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The National Postal Museum

by Katie Calvert

The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, located in the former City Post Office building next to wonderful Beaux-Arts-style Union Station, is an interesting stop not only for philatelists, but also for history buffs.

National Postal MuseumThe story of the founding of the U.S. Postal Service and its efforts to deliver the mail despite “snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night” make a visit to this museum a fun and interesting way to spend a few hours during a Washington, D.C. trip.
The Smithsonian started “collecting stamps” in 1886, when the organization was given a sheet of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps.
Stamp exhibit at National Postal MuseumThe National Philatelic Collection now has almost 6 million items. Originally housed under the auspices of and in different Smithsonian museums and buildings, the collection has been permanently housed in the National Postal Museum since it opened in 1993.
Airmail planes at National Postal MuseumStamps are not the only thing that you will see in the museum’s five galleries. Airmail planes, which hang suspended from the ceiling, and different vehicles (including a stagecoach and train car) help tell the story of how mail got from sender to receiver. The museum relates a history that is far from boring.
Benjamin Franklin gets to kick off the history lesson. The British Crown named him postmaster of Philadelphia and later joint postmaster general for all of the American colonies until the king’s bureaucrats dismissed him for his radical activities. In 1775, he became the first postmaster general of the United Colonies.
An exhibit at the Postal MuseumThe story of the Pony Express still excites the imagination. It was the fastest way for mail to travel the almost 2,000 miles between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. A young William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the service’s riders during its brief 18-month history.
The amazing—and sometimes crazy—tales from the early days of transcontinental airmail service read like an adventure story. Operating without radar, illuminated runways, or modern instruments, these daring young men in their flying machines met the challenges of round-the-clock flying.
The Smithsonian National Postal Museum is open every day except December 25th. The National Postal Museum Library is open to the public by appointment only weekdays and the third Saturday of each month.
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