I rather like Air Mail stamps of the world, used on airmail covers (of course), which logically is why they were issued. The sight of the familiar blue and red bordered airmail envelope emits a subliminal message, evoking images of distant, beckoning, exotic places. For me, at least.

Collecting Air Mail stamps has been a popular pursuit in Philately, particularly since the 1930s, by which time most countries had issued a stamp, or series, primarily dedicated for use on the rapidly developing airmail services. The more adventurous included covers carried on inaugural airmail service flights (“First Flight Covers”), which may or may not have been franked specifically with “Air Mail” stamps.

Over the years I’ve met a number of Air Mail stamp enthusiasts, although strangely none who collect those same stamps used on commercial cover. That’s a pity, for this is a rich field for specialisation. Airmail rates varied depending upon such factors as distance, and the rates were often volatile, rising or decreasing with fluctuations in demand, for example. Material on the whole is reasonably available, although it can take some effort to track down. But, hey, that’s the fun in such collecting, and often when material is found it can be pleasantly affordable; comparing relative scarcity with corresponding stamps mint or used (off cover).

This month I’ll feature commercial covers bearing Air Mail stamps from a variety of countries. I’ve selected series’ which have a number of stamps; most lend themselves admirably to goals such as development in to a one-frame or greater exhibit. Ten of the twelve subjects are to Australian destinations, to add a little familiarity.

For 2009, why not surprise yourself and take up the challenge of collecting one or more subjects in this field? You may well end up with a collection which is a best-of-kind, without having to go broke in the process.

Figure 1. Ancient meets modern in this stylish series of 21 from Egypt

Egypt between 1933 and 1938 produced an ambitious bicoloured series of Air Mail stamps, many in vibrant colours. Figure 1 provides an indication of how a usage collection featuring these stamps would be a joy to behold. This 23 June 1937 use from Simon Arzt, a department store in Port Said, with it’s own Post Office (!), bears the 90m, 5m and 40m, making up the 135m airmail rate to Australia. Destined for Inglewood (Qld), it arrived at Brisbane 1 July, which indicates it was on board Imperial Airways’ service IE 559.

Figure 2. Switzerland: Art Deco design elements for the inaugural Air Mail stamps

Commencing in 1923, Switzerland produced a series of 13 Air Mail stamps. Unmistakable elements of Art Deco predominate for the stamps in this series; the “Pilot” featuring in the 35c and 40c would not be out of place in Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927). Figure 2 has the 45c, 50c, 65c, and regular issue 30c, making up the 1f 90 second weight step airmail rate (5-10gms) to Australia. It left Lugano 27 April 1936, and endorsed “Londres – Karachi”, would have been conveyed on Imperial Airways’ service IE 335 to Karachi, thereafter by QANTAS to Darwin, arriving Melbourne 10 May.

Figure 3. Skill of the Engraver to the fore in Czechoslovakia’s superb 1930 series

Featuring a variety of aircraft, the Czech set of eight Air Mail stamps issued in 1930 (a 30h followed in 1939), is certain to delight lovers’ of recess-printed stamps. Figure 3 provides an indication of what to expect, containing as it does not less than half of the original set. Here a 5k, 10k, 2k and 50h make the 17k 50 third weight step airmail rate (10-15gms) to Australia, departing Bratislava for Sydney on 14 January 1939. There is no arrival datestamp on reverse; I speculate that this article was on Imperial Airways’ service SE 75, which arrived at Sydney 25 January.

Figure 4. Sudan’s handsome series of 12 probably for the more ambitious

Another fine recess-printed series, Sudan’s 1932-37 Air Mail stamps, featuring Statue of General Gordon, is probably not for everyone. Material is not easy to come by, certainly not addressed to Australia. Figure 4 is; a 20 January 1932 cover from Khartoum to Canterbury (Melbourne). The 5m, 10m and 2p paid the 2p 15 rate for airmail to Cairo only, thereafter entering the surface service to Australia. Imperial Airways’ IE 148 would have provided the airmail service leg.

Figure 5. Unusual design, vibrant colours from Bulgaria

Designs for Air Mail stamps can be imaginative; they were often intended to convey mail to other countries, and national pride no doubt brought out the best in designers. The Bulgarian Air Mail set of eleven issued between 1931 and 1938 probably resembles no others. Figure 5 is an 11 November 1935 item from the remarkable correspondence to Henry B. Smith, a Wool Broker in Melbourne. That material came on the market only in the ‘nineties, prior to which prewar airmail to Australia from Bulgaria, and various other former Eastern Bloc countries, was very scarce indeed. Airmail items to other countries, for this series and others featured, are generally more readily available than those to Australasia. The 1 l, 30 l, 20 l and 2 l x2 pay the 55 l airmail rate to Australia. This likely was the second weight step airmail rate (5-10gms); I have a 35 l, presumably first weight step. Sent via Athens, the arrival in Melbourne was on 3 December.

Figure 6. Exotic designs from Thailand; we would expect no less

Figure 6 contains seven of the eight stamps of Thailand’s 1925-37 Air Mail series, featuring the “Garuda” Bird, suggesting the recipient may have been a stamp collector. However, the postage rate of 1b 10 is correct for 60s airmail + 50s registration fee, so we’ll give this the benefit of the doubt as being “commercial” use. From Bangkok to Gympie (Qld) on 17 April 1931, this article was carried on the KLM service to Batavia (Dutch East Indies), arriving 25 April, thereafter entering the surface mail, received at Brisbane 23 May.