A recent trip to Washington D.C. provided me with the opportunity to revisit the National Postal Museum. One of the Smithsonian’s treasured institutions, the National Postal Museum, conveniently located next to Union Station, is free and open daily to the public. It is a treasure for children and families, philatelists, and anyone who is interested in U.S. history and the role of the post office in the development of the country.
It is through the National Postal Museum that I learned the story of Owney, the scruffy dog from Albany, New York who became infatuated with the mail in the late 1800s. Owney, who was attracted to mail bags, became something of a mascot for the postal service, traveling the country by rail and truck along with the mail. He even traveled to Canada and later, around the world to Asia, along with the mail. The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in honor of Owney in 2011.
The National Postal Museum includes a number of large-scale permanent exhibitions. One key exhibit is called Binding the Nation, which details through illustrations and panels how the U.S. Postal system came to be, dating back to pre-Colonial times. While most people are aware that Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General, while the colonies were still under British rule, it is less well known that publisher William Goddard, along with Franklin, was largely responsible to the rise of an independent, private mail system. While the British deserve credit for creating order from a free wheeling method of delivery, it was this independent system, free from prying English eyes, that contributed to the American Revolution and gave rise to today’s postal system.
Another interesting story is the role of the Pony Express. The pony service was established by the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company as a means of delivering mail quickly from the east to the west coast during the Gold Rush, all in ten days. Riders, who changed horses every ten miles, were vulnerable to robbers, rough terrain, inclement weather, and other perils along the way.
Often romanticized, the Pony Express was short-lived. The cost of the service, which operated for only 19 months, 1860 – 1861, was largely due to the high cost of the delivery. Equally important was the development of the transcontinental telegraph, the 19th century equivalent of instant messaging.
Some changes have taken place at the National Postal Museum since I first visited it. The stamp collections, once relegated to a corner gallery on the main floor of the museum now have their own spacious galleries, located at street level. The galleries display both historic national and international stamps, as well as special gems of philately.
Currently there are two smaller temporary exhibits on display at the National Postal Museum. A larger gallery set aside for rotating exhibits was not open at the time I visited.
My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I is part of a larger gallery called Mail Call, devoted to the role of letters in boosting morale for deployed military. My Fellow Soldiers was co-created with the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University.
A second temporary exhibition, on view through Sept. 10, 2017, is called Mail Trolleys. The specially designed mail trolley was first introduced in St. Louis, MO in the late 19th century. As on trains, the mail clerks sorted the mail on the trolley itself, with sorting racks, pigeonholes and a cancelling machine built on board. The concept spread to other cities, including Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and, in 1896, to my home city of San Francisco. The trolleys suffered from labor strikes in the early 20th century. Eventually, increased size and weight of the mail put the trolleys out of business.
There is much to see and explore in Washington, but the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum should definitely be on your list.
Wikipedia. Pony Express