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Put this Washington museum in your stamp collection
By Tom Adkinson

WASHINGTON – Waiting anxiously for a mail carrier to deliver a letter isn’t as common as it was before electronic communication became so easy, but it’s still a treat to find a real letter from a long-lost friend, an unexpected check or even a specialty catalog from a retailer you love in your very own mailbox.

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Bins full of colorful stamps are offered to museum visitors, who can take up to six to start their collections. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The history of how those items, and all of the other items that flow through the U.S. Postal Service, is told in entertaining form at the U.S. Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

While the Smithsonian’s most famous and flashiest museums are on the National Mall, the postal museum is somewhat tucked away and almost inconspicuous in the historic City Post Office Building, which was Washington’s post office from 1914-1986. It’s still easy to find since it’s directly across Massachusetts Avenue from bustling Union Station. In fact, you can hop off a Metro train (Washington’s subway), go up an escalator and simply cross the street and walk right into the museum. Admission is free.

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A rapidly changing electronic display of stamps captures visitors’ attention in the first gallery; image by Tom Adkinson.

The museum’s 35,000 square feet of exhibition space hold all manner of information and trivia, including the fact that the slogan most often associated with U.S. mail delivery pre-dates the Declaration of Independence by, oh, about 2,500 years.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” which is engraved on a post office in New York City, is the translated description of the Persian system of mounted postal carrier circa 500 B.C.

The modest entrance to the U.S. Postal Museum gives little hint of the color and history inside. Image by Tom Adkinson.

While most of the postal museum’s material and displays are about American mail, it explains that stamps originated in England in the 1830s. A former schoolteacher named Rowland Hill suggested the concept of an adhesive stamp in 1837. The first stamp, the Penny Black, appeared in 1840, and you can see a Penny Black in the museum’s first gallery.

The first U.S. stamps followed quickly. They were a five-cent Benjamin Franklin stamp and a 10-cent George Washington stamp, both issued in 1847.

However, the one stamp that seems to get the most attention is the Upside Down Jenny, the most famous error in American stamp history. The Jenny that is upside down is a Curtiss JN-4 airplane in the middle of the 24-cent stamp’s design. Only one sheet of 100 stamps was printed in error in 1918. The error and the scarcity made them instantly valuable. One sold in 2018 for $1.59 million.

The postal museum both explains the mechanics of mail delivery through history (airplanes are overhead, there’s a railroad mail car to inspect and there’s an explanation of the private business that was the Pony Express) and tells America’s history through commemorative stamps.

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Pull out a drawer in the National Stamp Collection to learn another piece of the nation’s history; image by Tom Adkinson.

One of its treasures is the National Stamp Collection – 4,000 stamps and mail pieces arranged in chronological order in a display where you can slide vertical cases out of the wall for close inspection.

If you have youngsters with you, there’s a scavenger hunt challenge through the two-level museum, and there are bins containing thousands of stamps from around the world to paw through. You can take up to six to start your own collection.

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The Upside Down Jenny stamp came off a spider press (named for its spindly arms) such as this one; image by Tom Adkinson.

Those who do become stamp collectors join some prestigious company. Among the notables who have found education, challenge and relaxation in stamp collecting are John Lennon, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, photographer Ansel Adams, author James Michener, President Franklin Roosevelt and King George V, who might have thanked fellow countryman Rowland Hill for thinking up the idea in the first place.

Trip-planning resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published February 6, 2020

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