images of the airship

by Yann Lovelock

In the year 2000, Germany greeted the new Millennium with a stamp commemorating the Zeppelin’s hundredth birthday. The last time a Zeppelin had appeared on a German stamp was in 1938, when the centennial of the birth of the airship’s inventor, Count (Graf ) Zeppelin, was celebrated with a two stamp set showing just its gondola. But only a couple of years later Reichsmarschall Goering, former air ace and head of the triumphant Luftwaffe, was to have the last of the German airships destroyed. Those of other lands that had not already crashed, burned or disintegrated in stormy conditions had long been retired. Seemingly the Zeppelin was an evolutionary monster and should have joined other failed inventions (such as the pneumatic railway, for instance) in oblivion. That is what the Cubans thought when a Zeppelin joined bygone steam engines in the series of pennies they struck in the 1980s featuring past means of transport. But it has not; another generation of airships is being developed even as you read this. Perhaps it has something to do with the hold they took on the imagination of those living between the two world wars that has been transmitted to our times by means of its image.

Count Zeppelin had developed his airship in the hope that it would have military applications and was disappointed that it was relegated to commercial use as a luxury passenger craft between German cities at first. World War 1 saw the military put aside their scepticism and use Zeppelins to bomb enemy cities. Propaganda postcards seized on the airship idea to portray its military personnel as bold mariners, as in this splendid example depicting a raid over Belgium in the first days of the war. To the propagandists on the other side it was a further example of the ‘atrocities’ of which they were always accusing the Germans. When Zeppelins began crossing the Channel and bombing English towns and cities the spin-doctors took to calling them ‘baby killers’. They were all the more frustrated that the airship could easily outpace the primitive aeroplanes of the period. It was not until 1916 that means were found to deal with it, thus giving the English an excuse to issue propaganda cards of their own, advertising their victories.

At the end of the war, therefore, the Zeppelin had a very negative image to outlive. If the European victors had had their way, there would have been no more Zeppelins. Thanks to American help they survived and developed a completely new image. It was an American firm that asked the German developers to build a new generation on its behalf (since Germans were forbidden to build any for their own use) and so inaugurated a new era of luxury travel. Zeppelins could outpace the liners crossing the Atlantic; they circled the globe with ease in a few days where it had taken an aeroplane hazardous weeks. All of a sudden they became the image of the age, of the triumph of ingenious mechanical modernity.

One way to suggest this was to show them juxtaposed with buildings that were themselves icons of this triumphalist spirit. It was no new idea. A French postcard of 1903 pictures their Lebaudy airship beside the Eiffel tower, completed in 1889 and at that time the tallest structure in the world. Similarly, in postcards and posters from the 1909 International Air Exhibition a flying ship is shown above the newly built Frankfurt Messhalle, the exhibition hall where the famous annual bookfair is now held. In its time the building reflected the German claim to technological dominance ( Here's another card from that 1909 Air Exhibition, and a poster stamp).

It was natural, therefore, when the Graf Zeppelin made its triumphant way to the US, that it should be depicted along with its American equivalent, the most famous example of Art Deco architecture in the world, the Empire State Building. Actually, that picture is a fake and is connected with a discarded plan to use the top of the building as a mooring for the airship and a disembarkation point for its passengers - 'the looniest building scheme since the Tower of Babel', in the words of one sceptic. [See this page at the Empire State Building web site for the full story.] On the other hand, the city of Akron, Ohio, made a similar looking postcard of the Graf Zeppelin crossing the Goodyear rubber factory in October 1933 [Go here], which testifies to the iconic strength of the image. And here's a matchbox label with a dramatic stylized Empire State Building with zeppelin.

Another example, easily overlooked because it is so small, is the US 50c stamp issued in 1933 in conjunction with the Century of Progress Expo in Chicago. If you look at the building in the background on the left, you will see it is not any known skyscraper but rather a sort of pulp magazine Sci-Fi vision of the future. My good friend William Senkus tells me it is probably based on an architect's impression of the Federal Building that was part of the exhibition, but a look at the photo of it here reveals how squat and unlike the drawing it actually is. Interestingly, there is a contemporary postcard of the General Motors building at the Worlds Fair, accompanied by a Goodyear blimp [here] which appears to be Chicago's contribution to the Art Deco airship icons already provided by New York and Akron.

Other Art Deco icons figured with the Zeppelin on posters. The soaring prow of an ocean liner, a quintissential Art Deco feature, joins it on a Visit Germany poster. When you think about it logically, this doesn’t make sense since Zeppelins halved travel time and could take you inland as well. What distinguished such floating hotels, however, was their luxury and it is this that the poster suggests. Zeppelins are equally luxurious, flying by them is a luxury in itself. Another Art Deco icon suggesting luxury is the bulging spinnakers of a sailing boat, and these are incorporated in posters from Friedrichshafen, the Zeppelin’s home town on Lake Constance (Bodensee).

In the American context, alcohol was another such luxury, prohibited (although everywhere available) from 1919-33 in the US. Some design genius, realising the potential of the Zeppelin’s shape, built it into a cocktail shaker, the ultimate accolade of chic! Not to be outdone, an enterprising toymaker added clockwork and so produced, according to taste, the first mechanical cocktail shaker or else a flying ship on wheels

For the totalitarian states of Europe, also worshippers of mechanical modernity, the Zeppelin was equally fascinating. Germany, originator of the airship and still a democratic state at the time, brought out the earliest airmail stamps to feature it in 1928 and frugally adapted two of these for the South American flights in 1930. One of the first things the Nazis did after coming to power in 1933 was paint swastikas on the tail, nationalising the Zeppelin, so to speak. The lesson is driven home by a Graf Zeppelin March being added to the musical repertoire of the Luftwaffe bands. Masters of propaganda, the Nazis were alive to the use to which postage stamps could be turned in creating nationalist propaganda. Count Zeppelin and his airship were featured in a two-stamp air issue in 1934; two years later there was another featuring the Hindenburg, followed, as already mentioned, by the Count Zeppelin centennial set of 1938. The postcards on which they figured were equally vehicles of propaganda, triumphs of suggestive photography. Of the two featured here, the first shows the Graf Zeppelin in the air and the newly completed, much larger, Hindenburg on the ground. The other has the two airships flying above Friedrichshafen.

Italians were predisposed to modernity and the iconic use of mechanical inventions because of the part the Futurist painters and poets had played in the creation of the Fascist Party and continued to play as its patriotic propagandists. But a reading of the stamps dedicated to the Zeppelin in Italy and its colonies reveals a rather different message than Marinetti’s simple-minded enthusiasm for rushing through the air. It figures on two Italian sets: the Zeppelin Crossing (Crociera) issue of 1933, showing the airship over some of the principal Roman architectural sites (go here to see the whole set); and the 25c value of the 1934 issue commemorating the centenary of the Military Medal, showing a Zeppelin under fire. The inscription on the latter reads ‘Pioneers of the Air’ and refers back to the kind of heroism evoked by the German postcard of the Liège raid.

The 1933 set also evokes the past though the filter of the Fascist vision for the Italian state. By the application to it of modernisation and mechanisation, the glories of the Roman Empire could be made reality again. This is typified by the juxtaposition of the efficient and successful flying machine and the great remains of the past. The message is carried not just by the picture but by the other elements of the stamps’ design. Flanking the pictures are solid Roman columns inscribed with what we still call Roman capitals. As further reinforcement, the right hand column bearing the date in Roman numbers has at the top the Fascist date: Anno XI, year 11 of the revolution. We obtain much the same reading from the equivalent colonial issues. That for the Aegean islands shows the Zeppelin above typical Greek architecture. In Cyrenaica’s the Zeppelin is accompanied by an ancient galley and a giant archer (link); in Tripolitania’s it accompanies Mercury, the allegory of dawn and the arch of Marcus Aurelius.

But there is a sense in all of these that the Zeppelin too is now past its best. The Italian heart was more closely wedded to the aeroplane, as is evidenced by the other air issues of these years. The 1933 Zeppelin stamps are lumpish, their ideological statement is too heavy, especially when compared to the almost Futurist design and vital lettering of the Air Express issue immediately preceding them. And immediately following comes the commemoration of Balbo’s Transatlantic mass formation flight. In 1934 it is the first direct Rome-Buenos Aires flight that is celebrated, thus upstaging the Zeppelin, which stopped at two Brazilian cities on its way from Europe; and at year’s end there is King Victor Emmanuel III’s Rome-Mogadishu flight to view his African dominion. All of these had their separate equivalents in one or other of the Italian colonies.

For the Futurists too, the aeroplane is the true representative of the future and some of them were pilots themselves. Paolo Buzzi’s 1913 poem "Highway to the Stars" begins with the line We were flying at a hundred miles an hour; the following year Marinetti published "The Futurist Aviator Speaks to his Father, Vulcan". Not to be outdone by mere poets, the painter Gerardo Dottori brought out his Aeropittura manifesto in 1929, signed by several other Futurist painters. This ‘painting from the air’ was to be devoted to the sensations experienced in flight. An exhibition followed in 1931 and the style remained current throughout the decade. Like the German Reichsmarschall, therefore, Italy ultimately turned its back on the Zeppelin. Once so fashionable, the toy had had its day; grown-ups were moving on to sterner things.

Russia’s relationship with the Zeppelin started from much the same point as Italy's. That country too hoped to rise to new greatness by modernising itself. With the Zeppelin so much in the news, the USSR very much wanted to show itself in the swim and could only woo a Moscow flight by printing a special set of stamps. That 1930 issue showed the airship flying down a high-rise Moscow street, apparently in pursuit of a news boy, which is a nice ironical touch (link). By the next year it appeared that Stalin had fallen in love with the Zeppelin idea and wanted some of his own. A five-stamp set in aid of the airship construction fund shows one linking tundra to steppe, others above Lenin’s tomb, the Dnieperprostroi Dam and the North Pole. A Zeppelin shows up again (image at left) on stamps just two months later, flying above the icebreaker Malygin and fraternising with a polar bear. This was on the occasion of another publicity stunt whereby the Graf Zeppelin took mail to an expedition in remote Franz Joseph’s Land on the edge of the Arctic ice-pack above Russia.

Rather like ungrateful Italy, Russia attempted to do the same thing by plane in 1932. A set of two stamps commemorates the feat but, in fact, the plane could not make it back to Archangel and the letters had to be carried there by the Malygin. So it was back to the drawing board. In 1934 another set of propaganda stamps showed the airships Truth (Pravda), Voroshilov and Lenin as if they were ready for immediate use. What the stamps advertise was in reality a Cinderella project. At most, a prototype may have been in course of construction. By 1936 the project’s Italian designer had left the country and the engineers were in Siberia. It had been a hare-brained idea in any case. What did Socialist Russia think it was doing, promoting such an icon of Capitalist luxury?

Now that Capitalism has triumphed, for the time being anyway, Zeppelins are back, and will probably be promoted in much the same way as the revived Orient Express, that other decadently luxurious mode of transport. We are living in the midst of a retro boom, with its Art Deco revival and its hankering for an era of insecurity and ideological strife. Back then one travelled by ocean liner, Zeppelin or luxury train in order to be borne away from or above the troubles of the age. Now they are only a memory, we want to get back in touch with what it felt like to live dangerously. What better way than sinking back in cushioned armchairs and giving dreams their rein?

Yann Lovelock
Birmingham, England, April 2002