What do John Lennon, Ayn Rand and Franklin Delano Roosevelt have in common? They all were stamp collectors. And if that fact doesn’t convince you that stamp collecting is a relaxing, fun activity, an exhibit on famous philatelists at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum probably won’t either. Consider this characteristically lighthearted quote from Rand, tattooed on one of the museum’s walls: “Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people … because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed.”
Surprisingly, I found lots of busy, purposeful tourists inside the museum on a recent visit, but few staff members or volunteers. That’s in sharp contrast to the Air and Space Museum, where docents are always giving talks in front of major artifacts. If a moon lander needs a hype man to get people interested, stamps don’t have a chance without one. In fact, I watched several families walk right past the world’s most famous stamps without stopping to look at them.
Since there were no docents around, I appointed myself. “Check this out,” I said to a family of three who were about to miss seeing the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, the most valuable stamp in the world. “This ugly little stamp is worth $9.5 million!”
“Ooooh,” the family murmured. They weren’t just being polite — I know because one of the kids tried to pose for a selfie with the stamp.
I moved on to the next room, home to a temporary exhibit called “Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks.” The very first sign in the exhibit piqued my interest. It says, “Did you know that a village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon eats most of its mail?”
No, I did not, and now I’m a little concerned. Are they trapped down there? Do they read their mail before they eat it? Or has their town been overtaken by goats? I spent the next 20 minutes reading every scrap of wall text in the exhibit and couldn’t find the answer.
I was also wondering about the connection between the National Park Service and the U.S. Postal Service. That answer was easier to find: People mail things to national parks, including things they stole from the parks and later felt guilty about. On display are some of those objects, including rocks of various sizes, a sign and one very large pinecone. Also on display, for no apparent reason: the cross section of a large tree. “This tree was very large” is the general message conveyed by that display. (If you’re wondering whether the tree slice is among the things people absconded with and later returned by U.S. mail, don’t be silly. Everyone knows that contrite timber thieves prefer UPS.)
I headed down a steep escalator to the museum’s other floor and found a sunlit atrium where I had expected to find a dank basement. Several airmail planes hang from the ceiling, the kind of early 20th-century aircraft that seem to be made of parchment paper and bound together with leather shoelaces. Apparently, they are just as dangerous as they look. A display, labeled “Suicide Club,” explains, “Of over 200 pilots hired between 1918 and 1926, 34 died flying the mail,” and then adds, “With such odds against them, it is remarkable that more pilots did not die in the service.”
That sign struck me as sort of self-congratulatory. Good job on the occupational safety, early-20th-century postal service!
Also on display is a Mailster, a three-wheeled car that the postal service used in the 1950s and ’60s, despite many obvious design flaws. For instance, these oversized scooters topped out at 35 mph and tended to topple over when taking sharp turns. Even overenthusiastic dogs (which is to say, most dogs) could spell trouble for these tipsy golf carts.
If I had to choose between driving a Mailster or flying those flimsy old airplanes, I’d go with the airplanes. I might not make it to the end of my route alive, but at least I’d have my dignity.
I ended my visit with an exhibit about the U.S. Postal Service’s present-day challenges, specifically the fact that mail volume (and therefore, revenue) is decreasing while the number of places where it’s legally required to deliver mail is on the rise. Looking to the future, a final display table asks for money-saving ideas, and one came to me immediately: Stop delivering mail to the goats at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They can use email like the rest of us.
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