Postal Museum shares history with fun

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Ever stood anxiously at the door, waiting for the mail truck to pull up and deposit its precious cargo?

Most of us have, but many people don’t know the fascinating history behind the U.S. mail.

The National Postal Museum, a part of the Smithsonian Institution collection of Washington area museums, is located downtown near Union Station and brings that rich history to light with highly interactive exhibits where kids and adults alike can enjoy the thrill of making postcards, ‘driving’ a big rig, pushing buttons and learning, all at the same time.

Upon stepping into the middle of the vast first room, there are countless possibilities of goodies to fill the time.

The National Postal Museum is located near Union Station in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum).

“There’s so much to look at here, I don’t know what to do first!  I think I’m going to send my mom a postcard, because I haven’t seen her in months,” said Gina Paulson from New Jersey.  “I’m glad they offer that, it’s a little more of a surprise instead of a regular phone call, you know?”

One exhibit allows a postcard to be made to send to love ones for only a quarter.  A unique inscription can be made, then it’s sent through the system.  Once that’s done, take a walk around to see how that post card is transported, with both the old and new means of transportation the museum showcases.

Off to the side of the room, an old-fashioned mail train-car invites people to become a mail-sorter.

Owney, the adorable mutt who wandered into a post office one day in 1888 and became the mascot of the post service, stands guard outside of the car ready to be petted.

After admiring Owney’s numerous travel tags, take the challenge aboard the train and see if being a mail sorter in the 1800s would have been the job choice.  To work there, 600 pieces of mail an hour had to be sorted.

“That looked hard, especially with people’s weird handwriting.  I couldn’t imagine trying to decipher and sort mail, all at top speeds,” said Joseph Anderson, visiting from Pittsburgh. “My son loves animals, so he was fascinated that Owney was a real stuffed dog, saved all this time.”

Next to the old-fashioned train is the front end of a big rig used to transport mail.  Hop aboard and give the wheel a spin, tap all of the buttons, feel on top of the world.

Owney the dog at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum).

“I wanted to stay in the big truck all day, but my sister kept pushing me.  She wanted to drive too, but I should!” said 8-year-old Christopher from Washington.

Descend from the truck and learn about the evolution of the mail transport vehicles.  Find out how the funny shape came to be and how different they looked from era to era.  Everything from tricycles to motorcycles to trucks to cars have been used in order to get mail from place to place.

Perhaps one of the most exciting exhibits is the spy room.  See how postal inspectors work in the exhibit named Postal Inspectors: the Silent Service.  Discover how bombs are found, what happens with postal crime and, best of all, it’s interactive so visitors can solve a crime or two.

There’s the chance to check fingerprints, pick a criminal based on a profile and see how the Unabomber and other cases were solved.

Fancy stamps instead?

There’s a large exhibit that can whet any stamp collector’s palette.  It depicts celebrities and famous moments in stamps, with the likes of Mickey Mouse, “Gone with the Wind” and Marilyn Monroe.

“They’re like beautiful little works of art.  It’s amazing how realistic and detailed a tiny stamp can be,” admired Louise Garner of Chicago.  “I’ve always liked stamps, so it’s fascinating to be here in the museum and see some of the more exclusive pieces.”

A visitor checks out an exhibit in the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum).

“I want the Disney one.  It’s Mickey, Donald, and Goofy!  I like Goofy,” said 5-year-old Tammy Garner, peeking into the display case with a grin.

Another interesting showcase of unique art is the exhibit on rural mailboxes.  Uncle Sam, an old-fashioned camera and a dog have all been turned into inspiration for complex mailboxes.

The National Postal Museum is a quality tribute to all who have had a part in mail transport.

From those who lost their lives keeping mail safe to the creative designers who keep stamps funny, many have contributed to the postal legacy which is preserved in the museum.


If You Go

Address: National Postal Museum 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E. Washington, D.C., 20002.

Phone: 202-633-5555.

Hours: The museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

Public Transportation: Metro: Take the Red Line to Union Station. Leave through the Massachusetts Avenue exit. As you get off the escalator, the National Postal Museum will be across the street.

Parking: The National Postal Museum does not have a parking lot. Street parking is available near the museum and all-day parking is available at Union Station, located next to the museum.

Accessibility: The museum exhibition areas and rest rooms accommodate wheelchairs.  Scheduling sign language and oral interpreters for tours offered by the National Postal Museum requires three weeks advanced notice. Call 202-633-5534 (voice) or 202-633-9849 (TTY) to make arrangements for an interpreter to be provided for your tour.  Tapes of the gallery guide are available at the information desk for the visually impaired.

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