Story by
Caroline Eberly

Stamp art direction by
Antonio Alcalá

Selvage illustration by
Steven Noble

A Mistake that Made History

Twenty-nine-year-old cashier William T. Robey couldn’t have known what lingered in the shadow of the morning hours on May 14, 1918. But he did have a sense of anticipation when he went to work in Washington, D.C., that day.

Story by
Caroline Eberly

Stamp art direction by
Antonio Alcalá

Selvage illustration by
Steven Noble

The small-scale (“vest pocket”) stamp dealer had withdrawn $30 from his bank account, intent upon buying a sheet of the new 24-cent airmail stamps. The postage marked the start of regularly scheduled airmail service and sported its first aircraft — the Curtiss JN-4H biplane, dubbed “the Jenny.”

Robey knew the airmail stamp was a bicolor design, which meant each sheet had to be placed on the press by hand, two separate times. This extra handling, he suspected, might have spawned printing errors. And flaws can turn stamps into gold.

When he purchased his copy of the sheet, he famously said his “heart stood still”: Each of the biplanes depicted in the center of the stamps was upside down.

After a week of bidding wars that engaged some of philately’s largest personas, Robey sold the sheet to Philadelphia stamp dealer Eugene Klein for $15,000 (an enormous sum during a time when the country’s annual family income hovered around $1,500).

In the decades since their discovery, the Inverted Jenny stamps have continued to bewitch both philatelists and noncollectors alike. Single copies and blocks of four still headline at auctions, and even popular culture has taken note — the Inverted Jenny made a cameo appearance in a 1993 episode of The Simpsons.

Daniel Piazza, curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, believes the magic of the stamp is in the threads of its story. “There is something about that moment in time — the romance of early aviation, the striking visual of an upside-down airplane, the famous people who owned the errors over the years — that makes the story more enduring.”

Full Pane Details

Zoom in on the final design

Philatelic Revival

Believers themselves, members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee decided to resurrect the nearly century-old stamp. They knew that the Inverted Jenny, with its golden story and strong following, would captivate both casual and seasoned stamp lovers.

Better still, the issuance could underscore another history-shaping philatelic event: the September 2013 opening of the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery. The latest addition to the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., this space is the largest philatelic gallery in the world — a temple for philatelic gems. Among the rarities on permanent display are several Inverted Jenny stamps.

To begin production of the new stamp, printing experts from Sennett Security Products joined officials from the U.S. Postal Service at the National Postal Museum. The way forward, it turns out, was to go back — to the very process that gave birth to the 1918 error.

Spider Press

With a spider press (the kind used to print the airmail stamps) and the original 1918 printing dies, the team created impressions that would act as the DNA for the new generation of stamps. Traceable to the same parent dies, they would look nearly identical to their ancestors.

The stamp-pane design — envisioned by art director Antonio Alcalá — also stays faithful to the look of the original. Alcalá worked with Steven Noble, an illustrator with a knack for line art, to render the selvage, and a pale yellow background makes the stamps look aged. An inverted banner pokes gentle fun at the upside-down nature of the misprint.

To produce the stamps, the Postal Service and its printing vendor decided to sacrifice speed for the sake of authenticity and detail: They rendered three of the stamp’s four colors via the centuries-old method of intaglio printing.

True, this method — which relies on an engraved plate to make impressions — has become highly mechanized in the years since the original Jenny stamps. Still, the process demanded an uncommon level of focus and agility from the Sennett team.

  • The new generation of Inverted Jenny stamps is based upon impressions pulled from the two original 1918 dies: one for the frame (shown here) and one for the biplane vignette.

  • Printing experts from Sennett Security Products used a special, pressure-activated film to measure the density of the dies' impressions. As part of the process, they also inked the dies to pull reference proofs.

  • Sennett used a hand-operated "spider press" — the kind used to print the 1918 airmail stamps — to make the impressions.

  • Together with the Postal Service, Sennett chose to print the stamps primarily in intaglio, a method in which an engraved plate lends a subtle raised quality to the printed lines.

  • Far more involved than typical offset printing jobs, the intaglio process required multiple rounds of troubleshooting and proofing to get clear, crisp results.

  • A roll of printed stamp sheets emerges from the four-color intaglio press inside Sennett's high-security printing facility.

This level of care and craftsmanship honors the story of the stamp.

Yet experience told them the sweat would be worthwhile.

To print a stamp primarily in intaglio (a rare practice these days) yields a set of luscious qualities: a subtle, raised feel to the lines and the slightest irregularities where lines converge, caused by the way the ink gathers on the plate. To get clear lines and honest colors, the team had to steward multiple rounds of troubleshooting.

In the end, this level of care and craftsmanship honors the story of the stamp. And the satisfaction a collector might feel while holding the perfectly textured souvenir sheet will point back to yet another moment in philatelic history: when a fortunate collector also found himself full of wonder.