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Philatelic Gallery : Rarities Vault

The Rarities Vault

The National Postal Museum celebrates the beauty and lore of stamps, showcasing rare stamps and covers from the museum's renowned collection. A stamp is much more than the physical evidence that postage has been paid. Stamps can be miniature works of art, treasured keepsakes, and rare collectibles.

The Rarities Vault has been home to a number of highly prized philatelic displays. Notable exhibits have included a display of 24 of the 100 original 24-cent 1918 inverted airmail stamp, rarities from Colonial America and Nashville, Tennessee, as well as a salute to the anniversary of the first American postage stamp.

Pane of 50 stamps of the 1962 Canal Zone error stamp

Both the 4-cent error and correct Columbus stamps

Battered envelope with three stamps, addressed to Charles Carroll

Roosevelt depositing a letter into the first Highway Post Office bus

Sketch of rectangular-shaped stamp with the 1934-issued Mothers of America stamp

Inverted stamps aren't the only valuable printing errors. Copies of this (image at left) 1962 Canal Zone stamp were printed with the Thatcher Bridge missing. One sheet of 200 stamps without the silver bridge escaped detection and were shipped to the Canal Zone Postal Administration. One pane of fifty stamps was sold to an American stamp dealer before the error was discovered. Of the three other panes recovered, two were donated to the National Postal Museum and the third was destroyed.

This (image at right) issue of postage stamps, ranging in value from one cent to two dollars, was originally designed to be issued in bicolor. The centers were to be black, and the frames were to be various colors. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was required to print enormous amounts of revenue stamps. The time and manpower required to print postage stamps in two colors could not be spared. The bicolored concept was abandoned, and the trans-Mississippi commemorative series of 1898 appeared in only one color.

This stamp (image at left) is known as a "color error." It is the four-cent denomination from the 1893 Columbian issue. The error, shown on top was printed in a distinctive deep blue instead of ultramarine. Fewer than 200 exist. Columbus's three vessels, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, are shown on the stamps.

This postcard (image at right) was salvaged from the wreckage of the German zeppelin Hindenburg. While attempting to land at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, N.J. on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg struck a mooring mast, burst into flames, and crumpled to the ground. The 357 pieces of mail saved were all badly damaged by fire.

This (image at left) is the first piece of mail flown across the Atlantic. It was carried in 1919 on the NC-4, the U.S. Navy "Flying Boat" that successfully completed the first transatlantic flight. Before the flight, the plane and its crew were in Halifax, Canada. Machinist Pat Carroll wrote a letter to his brother Charles, a corporal with the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Pat asked a member of the NC-4 flight crew to carry the letter and mail it after the flight. The plane left Halifax on May 15, flying first to Trepassey, Newfoundland. The plane reached the Azores on May 20 and Lisbon, Portugal on May 27, where the letter was placed in the mail.

When he donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, jeweler Harry Winston sent the fabled gem by registered first-class mail. This package carried the diamond on its trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. Of the $145.29 mailing price, only $2.44 was for postage. The balance was the insurance fee for $1 million.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shown on the left depositing a letter into the first Highway Post Office bus on its 1941 inaugural run, was one of the most famous stamp collectors in the United States. As president, Roosevelt was in a unique position to indulge his love of stamps. One way he did that was to sketch his own design proposals for stamps. These photographs shows his designs for three different stamps.

Roosevelt's design for the 1938 six-cent airmail stamp is shown on the right. The stamp design was taken from a Library of Congress bookplate.

Roosevelt's original sketch for the "Mothers of America" stamp (image at right). In 1933 Mrs. H. H. McCluer, a past national president of the American War Mothers, conceived the idea of issuing a special stamp for use in conjunction with Mother's Day mail. She met with Roosevelt on January 25, 1934. Known to be a devoted son, the president granted her request three weeks later.

In 1939 Roosevelt sketched this design on White House stationery for the "50 Years of Statehood" issue for Washington, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. An example of the issued stamp appears above the president's sketch.

For more information on Roosevelt's stamp sketches, visit the museum's online exhibit, Mail to the Chief.

Mail to the Chief online exhibit

Among the most popular stamp errors are inverted stamps. Click below to see some of the inverted stamps that have been displayed in the Rarities Vault.


Blue and black 5-cent trans-Mississippi commemorative stamp essay

Postcard recovered from the Hindenburg crash, encased in Post Office Department glassine envelope

Large envelope addressed to the Smithsonian Institution with 17 meter strips attached, marked registered and fragile

A sketch of a rectangular-shaped stamp above the 1938-issued six-cent airmail stamp

Sketch of rectangular-shaped stamp below actual 1939-issued 50 Years of Statehood stamp

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