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.
Stop #1 (Museum Level 2, William H. Gross Stamp Gallery)
24c Curtiss Jenny invert block of four, 1918
Go into the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery and find the “Gems of American Philately” exhibit. There, you will see four “Inverted Jenny” stamps, still together in what we call a “block of four.” This rarity is treasured by stamp collectors so much that it is the equivalent of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.
Take a close look. Just like a work of art, the beauty is in the details. But with a rare stamp, the beauty is also in its flaws. To understand how this mistake happened (plane printed upside down), watch the film in the theater behind you or visit the Spider Press adjacent to the exhibit.
Stop #2 (Museum Level 2, William H. Gross Stamp Gallery)
Amelia Earhart’s Flight Suit
This famous female pilot broke flying records in the air, and while on the ground she shared her stamp and cover collection. You can see relics from both parts of her life displayed here, on the touch screen interactive and in the adjacent cases.
The flight suit kept her warm and safe on her adventures. The envelopes with special cancels, carried aboard those flights, instantly created a collectable desired by stamp experts. They pre-paid for the envelopes flown aboard her plane which she would postmark with the dates of the flight.
Stop #3 (Museum Level 2, William H. Gross Stamp Gallery)
Stamp Design Station
Unleash your creativity at our Stamp Design station! What goes on a stamp? Animals, icons, and you! Use the photo feature to add your picture to the stamp design. Don’t forget the rate. Once you complete your design, email it to yourself and share it with your friends (facebook, twitter, instagram, etc) or send it to stamps.com to make real postage.
Stop #4 (Museum Level 2, William H. Gross Stamp Gallery)
The National Stamp Salon is filled with the best examples of U.S. stamp material ever collected in one place. There are thousands of treasures here, but if you can only stop to see one thing, it should be the 1-cent Z-grill. You can find it in frame 239.
This stamp became rare when it was pressed with a grill pattern to help absorb ink and deter re-use. It is one of only two known examples of a z-pattern grill used on a 1-cent stamp. This is the RAREST U.S. stamp.
Stop #5 (Museum Level 2, Historic Lobby)
Historic Lobby Ceiling
As you transition from upstairs to downstairs, pause to look up at the ceiling in the Historic Lobby. This building was constructed as a companion to Union Station by the same architect, Daniel H. Burnham. The hexagonal shapes in this ceiling echo the shapes in the Union Station ceiling. Both are of the Beaux-Arts style, promoting balance and symmetry. The building opened in 1914 as the D.C. city post office and served as the central hub for all mail going in and out of the nation’s capital. It was built adjacent to Union Station because all mail leaving or coming into a city like this travelled by train.
Stop by the postcard writing desk to create your own mail piece to send. One of the postcards features the building and how it looked in 1914.
Stop #6 (Museum Level 1, Systems at Work exhibit)
Multi-Position Letter Sorting Machine (MPLSM)
Enter the Systems at Work exhibit by turning right at the base of the escalators. The next time you mail a postcard, you might guess how it gets to its final destination. If you’d mailed it in the 1970s or 1980s, the postcard’s journey surely would have included a trip through a Multi-Position Letter Sorting Machine that had a keyboard like this one.
After the invention of the zip code in 1963, postal employees could use machines like this to code and sort letters at tremendous speeds, sending them via conveyor systems to the correct sortation bin for further distribution. A machine with 12 stations could sort 30,000 letters per hour, about one letter per person, per second. Can’t imagine it? Give it a try at the interactive station or check out this video clip.
Stop #7 (Museum Level 1, Railway Post Office in the Atrium)
Owney the Dog
In the museum’s atrium, you will see a Railway Post Office on your right in the “Moving the Mail” exhibit. In addition to the train car, you can find one of its most loyal patrons: Owney the Dog. The story of Owney, the scruffy mutt who became the unofficial mascot of the Railway Mail Service (RMS) in the late 19th century, is one of the most popular exhibits in the National Postal Museum. Visit Owney to learn how he became the most well-traveled and well-loved postal dog in history.
Snap a selfie with this adventurous dog and share with your friends and the museum @PostalMuseum.
Stop #8 (Museum Level 1, Mail Call exhibit)
Coconut Mail: This is nuts!
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever received in the mail? Did you know that you could (and still can) send a coconut by mail? In the Mail Call exhibit, you will find the coconut that Mrs. Marie Boudet received one day in early 1944. It was from her husband, Raymond, a Navy Seabee who was stationed in Hawaii during World War II. The postage cost 37 cents and was canceled by the U.S. Navy, the Navy Censor, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An unusual love letter from Marie’s husband, the back of the coconut (which you can’t see because of how the object is displayed) bears a heart pierced with an arrow, inside of which is carved “Ray” and “Marie.” The back is also carved with the message “Seabees Hawaiian Islands 43-44.” A paper decal of a scantily clad hula girl playing a ukulele embellishes the message. Any piece of mail sent without additional packaging around it is called “Naked Mail.”
Stop #9 (Museum Level 1, Behind the Badge exhibit)
Anthrax Letter & Mailbox
In the Behind the Badge exhibit, you will find many stories and objects from crimes postal inspectors have solved to protect those who use the mail. One of their most memorable cases was in 2001 when anthrax was sent through the mail. At the end of the Behind the Badge exhibit, find the blue USPS mailbox covered in white powder. This collection box was the one the anthrax letters were mailed from. The powder is from its decontamination treatment. In the adjacent case, you can press the button to shine light on the envelope and letter that originally contained anthrax.
The first of these letters killed Florida newspaper employee Robert Stevens. Others were found addressed to politicians and reporters. In the end, 22 people were infected with spores from the anthrax letter attacks, including nine U.S. postal workers. Two of these postal workers died, and the Washington D.C. mail sorting facility where they worked now bears their names.
Stop #10 (Museum Level 1, Atrium)
Museum Shop & Stamp Store
Adjacent to the Behind the Badge exhibit is our Museum Shop and Stamp Store – browse fun postal and stamp-themed goods that we sell in the shop! Now you can take home your very own Inverted Jenny rarity (in t-shirt or mug form).
In addition to receiving special cancellations when dropping off a letter here (please ask for a special cancellation), the museum’s Stamp Store holds a variety of stamps that you can’t find in your local Post Office. Ask the USPS clerk at the Stamp Store for a binder that shows their available inventory.