We Belong: Citizenship & the Post

Learn more about
how stories of
and postal operations
can intertwine
in unexpected ways.

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1-cent Pilgrim Tercentenary The "Mayflower" stamp.

Location: Moving the Mail Atrium, “Networking a Nation”

Dog sled team delivering mail
A mail contractor and his dog sled team in western Alaska, 1913.
Alaskan Dog Sled Team 1913 »

From its founding, the U.S. postal system has provided access to information for American citizens. Through mail, people can stay informed and participate in the world around them...but getting the mail to every citizen hasn’t always been an easy task. Throughout history, mail has had to be delivered by a variety of creative means to remote communities in Alaska —such as dog sled teams that braved the jagged ice of the frozen Yukon River each winter in order to uphold the promise of the postal system for U.S. citizens.

Alaskan dog Sled
1922 dog sled used for delivering mail in Alaska.
Dog Sled »

Location: Mail Call, “Mail and Morale”

USS Thomas S. Gates on the ocean
The USS Thomas S. Gates in 2005. This ship was built with a working post office on board.

While the postal facilities onboard U.S. navy ships look quite different than your neighborhood post office, they have a very similar purpose, facilitating the sending and receiving of mail. Despite remarkably cramped quarters and other challenges, the military and the postal service work hard to make mail services as easy and accessible to military personnel as they are used to back home. Domestic postal rates from across the ocean and dedicated personnel help facilitate the process. The right of citizens to send and receive mail, even when stationed elsewhere by the government, has led to many innovations in mail delivery.

Service personnel mailing packages
Service personnel aboard a United States navy ship mail packages home for the holidays.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman James Seward.
Service Personnel Sending Packages »

Location: Binding the Nation, “Manning the Post: A Woman’s Job”

Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence as printed by Mary Katherine Goddard. Her name is at the bottom as printer, making her the first women to put her name to the Declaration of Independence.

Postmaster General Samuel Osgood cited, “More traveling...than a woman could undertake” as explanation for his decision to remove female postmaster Mary Katherine Goddard from her position in Baltimore, Maryland in 1789. Goddard had been in the position since 1775—a common appointment for those who also owned a printing and publishing business as she did. But despite her qualifications and popularity, sexism allowed Osgood to replace her with his personal friend and political ally, John White. A petition signed by over 230 Baltimore residents attempted to reinstate Goddard after her removal, but was not successful. Government support was not available to all citizens equally in this case.

Mistaken image of Mary Katherine Goddard
The image above was assumed to be Mary Katherine Goddard for many years, but in 2001 researchers found evidence that it was more likely to be an image of famous actress Anne Brunton Merry, printed by Goddard. No known portrait of Goddard exists.

Location: Systems at Work, “Postmaster John T. Jackson”

Portrait of John T. Jackson
Jackson served as postmaster until 1940.

While the presence of African Americans in the postal service was not entirely uncommon in 1891, the appointment of John T. Jackson as postmaster of Alanthus, Virginia was part of a new movement. The “black vote” was essential to the Republican Party after the Civil War and a number of African Americans were appointed to civil service offices. But despite the official appointments, African American postmasters like Jackson still faced onslaughts of racial discrimination from angered citizens who opposed having an African American in such a prominent and respected position. Who was and wasn’t a citizen of a community was being fought with postal appointments.

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Front view of Jackson’s distribution case.
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Rear view of Jackson’s distribution case.

Jackson and Distribution Case »

Location: Mail Marks History, “In Times of Adversity – Pullout Frame 10”

Auschwitz postal card
A postal card from the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Auschwitz Postal Card »

What happens when the rights of a citizen are suddenly taken away from you? Here are two letters from citizens who found themselves imprisoned by their own governments—one incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the other in Camp Rohwer in the United States as part of the incarceration of Japanese American citizens. For such individuals, mail service provided one of few remaining ways to connect with the outside world. Nevertheless, their mail underwent censorship, which could consist of extensive review and sometimes editing or destruction. How does the right to communicate freely interact with other rights of citizenship?

Japanese incarceration camp post office
Nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were incarcerated in remote camps during WWII with postal service sometimes being their only connection to the outside world.
War Relocation Authority photograph.
Japanese Incarceration Postal Service »
Camp Rohwer letter
Letter from an incarcerated Japanese American citizen living at Camp Rohwer.
McGehee, Arkansas relocation camp mail »

Location: National Stamp Salon, Pullout Frame 125

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1-cent Pilgrim Tercentenary The "Mayflower" stamp.

What is an American and who defines the category? The question of who is a citizen of a nation is a question of both our past and present. In the 1920s immigration issues and definitions of citizenship became a heated topic and, with the release of these commemorative stamps, the everyday act of mailing a letter became part of that conversation. The scenes portrayed on the stamps depicted and legitimized a specific narrative of American history and immigration. Whose narrative was put forward on the stamps? How does that shape the idea of citizenship and immigration?

These 1920’s commemorative stamps promote a particular narrative of American history to immigrants while reinforcing a narrative of belonging for particular groups.

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2-cent Pilgrim Tercentenary The Landing of the Pilgrims stamp.
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5-cent Pilgrim Tercentenary The Signing of the Compact stamp.

Pilgrim Tercentenary Stamps »

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