Found: Letters From the Hindenburg
Every ounce counted onboard the Hindenburg, the 804-foot airship designed to fly across the Atlantic. The metal girders were perforated, and the piano was made of aluminum. Each passenger was assigned a single napkin to reuse in the luxurious dining hall. And yet the hydrogen-filled zeppelin was hauling hundreds of pounds of mail when, for reasons that are still unknown, it burst into flames on May 6, 1937, above a New Jersey field, killing 35 of 97 riders. Transcontinental mail was indispensable cargo; despite the year-old vessel’s glamorous image (tickets cost a whopping $450), the airship covered much of its operating costs by providing the first regular trans-Atlantic airmail service.
The human stories tucked in with the mailbags have always fascinated Cheryl Ganz, a leading Hindenburg historian and co-curator of a new exhibition at the National Postal Museum. In addition to many letters and postcards, the exhibit includes other frail bits of paper that survived the inferno, some of which have never been displayed before, such as a receipt for two in-flight martinis. There’s also a reproduction of the only known final flight map, which has the route from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst, New Jersey, painstakingly traced in pencil.
“We are bringing together these artifacts, these salvaged items, many of them reunited for the first time since they were picked out of the wreckage,” Ganz says. “We can piece together bits of the story that have never been told.”
The Hindenburg is one of two doomed vessels at the heart of the Postal Museum exhibition “Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic,” which marks the disasters’ 75th and 100th anniversaries, respectively. The RMS Titanic was, after all, a Royal Mail Ship, the largest floating post office of its day. When it began to founder on the night of April 14, 1912, the postal clerks made a heroic effort to drag mailbags to higher decks. The exhibit includes a set of mailroom keys and a watch recovered from their bodies. (No paper mail survived the sinking.)