A One-of-a-Kind Collection
Every U.S. stamp collection has its own story, but the origin of the Postmaster General’s Collection of the U.S. Postal Service is surely unique. It began in the 1860s as a modest set of Post Office Department files, filled with records and examples of U.S. stamps. At the time there were just a handful of U.S. stamps, starting with the first two in 1847. Thousands of stamps later, the same archive has become a one-of-a-kind philatelic resource with unusual, rare, and even unique holdings.
To specialists, the collection may be best known for its extensive holding of U.S. die proofs—proofs made from the dies on which stamp designs are engraved. But it contains much more, including rejected and approved stamp designs; many stamps in full panes, dating to the 19th century; sets of color proofs; uncut press sheets; and even historic artifacts, like the mail pouch the Apollo 15 astronauts carried to the Moon.
This exhibition draws on the collection’s greatest strength—the behind-the-scenes stages of stamp production—to tell the stories of several carefully selected stamps. Each one represents a different method that has been used to print U.S. stamps. But they all have something in common: an air or space theme. Together, they reveal how stamp designers, artists, engravers, and printers of many eras have made visual ideas take flight.
Stamps Take Flight was organized by National Postal Museum Curator of Philately Wilson Hulme and guest curator Joseph Brockert of the United States Postal Service. In addition to objects from the Postmaster General's Collection, the exhibition also includes materials from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the United States Air Force, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, and generous private lenders.
An Early Airplane Stamp
This signed die proof and full stamp pane show the world’s first government-issued postage stamp of an airplane—the 20¢ U.S. Parcel Post stamp of 1913.
Although Parcel Post service began in the United States on January 1, 1913, the stamp was shipped to post offices in December 1912. The inscription, “Mail Delivered by Aeroplane,” was ahead of its time; regular U.S. airmail did not begin until 1918.
Die proofs and full panes are two of the strengths of the Postmaster General’s Collection. This die proof was signed by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock (1909-1913).
Early 20th-Century Albums
These leather-bound volumes were assembled in the early 1900s for Edwin Madden, the Third Assistant Postmaster General, as an addition to the existing Post Office archive. Just two albums are included in this exhibition, but the Postmaster General’s Collection includes many more.
The open album holds die proofs representing every U.S. stamp up to 1907. It is open to die proofs of the first U.S. commemorative stamps, issued in 1893 in honor of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Inside the cover, a letter from Third Assistant Postmaster General Madden contains instructions to keep the set up to date.
The Office of Postmaster General
Today, the Postmaster General is the head of the United States Postal Service, an independent government agency.
Before July 1, 1971, the Postmaster General was the head of the Post Office Department, the cabinet-level department that preceded the modern Postal Service. Starting on that date, the Postmaster General became head of the Postal Service. The last Postmaster General to lead the Post Office Department was Winton Blount (1969-1971), who was also the first Postmaster General of the new United States Postal Service.
The title Postmaster General dates to before the Revolutionary War, when Benjamin Franklin was joint Postmaster General of the British colonies in North America. In 1775, the Continental Congress named him Postmaster General of the United Colonies. Benjamin Franklin is considered the first Postmaster General.
For a complete list of all of the Postmasters General, with portraits and their years of service, click here to go to the National Postal Museum's U.S. Postmasters General web page.