The Inverted Jenny
The war was on. Time was running short, and though haste makes waste,
it's also true that one man's junk is another man's gold. That was never truer for stamp collectors then back in Washington,
DC, in 1918.
On May 6 Congress set the rate for air mail postage at 24¢ and authorized
the United States Post Office to print stamps to be ready for sale a few days before the official inaugural flight on May
100 out of two million
Though planes were new, and many people hadn't actually seen any of
the new fangled aeroplanes, the War Department and Post Office were both interested in knowing how air service could increase
communications. It was the same drive for speed and efficiency that drove the Pony Express, the R.P.O's, the telegraph, telephone
and would later spur e-mail.
The U.S. Army Air Corp would bring the plane and pilot. The Post Office
would bring the mail, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing would provide the country's first air mails stamps. With less
than two weeks to go, there was no time to lose and production of the stamps immediately went into high gear.
Perhaps it was the sense of national purpose of a country involved
in its first modern world war, advanced planning or cutting a few corners, but the U.S.'s first air mail stamps officially
went on sale on May 13. Then no one knew knew that out of some two million stamps there were 100 gems.
William T. Robey was a stamp collector living in Washington, DC. He
had a job as a stockbroker's clerk and on his lunch hour he went to the post office on New York Avenue near 13th Street to
buy some of the newly released air mail stamps.
An astute stamp collector immediately notices major errors. Imperforate
stamps and upside-down designs have a way of leaping out from the bottoms of cardboard boxes, and Robey's heart stopped when
he saw the sheet that the counter clerk put down on the counter for him to look at. Instead of buying a couple of stamps,
Robey bought the whole sheet.
Robey told a few friends about the stamps he'd bought and went to
work, but someone in his office went right over to the P.O. on NY Avenue to buy more of those upside-down airplane stamps.
A few hours later postal inspectors were asking Robey to sell the sheet back to them. Robey's office mate had told them where
to find Robey.
The Jenny airmail is a simple design: a red frame surrounding a blue
plane printed on plain white paper. But it's this two-color design that's responsible for the Inverted airplane in the center.
In order to print stamps in two colors with the printing technology
of the time meant that an engraved plate containing the design had to be made for each color. The Jenny had a red plate (the
frame) and a blue plate (the vignette).
The printing process for two plates started with a blank sheet of
paper. The printing press was fitted out with the frame plate and loaded with red ink, and blank paper was fed into the press.
After a sufficient quantity of sheets were printed with the red frames, the plate and ink were changed.
Then the frame-printed sheets were fed into a press loaded with the
center design plate (in this case the "Jenny") and blue ink. It was a simple, mechanical process that went off without a hitch
thousands of times, and in the Jenny's case 19,999 times.
An undetected error.
The tiny error that produced the Inverted Jenny may have been made
when the red-frame printings were coming out of the press. A printer may simply have handled one of the sheets to check for
ink quality and then laid it onto the stack of other sheets upside-down in relation to the rest of the stack.
Whatever the case, the red-frame sheet was fed into the blue-vignette
press upside-down, and as far as we know, it only happened once for no other Inverted Jenny sheet was ever found and the Post
Office never reported discovering any at Post Offices around the country.
Naturally, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving may have produced
a few inverts in the shop, but mis-printed stamps caught by inspectors aren't released as stamps and are known as "printer's
waste." When such stamps are sold over the counter at a Post Office, then they become errors. A small difference that means
Other Inverted Jenny sheets were probably tossed into a burn barrel
at the print shop, and Robey's sheet was just the one mistake that the inspector did not catch. But in light of the effort
USPO put into retrieving the Robey sheet, it's more probable that all four panes of the Inverted sheet were sent to post offices
around the country.
More than likely, the DC office on NY Avenue reported the 100 Inverts
first, as they would have had them available for sale more quickly than other offices around the country. Afterward postal
inspectors probably alerted postmasters to diligently check for mis-printed Jenny sheets, which may be why none of the other
300 stamps seem to have been sold or entered the mail stream.
(On the other hand, if and when someone finds an Inverted Jenny on
a legitimate cover, I'll revise this story.)
Thank god for Robey.
Thank god Robey was a stamp collector. Otherwise, the Post Office
clerk may have sold the sheet off by one's and two's before noticing the error and taking the stamps off sale. In which case,
there might be just five or 10 Inverted Jennys known to have been sold, and because they would have been used as postage,
that might leave us with maybe one existing error.
But Robey was a stamp collector and immediately knew what he had bought
for $24. When the postal inspectors left his office with the stamps, Robey decided that he'd better sell the stamps before
the government confiscated them and he contacted Eugene Klein, a stamp dealer in Philadelphia.
Reportedly Robey got $15,000 from Klein, who then turned around and
sold the sheet for $20,000 to Edward Green, a New York stamp dealer and son of Hetty Green, who was the legendary "Witch of
In Green's hands in New York the sheet of Inverted Jennys within weeks
blossomed into the Taj Mahal of stamps, the Fort Knox of collecting, the Mona Lisa of timbromanie, the Holy Grail of philately.
Green broke up the sheet and sold single stamps and blocks of four to friends.
The sheet of 100 Inverted Jennys was actually a pane of 100 stamps
cut from a full press run sheet of 400. Robey's stamps were the lower left-hand pane of the press sheet and was cut from the
full sheet with a straight edge. That meant that a certain amount of stamps didn't have perforations all around, but instead
had straight-edge cuts as they were on the outer edges.
The sheet was laid out 10 stamps wide and 10 stamps top-to-bottom.
Nine stamps had straight-edge tops, and nine had straight-edges on their right-hand side. One stamp, form the upper right-hand
corner, had no perfs on top or on the right-hand side. That leaves just 81 fully perfed stamps.
Today, each stamp of the original 100 is known by its plate position,
e.g. #86 or #21, and the fate of each is watched closely.
Inverted Jenny Facts
» Green sold the first ten stamps for $250 each and then raised the
price to $350. Soon his price was at $650. He sold 35 stamps for $250 - $650.
» One man claims his Inverted Jenny single was inadvertantly sucked
up in a vacuum by his maid. Apparently, he'd left the stamp on his table, from where it must have been blown down to the carpet.
He was able to retrieve it, but it's no longer the pristine stamp it once was.
» Four stamps have been stolen and only two recovered. In an attempt
to obscure their origin, thieves cut off the perfs from the stamps, though they can't have known how carefully these stamps
have been studied.
» Seven of the Inverted Jennys have been reported destroyed or lost
in one way or another over the years and many more have been the victim of improper handling and storage. Hinges have damaged
the gum and caused thins. Some have creases and others are toned showing that they have been in contact with acidic paper
for long periods of time.
» Green didn't sell the straight-edge stamps and put these in his
safe. After Green's death in 1936, they were taken out and found to have been stuck together. They were unstuck, but the soaking
removed the gum. In 1942 the first straight-edge Inverted Jenny auctioned for $1,750 to a man from Baltimore. The next copy
went for $1,350, and eight others went for $750 to $1,300. Copies of the fully perforated and gummed stamps sold at auction
for $1,150 to $3,300. Today they auction in the $120,000 range.
» Green's blocks of Inverted Jennys were also sold to settle his estate
after his death: the left arrow block sold for $13,750; the center line, $22,000; the initialed corner margin block, $17,000;
and the bottom plate block and arrow block were still joined as a block of eight, selling for $27,000. Nw York dealer Y. Souren
bought them all. Recently a block was up for auction with a value of $750,000.
» Green encased a copy of the Inverted Jenny in a locket along with
a common copy of the 24¢ stamp and gave it to his wife Mabel who kept it until she died in 1950. The stamp and locket was
offered at the Siegel Galleries' Rarities Auction in 2002 for $170,000 US.
» There is reportedly one used copy of the Inverted Jenny. Mr. Green
was out of town and his wife Mabel wanted to send him an air mail letter. Apparently, she went into Green's study and used
one of the 24¢ air mail stamps on his desk to post her letter. Thereafter Mr. Green kept the stamp in a pendent on his watch
Values then and now.
I wanted to figure out what the value of 1918 money was in 2001. My
first calculation was easy. $20,000 in 1918 is equal to $236,424 in US dollars in 2001. I got this figure from the online
form at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis.
The face value of the pane of 100 24¢ stamps was more intriguing.
Though today, $24-1918 value is worth $284 in 2001 US dollars, I wondered what the face value of 100 air mail stamps would
be if we had air mail today?
I calculated that 1918 air mail was eight-times the 3¢ first-class
rate, and with 2001's first-class rate at 34¢ I calculated the value of 100 imaginary 2001 air mail stamps at $272.
To make a long story short, the first transaction brought $20,000
for a $24 outlay, or a return of about 83000%, which was not bad for a trip to the post office and a whole lot of luck.
Scott's "Specialized Catalogue of U.S. Stamps & Covers" 2001 edition lists the Inverted Jenny as #C3a, "C,"
denoting "air mail" and "a" for a variety. Prices are $170,000 mint, $200,000 mint never hinged, with the plate block at $1.2
million. No price is mentioned for a used copy.
In plane sight.
The printers were in a rush and there were thousands of sheets of
stamps, so it's reasonable that one sheet in 20,000 might escape undetected. But the clerk at the Post Office on New York
Avenue in DC placed the inverted sheet face up on the counter and looked at it. Why didn't the clerk "see" the error that
had been made?
The clerk was suspicious enough about a regular fellow like Robey
buying an entire sheet of what were then very expensive stamps that he closed his window and went to his postmaster with the
news about an excited man buying a whole sheet of 24¢ stamps. So, why didn't the clerk just take the beautiful inverts away?
The answer is simple. It was 1918, and the clerk at the post office
couldn't tell whether there was anything wrong with the stamps or not because, you see, he'd never ever seen an airplane before.