The National Postal Museum is one of those odd little Smithsonian museums that few people think of. I didn't even think of it until I planned out a little trip into DC. I wanted to go see the Obama portraits at the Portrait Gallery, and I wanted to hit the Moleskine Shop in Union station. So I thought to check if there were any Smithsonian museums between the two, that I could check out while walking in between them.
The first thing I noticed was the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial, which I found very moving. The problem with DC is that there is so much to see, so many really nice trees get lost in the forest. And this one is literally at the Judiciary Square metro station. The elevator comes up in the middle of the memorial. I found this a bit disturbing, actually. Also, the memorial isn't part of the Judiciary Square station name. The Navy Memorial, the National Zoo, and the Civil War Memorial all get to be in station names. Why not the police memorial, especially since it hosts the damn elevator?
The next thing I noticed sliding my finger along the map is that the Postal Museum is right next door to Union Station. It has to be the easiest Smithsonian Museum to get to. This made it very easy for me, because I was able to hit Union Station for lunch (mmmm, Bojangles) in between the Obama portraits and the postal museum.
The first thing you have to understand about the National Postal Museum is that the security guards do not play around. I easily could have taken a can of spray paint in to the Portrait Gallery and defaced one of the Obama portraits. Not much, there we guards next to each painting that would have grabbed me. But no one would have noticed the spray paint can until I was right next to the painting.
The Postal Museum on the other hand, has two guards, a metal detector, and an x-ray machine. They were very suspicious. "What do you have in this back pack!?" They made me take out and unwrap the two Buddha statues (Hotei and Shakyamuni) that I had picked up in Chinatown before the Portrait Gallery opened. I mean, this is just normal tourist junk, I can't believe they don't see this alot. It just made me glad that I remembered to leave my three knives at home (I normally only carry two, but there is also normally one in the back pack).
So, of course, the Postal Museum has a lot of stamps. And they have some pretty damn cool ones. They have a stamp from the Stamp Act. You know, the taxation act by the British that was one of the grievances that started the Revolutionary War? The act we get the phrase "No taxation without representation" from? They also had a cover (envelope) from a letter that had been stolen by Indians, recovered by the post office, and eventually delivered to the addressee. Apparently Amelia Earhart carried letters with her on her record breaking flights across the oceans and around the world, and they had several of those. There is even a letter mailed from the Titanic, probably dropped off in France before it sank.
I also learned quite a bit about the upside down plane stamp, more formally called an Inverted Jenny (the plane, a Curtis JN-4, was called a Jenny). I thought there had been some misprints, and they'd gotten out and been used. It turns out there was one complete sheet of them. A stamp collector named William Robey went to the post office the first day the stamps were issued. This was the first stamp for the regular air mail service, and Robey knew that the first day of a stamp issue was the best day to get misprints. He found the misprint sheet, and asked the clerk if he had any more. The clerk then insisted he return that sheet, and Robey refused. The postal service closed down every post office in the country and had them search for and destroy any other misprints. They were afraid the misprinted stamps would reflect badly on their new air mail service. They even went to Robey's house a couple times to try and get the sheet of misprints back from him.
Robey instead sold the sheet for $15,000. That was actually several years salary, and according to Robey it helped pay for his daughter's wedding years later. In any case, he'd paid $24 for the sheet, giving him a 62,500% return on his investment. The sheet was sold again before it was broken up. But before then, each stamp was numbered on the back in pencil. So if you have an Inverted Jenny, you know exactly where it was on the original sheet of stamps. Furthermore, this makes it clear that several of them (six) are missing. One was even mailed accidentally by a collector's wife. I'm going to assume it was an accident, and he hadn't forgotten to take out the trash or something.
An interesting side not about the Inverted Jenny: It was a 24 cent stamp for air mail printed in 1918. The museum also shows a 1963 air-mail stamp to commemorate Amilia Earhart. It's 8 cents.
The museum has a whole room of sliding, vertical racks holding stamps from the 1700s to the present. They also have similar racks holding private collections that were donated to the museum. I didn't really look at them, because I'm not really into collecting stamps. I'm more into collecting dice, skulls, and maybe Buddha statues. But I figure that if you are into collecting stamps, you would find this place to be awesome.
They also have several mail boxes. They have some from the early days. Many of those were poorly constructed because the contractors who made them were defrauding the post office. They have examples of other mail boxes from around the world. They even have a mail box that was across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. There was a lot of mail in the rubble of Ground Zero that had to be recovered so that it could be delivered appropriately.
They had several exhibits on the delivery of the mail. The down stairs area has several planes that were used to deliver mail, and old fashioned and a newer mail man truck, a train car, and even a dog sled that was used to deliver the mail. The train car especially was ingeniously designed, with tons of racks and slots for mail, and a system of racks and sliding hooks for holding bags of mail. It was all organized by desination so that when the train pulled in the mail could be quickly unloaded.
They had an exhibit on the first postal route between Boston and New York. The first rider had to mark the train with notches in the trees, for the mail men who came after him. It was a 268 mile journey following Indian trails, and mail men were known to disappear on the route. It eventually became known as the "King's Best Highway." You can still travel it if you want. These days it's called U.S. Route 1.
Early delivery raters were actually kind of high for the times. This was because the USPS was using the first class delivery rate to subsidize the delivery of newspapers around the country. It was felt that getting the news out was of benefit to American society, especially in rurl areas. Of course, home delivery came to rural areas later on. Rural citizens generally had to go to the local post office to pick up their mail. Congress evenually changed the way the rates were set up, and they dropped to three cents for a letter, and stayed their for thirty years.
They had two exhibits on the violent side of mail. One was an exhibit on mail during wartime: making sure that the mail can get to the soldiers stationed in a war zone, and the letters that the soldiers sent back to their loved ones at home. They also had an exhibit on the mail inspectors. It was rather odd, I must say. One of the exhibits was a Hamburgler looking puppet named Elwood P. Zap, apparently used once in 1979 in an educational effort. There was also a section on postal inspectors in Hollywood films. Most of them were from the Alan Ladd days of film, although apparently Louis Gosset Jr. did a couple of movies (The Inspectors and The Inspectors 2) about postal inspectors: "A mail bomb ... two mismatched inspectors ... can they catch the killer ... before he strikes again?" The sequel is on YouTube. Apparently it was a TV movie. I'm shocked.
On the cool side, the postal inspectors were the first law enforcement branch in the United States to make use of the tommy gun.
My favorite part of the museum was the section on the sorting of the mail. It showed all sorts of innovations that the postal service went through in order to figure out where the mail was supposed to go. In the early days they would throw the mail into bins, reminding me of the "throwers" in Fight Club. They even had a little game set up so that you could try it out. But one October the Chicago Post Office was so swamped by holiday mailers that they had to shut down for three days.
The most obvious innovation that the Post Office came up with is zip codes. Zip is actually an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, the idea being that by dividing the country up into zones and tagging them on the letters, the mail would "zip" along more efficently. Zip codes have come to have many other uses. The Census Bureau uses them for generat statistics, credit card companies use them for verification of sales, and insurance companies use them to determine insurance rates (in a move reminiscent of the racist practice of red lining).
But the Post Office didn't stop there, even after expanding the 5-digit zip codes to zip+4. They have been innovators in automatic processing, using bar codes and optical character recognition to help deliver 660 million pieces of mail every day. The bar codes they use can sort the mail down to "carrier sort" level, where the mail is sorted in the order a specific mail carrier needs to deliver it. This was a task that used to be performed by the mail carriers themselves, before they went out on their routes.
There is one rather peculiar display at the Postal Museum: A stuffed and mounted dog. In the late 1800's, Owney was a dog that would come to work with a clerk at the Albany post office. The clerk quit, but the dog kept hanging around. He apparently loved the mail bags. When the mail bags got put on the trains, he would follow them onto the trains, and travel around the country. He became very popular in railway post offices around the country, and was considered a good luck charm because no train had ever wrecked while he was on it.
The Albany post office became concerned that Owney might get lost. So they had a dog tag printed asking that he be returned to the Albany post office if he was found. The other post offices thought this was a good idea, and added their own tags to Owney's collar. Eventually he got so many tags on him that they had to make a vest to put them on, because they wouldn't all fit on his collar. And still he kept getting tags. Legend has it that he received over 1,000 tags in his lifetime, but the Postal Museum only has 372 in their collection. I would have liked to see those tags, but they were not on display.
Postal workers acroos the country chipped in money so that Owney could be preserved after his death. He has been at the Smithsonian Museum since 1911.