Badge of Service: Part I


By Historian and Curator Nancy Pope

Handling and carrying the mail has, since the formation of the service in the 18th century, been the responsibility of individuals working for the federal government. The Post Office Department has long required its workers to carry identifying documents to prove that they are permitted to have access to the mail. One of the earliest such identifications was the pass signed by Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin in 1776 that identified William Goddard as the nation’s Riding Surveyor for the Post. Postmasters received signed certificates recognizing their appointments, mail agents carried special credentials while inspecting or protecting the mail.

The most commonly used identification credential in America’s postal history is the metal badge. Badges were first assigned to letter carriers in the 1880s, but before long just about every postal employee carried a badge of one type or another. The museum is home to dozens of postal badges, from the wildly ornate to inexpensively common.

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Postal Inspector badge

Some postal jobs would seem to automatically demand the need for a badge, such as those who worked in the inspection service, a department responsible for investigating crimes against the mail.

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Motor service badge

But would the job of mail truck driver seem to demand a badge? It did. The Department demanded accountability for the mail from everyone who touched it, including those individuals who merely drove trucks full of mail between post offices and railroad depots in large cities.

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Star Route badge

Sometimes individuals who were not required to wear a badge by the Department did so on their own accord. This badge, worn by a Star Route Service carrier, was created by the National Star Route Carriers’ Association for the use of its members. Star Route carriers are not U.S. postal employees, but work as contractors to the service.

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New York City, United States Post Office badge

One of the most ornate badges in the collection is this early 20th century badge worn by a postal supervisor in the New York City post office. The American eagle sits watchfully over the circular badge proclaiming the New York City post office identification. The circular postal rider image was the Post Office Department’s seal at that time.

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Service badge

In contrast with New York’s ornate supervisor badge is this rudimentary plastic button worn by a temporary postal employee during the 1959 Christmas season. Postal officials typically hired hundreds of temporary workers during the holiday season to assist with the surge in mail volume accompanied.


The next “Badge of Service” blog will focus on those who were the first required to wear badges – America’s letter carriers.


Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.