You expect to see stamps in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, and there are indeed tens of thousands of them—American and international, beautiful and rare, on rotating display—selected from among the more than 13 million items in the world’s largest philatelic and postal history collection. You may also expect mailboxes, and they’re there too, set in rows like so many bright-colored pieces of contemporary sculpture. What you may not expect is everything else in the museum, beginning with the sight that greets you as you enter: three airplanes suspended from the atrium ceiling. The oldest of the three, a Wiseman-Cooke, was the first airplane to carry mail through the air, in 1911, across a small stretch of California. Beneath the planes there’s a fleet of other mail vehicles, including a gorgeous red Concord stagecoach built in New Hampshire in 1851, a replica of a Railway Mail Service car with an authentic interior from the early 20th century, and a Ford Model AA mail truck from 1931.
The vehicles make a perfect introduction to the astonishing saga, told in exhibitions, of the nation’s steady advance from Colonial-era efforts at mail delivery along Indian trails through the development of today’s massive postal capacities. (As recently as 1850, an American received an average of only five pieces of mail a year; the Postal Service now delivers 600 million pieces of mail a day to 135 million addresses.) It’s a human story, full of enterprise and heroism, and the museum tells it through faces and voices, in photographs and on video screens. The exhibitions and the many interactive displays reveal how hard won was the service we now take for granted, and make clear how essential that service was to the economic growth and transformation of America.
The museum is home to a library collection that’s among the world’s best for postal history and philatelic research. In addition, later this year, it will open the Winton Blount Center for Postal Studies, where scholars will research and report on issues—of safety, technology, organizational structure and policy—with important consequences for the American people, the true owners of the U.S. Postal Service. One current challenge is every bit as daunting as any portrayed in the museum’s exhibitions: How can a postal system with 840,000 employees and 38,000 retail outlets (the 25th largest business in the world) maintain a commitment to universal service when costs are rising and volume is declining as more mailing alternatives become available?
The Postal Museum’s setting could not be more appropriate: a gleaming, block-long temple that was once the main post office of Washington, D.C., across the street from Union Station. Though not yet a decade old, the museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. And that number is sure to grow as the museum becomes better known under its new director, Allen Kane. Kane, who brings years of executive experience in the Postal Service to the job, has set three goals for the museum: to attract larger and more diverse audiences to exhibitions and programs, to use new technologies to reach people far from the museum, and—a goal in which all Americans have a stake—to develop the Blount Center into a powerful resource of information so that better postal policy decisions can be made.
Each visitor to the Postal Museum will likely take away some favorite bit of lore, and for many it will be the true story of the Pony Express. The fabled relay service that moved letters in ten days between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco existed for just 19 months, from April 1860 through October 1861. It employed some 80 riders. In all they carried 34,753 pieces of mail, wrapped in oiled silk for protection, across plains and plateaus, along river valleys, through the desert and up and down snow-covered mountains. The real Pony Express may have been a stopgap measure until telegraph lines were strung, but it passed into the enduring landscape of legend, where those brave young men will gallop forever.