Recovered Letters Reveal the Lost History of the Hindenburg

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On the heels of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster -- often described as the "Titanic of the skies." The 804-foot airship (longer than three Boeing 747s end to end) caught on fire just before landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people. 

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum has created a new exhibit around the twin catastrophes called "Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic," focusing on letters that were recovered, and the stories they can tell about the people who were unlucky enough to be there. One of the most exciting finds featured in the exhibit is the sole surviving map of the Hindenburg's last trans-Atlantic journey, as Cheryl R. Ganz, the chief curator of the Postal Museum, explains in a short documentary from Smithsonian magazine. For the first time, historians have an accurate record of the path of the airship during its three-day voyage from Frankfurt to Lakehurst. The film was produced by Beth Py-Lieberman and Ryan Reed, a multimedia producer at Smithsonian, who talks about the making of the project in a short interview below. 

"Found: Letters from the Hindenburg," a Smithsonian article about the exhibit by Abigail Tucker, describes the wealth of mail and postal artifacts that managed to survive the disaster:

In a postal sense, zeppelins were intended to replace the Titanic-era ocean liners, which took close to a week to deliver trans-Atlantic letters. The Hindenburg made the trip in just two and a half days, and even in the teeth of the Great Depression, bankers were willing to pay extra to get deals done faster. In addition, letter-writing was a key leisure activity for passengers, who didn't have many other ways of passing the time. (Another option was smoking in a pressurized lounge, where the bartender kept the only lighter allowed on the highly flammable vessel.) The airship’s stewards sold Hindenburg stationery, postcards and stamps, which passengers used to impress their friends back home ...

Of the 17,000-odd pieces of Hindenburg correspondence, roughly 360 withstood the flames, which rose 1,000 feet. Some postcards and envelopes had been placed in a protective bag for later delivery, and others were crammed in the center of regular mailbags, where oxygen couldn’t reach. These singed letters, six of them featured in the show, are among the grandest prizes of philately.

Check out the article for more background and images from the exhibit.



The Atlantic: How did you find this story and decide to tell it?

Ryan Reed: We knew about the Fire & Ice exhibit at the National Postal Museum about a year in advance. Beth Py-Lieberman, the GoSmithsonian editor, interviewed Cheryl R. Ganz, Ph.D. at that time and knew right away that the story of her uncovering the Hindenburg map would make for a great article and video

Many people don't realize the Postal Museum is a part of the Smithsonian since it's not on the National Mall but there are so many interesting stories to tell and this is one of them. Ganz's enthusiasm for her work shows through and delivered a great narrative.

Where did you find the archival footage?

The archival footage is from a web site called Critical Past. In the completed video, we used two sets of archival footage. The crash scene in the beginning of the video is from a newsreel that probably ran in movie theaters in 1937. The audio in the beginning of the video is not from the newsreel. The famous dramatic description of the Hindenburg crash is of Herbert Morrison who delivered the famous line, "Oh, the humanity." The other piece of archival footage is seen at the very end overlaid with the map and shows the Hindenburg in flight.

With all the amazing exhibits and collections under the Smithsonian umbrella, how do you select stories to do?

We have great editors at Smithsonian who pick the most interesting and relevant stories to tell in print. It really makes our job on the web so much easier when you have such fascinating stories to start with. Not every article makes for a good video so the story needs to have a strong visual base, such as our video on Doug Aitken's multimedia display at the Hirshhorn or our video on the Art of Video Games exhibit. Both of these exhibits were described in print but because of their visual nature, video was a natural way to further the story on the web.

What's next for you?

Currently I am the editor of Retina, which is a Tumblr that curates the best visuals from Smithsonian.com and around the web. We're looking to expand the blog and provide our readers with even more stunning visuals and interviews with artists. I also have a couple exciting video projects coming up. One is on 3D printing and how it relates to a 19th century explorer who worked at the Smithsonian but mysteriously died in Alaska. The other video is on the drawings of Woody Guthrie.

The best way to stay up to date with Smithsonian magazine is to follow us on Twitter @SmithsonianMag and Facebook. You can also follow me @RyanReed.

For more videos from Smithsonian, visit http://www.smithsonianmag.com/video/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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