Researching Objects for New Acquisitions
By Lynn Heidelbaugh, Curator
“Found [Postmaster] short in postal funds $121.49,” wrote Postal Inspector T. W. Jones in his daily logbook. Postal Inspector Jones arrived in Eldorendo, Decatur County, Georgia, early in the morning of March 9, 1896 and wrote of the postal accounts in case number 203092C: “S. M. Brown husband of [Postmaster] E. V. Brown promised to come to Bainbridge that evening & settle.” The funds (equivalent to over $3000 in 2021) were collected the following day. This is just one of the many stories that has come to light from the inspector’s work diary, which was recently donated to the National Postal Museum. The research that went into considering this object for acquisition is only the first of many stages in the life of an object in the museum. Between July and December 2020, the museum staff added the diary to the collection along with a philatelic object and several postal history objects, including three posters transferred from the United States Postal Service.
To inventory and track the new acquisitions, including the postal inspector’s diary, the collections department staff has assigned them accession numbers 2020.2006 through 2020.2014. These numbers, however, represent objects that were earlier only potential acquisitions to be discussed, examined, researched, and processed, the specific tasks involved in acquiring an object are as varied as the materials and histories of the objects themselves.
Indeed, work on acquisitions is one of the museum’s ongoing core processes, and the museum has three main ways to acquire objects: donations, purchases, and transfers (property transferred from other government agencies). The consideration of an object for acquisition requires the work of several staff, such as: research by curators, information management by the accessions officer, and condition assessment by the conservator. Material that the curatorial department recommends for acquisition is reviewed by committee, and the acquisitions approved by the committee and director will be accessioned into the collection.
The decision to purchase a folded letter (assigned accession number 2020.2006.1) provides an example of the first stage: the evaluation by the museum’s curators; in this case, all three curators. Chief Curator Daniel Piazza came across an online sale of previously auctioned material of the late philatelic collector Calvert M. Hahn, and recognized the name associated with a folded letter on offer. The letter is addressed to Dr. David Shelton Edwards in Virginia. The museum’s collection holds forty-seven letters written by US Navy Surgeon Edwards. My research of our collection established a direct connection between a letter he had written to his wife Harriet in New York dated November 28-29, 1848 (1978.0652.42) and the item for sale–a letter written by Edwards’ adult son, William, on December 5, 1848. William Stout Edwards referenced the flu that his father had described in the November correspondence. The letters’ dates demonstrate how swiftly communication moved between the Edwards’ family members along the Eastern seaboard in 1848. Acquiring the letter presented the opportunity to increase our understanding and expand interpretation of Edwards’ correspondence in the collection, which had included only one letter (1978.0652.38) received by David Shelton Edwards. This information contributed to the analysis of the sale item that was documented by Assistant Curator Alison Bazylinski for the committee’s consideration. Upon the committee’s approval, the collections department facilitated the purchase and took receipt of the object.
Unlike this letter, the majority of the newly accessioned postal history objects came by way of donation offers. They are wide ranging in material, subject, time, and place. Significantly, the curators have been able to document the names of the postal workers who used most of these objects. We gathered much of this information in conversation by email and phone with the donors while considering how these items might enhance the collection. The details help humanize the equipment that is commonplace in postal operations such as a handstamp with die set in accession 2020.2011 and the two maps in accession 2020.2010 that had been used on the job by the donor’s grandfather, Bert C. Jones, and father, Hartsell L. Jones.
A great great grandson of Postal Inspector Thomas Willis Jones, Sr. (no relation to the donor of the maps) contacted the museum with an offer to donate Postal Inspector Jones’ travel commission (2020.2014.1) and later added his official work diary (2020.2014.2) to the gift. Postal Inspector Jones used both the diary and his travel commission (a form of identification that enabled the designated postal employee to travel aboard Railway Mail Service cars) while investigating crimes and conducting audits at post offices in Georgia and the Southeast.
I look forward to reading more of Postal Inspector Jones’ work diary and will keep an eye out for additional encounters with Postmaster Eldorendo V. Brown after Jones’ audit of her post office in early March 1896. Her nearly ten-year appointment ended two months after Postal Inspector Jones documented funds missing from her postal accounts (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-Sept. 30, 1971; Roll #: 23; Archive Publication #: M841). With more research, I hope it can be determined if the two events were connected.
Another donation offer led to the accessioning of a uniform used specially by US Postal Service (USPS) employees at the temporary postal stations of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. The brother of George H. Bridle donated the postal uniform jacket, shirt, and tie (2020.2013) that Bridle wore during the Olympics. The donor also shared an outline of his brother’s postal career: George Bridle, veteran of the US Navy, worked at the Van Nuys, CA, Post Office from about 1970 until his death in 1984. He handled mail processing, served as a letter carrier, and in 1974 began working in customer service. During the Olympics he staffed a postal station and handled outgoing mail.
To learn more about the uniform itself, Alison Bazylinski and I undertook several avenues of research. Bazylinski reached out to Levi Strauss & Co. and received confirmation that the company created uniforms for staff at the 1984 Olympics, but there was no record of postal uniforms. Nevertheless, this uniform bears the Levi Strauss label and matches the uniforms for Olympic officials and general staff but with the addition of a patch with the USPS logo.
While Bazylinski followed that angle, I searched historical newspaper databases to learn more about the presence of USPS at the Olympics. A few articles described the special uniforms of USPS for the event, including that the trousers (the donor did not have those to offer) and skirts would have been gray in color. According to the Los Angeles Times, two hundred USPS employees worked the Olympics and “from throughout Southern California . . . competed for . . . the Olympic jobs” (Charles Hillinger, “How the Post Office Licked Olympic Service Problem,” Los Angeles Times August 9, 1984, F1). The article also revealed that postmasters at the stations were differentiated by wearing red blazers (the jacket accessioned under 2020.2013 is blue for postal clerks) and described the conversation Marylou Spear of the Paramount Post Office and postmistress of the Volleyball, Yachting and Fencing Post Office had with an enthusiast at the Olympics who offered a substantial sum to buy Spear’s pin with the Olympics and the USPS logos. I summarized such details from Bazylinski’s and my research in a report that was presented for evaluation by committee and the report is now on record with the files about the acquisition.
We invite you to contact the museum with object donation offers through an online form at https://postalmuseum.si.edu/donating-objects. Such offers bring opportunities for greater understanding of philately and postal history. New accessions are a chance to refine the permanent collection, preserve significant historical sources, build relationships outside the museum, and expand interpretation. Current and future staff will be seeking ways to increase public access to these accessions, many of which can be found online through the can be found online through the museum's "Search the Collection" page through which accessions 2020.2006 through 2020.2014 will soon be available.
About the Author
Lynn Heidelbaugh is a curator specializing in the history of the U.S. Postal Service, military mail, and the material culture of letter writing. Ms. Heidelbaugh has served as lead curator for several National Postal Museum exhibitions including, Mail Call (2011), Behind the Badge: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (2014) and My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I (2017), for which she received a Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Award.