National Stamp Collecting Month: U.S. National Postal Museum

United States - Scott #2782 (1993)
United States – Scott #2782 (1993)

This is the final stamp collecting-themed article for October’s National Stamp Collecting Month this year (tomorrow’s post will be about Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a place where collectors and others interested in stamps and postal history can go every day of the year. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. The next time I journey to the United States (hopefully at some point in the next few years), I aim to make the northeastern part of the nation — particularly the area surrounding the District of Columbia — my primary destination.

The National Postal Museum, located opposite Union Station in Washington, D.C., was established through joint agreement between the United States Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution and opened on July 30, 1993. The museum is located across the street from Union Station, in the building served as the Main Post Office of Washington, D.C. from 1914, when it was constructed, until 1986. The building was designed by the Graham and Burnham architectural firm, which was led by Ernest Graham following the death of Daniel Burnham in 1912.

The museum stores the National Philatelic Collection and also hosts many interactive displays about the history of the United States Postal Service and of mail service around the world. The museum houses a gift shop and a United States Postal Service philatelic sales window, along with exhibits on the Pony Express, the use of railroads with the mail, the preserved remains of Owney (the first unofficial postal mascot), and an exhibit on direct marketing called, “What’s in the Mail for You,” that produces a souvenir envelope with your name printed on it and a coupon for the gift shop. As a Smithsonian museum, admission is free. This museum also includes a library.

Exterior of the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on November 25, 2013.
Exterior of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on November 25, 2013.

Owney (ca. 1887 – June 11, 1897), was a Border terrier adopted as the first unofficial postal mascot by the Albany, New York, post office about 1888. The Albany postal workers recommended the dog to their Railway Mail Service colleagues, and he became a nationwide mascot for 9 years (1888–97). He traveled throughout the 48 contiguous United States and voyaged around the world traveling over 140,000 miles in his lifetime as a mascot of the Railway Post Office and the United States Post Office Deparment. Owney was honored with his own U.S. commemorative stamp, released on July 27, 2011 (Scott #4547). The dog's preserved body is on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum (NPM) in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on March 5, 2014.
Owney (ca. 1887 – June 11, 1897), was a Border terrier adopted as the first unofficial postal mascot by the Albany, New York, post office about 1888. The Albany postal workers recommended the dog to their Railway Mail Service colleagues, and he became a nationwide mascot for 9 years (1888–97). He traveled throughout the 48 contiguous United States and voyaged around the world traveling over 140,000 miles in his lifetime as a mascot of the Railway Post Office and the United States Post Office Deparment. Owney was honored with his own U.S. commemorative stamp, released on July 27, 2011 (Scott #4547). The dog’s preserved body is on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum (NPM) in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on March 5, 2014.

In 2005, the National Postal Museum acquired John Lennon’s childhood stamp collection, which was described in an A Stamp A Day article published on Lennon’s birthday earlier this month. The album is currently on display in an exhibit called “John Lennon: The Green Album” which will continue until February 3, 2019. Since June 2015, the museum has displayed the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, the world’s most valuable stamp, which sold for nearly $10 million. That exhibit is due to close this year on December 2.

Other current exhibits include:

  • My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I (until December 2, 2018) which uncovers the history of America’s involvement in World War I through personal correspondence written on the frontlines and the home front, Included are previously unpublished letters by General John Pershing who led the American Expeditionary Forces.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Soldier, Secretary, Icon (until March 3, 2019) which explores the extraordinary life of Hamilton (1755-1804) through original mail sent and signed by him in his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury and through portraits of him and his contemporaries on postage and revenue stamps. The exhibit coincides with the Washington dates of the national touring version of “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
  • Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks (until March 3, 2009) chronicles the numerous intersections between mail and our National Parks, featuring original postage stamp art from the United States Postal Service and artifacts loaned by the National Park Service.
  • Postmen of the Sky: Celebrating 100 Years of Airmail Service (until May 27, 2019)
  • Beautiful Blooms: Flowering Plants on Stamps (until July 14, 2019)
  • Behind the Badge: Behind the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (indefinitely)
Pull-our panels at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. display the National Stamp Collection. Photo taken on September 20, 2013.
Pull-our panels at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. display the National Stamp Collection. Photo taken on September 20, 2013.
Letters from World War I exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on April 4, 2017.
Letters from World War I exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on April 4, 2017.
A stamp album owned by Ansel Adams is on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on June 11, 2016..
A stamp album owned by Ansel Adams is on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo taken on June 11, 2016..
Moving the Mail exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., featuring a Curtis Jenny airplane.
Moving the Mail exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., featuring a Curtis Jenny airplane.

In September 2009, the museum received a $8 million gift from investment firm founder William H. Gross to help finance the expansion of the museum.A further donation was made to create a 12,000-square-foot gallery that was named in his honor. The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery opened on September 22, 2013.

Other permanent exhibits and galleries at the National Postal Museum include:

  • World Of Stamps —”As visitors step into this introductory gallery, a display of oversized stamps and video monitors grabs their attention. Video images bring stamps to life and pique curiosity through questions that are answered as visitors explore the surrounding displays. Visitors encounter the world’s first postage stamp — the 1840 Penny Black, with its profile of young Queen Victoria — and learn how it revolutionized communication. Stamp images — including the Nicaraguan volcano that influenced the location of the Panama Canal, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the top–selling 1993 Elvis! stamp, and the stamp that helped raise almost $72 million dollars for breast cancer research — illustrate how stamps have shaped history and honored people and places worldwide.”
  • Gems of American Philately — “In this dramatically lit space, visitors have the privilege of examining 13 of the most rare and highly valued gems in the world of philately — including the most famous U.S. stamp of all, the 1918 Inverted Jenny. An immersive video explains why the Inverted Jenny and other stamps displayed here are philatelic gems. The treasures in this area are rarely available for public viewing. Each tells a story about a significant milestone in U.S. history — from one of the surviving revenue stamp proofs of the 1765 Stamp Act that so infuriated the American colonists, to a lunar mail cover postmarked on the Moon by astronaut Dave Scott in 1971.”
  • Mail Marks History — “The markings on mail provide valuable clues to the surprising ways mail has been transported over time, including challenges and even disasters encountered along the way. Visitors learn to decipher these markings through an interactive experience in which they trace the journeys of three historic letters by analyzing different kinds of mail markings. At wall displays supplemented by exhibit frames, visitors investigate markings on mail transported on land and across seas, by air and in space. Among the many historic artifacts on view are a 1390 Silk Road letter, a letter mailed aboard Titanic during its first and only voyage, Amelia Earhart’s brown leather flight suit, a mailbox remnant from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a mailbox from 9-11.”
  • National Stamp Salon — “Here, philatelists and other interested visitors have access to some of the great U.S. collections owned by the National Postal Museum or on loan from other institutions. 275 pullout frames display tens of thousands of stamps and pieces of mail from the National Philatelic Collection along with the Postmaster General’s and Benjamin K. Miller collections. A large case displays medals, handstamps, dies, and other historic artifacts from the National Philatelic Collection. A touchscreen interactive links visitors to the National Postal Museum’s online research database, Arago, enabling them to easily find more information about the stamps and mail that interest them.”

Since 2002, the museum has presented the Smithsonian Philatelic Achievement Award every two years.

As do most branches of the Smithsonian, the National Postal Museum has an extensive online presence including the main website hosting many interesting articles and images of archival items, Pushing the Envelope — the museum’s blog, and Arago which is a resource site divided into two main sections — Philately and Postal Operations.

United States - Scott #2779-2780 (1993) first day cover from Postal Commemorative Society
United States – Scott #2779-2780 (1993) first day cover from Postal Commemorative Society

The United States Postal Service commemorated the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum with a se-tenant block of four stamps released on the museum’s opening date of July 30, 1993 (Scott #2782a). The opening day ceremony at the museum featured the first day of issue of the stamps and included representation from the U.S. Postal Service, James H. Bruns and Robert McC. Adams, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

The stamp designs feature historical moments in U.S. postal history and depict objects and themes represented in the museum’s inaugural exhibit galleries. According to the National Postal Museum’s founding director, James H. Bruns, the museum helped determine which objects and images would be used in the design. Many of the elements depicted in the stamps were represented in the museum’s inaugural displays including a Concord stage coach, a 1930s mail truck, and the Inverted Jenny stamp. Bruns said that the “stamps were in effect like a miniature visit to the Museum.”

The Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) and the museum had input in deciding what would be featured on the stamps. Committee members at that time were interested in classical themes and historical events. Unlike other commemorative stamps, the National Postal Museum issue used four stamps to convey the sense of traveling through time.

Interestingly, two artists worked on the design, Lou Nolan and Richard Schlecht. Art Director Derry Noyes thought that the artist Richard Schlecht “did a very good job in conveying the message” through stamps as well as telling the story of transportation. Schlecht’s long career as an artist with National Geographic helped him in working with the interpretation of historical themes. Noyes explained that the stamps are “semi-jumbo” (a little larger) than usual. The complex design features portraits and line drawings. The main figures are framed by a circular white background.

Scott #2779 depicting the 18th century features Benjamin Franklin, reflecting his career as printer, postmaster and statesmen. He is represented by a printing press, mail rider, and Independence Hall. The Franklin portrait is based on the well-known painting by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis which can be found in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

United States - Scott #2781-2782 (1993) first day cover from Postal Commemorative Society
United States – Scott #2781-2782 (1993) first day cover from Postal Commemorative Society

A Civil War soldier, Concord stagecoach, and pony express rider embody the 19th century on Scott #2780. The 20th century is represented on Scott #2781 by airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh, a railway mail car, a 1931 Model A Ford mail truck, and JN-4H “Jenny” bi-plane #38262. The fourth stamp — Scott #2782 — features the art of letter writing, using memorable words from a California gold rush letter; four prized U.S stamps (Scott #39 90-cent George Washington, Scott #295 2-cent Empire State Express, Scott #C3a 24-cent Inverted Jenny, and Scott #C13 65-cent Graf Zeppelin), an undated postmark from Milledgeville, Georgia and a barcode representing contemporary mail processing technology.

The artwork was completed in ink and watercolor collage on board. The artist’s line drawings became engraved black images of a printing press, stagecoach; airplane, mail truck, letter, and cancellation. In some cases, these elements deliberately overlap the central image. The American Bank Note Company printed 37,500,000 copies of the stamps using the offset-intaglio process, perforated 11.

In closing, I hope you enjoyed this month-long (closer) examination of the hobby of stamp collecting and its permutations than I normally do with A Stamp A Day. While sometimes it was difficult to find enough to build a decent-length article around (tongs, hings and mounts, catalogues spring immediately to mind), on many topics I had such a wealth of details that I wanted to include that, on some days, I spent the entire day working on nothing but the article.I’m not sure if I’ll attempt to do this again next year, although there certainly are enough topics remaining to do so….

November and December, by design (and by certain external factors) will largely see extremely brief articles — probably no more than a paragraph or two on most days! More about the reasons behind this decision in my post on November 1.

Happy collecting!

Flag of the United States, 1959-date
Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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