The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From music to the moon, postal museum puts distinctive stamps on history

The National Postal Museum’s atrium, which features three airmail planes, is one of five exhibit galleries that tell the postal history of America.
The National Postal Museum’s atrium, which features three airmail planes, is one of five exhibit galleries that tell the postal history of America. (Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum)
Placeholder while article actions load

One exhibit focuses on Alexander Hamilton. Another casts new light on the great 20th-century violinist Jascha Heifetz. Others illuminate immigration to America, Amelia Earhart’s first transatlantic flight and John Lennon. I would expect to find this at the Smithsonian Museum of American History — but I confess it took me by surprise at the National Postal Museum.

This is a failure of imagination on my part, not least because I’ve lived in Washington for 10 years and passed the museum, in its imposing building across from Union Station, more times than I can count, imagining it to be stodgy all the while. In my stamp-collecting childhood — back in the days when department stores still had stamp departments, and my friends and I saved up our allowances to go to them — the National Postal Museum represented something of a Mecca. Stamps, I believed, offered something for everyone. Since my own passion has waned, I foolishly assumed the museum had stayed locked in around the same period; stamps, after all, are on the way out, in an era when you can customize and print your own. But the museum has cheerfully moved into the modern age, self-printing stamps, state-of-the-art exhibits and all.

It certainly reaches out to children. In the main exhibition hall, airplanes hang suspended from the roof, Air and Space Museum-style, with a chain of Pony Express horses pointing aspirationally skyward beneath them, like Santa’s reindeer. You can walk through a diorama re-creating America’s first mail route between New York and Boston (now U.S. 1) as it looked when it was first used in the late 17th century. You can look at mail that was sent to the dead-letter office as undeliverable and see if you can decipher the addresses. You can board a vintage railway car still set up for mail-sorting duties. You can examine a relief model of Lower Manhattan depicting postal innovations in the early 20th century, with a wealth of illustrative detail worthy of a fine children’s book.

Arguably the museum’s greatest accomplishment, though, is to make the stamps as exciting to a general audience as the rest of the displays — and as they were to me when I was in the throes of a collector’s ardor. History geeks and philatelists will go giddy on the upper floor, where one whole room is lined with rows of metal frames that you can pull out from the wall to examine, close up (and there are magnifying glasses available), the stamps inside — never knowing exactly what you’re going to get.

There are the sketches that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an ardent stamp collector, made as suggestions for stamp designs. There are the printing errors that marred commemorative stamps, like the 1962 stamp commemorating a new bridge over the Panama Canal, in which the bridge was left off a few sheets. (The most famous error, the 1918 “inverted Jenny,” one sheet of the first issue of stamps commemorating the start of airmail in the United States printed with the airplane flying upside down, has an exhibit and a film of its own.)

The frames extend around a whole wall that traces the entire history of American stamp issues and continue in other rooms that include rotating selections of international stamps, juxtaposed with more conventional displays of particular highlights. Here is one of the 50 pieces of mail that Earhart took with her on her first solo transatlantic flight. Here are stamps charred in the great Chicago fire of 1871; here is a stamped envelope that the astronaut David Scott canceled on the moon in 1971.

For me, one of the most delightful surprises was pulling out a frame to find page after page from the five stamp albums that Heifetz, a lifelong collector, donated to the museum in 1978, nine years before his death. Heifetz’s collection, inspired and encouraged by piano manufacturer and fellow collector Theodore Steinway, focused entirely on stamps relating to music: images of composers, performers and instruments from countries around the world. Notable among them are stamps that Bolivia issued in 1960 when the violinist Jaime Laredo won the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium, mounted on a page with Laredo’s affectionate personal inscription.

Other music lovers, though, might be more star-struck by a temporary exhibit of Lennon’s childhood stamp album, which he inherited from a cousin but made his own, down to drawing a beard and mustache on the images of King George VI and Queen Victoria on the title page.

And to anyone inspired to follow in these famous collectors’ footsteps, the museum offers a souvenir. On one table are several trays of mixed, unsorted stamps, with the invitation to select six to take home and start a collection of your own. Or, for some of us, to add to those childhood albums. I confess I feel the itch.

Artechouse: Living at the corner of art and technology

I was obsessed with the Dolls’ House. The Smithsonian almost tossed it out.

A Canopy of Peace will rise in New Orleans at WWII museum

A pinball museum? There has to be a twist.

Shelburne Museum, folk art and 19th-century Americana on 45 acres

Is it a museum or not? The question is worth asking.

Chicago’s creepy cabinet of curiosities

His collection of 8,000 Toby Jugs became a museum

Smithsonian National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE.