The National Postal Museum's Congressional Stamp Exhibit. (Image courtesy National Postal Museum, Photo by James O'Donnell)

As lunchtime neared at the Rayburn House Office Building, an unlikely caucus was forming around the freebie table.

“So cool!” said one young woman.

“Here’s a World Cup,” said another.

Quickly and methodically, Brian Webber pulled from the pile and added to his bag. “I had a meeting, and I just stopped by to grab a couple of things for my nephews.” They love this stuff, he enthused.

In the opening hours of the Congressional Stamp Exhibit, hosted by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, the American Philatelic Society, the U.S. Postal Service and Stamp Camp USA, members of the public riffled through thousands of giveaway stamps to find the ones that spoke to them the most —Romanian Olympians! South Carolina birds! Rockets!

And surprisingly to those who were passing by the exhibit and just got hooked on the pasty little guys, there was a stamp for almost everyone.

It’s one of the secrets of the hobby.

“Sometimes stamp-collecting is used as shorthand for something that is boring and methodical,” says Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who stopped by on his way from an education hearing. “But in fact, it’s a wonderful way to understand people of the world and the history of our country.”

Collections are often deeply meaningful to people in terms of family ties — Holt’s father collected blocks, sheets, first-day covers and early airmail stamps — and in terms of where their interests, passions or obsessions lie.

A decade ago, Congress had an active Philatelic Caucus, and Ian Gibson Smith, a volunteer on the postal museum’s Council of Philatelists, came up with the idea to have some of the most ardent collectors — Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Reps. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) — to open their albums to the public.

The exhibit features a note to Ackerman from President George W. Bush: “Stamp Dude, All My Best.” Ackerman had proposed one of the nation’s few “semi-postal” stamps designed to raise money — this one after Sept. 11, 2001.

Holt pauses to admire Pitts’s “freak” stamp collection. It’s the hard-core collector who amasses albums of rare stamp mistakes. Holt examines the famous “invert error” on the 1962 stamp of former U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjold. “Oh yeah, it’s offset there. You can see where the yellow doesn’t fit up against the U.N. building,” Holt says. After a moment, even the untrained eye can spot the irregularity, and thrill.

Pitts began collecting stamps at age 8 and estimates that he has tens of thousands of them from all over the world. He collects revenue stamps, which were released around the Civil War and were used on all kinds of legal transactions.

“There are stamps that predate the U.S. Postal Service. Old companies and cities that issued their own stamps for the mail,” he said.

“I’m just into collecting because I just enjoy being able to get a whole series of things. I don’t know what it is, I just enjoy it as a relaxation on Sunday afternoons,” he added.

Cheryl Ganz, chief curator of philately for the National Postal Museum, said, “Postage stamps are not just a means of getting mail from one place to another, they are a message from our government about the things we care about, the things we value or things that reflect the identity of who we are.”

The energy and impetus in stamp-collecting comes from the ability to define your own collection, she said, which people do in all kinds of ways. They collect transportation stamps, baseball stamps, stamps representing black history or medieval European history, stamps that begin with the letter “A.” “I’m a stamp collector, and I collect stamps on mail flown by zeppelins,” Ganz said. “You see what I mean?”

Samantha Reed, 13, of Upper Marlboro took a break from nearby Stamp Camp, which teaches kids about collecting, to admire the stamps featuring state birds and flowers in Aderholt’s collection. “My favorite is South Carolina because their bird is the Carolina wren. I love the Carolina wren.”

Samantha says stamp-collecting is an opportunity to get at little pieces of history.

“If stamps were just there on the envelopes and people just threw them away,” she says, “we really would lose a lot of the culture of America because so many events are pictured on the stamps.”

CongressionalStamp Exhibit

runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Thursday
at the Rayburn House Office Building,

Independence Avenue and South Capitol Street SW.