History of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is dedicated to the preservation, study and presentation of postal history and philately. The museum uses exhibits, educational public programs and research to make this rich history available to scholars, philatelists, collectors and visitors from around the world.

On Native Land
We gratefully acknowledge the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather, as well as the diverse and vibrant Native communities who make their home here today.
—National Postal Museum Land Acknowledgement

History of the Museum Video
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[Music]

Narrator: In 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin Postmaster General and gave him the power to appoint as many deputies as needed to insure a postal system that would bind together the fledgling nation.

Then, as now, the speed and security of transporting the mail was critical to the postal system.

By 1788, stagecoaches delivered mail to 75 post offices around the country.

With America's rapid expansion the postal system grew.

To keep the growing nation connected, the postal system subsidized increasingly speedy modes of transportation.

[Train whistle]

Trains were great for quickly getting mail between the big East Coast cities.

But without a transcontinental rail people had at least six-week wait while the steamships made their way to the West Coast.

[Ringing bell]

Faster methods were required.

In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail Service ran stage coaches from Missouri and Arkansas to California in 21 days.

For 18 months, beginning on April 3rd 1860, privately-run Pony Express riders carried mail from misery to California in 10 days.

After the Civil War, railway post offices quickly became the backbone of American mail transportation.

Clerks aboard these train cars processed mail as trains sped from town to town, all across the country.

By the end of the 19th century the post office was hand delivering mail to every American's mailbox no matter where they lived, no matter what it took to get it there.

Always the first to harness innovations in transportation, the postal system experimented with the horseless wagon in the early 20th century, and then took to the air paving the way for commercial aviation in the US.

The postal system has come so far.

Riding the cutting edge of technology, the US Postal Service has delivered the United States into the future while never forgetting its past.

The preservation of US Postal History officially began in 1886 with the donation of a sheet of ten-cent Confederate postage stamps to the Smithsonian Institution.

What started as a humble assortment, eventually grew into an impressive collection numbering in the millions.

In 1993, the National Postal Museum found its own home here in the historic city post office building.

With its rare and expensive collection, the museum is a living legacy to the colorful, innovative history of the United States Postal Service.

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum is 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. The Museum occupies 100,000 square feet of the building with 35,000 square feet devoted to exhibition space. The Museum also houses a 6,000-square-foot research library, a stamp store and a museum shop.

photo of Historic Lobby of the Postal Museum
The Museum's Historic Lobby

The National Postal Museum houses one of the largest and most significant philatelic and postal history collections in the world and one of the world’s most comprehensive library resources on philately and postal history. The museum’s many exhibition galleries present America’s postal history from Colonial times to the present, while its collections contain prestigious U.S. and international postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and 3-D objects.

The museum atrium has a 90-foot-high ceiling with three vintage airmail planes suspended overhead, a reconstructed railway mail car, an 1851 stagecoach, a 1931 Ford Model A postal truck and a contemporary Long Life Vehicle postal truck. Among its permanent exhibitions are: “Binding the Nation,” “Systems at Work,” “Moving the Mail,” “Mail Call,” “Customers and Communities” and “Pony Express: Romance vs. Reality.” The museum is also home to the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery—the largest stamp gallery in the world.

Visitors can walk along a Colonial post road, ride with the mail in a stagecoach, browse through a small town post office from the 1920s, receive free stamps to start a collection and more. Museum presentations bring to life the story of “Owney,” the mascot dog of the Railway Mail Service, and tell the history of U.S. mail trains.

With more than 40,000 volumes and manuscript holdings, the National Postal Museum’s Library Research Center—a branch of Smithsonian Libraries—is among the world’s largest philatelic and postal history research facilities. The library is open to the public by appointment only.

a sheet of blue stamps with a face on them
Sheet of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps

The National Philatelic Collection was established at the Smithsonian in 1886 with the donation of a sheet of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps. Generous gifts from individuals and foreign governments, transfers from government agencies and occasional purchases have increased the collection to today's total of more than 5.9 million items.

From 1908 until 1963, the collection was housed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. In 1964, the collection was moved to the museum that is now known as the National Museum of American History. There, the collection expanded to include postal history and stamp production. The collection was then moved to its present location and the National Postal Museum opened on July 30, 1993.

In addition to one of the world's largest collections of stamps and philatelic materials, the National Postal Museum has postal history material that pre-dates stamps, vehicles used to transport the mail, mailboxes and mailbags, postal uniforms and equipment.

Museum and Exhibition Design

photo a train mail car in the Postal Museum
Railway Mail exhibit in the Museum's Atrium

The National Postal Museum's award winning public spaces, shops and support facilities were designed by the Washington, D.C. firm of Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King Architects.

The Museum's galleries and inaugural exhibitions were designed by Miles Fridberg Molinaroli, Inc. with Bowie Gridley Architects. Support for exhibit fabrication was provided by the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central, the National Museum of American History's Department of Exhibits and the National Air and Space Museum.

National Postal Museum Funding

The National Postal Museum opened on July 30, 1993. It was created on November 6, 1990 in a joint agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Postal Service.

The National Postal Museum receives funding through three primary sources: the United States Postal Service, the Smithsonian Institution's annual federal appropriation, and gifts from private individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Without the substantial support of the United States Postal Service the National Postal Museum would be unable to create exhibitions, conduct scholarly research, or produce exciting public and educational programs. Each year, the United States Postal Service provides the majority of the Museum's total operating budget.

The National Postal Museum gratefully acknowledges the continued support and commitment of the United States Postal Service.