Collection History

Confederate pane of green stamps
Confederate pane donated by Robertson

The national collection originated in 1886 with the donation of a pane of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps by M. W. Robertson. The collection was originally housed in the National Museum in what is now the Arts & Industries building adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The April 1893 philatelic journal, the Golden Star, referred to a Smithsonian display of Confederate stamps, including the pane donated by Robertson, "under a pile of relics of some illustrious rebel general."

The national collection grew slowly until 1911, when the Post Office Department began to transfer more than 200,000 stamps and postal operations artifacts. To organize this acquisition, the Smithsonian hired Joseph Leavy as the first curator. By 1914, Leavy had placed more than 14,000 stamps on display.

The national collection has benefited greatly from transfers from the Post Office Department and, since 1971, the United States Postal Service. Other government agencies, including the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Internal Revenue Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Library of Congress have also transferred significant material.

In addition, many individual collectors have donated rare material and highly specialized collections, creating the depth and quality that make our holdings a national treasure.

Old log post office with people standing in front
This 1863 photograph of the Pembina post office in the Dakota Territory is the first postal-related object acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, donated by Charles Cavalier in 1882.