agree to, or involve themselves in the planning and carrying out of the drop. Nevertheless, when a semi-official drop was found postal employees acted with the same responsibility, placing the mail in the normal stream -- at least, they did so in most cases. The third type is quite different. It consists of a postcard, in one or two parts, which is usually jettisoned individually, and which contains a printed message intended for the person that finds the card, on the street, on the roof of his house, in a potato field, or elsewhere. The message asks the finder to write his name and address on blanks provided, and usually promises a reward for posting the item, to be personally sent to the lucky finder by Count Zeppelin himself. Some of these cards were in two parts so the finder could keep one part as a souvenir of the Zeppelin flight, while posting the other part to the address indicated. Finally, the fourth type of drop is a card similar to the third type, but not officially sanctioned by the Zeppelin organization. In fact, it was contrary to the regulations of the organization that passengers should engage in this activity which came to be known as the "wild drops".

The Puzzle. The Sieger specialized catalogue of Zeppelin flight covers, 22nd edition, has a listing for a card dropped from the L.Z.II over Frankfurt during the flight of August 2nd of 1909. It is priced at the not insignificant sum of Euros 10,000 (US$ 8.500). The postcard pictured above was postmarked in Frankfurt and is dated August 2nd. It is tempting to assume that two plus two makes four, and therefore this is a rare postcard from the Frankfurt drop. Two further reasons encourage this idea. First, the Sieger catalogue is organized in such a way that no alternatives are listed, lending support to the assumption that this postcard must be the one listed. And second, further study of the L.Z.II history reveals that there was no official drop over Frankfurt, and the few postcards which exist are of the fourth category -- wild drops. This postcard lacks the characteristics of an official drop, and looks like it might be from a wild drop.

The answer. Alas, this is not the valuable Frankfurt drop postcard. By 12 noon on August 2nd the L.Z.II airship had left Frankfurt, and anything that was dropped from the ship had to be already on board at that time. The postcard was postmarked at the exhibition between 12 noon and 1 pm.. It could therefore not have been on board. This postcard was on the ground while the airship was in the air. I must say, however, that it is a fine souvenir of the exhibition and bears the date of the historic event. The coincidence of dates should not be surprising. During the three days in which the L.Z.II was at the Frankfurt exhibition, July 31st to August 2nd, there were in excess of 150,000 visitors to the exhibition. Needless to say, and fortunately for those of us that were not there to witness these flights, visitors made many philatelic souvenirs for the event, and this is one of them. I, for one, have enjoyed studying it and its history; even if it turned out not to be worth a small fortune. Philately once again brought me to participate vicariously in a fascinating episode of our heritage.

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