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.
Objects displayed in the museum's various exhibits document the history of the U.S. postal service and showcase the beauty and lore of stamps. Thousands of objects are on display in the museum, each offering visitors a chance to see "the real thing."
Named after its primary benefactor, the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is the world’s largest gallery dedicated to philately. It provides an experience available nowhere else and offers something for everyone, from casual visitors to experienced collectors.
As visitors move through six thematic areas, stunning displays and interactive moments reveal the amazing stories that unfold from the museum’s unparalleled collection. Distributed throughout the thematic areas are hundreds of pullout frames containing more than 20,000 objects, providing ample opportunities to view noteworthy stamps that have never been on public display.
Fred Wiseman took off on February 17, 1911 with a handful of mail, flying from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California. He flew about 100 feet off the ground at a maximum speed of 70 mph. He carried letters from Petaluma’s mayor and town leaders and copies of the local newspaper. Forced down by engine trouble, Wiseman resumed his flight the next morning, using a tarp as a runway. Over a farmhouse, he tossed a newspaper to a woman working in her yard. Near Santa Rosa, a wire caught in the propeller. Wiseman was down again. Nevertheless, he stepped out to a growing, cheering crowd who picked up the pilot and his mail and drove them into town. (On loan from the National Air and Space Museum.)
In 1918 the Post Office Department requested 100 de Havilland airplanes from the army. These airplanes were not designed for the demands of airmail service. Its greatest flaw was the placement of the cockpit. Minor accidents turned deadly when pilots were trapped between the engine and the fuel compartment. In January 1919, the planes underwent extensive renovation. The cockpit was moved to the rear. The cotton fabric fuselage was replaced with plywood sheets and the landing gear was fitted with a heavy axle and larger wheels. The retrofitted de Havillands became known as the “workhorse of the airmail service.” In their first year of service, the airplanes carried more than 775 million letters. (On loan from the National Air and Space Museum.)
All American Aviation (AAA) used aircraft like this in a series of airmail pick-up experiments in a selection of Pennsylvania and West Virginia communities without municipal airports. This unusual system began on May 12, 1939 and was modeled after the Railway Mail Service’s mail-on-the-fly service. These airplanes collected and delivered mail and express packages at communities without landing. They were fitted with a long take up with a hook and a winch that caught and reeled in mail containers. The experimental service never turned a profit and the company discontinued it in 1949. (On loan from the National Air and Space Museum.)
In 1921, army navigational beacons between Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, guided pilots at night. The Post Office took over the system in 1922 and by the end of 1923, had constructed similar beacons between Chicago, Illinois and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Each beacon, erected at about 10 miles intervals, was topped with a rotating light visible up to 40 miles away. Green lights signaled airfields were near. A red light meant no airfield was handy. The first regularly scheduled night service was inaugurated on July 1, 1924. By the end of the year, beacons lit the skies from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The Commerce Department took over the system in 1927. The beacons were retired in the 1950s as better-equipped airplanes made such navigational aids unnecessary. (On loan from the National Air and Space Museum.)
Sorting mail on moving trains was one of the postal service’s great innovations. After the Civil War, Post Office officials worked to decentralize operations, concentrating on the growing volume of mail carried on the nation’s rail lines. Mailbags left untouched on railcar floors were now emptied and their contents processed as the train sped toward its destination. This new method of sorting mail en route was developed just as railroads were connecting every corner of the country.
Postal workers in Albany, New York’s post office became attached to Owney, a scruffy mutt, in the late 1880s. He fell asleep on some mailbags, and the clerks let him stay. Owney soon was riding mailbags across the country with the Railway Mail Service. In 1895, he traveled with mailbags on steamships to Asia and across Europe. RMS clerks adopted Owney as their mascot, and began to record the dog’s travels with medals and tags attached to his collar. Postmaster General John Wanamaker was one of the pooch’s fans. When he heard that the dog’s collar was weighted down by the tags, he gave Owney a jacket to display his trophies.
As railroad service to many small towns declined from the 1940s to the 1960s, the Post Office Department turned to busses to ensure that these communities would get their mail. The museum's Highway Post Office Service bus is not on display in the museum but some mail delivered by Highway Post Office buses is on display. It's located on the panel just outside the Railway Mail Service car, near Owney.
The Railway Mail Service began exchanging mail “on-the-fly” in 1869. This system of mail cranes made it unnecessary for trains to stop at every town to load and unload mail. As a train approached the station’s crane, a clerk on board prepared a catcher arm to snatch the mailbag in the wink of an eye. The clerk then kicked the town’s incoming mailbag off the moving train. Experienced clerks could make the switch at night with nothing but the curves and feel of the track to give them their bearings. As good as the system was, there a few snags. Mailbags sometimes burst open on impact, sending letters flying. And clerks occasionally prepared the catcher arm too early or too late, leaving the mail dangling on the crane.
Concord-style mail coaches first appeared in the 1820s and remained in use into the early 1900s. After 1845, federal law prohibited the Post Office Department from awarding extra fees to stagecoach contractors. Horseback riders soon replaced many of the stagecoaches. This coach was built in Concord, New Hampshire, by Lewis Downing in 1851. The mail was carried under the driver’s seat. The driver or his boss contracted to carry this mail with “celerity, certainty, and security” between White River Junction and Woodstock, Vermont.
This registration handstamp was one of six post-marking devices recovered from the U.S.S. Oklahoma. It is dated “Dec. 6 1941” the last day it was used. The Oklahoma was struck by a series of bomb and torpedo blasts during the raid on Pearl Harbor and ultimately capsized.
Victory Mail, more commonly known as V-Mail, operated during World War II to expedite mail service for American armed forces overseas. Moving the rapidly expanding volume of wartime mail posed hefty problems for the Post Office, War, and Navy Departments. Officials sought to reduce the bulk and weight of letters, and found a model in the British Airgraph Service started in 1941 that microfilmed messages for dispatch.
This model represents the Central Americaocean steamer. The Central American, with 423 passengers and crew, tons of mail and freight, and over $1 million in gold on board, sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras on September 12, 1857. Investigators found that the ship's owner, the United States Mail Company, knew the vessel was not seaworthy, but had considered repairs too costly.
Mud wagons and more elegant, decorated Concord coaches carried passengers and mail throughout the country. The ride in these hard wagons over rough roads and dusty deserts or in frigid, snowy weather tested the endurance of even the most seasoned traveler.
Until 1916, Americans were not required to have household letter boxes. Letter carriers handed over the mail personally, ringing the bell twice to signal that the mail was there, or knocking. Door knockers like this one saved wear and tear on the knuckles.
Networks of pneumatic tubes speeded mail beneath city street beginning in the 1890s. Pneumatic carriers holding 600 letters traveled at about 35 miles per hour. The tubes were introduced in 1893 in Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, New York City, Chicago, and St. Louis also adopted the system. Soon these cites had over 56 miles of tubes. Suspended in World War I as an economy measure, the service was restored in New York and Boston after the war. By the 1950s, increasing mail volume and changing urban landscapes made pneumatic tubes impractical. Post offices and businesses could move easily, but the underground pneumatic system could not.
Wagons carried mailbags between railway stations and city post offices, which often were miles apart. Screen wagons, introduced in 1886 at Sherman, Texas, increased security as the mail moved between post offices, railroad stations, and steamboat landings. By 1915, post offices were being built as near as possible to railroad stations. This screen wagon, built about 1904, carried mail in Maryland until the 1920s, when motor vehicles come into greater use.
By the 1850s, adhesive postage stamps were available, and people no longer needed to go to the post office to mail letters. They could keep stamps at home and mail letters at their leisure. So the Post Office Department began to build and install mailboxes throughout U.S. cities.