Titanic, Hindenburg, and the Heroic Age of Postal Service

[optional image description]
A card belonging to Captain Albert Sammt, who survived the Hindenburg disaster by jumping from the ship's gondola/National Postal Museum

This Sunday, May 6, marks the 75th anniversary of the disaster of the Hindenburg, among other things a pioneer of transatlantic airmail.

A political target today, postal services were at their zenith in the early 20th century, when they stood for integrity, duty, punctuality -- and of course, secure jobs. Mail volume dropped during the Depression, but mass layoffs were avoided through normal retirement and attrition. The Postmaster-General of the time, James A. Farley, proved not only a master politician but also one of the greatest patrons of muralists since the Italian Renaissance. The main New York post office, renamed for him, was completed in the year of the Titanic, 1912. The RMS in that vessel's full name ("RMS Titanic") stood proudly for Royal Mail Ship, and both shipping lines and airlines relied in part on mail revenue.

An exhibition at the National Postal Museum in Washington, across the street from Union Station, has a small but moving exhibit of objects related to the Titanic and the Hindenburg. Below, a few samples from that collection:

One last curiosity: The Hindenburg also marked a high point of elegant smoking, to the extent of including an air-pressurized lounge where patrons could light up their Balkan Sobranies with flameless electric devices. Scary as the idea sounds, it had nothing to do with the catastrophe. I write about it here.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

Video

What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In