The national collection illustrates and invites research into United States philately and postal operations. It contains prestigious postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and three-dimensional objects that trace the evolution of the postal services.
The National Postal Museum is divided into galleries that explore America's postal history from colonial times to the present. Visitors learn how mail has been transported and the wondrous diversity of postage stamps.
The Museum supports a wide variety of interdisciplinary research projects which address topics of importance such as current and future postal operations, as well as philatelic and postal history. Our efforts are a resource and point of reference for research and wider investigation by historians throughout the United States and the world.
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum (NPM) opened to the public on July 30, 1993, and was celebrated on that day with the issuance of a se-tenant block of four commemorative stamps. As the museum marks the occasion of its 15th anniversary, it is a perfect time to reexamine the stamps that marked this significant event – a U.S. museum housing the nation’s stamp and postal operations collection. The stamp designs feature historical moments in U.S. postal history and depict objects and themes represented in the museum’s inaugural exhibit galleries. Three of the stamps represent three centuries in U.S. postal history featuring an iconic central figure that would be easily recognizable to the general public. Surrounding the figures are images of different modes of transportation or those reflective of the time period. The fourth stamp combines the past and the present without figural representation. The past is represented by early U.S. stamps, an excerpt from a 19th century letter and an early cancellation. A barcode represents the present as well as the future of technology.
According to the museum’s founding director, James H. Bruns, the National Postal Museum helped determine which objects and images would be used in the design. Many of the elements depicted in the stamps were represented in the museum’s inaugural displays including a Concord stage coach, a 1930s mail truck, and the Inverted Jenny stamp. It also displayed Charles Lindbergh’s application to be an airmail pilot on loan in 1993 from the U.S. Postal Service. The statue of Benjamin Franklin, still standing in the museum’s foyer, is on loan from the Fine Arts Program, General Services Administration. Bruns said that the “stamps were in effect like a miniature visit to the Museum.”
The Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) and NPM had input in deciding what would be featured on the stamps. The stamp’s project director, Joseph Brockert, explained that CSAC traditionally wanted its stamps to do more than promote the Postal Service. Committee members at that time were interested in classical themes and historical events. Unlike other commemorative stamps, the NPM issue used four stamps to convey the sense of traveling through time.
Interestingly, two artists worked on the design. Both artists, Lou Nolan and Richard Schlecht were local as was art director Derry Noyes who felt that such proximity made the project easier. According to Brockert, both artists understood the difficult process of designing a postage stamp and “thought of what the final product would look like.” Brockert further said that the initial design project was for designing a logo, which fit Lou Nolan’s graphic style, whereas Schlecht had a more realistic style better suited to the ultimate direction for the design.
Brockert explained that creating a stamp is usually a 2-3 year process from concept to product. These issues took about the same amount of time, but the process was more involved as the concept changed from a logo to one of a historical perspective of postal history. As Brockert reminisces, the original launch was supposed to be at an international stamp expo later that year but was changed to the opening of NPM. There was a sense of urgency to complete the process before the opening date. Brockert’s role was translating the design into the printed product.
Art Director Derry Noyes thought that the artist Richard Schlecht “did a very good job in conveying the message” through stamps as well as telling the story of transportation. Schlecht’s long career as an artist with National Geographic helped him in working with the interpretation of historical themes. Noyes said that it was important to convey a message through the wealth of information provided. It was necessary to “distill” a lot of information but maintain consistency. Noyes also explained that the stamps are “semi-jumbo” (a little larger) than usual. The complex design features portraits and line drawings. The main figures are framed by a circular white background.
The stamp depicting the 18th century features Benjamin Franklin, reflecting his career as printer, postmaster and statesmen. He is represented by a printing press, mail rider, and Independence Hall. The Franklin portrait is based on the well-known painting by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis which can be found in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The Postal Museum has two Benjamin Franklin portraits by other artists in its collection which are copies of another well-known Franklin portrait by Duplessis.
A Civil War soldier, Concord stagecoach, and pony express rider embody the 19th century. The 20th century is represented by airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh, a railway mail car, a 1931 Model A Ford mail truck, and JN-4H “Jenny” bi-plane #38262. The fourth stamp features the art of letter writing, using memorable words from a California gold rush letter; four prized U.S stamps (Scott 39 90c George Washington, Scott 295 2c Empire State Express, Scott C3a 24c Inverted Jenny, and Scott C13 65c Graf Zeppelin), an undated postmark from Milledgeville, Georgia and a barcode representing contemporary mail processing technology. Inaugural exhibits highlighted the Civil War as well as displays on airmail and transportation that remain today. Letters play an important role in the museum exhibits. One such letter was written from Charles Mumford in California to his cousin Mary Niles in New York. It is paraphrased on the stamp: “Write often as your packages are more precious than gold dust.”
The artwork was completed in ink and watercolor collage on board. The stamps were printed using the offset-intaglio process by the American Bank Note Company. The artist’s line drawings became engraved black images of a printing press, stagecoach; airplane, mail truck, letter, and cancellation. In some cases, these elements deliberately overlap the central image.
The National Postal Museum is a joint effort between the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Postal Service. It was appropriate that the stamps were dedicated on July 30, 1993, in an opening day ceremony at the museum that included representation from the U.S. Postal Service, James H. Bruns and Robert McC. Adams, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
se-tenant: pairs, strips, or blocks of stamps of different values or designs printed together
For Further Reading
Woerk, Michael and Jordan. An American History Album: the Story of the United States Told Through Stamps (Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books (U.S.) Inc., 2008).