Celebrating 20 Years of the National Postal Museum

A new gallery opening in September highlights some of the most famous stamps in American history

Hindenburg postcard
This burned postcard was salvaged from the wreckage of the Hindenburg in 1937. National Postal Museum, SI

The National Postal Museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this July, defies the stereotype that stamps are of interest only to collectors. The growth of the Postal Service, after all, occurred in tandem with, and sometimes fueled, the expansion of our nation. Early postmen traversed Indian trails between Boston and New York, and those paths evolved into U.S. Route 1. The Pony Express—because of the grim attrition rate, only young, single men could apply—is synonymous with frontier daring. Today, while we still love our mail carriers, the annual distribution of 160 billion pieces of mail relies on groundbreaking technology to read addresses, apply postmarks and sort parcels.

Tucked away inside the neo-Classical City Post Office Building a few steps from Washington’s Union Station, the museum tells these sweeping stories while also displaying the rarest of stamps and related materials, such as mail that survived the blaze that engulfed the zeppelin Hindenburg. Visitors to the museum will soon have an even richer experience when, on September 22, we open the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, which will occupy 10,000 square feet at street level adjacent to the current space, which is largely below ground.

From the outside, the gallery will present a city-block-long wall of 54 colorful windows, fronting busy Massachusetts Avenue, each depicting a noteworthy stamp on a grand scale. At night, the windows will glow brightly, a bold addition to the D.C. cityscape.

Inside, “Gems of American Philately” will include highlights from the National Stamp Collection as well as items lent by the gallery’s namesake donor, Bill Gross. Among these are a block of four of America’s most famous stamp, the “Inverted Jenny” of 1918 (the upside-down biplane the result of a printing error), and an envelope recovered from a Pony Express satchel seized by Native Americans in 1860. To mark the gallery’s opening, the Post Office will issue a replica Inverted Jenny, priced at $2.

From the Postmaster General’s collection will come the only envelope ever postmarked on the moon, on August 1, 1971, while another exhibition, “Stamps Around the Globe,” will feature at least one stamp from every country, existing or defunct, ever to print them.

It’s not just the scale of the gallery’s exhibitions but the contextual framing that will make them special, says gallery curator Cheryl Ganz. “Postage stamps for the first time will be treated as important historical documents,” she says. “We will tell great stories that people haven’t heard before, or show these stories in a new light.”

We’re especially honored that the family of David H. McNerney, a Medal of Honor *recipient during the Vietnam War and an avid philatelist, who died in 2010, has bequeathed his medal to the museum. The opening ceremony in September will include a formal enshrinement of that priceless artifact.

Editor's note: This article originaly stated that David H. McNerny was a winner of the Medal of Honor. We meant to say he was a recipient of the award. We regret the error.

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