My heart skipped a beat when I took the letter bearing foreign stamps from my mailbox. Who could be writing to me from Russia? Before tearing open the envelope to find out, I paused to admire the stamps. Such beauties! They depicted delicate watercolors of wildflowers; I wasn’t surprised to find the letter was from my friend Vera, a botanist.
Stamp enthusiasts and those interested in the historical role of the U.S. mail should seek out the National Postal Museum a few blocks northeast of the Mall. Housed in the lower level of the magnificent Beaux Arts-style Old City Post Office just across from Union Station, the museum has any number of lively interactive displays vying for attention. It’s a great place to take kids, who invariably grasp the innate appeal of stamps. However, the museum cleverly presents postal history within the larger framework of American history, so that visitors come away with a better understanding of the vital role the Postal Service has played since Benjamin Franklin’s day.
Descending the escalator to the museum’s spacious atrium, the visitor is surrounded by stagecoaches, railway cars, antique mail trucks and swooping antique biplanes. Curiously, though these conveyances are immobile, they somehow transmit the excitement of the constant movement of the mail more effectively than a kinetic display would. Entrances to exhibits as diverse as the role of the mail during the Klondike gold rush and the story of the "duck stamps" series branch off seemingly in every direction. Who would have thought that the Postal Service had such a colorful history?
The challenges the fledgling Postal Service faced were daunting. From the first postal routes that followed East Coast Indian trails to the expansion westward and the era (surprisingly brief, I learned) of the Pony Express, the development of the postal system reflected the restless, diverse nation, binding it together by providing an essential conduit for communication. At one point, for example, the Postal Service faced the logistic problems inherent in reaching far-flung rural communities, often operating at a deficit. (Hey, doesn’t that sound familiar?)
The museum incorporates all sorts of gee-whiz electronic contrivances into the displays. Unfortunately, some of the interactive gadgetry is not fully operational (not that the youngest visitors care; they’re content just pushing buttons). A spiffy Pitney-Bowles mail sorting machine fails to deliver a promised personalized letter, for example.
The most impressive displays, however, are decidedly low-tech. The heart of the museum is the more than 55,000 stamps from the U.S. and around the world, one of the world’s largest philatelic collections. Much of it is viewable on pull-out frames, while special exhibits in the gallery’s "Rarities Vault" are devoted to such oddities as inverted stamps and the stamp sketches done by Franklin D. Roosevelt, an enthusiastic stamp collector.
Before leaving the museum, I stop at the stamp store and buy a sheet of stamps with lavish illustrations of carnivorous plants – the perfect thing for when I write back to Vera in Russia.