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History of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum is located in the historic City Post Office Building, which was constructed in 1914 and served as the Washington, D.C., post office from 1914 through 1986. The Museum occupies 100,000 square feet of the building with 35,000 square feet devoted to exhibition space. The Museum also houses a 6,000-square-foot research library, a stamp store and a museum shop.

photo of lobby of the Postal Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is dedicated to the preservation, study and presentation of postal history and philately. The museum uses exhibits, educational public programs and research to make this rich history available to scholars, philatelists, collectors and visitors from around the world.

The National Postal Museum houses one of the largest and most significant philatelic and postal history collections in the world and one of the world’s most comprehensive library resources on philately and postal history. The museum’s many exhibition galleries present America’s postal history from Colonial times to the present, while its collections contain prestigious U.S. and international postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and 3-D objects.

The museum atrium has a 90-foot-high ceiling with three vintage airmail planes suspended overhead, a reconstructed railway mail car, an 1851 stagecoach, a 1931 Ford Model A postal truck and a contemporary Long Life Vehicle postal truck. Among its permanent exhibitions are: “Binding the Nation,” “Systems at Work,” “Moving the Mail,” “Mail Call,” “Customers and Communities” and “Pony Express: Romance vs. Reality.” The museum is also home to the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery—the largest stamp gallery in the world.

Visitors can walk along a Colonial post road, ride with the mail in a stagecoach, browse through a small town post office from the 1920s, receive free stamps to start a collection and more. Museum presentations bring to life the story of “Owney,” the mascot dog of the Railway Mail Service, and tell the history of U.S. mail trains.

With more than 40,000 volumes and manuscript holdings, the National Postal Museum’s Library Research Center—a branch of Smithsonian Libraries—is among the world’s largest philatelic and postal history research facilities. The library is open to the public by appointment only.

The National Philatelic Collection was established at the Smithsonian in 1886 with the donation of a sheet of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps. Generous gifts from individuals and foreign governments, transfers from government agencies and occasional purchases have increased the collection to today's total of more than 5.9 million items.

a sheet of blue stamps with a face on them

From 1908 until 1963, the collection was housed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. In 1964, the collection was moved to the museum that is now known as the National Museum of American History. There, the collection expanded to include postal history and stamp production. The collection was then moved to its present location and the National Postal Museum opened on July 30, 1993.

In addition to one of the world's largest collections of stamps and philatelic materials, the National Postal Museum has postal history material that pre-dates stamps, vehicles used to transport the mail, mailboxes and mailbags, postal uniforms and equipment.

Museum and Exhibition Design

photo a train mail car in the Postal Museum

The National Postal Museum's award winning public spaces, shops and support facilities were designed by the Washington, D.C. firm of Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King Architects.

The Museum's galleries and inaugural exhibitions were designed by Miles Fridberg Molinaroli, Inc. with Bowie Gridley Architects. Support for exhibit fabrication was provided by the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central, the National Museum of American History's Department of Exhibits and the National Air and Space Museum.

National Postal Museum Funding

The National Postal Museum opened on July 30, 1993. It was created on November 6, 1990 in a joint agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Postal Service.

The National Postal Museum receives funding through three primary sources: the United States Postal Service, the Smithsonian Institution's annual federal appropriation, and gifts from private individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Without the substantial support of the United States Postal Service the National Postal Museum would be unable to create exhibitions, conduct scholarly research, or produce exciting public and educational programs. Each year, the United States Postal Service provides the majority of the Museum's total operating budget.

The National Postal Museum gratefully acknowledges the continued support and commitment of the United States Postal Service.