This bimonthly series highlights lesser-known museums in and around D.C. This month, District Fray visits the National Postal Museum.
Many avoid the post office when at all possible, so you’d be forgiven for wanting to skip a trip to the National Postal Museum. Yet you’d be missing out on a fascinating collection that spans centuries of history around the globe, through the lens of the humble stamp.
“Stamps are the medium, but we are telling larger historical stories,” says museum curator Chief Daniel Piazza.
If the Beaux Arts building, formerly the city’s central post office, feels familiar, it’s probably because it was designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who also designed its nextdoor neighbor, Union Station. (It’s no coincidence the buildings are side by side – mail and rail worked hand in hand in the early years of the postal service; a bridge still in existence today helped to shuttle mail from the train to the post office). After a century in operation, the building’s post office was decommissioned in 1986 and reopened to the public as a museum in 1993.
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The museum’s permanent exhibit covers pivotal moments in both philately and world history, starting with the world’s first stamp, the 1840 Penny Black. Originally mail was delivered “cash on delivery,” with the recipient footing the bill. During the transition period to a pre-paid stamp, many Americans chose not to pay it forward: the postage was considered bad manners, as it implied the recipient couldn’t afford to pay. “The stamp changed the business model,” says Piazza.
Special exhibits cover wide-ranging ground, too. An exhibit on mail crimes covers everything from identity scams to drugs mail-ordered from the Dark Web, and includes one of the anthrax-coated letters mailed to Tom Brokaw. On display until January 2025, “Baseball: America’s Home Run” displays history and memorabilia from the curious intersection of stamps and baseball, from fan letters to post office baseball teams. The bilingual exhibit also covers the ground-breaking history of black athletes in baseball.
The museum is a bit of a labyrinth, with two sprawling floors of exhibits to explore. The comprehensive collections in the International Gallery and National Stamp Salon include pull-out frames where you can explore some of museum’s six-million-plus artifacts organized by historic era and country. Visitors can climb aboard mail trucks, trains and planes from centuries past, and stroll through a recreation of the forested US1 route mail carriers once traveled by mud wagon. The museum also has a kiosk where visitors can design their own stamp digitally and start a own stamp collection by picking freebies from a box of cancelled stamps.
Together, the museum’s collections piece together the forces of commerce and communication driving human history.
Who It’s For: Art, architecture and history aficionados, stamp collectors, baseball fans, trivia buffs.
Don’t Miss: Owney, a mutt who was a fixture of the Albany, NY Railway Post Office in 1888 and became the unofficial mascot of the US postal service. Owney’s taxidermied body is decorated with the medallions he acquired on his mail routes.
“Mail Marks History” traces the journeys of historic pieces of mail, from a 1390 letter carried from Damascus to Venice on the Silk Road to a letter posted on the final journey of the Titanic, whose floating post office managed 3,500 bags of mail.
A flight suit from Amelia Earhart, who financed her expeditions by bringing thousands of letters on her aviation journeys to sell to collectors.
The 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system in the UK. It cost a penny.
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The 1993 Elvis stamp, with 517 million copies sold, was the hottest selling commemorative stamp in US history. It was also the first time the public could vote on a stamp design, with a widespread campaign allowing Americans to choose between what was affectionately called Young and Old Elvis (the Young Elvis won by a landslide).
The Postal Service receives some 40,000 suggestions annually from the public for a particular person, event or other theme to be enshrined by stamp; many commemorative stamps start with such a request.
Astronaut Sally Ride was both a baseball fan and a stamp collector; her childhood baseball art and stamp collection, as well as stamps commemorating her historic space shuttle ride, can be found in the museum’s baseball exhibit.
Tips: Docent-led tours covering museum highlights are offered every day at 11:30 a.m.; groups of 10 or more can request tours by contacting the museum in advance. The museum offers a wealth of engaging activities for little ones, including a scavenger hunt, activity books and more.
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is free and open daily 10am to 5:30pm. Visit online exhibits and learn more about its programs here: postalmuseum.si.edu.