Since opening its doors on July 30, 1993, the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum has welcomed millions of visitors eager to view its exhibits and enjoy its programs. However, the NPM’s collection of 5.9 million postal and philatelic objects—the second largest in the Smithsonian system—is much older than the museum. It all began in the 1880s with a single photograph and a pane of Confederate stamps.
The ‘Post Office Pembina’ Photograph
Charles Turner Cavileer (1818-1902) was appointed postmaster of the fur trading post at Pembina, in the Dakota Territory, in 1863. Cavileer was already an experienced civil servant, having previously been the territorial librarian of Minnesota and a U.S. customs inspector on the Canadian border. Now he ran Pembina post office out of his log cabin on the southern edge of town—the building depicted in this photograph.
Despite Pembina’s remote location and small size, its postmaster had plenty of work. The town was an established port of entry from Manitoba and a busy depot for cross-border mail from Red River, Winnipeg, Windsor, and other Canadian locations.
The man standing to the left of the open door is Cavileer. One of the two women to the right of the door is probably his wife, Isabell; the other woman and the tall man may be two of his five living children. Cavileer retired as postmaster in 1884 and was succeeded by his son, Edmund, who in turn served until 1917. Thus the Cavileers were postmasters of Pembina, the oldest town in North Dakota, for more than half a century. The post office still operates today (though no longer in a log cabin) with the ZIP code 58271.
A history of the region published during the elder Cavileer’s lifetime called him “the father of Pembina” and “the oldest living settler of that locality,” adding that “he was a regular correspondent to the Smithsonian Institute.” It is likely, then, that the postmaster sent the photograph to us from his own post office. It was received in 1882, making it the first postal object added to the Smithsonian’s collection.
The Robertson Confederate Pane
The first philatelic object collected by the Smithsonian was this pane of the 10¢ blue Jefferson Davis stamp released by the Confederate States of America in April or May of 1863. Earlier CSA issues had been lithographed or typographed and were inferior to U.S. stamps. As a result, CSA postmaster General John H. Reagan recruited a Northern printer and engraver to produce the Confederacy’s first engraved series.
These 10¢ stamps, which paid the rate for letters weighing less than one-half ounce were the result. The pane of one hundred was half of a press sheet of two hundred stamps printed by the firm of John Archer in Richmond, Virginia. Four stamps—a single and a strip of three—were removed at some point before M.W. Robertson gave the pane to the Smithsonian in 1886.
By the end of the decade, the Smithsonian had received two more important donations: in 1887, Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Institution’s second secretary, died and bequeathed his personal stamp collection. Two years later, a red proof on thick laid paper of Britain’s one-penny colonial revenue stamp of 1765 (the “Stamp Act stamp”) was given by John A. Brill, a streetcar manufacturer from Philadelphia. These were just the beginning; today the collection includes rare material and highly specialized U.S. and foreign collections. It is both our National Philatelic Collection and a national treasure.