Airmail etiquettes reading “By Air Mail / Par Avion” were first used in Britain in mid-August 1920, making them 80 years old this month. Their introduction came less than a year after the first international scheduled public airmail service, from London to Paris, started and almost exactly two years after the French had first applied airmail etiquettes reading “Par Avion” to their airmails, on the inaugural Paris to Saint-Nazaire flight.
Cover from the first airmail flight to Paris showing "By Air Mail" written by hand
Before the airmail etiquette was introduced in Britain senders would hand write “By Air Mail” on their letters, or a cachet reading “Air Mail Express” would be applied. But the French model of etiquettes, to be attached by the sender, was a more efficient option.
Airmail letter to Paris with "Air Mail Express" cachet
The first British airmail etiquettes were light blue in colour, while the first French airmail etiquettes had black text on a dark red background, but at the 1929 Postal Union Congress it was agreed that airmail etiquettes from all nations would be blue.
By the 1930s it was also common practice to include “Par Avion” or “By Air Mail” – or both – on an airmail etiquette, with some countries including up to four languages on theirs. “Par Avion” was added to British airmail etiquettes by 1928, as can be seen on this commemorative envelope carried on the first airmail flight to Karachi in 1929.
Commemorative envelope carried on the first airmail flight to Karachi, 1929
The airmail etiquette also became a way of advertising the airmail service, which was being heavily promoted by the Post Office in the 1930s. Theyre Lee-Elliott’s airmail wings, prominent on airmail publicity at this time, even appeared on the etiquettes of the period.
First flight cover England to Australia, 1934
What is perhaps most notable about the airmail etiquette, 80 years on, is how little the design has changed. Today’s airmail etiquettes are still roughly the same shade of blue as in the 1920s, and the wording and design is also very similar – the greatest change has been in the technology, with most of today’s etiquettes being self-adhesive.
Etiquettes: Par Avion by Air Mail, by Frank G. Jones, 1992
George V & the GPO: Stamps, Conflict & Creativity, by Douglas N. Muir, 2010