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Staycation: National Postal Museum

October 28, 2011

The National Postal Museum sounds fascinating, right?

Oh, what, you’re not a card-carrying member of the American Philatelic Society? Shocking.

One of the Smithsonian’s lesser-known museums, the National Postal Museum made it on my Washington, DC staycation list simply because I hadn’t been in a decade or more, and I happened to already be in the neighborhood (visiting Jacob’s Coffeehouse on the other side of Union Station).

It turns out, you don’t need to be a stamp fiend to enjoy the museum — although being a history buff certainly doesn’t hurt. The museum traces the history of postal service in America, from the colonial period when all mail went back to Mother England before returning by ship to the U.S. — which meant that a letter going from New York to Boston could take months — all the way to present times.

One genuinely interesting fact: the reason so many newspapers have ‘Post’ in their name (The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Huffington Post) is because newspapers were sent through the mail — and even hundreds of years ago, enjoyed a discounted mailing rate.

Visiting on a weekday had a major advantage: almost no one was there. As I walked in, a volunteer docent mentioned that a free hour-long tour was about to start. Free tours are a great way to get the maximum enjoyment of a gallery or museum — guides can point out details that aren’t on any signs. Since it was so quiet, I had a personal guided tour from a genuine stamp lover, who kept prefacing his statements with, ‘Want to know a secret?’

Well, of course! Lay your philatelic secrets on me!

An avid stamp collector, the guide said his focus is ‘topical’ stamps, in particular Princess Diana and more recently, William and Kate.

One permanent exhibit shows just a rotating display of the 14+ million stamps owned by the museum, along with other collector memorabilia, like mail carried by Amelia Earhart. And pick a country, any country, and they will show you its historic stamps. South Korea? Australia? Tuvalu? The gang’s all here.

Another temporary exhibits commemorates Owney the Postal Dog. Does anyone else think it’s ironic that the mascot of the postal service is a dog, considering the dog-chasing-mailman stereotype?

Owney is there both in statue form…

and in the flesh (mildly creepy)!

Owney was recently refurbished, something I learned after remarking that he was in pretty good condition for a pup that passed away in 1897 (after being shot!).

If stamps really aren’t your thing, at least stop to see the building itself. The stunning Beaux Arts-style is worth its own photoshoot, with soaring ceilings, marble columns and gorgeous design details.

Oddly, when the building was actually a post office all of the gorgeous period details were covered up so it looked like your standard post office. It was only when the museum was established in 1993 that the building was restored to its former glory. Today, it’s mainly office space for bureaucrats — typical of DC — but the museum has plans to expand over the next few years.

The National Postal Museum is small — I was in and out in an hour — but worth visiting if only to get the full Smithsonian experience. It’s free (natch) and right near bustling Union Station, so well worth stopping by.

Let me know: should I continue this ‘Staycation‘ series? Is it helpful and interesting? Boring and a waste of space? Be honest!

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 29, 2011 11:06 pm

    I’ll be honest. 🙂 I found this post fascinating and I learned some things.

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