National Postal Museum

If you live in the United States, you may have noticed mail taking longer than usual to arrive, or mail just getting completely lost.  As more people stayed home in 2020 because of COVID-19, they tended to do more online shopping, thus increasing our mail usage.  However, COVID-19 also meant that postal workers frequently got sick and had to quarantine, which decreased the number of staff at work each day.  The efficiency of the United States Postal Service had already been deteriorating prior to COVID-19, so the current pandemic just aggravated the situation.  Despite its problems, though, the U.S. Postal Service does have an interesting history.  You can learn more about it at the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C., which is a free museum owned by the Smithsonian.  Although it is currently closed because of COVID-19, Google Arts & Culture provides a free virtual tour option of the museum.

In 1993, the Smithsonian opened the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C.’s former City Post Office Building, which functioned from 1914 to 1986.  The collection comprises of items owned by the National Philatelic Collection (the U.S. government’s collection of six million stamps) and other items related to U.S. postal history. Interestingly, 99% of the stamps added to the National Postal Museum’s collection today are donations.

Since the National Postal Museum is in a former post office, the main entrance still has rows of personal mailboxes on its walls.  One room on the main floor leads to an impressive array of stamps belonging to the National Philatelic Collection.  This room is full of vertical drawers arranged with stamps that you can slide out and admire.  There is also a table filled with extra stamps that visitors can touch.  Collectors are welcome to take home a few of those stamps (I think it was a total of 5) from this pile.

Former mailboxes are still visible on the museum’s walls, since it used to be a post office.

The National Postal Museum’s main exhibits are on the lower level.  The main room downstairs has a tall ceiling with airplanes hanging from it.  These are airplanes that used to deliver the mail.  The first airplanes to deliver the mail in the United States were the de Havilland planes, which were formerly used for military service during World War I.  As soon as World War I ended in 1918, the U.S. Postal Service asked if it could have the planes.  The main room downstairs also has some old mail delivery cars and mailboxes on display as well.

This is a WWI de Havilland plane that was reconverted into a mail delivery plane after the war.

The museum’s main exhibit chronologically describes the history of the U.S. Postal Service, which includes its early colonial days under the British.  Prior to the American Civil War, people had to pay the mail carrier in order to receive a letter.  However, in 1863, with the influx of letters, due to the war, the policy began to change.  Eventually, the government began paying the mail carriers.  The U.S. mail system evolved in other ways as well.  Initially, people usually went to the post office to pick up their mail, but as the country continued to develop, more and more people began having mail delivered straight to them.  Although it may not be a perfect system, it is amazing how the U.S. Postal Service personally delivers mail to over 300 million people each day.

Sources and Further Reading

“Frequently Asked Questions.” National Postal Museum. (accessed February 26, 2021).

“History of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.” Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Klinefelter, Quinn. “’There’s No End in Sight’: Mail Delivery Delays Continue Across the Country.” National Public Radio. January 22, 2021. (accessed February 26, 2021).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s