Hidden Gem: National Postal Museum – Washington DC

Hidden Gem: National Postal Museum – Washington DC

Not all of the museums that make up the Smithsonian Institute are located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The National Postal Museum is located across the street from Union Station. It’s not as well-known or visited by as many people as its counterparts on the Mall, but it’s just as interesting.

Now, you may be tempted to think that the National Postal Museum is just for stamp collectors. Not so! There were many really fascinating exhibits about the history of mail, the role of mail in historic events, and how mail is handled around the world.

The building itself is, appropriately enough, located in the historic City Post Office Building, which was constructed in 1914 and served as the Washington, D.C., post office from 1914 through 1986. If you’ve ever been in a post office that old, you know that it is a beautiful place. Far from the generic gray laminate countertop and fluorescent light spaces that they occupy today, post offices in that era were elegant.  They were places of importance. Marble countertops, high ceilings, and shiny brass fixtures that gleamed like gold were prominent features. The National Postal Museum has retained some of that elegance.

One of the first exhibits we saw was about The Inverted Jenny.  It was a 24-cent stamp used in 1918 depicting a plane (the Curtiss JN-4). Unfortunately, during the printing process a mistake was made, and one sheet of 100 stamps was printed with the plane upside down. These stamps are highly sought after by collectors today, and a single one of them can sell in the ball park of $1 million.

Then we saw an envelope that had been postmarked in space.


The astronauts aboard the Apollo 15 mission postmarked this envelope and the new space stamps on the last day of their mission in 1971. Meanwhile, 238,000 miles away on Earth, post offices around the country issued the stamps for the first time.

We also saw a mailbox that had been located across the street from the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It held up surprisingly well, all things considered.


We got to see displays of stamps and mail from around the world, then we went into a hands on area. There, visitors could design a stamp on a computer monitor, or sort through bins of the real thing to find a few for a new or existing collection. I loved looking through the stamps. I’m not a collector but I did find that they came in handy as embellishments for my scrapbook pages!


We learned about Owney, the little dog who served as a mascot for the US Railway Mail Service. He was a stray who wandered into the Albany Post Office and ended up getting adopted by a worker there. Owney usually slept on the mail bags and whenever they were moved, he went with them. He was a faithful guardian of railway mail and the bags it was carried in, and would not allow anyone other than mail clerks to touch the bags.

Owney’s trips grew longer as the Railway Service expanded and became more widely used. The postal workers in Albany became concerned that if anything would happen to Owney on his travels, he could end up lost. They bought a dog collar with a metal tag that read: “Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York”. Other railway mail stations added a tag, and eventually Owney looked like this:


Bless his heart. In his many years of travel with the postal service, he was given more than 1000 medals and tags to wear! (And in case you are wondering, that really is Owney. They had him stuffed after his death.)

From there we saw the various methods of mail transport used over the years. There was a stagecoach, a tractor trailer, and an airplane.


There was a great walk through exhibit about the Pony Express, which contained this fascinating bit of trivia:


Makes griping about the cost of a stamp seem petty, doesn’t it?

The special exhibit when we were there was “Fire & Ice,” which showed how not all of the casualties on the Hindenburg and Titanic disasters were human.


We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the National Postal Museum and I would highly recommend visiting there the next time you’re in our nation’s capital!

BARGAIN ALERT!  The Postal Museum provides a selection of postcards for free.  You only have to pay for the postage to mail them.

The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20002.  Telephone 202-633-5555.  Open daily 10:00 am t o 5:30 pm except Christmas Day. Admission is free.  The nearest Metro station is Union Station on the red line.  Use the Massachusetts Avenue exit and as you come up the escalator, the museum will be directly across the street.


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