Archival Project Underway at the National Postal Museum


By Susan Smith, PhD; Winton M. Blount Research Chair

"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.1"  While our website notes wonderful museum and library collections, and provides finding guides for several archival collections,2 it does not make clear the diversity of the primary source texts and illustrations held by the museum. These sources include personal papers, citizens' letters to postal officials, recorded interviews of stamp collectors and female postal employees, logbooks, airmail contract cards, promotional materials introducing zip codes, print and digital photographs, postal forms, postal registers, blueprints, and stamp production designs. These and other materials are scattered throughout onsite and offsite storage, museum files, and the library, which is a unit of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.3 Museum staff have been offered intriguing, potential donations, but accepting many such archival materials has been hindered by the lack of an established space and system of categorization and method of public access for bulk collections.

Photograph of various archival items such as registry of postal employees, nametags, brown paper parcel, notebooks, scrapbooks, photographs and other documents scattered across a desk
The formats of the archival materials is diverse. Photo by Susan Smith, National Postal Museum.

Currently, the majority of NPM's archival collections are inaccessible to the public; indeed, until the summer of 2021, we – the museum staff – didn't have a full picture of the materials held by the museum. Funds awarded by the Smithsonian Women's Committee (SWC) enabled us to hire a contract archivist in 2020 to survey our holdings and begin the long journey of systematically organizing and describing collections of historical records and making them publicly accessible.4

The pandemic delayed this initial assessment of archival materials, but the resulting inability to access the museum in 2020 encouraged extensive discussions between the contractor and the librarian and the curatorial and collections staffs. Staff suggestions regarding potential materials proved fruitful for searching databases, as well as several on-site locations when limited access was granted this past summer. Unfortunately, until the pandemic subsides further, the completion of the survey through access to the library and offsite storage will remain impossible. Nevertheless, the museum staff has a much firmer grasp of the full scope of its archival holdings. Moreover, the contractor provided a list of plans and policies necessary, recommendations for addressing related materials split between the museum collection and a museum archive, and suggestions for quick wins and long-term strategies. In short, the contractor provided a survey, a collection narrative, and a road map for future action. Consequently, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee award has served as seed money for the steps that can come next when staff is allowed to work in-person, onsite at our various storage locations.

The museum’s goal is to make NPM’s archival holdings findable by providing basic information, such as collection name and volume, for listings on SOVA, the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive.5 Also essential is a basic description of each collection, including the types of materials contained within, whether they are correspondence, memos, design documents, photographs, etc. Samples of these materials are pictured here. Many of these items remain unprocessed and will remain unavailable to researchers until they can be described and tracked.

Left: brown paper pamphlet advertising Christmas tree lighting ceremony and drawing of Christmas tree printed in black ink Right: Off white with blue tint paper pamphlet with “Safety Rules” and drawings of a bus and train printed in black ink
The program, “Lighting the Christmas Tree,” and the booklet, "Safety Rules. Mobile Units RPO and HPO Operations," along with other unprocessed materials, are from the James A. Farley Post Office in New York City. Photos by Susan Smith, National Postal Museum.
Left: white piece of paper with crude drawing of rocket in blue ink Right: yellow routing slip with printed message describing “conceptual renderings” of rocket
Sketch of the Soyuz capsule among the materials for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz stamps jointly issued by the Soviet Union and the United States. From the files of the Third Assistant Postmaster General's Collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum Library. This particular file held some stamp design artwork, letters between postal service employees involved in stamp production, notes from the artist of the stamps, USPS routing slips (pictured), and official first day covers. Letters from the public to the postal service and post office press releases are common to many of the files in this collection. Photo by Susan Smith, National Postal Museum.

Whether physical or digital, onsite or off, the materials held by NPM will enable historians to examine topics as broad as America's expansion to the West, with the new post offices marking the arrival of the federal government; the linking of rural and urban America through communication and business; immigrant adaptation to American culture; increasing literacy rates; the innovations in communication and transportation that changed industries that served and used the mail; the evolution of domestic and international business ties and practices; the role of the Postal Service and its employees in creating and breaking employment barriers based on race and gender; and the bureaucratic, labor and business practices and problems in an organization which, at its peak in 1999, had nearly 800,000 employees spread throughout the country and US territories.6  These histories are critical to understanding America as a community.

Image of ledger book documenting the issuance of money orders; pages are covered in delicate black script with names, amount, etc.
Detail from a ledger of “Money Orders issued at the Post Office in Humboldt, Kansas.” Circa 1900. While the museum holds a wide variety of ledgers, many from the Midwest, they are not yet processed. Photo by Lynn Heidelbaugh, National Postal Museum.

Beyond the public visiting the museum, there is a sizeable audience for these stories among the readers of philatelic and postal history magazines and journals in print and online. The more archival material inventoried and preserved, the deeper and more complete the stories that can be written and shared by researchers through publication and philatelic and scholarly gatherings and the more museum staff can study, interpret and disseminate through exhibitions, publications, online and educational programming.

Susan Smith

About the Author
Susan Smith is a historian and the Winton M. Blount Research Chair. Working at the National Postal Museum enables her to combine four great loves: history, museums, cultural heritage, and research. She completed her PhD in History and her MA in International Studies at the University of Washington and a Museum Studies Certificate at George Washington University. She has taught at universities on both coasts and in the Midwest, as well as in Egypt, and has published in the fields of Russian history, museum studies and cultural heritage. As the Winton M. Blount Research Chair, she focuses on fostering collaborative research efforts and disseminating their results in the museum’s thematic fields of philately, postal operations, and the history of mail.