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November 2008

In Our Own Backyard

National Postal Museum: Philatelic Fun and Games

By Julie Bloss Kelsey

As a lifelong stamp collector, I was excited to take my husband and sons on a trip to the National Postal Museum. My 7-year-old, however, was not convinced. “I don’t want to go!” he whined. “All they’re gonna have is old letters and maybe a 2,000-year-old envelope.”

More Than Stamps and Old Letters

Fortunately, my son was mistaken. With more than six million objects, “we have the second-largest collection in the Smithsonian,” says Meradyth Moore, public affairs officer. Since opening in 1993 in the historic Postal Square Building on Capitol Hill, the National Postal Museum hosts about 400,000 visitors a year. Although this museum is smaller than its counterparts on the National Mall, it is less crowded, making it easier to enjoy.
As you enter, be sure to pick up a “Self-Guide for Kids” map. My boys liked the Moving the Mail and Binding the Nation displays. Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service, the Ford Education Center and Alphabetilately also feature unique, family-friendly offerings.

Moving the Mail

Enter a replica of a steel postal car with an authentic interior from 1915, and see if you can beat the clock by sorting 10 letters into their proper mail slots within a minute. Postal clerks of this era could sort 600 pieces of mail an hour while the car was in motion. Behind the postal car, movie viewfinders show short reels on wrecks, robberies, mail by bus and Owney, the famous mail dog of the late 1800s.

Climb into the cab of a Freightliner truck and pretend to drive the mail across the country. My youngest, age 3, loved turning the wheel and pushing the buttons (We literally had to drag him out!). More than 200 of these trucks and 1,800 trailers are currently used to transport mail in this country.
Stop by the souvenir postcard machine and make a free postcard (or two!) to remember your visit. Don’t forget to visit the international mailbox collection, including the orange design from Finland and the red cylindrical style used in Japan.

Binding the Nation

Take a step back in time, and sit aboard a replica of an 1850s stagecoach. As you look at the plaster statues of people crowded into the seat across from you, keep in mind that a real stagecoach of this era often carried up to 15 people, luggage – and sack upon sack of mail.

Visit the Old Boston Post Road, my 3-year-old’s second-favorite exhibit. Take a short walk through a replica of dark woods, complete with snow-covered “rocks,” barren trees and the sounds of nature. This exhibit recalls the time when the first postrider used the Native-American trail in January,1673. Today, this route is better known as U.S. Route1!

Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service

If you’re looking for the dark side of the Postal Museum, head to this exhibit. Moore says that teens who enjoy watching crime scene investigations on television will appreciate the real-life challenges faced by our national postal inspectors. You’ll learn about counterfeit money orders, handwriting analysis and fingerprints. My older son was intrigued by the mock-ups of mail bombs, including one from the Unabomber.

Ford Education Center

This array of computers provides “more ways for visitors to see the collection,” says Moore. “One of the best things is that you can sit down,” adds Erin Blasco, public programs coordinator. “It’s restful, peaceful and interactive.” Recommended for kids in grades 1 through 6, online activities range from games (matching, sorting mail on a railway post office) to instruction (learning to measure stamp perforations, creating an online stamp collection).

This temporary exhibit celebrates the 15th anniversary of the National Postal Museum. Each letter has been given its own display board with a unique philatelic topic, from A (Advertising Cover) to Z (Zeppelin Post). Twenty-six graphic designers created a “Cinderella” – an image made to look like a stamp but not issued by the United States Postal Service – for each letter. Browse the collection and enjoy bisected stamps (stamps cut in half to provide less postage), invert errors (like the famous upside-down Jenny airmail stamp of 1918) and more.

In Closing
My 7-year-old was pleasantly surprised by our visit to the National Postal Museum. Although this museum has something for everyone, it seems to hold a special appeal for children his age. Expect to spend at least 1 ½ to 2 hours touring the displays (longer if you can’t get your youngest child to leave the truck!).

Things to know before you visit the National Postal Museum

Location: 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C.

Hours: 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily, except December 25.

Cost: Free.

Parking: The nearest parking is across the street at Union Station. If you use Metro, take the Red Line to Union Station and exit at Massachusetts Avenue. As you leave the escalator, the museum will be across the street on your left.

Food: The Capital City Brewing Company is located upstairs; nearby Union Station houses a number of cafes and restaurants.


Phone: 202-633-5555; 202-633-5533 to register for special programs.

Handicap & Stroller Accessible: Yes, use the First Street entrance. Call 202-633-5534 or 202-633-9849 (TTY) if you have questions about accessibility.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Germantown.

Upcoming Events for Families at the National Postal Museum

Sunday, November 9. 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. The A-B-C’s of Stamp Collecting. Get your collection up and running with Janet Klug, author of the Smithsonian Guide to Stamp Collecting. For all ages; registration recommended. Contact Erin Blasco at (202) 633-5533 or

Saturday, November 15. 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. American Indian Heritage Month Celebration. This low-key event for families will feature stories, stamps and activities around the theme “Living in Many Worlds.” For families; no registration necessary.

Saturday, November 22. 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. Mystery Crates Revealed. Discover mystery objects in the museum’s collection at this exciting demonstration. Recommended for ages 10 and up; no registration necessary.

Starting Your Collection

Is your child ready to start collecting stamps? Blasco provides these tips for new philatelic enthusiasts:

Find a theme. Collect stamps with images that your child already enjoys, such as ballet, sports or dogs. “I guarantee you they’ll have the topic on stamps,” she says.

Take a stamp bath. Clip the edges of the envelopes from your stamps and dip them into a giant bowl of water for 20 minutes. After the stamps loosen from the envelopes, dry them picture-side down on a plain white paper towel. Your collection is now underway!

Get friends and family involved. Ask them to send your child their cancelled stamps. Encourage your child to write a pen pal in a foreign country.

Buy a magnifying glass. “Stamps have a lot of cool details … and magnifying glasses are fun,” says Blasco.