When was the last time you received a letter through the mail, one with a stamp and a postmark? It may have been a while, given computerized postage and e mail, but you remember that special card for your birthday, or that holiday card you yourself bought a stamp for and sent, don’t you? How about that post card from a friend traveling in far away place?
Letters and postcards, written on real paper, and the stamps that send them on their way, used to be occasions for surprise, for celebration, for thoughtful exchange, for love letters that would be treasured for generations. Stamps and letters were markers of connection across time and geography. Those connections go back in history, and are part of the threads that helped create the fabric of the United Sates.
One place to explore these ideas is the National Postal Museum in Washington DC . It is part of the Smithsonian, but less well known and less visited than, say, The Museum of the American Indian or the Air and Space Museum. The stories it has to tell are just as intriguing, though, and just as interestingly presented.
The museum, which is located just across from Union Station and a few steps from the Mall in downtown Washington , features the history of the postal service on one floor and all manner of exhibits and collections related to stamps on another.
Had you given thought to what it was like for people to deliver the mail in colonial times? A bit spooky and dangerous, you’ll find, as you walk along a bit of a road like ones mail deliverers might have walked between New York and Boston in 1673, hear the sounds of the forest, and seek out the mile markers along the way. You can see (and climb into, if you’ve a mind) a stagecoach that was used to deliver mail in the west. Look up, and there’s a plane that was used for mail delivery in the early days of aviation. On a slightly smaller scale there’s a dog sled that carried mail in the Alaskan bush.
All these were used by carriers delivering stories, newspapers, magazines, birth announcements, catalogues, holiday cards, wedding invitations across town and handwritten letters across the country, letters that kept people connected as the country expanded and evolved. There are exhibits which remind of this, too, including one with copies of handwritten letters sent and received by those moving westward in the nineteenth century.
The exhibits take note of what’s going on today, as well. There are sections showing the path of a piece of mail from post box to your mailbox, and dioramas that show how this has changed. There are also displays on how computers work with modern day mail delivery. There is material that reminds of the time, not that long ago, when the post office was the crossroads of community connection and conversation in neighborhoods and towns across the country.
Each piece of mail, in the past and still today, needed proof of postage in order to travel — a passport for your letter, so to speak. In another area of the museum you may explore the world of stamps, with intriguing displays of stamps as both art and history. Actual stamps, many of them very rare and many from far flung parts of the world, are available for you to look at, too.
There are displays of stamps and stamped envelopes on different themes. There are ones showcasing the collections of famous folks who collected stamps, aviator Amelia Earhart, for instance. Recent thematic exhibits have included an exploration of the African American experience told through stamps and mail called Freedom Just Around the Corner, and a look and the hundred year history of of the US National Park Service told in stamps. There has been an exhibit explaining the little known work of the postal inspection service, and one showing the museum’s collections of stamps and letters related to the Hindenberg and the Titanic — keys from the Titanic’s post office and fire singed letters from the Hindenberg were part of this display.
There’s the story of Owney, a dog with his own history with the postal service, and the people who cared about him.
There are many more items at the museum, and a changing schedule of exhibits and activities too. There is a research library — one of the largest in the world for all things related to stamps and mail service — and a museum store. Inspired to begin collecting stamps or get someone you know started? The store has kits for that, and there’s a postal service store where you can buy current stamps too. The building in which the museum lives has its own postal history: it was constructed in 1914 and served as the DC post office for a number of years.
Take your time; there is much to explore and learn from at the National Postal Museum.
On a personal note, a calling of friendship and of music took me to a town in Maryland just northwest of Washington to attend a concert in early December. For me it was — and still is — a rather bleak period in the history of the United States. A visit to the National Postal Museum reminded me of the power of communication to create and sustain hope across place, time, and diversity. May it be the same for you when you visit. It’s a more uplifting place than you might at first think.
Photographs of the World of Stamps and of the building’s exterior at night by Juan Carlos Briceño and courtesy of the National Postal Museum. All other photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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