A century-old mistake is leading to new-found fame for two Whidbey Island authors.
On the 100th anniversary of the misprinted stamp known as the Inverted Jenny, Deborah Fisher and Kellen Diamanti released their book, “Stamp of the Century,” during a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum Tuesday.
The U.S. Postal Service is also issuing two new U.S. Air Mail Forever stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of air mail.
Regular air mail service began May 15, 1918, with flights between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.
That month, the Postal Service printed a red, white and blue 24-cent stamp showing the bi-plane, Curtiss JN-4 airplane, printed in the middle of the stamp.
However, a whopper of a printing error occurred. The image on the first sheet of 100 stamps ended up upside down, so the plane is wheels up — but not in the usual way.
A single Inverted Jenny stamp – with an original price of 24 cents – cost collectors $1,500 a century ago. Over the years, the price has topped $1 million.
The story of how the Inverted Jenny happened is well documented. What’s never been told is the people obsessed with this iconic American stamp.
“What kind of person has the money to buy this stamp? Where did they get the money to buy the stamp? Those kinds of aspects intrigued us,” said Fisher.
“So we decided to follow the money,” added Diamanti.
The trail takes readers through a century of American history to the days of George Washington, the Gettysburg battlefield, oil barons in Pennsylvania and early automotive technology.
How fortunes were made in antiquities theft and relations between the U.S. and Cuba also tie into the fascinating accounts of the lives touched by Inverted Jenny stamps.
“The stories told here reveal the passions of collectors, portrayed in an endearing way, connecting both the worldly and bizarre,” said Cheryl Ganz, Ph.D., curator emerita of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
Fisher and Diamanti, longtime friends from Minnesota now living in Coupeville, admit they knew nothing about the world of stamp collecting when they started some three years ago.
They’re freelance writers who’ve tackled various projects over the years. Together they formed a business called Cut to the Chase, writing multiple training packages for White House task forces and “contributing to a ridiculous array of government agency products.”
They both love a good story. So their reporting radar perked up when they heard a longtime cribbage-playing friend of Diamanti’s husband, Mike Diamanti, owned two of the Inverted Jenny stamps. The stamps were tucked away in a safe deposit box that Ken Daugherty said he rarely opened.
But one day at his house, Daugherty laid two glassine envelopes and a magnifying glass on the table.
“It was like seeing King Tut’s mask or spotting Sean Connery at Heathrow,” Diamanti writes in the blog the authors kept while researching. “My fifth-grade mind was riveted.”
It took nearly three years, going through thousands of documents and photos, and interviewing people far and wide, for Fisher and Diamanti to track down collectors, dealers and experts and persuade them to talk.
Because the stamps are individually numbered, it’s possible to track them as they are bought and sold.
Some passed through numerous collectors around the globe, others ended up in safes and stayed there.
The collectors are mostly men of old money and new money. They are described as “industrialists and politicians, war heroes and schemers, the braggadocio and collectors of quiet gentility.”
And there are some “smart, strong women who dared to shine in a hobby dominated by men,” states a press release of the American Philatelic Society.
The organization assisted the authors with fact-checking and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum provided research and publication funding.
Both organizations along with the American Air Mail Society (yes, there is such a group) are promoting the book and feting the authors. Last week, Fisher and Diamanti appeared at the WESTPEX Stamp Show in San Francisco and they’re also giving the Smithsonian museum’s “History After Hours” May 2 presentation.
The book is published by the American Philatelic Society in partnership with the National Postal Museum.
“There is a great deal of excitement about “Stamp of the Century,” said Martin Kent Miller, editor of The American Philatelist. “In philatelic research and publishing, there has never been a work on the people surrounding the Inverted Jenny that is as comprehensive as Kellen and Deborah’s new book.”
The book is written as a narrative non-fiction that pulls readers through to the next chapter.
“It’s a great collection of stories surrounding a monumental point in the nation’s history,” Miller added. “The book has great appeal to stamp collectors, aviators and the public in general.”
Stamp collectors, Diamanti and Fisher discovered, are basically “sweet nerdy guys.”
None more so than Ken Daugherty, of Oak Harbor, who they say submitted to countless interviews, pulled out buckets of stamps and encouraged them “unstintingly” while also enduring chemotherapy and other insults to his body from cancer.
Daughtery never held the book in his hands.
However, Diamanti said he heard sections of the book shortly before he died when his son read parts of the manuscript aloud.
“Stamp of the Century” is dedicated to him.
- For more information, www.stampofthecentury.com
- The book is currently available online at stamps.org/publications