National Postal Museum

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when I visited the National Postal Museum. However, my family and I were pleasantly surprised that we ended up spending nearly two hours in the building. From 1911-1986, the building served as the City’s main post office. From its tall ceilings and exquisite architecture, the Smithsonian has preserved the space as a museum.

After walking though the security check, we passed a long hallway with brass mail boxes and windows. Halfway down the hall we descended downstairs to the museum. At the bottom of the escalator, pick up a brochure. On the back is the self-guide for kids version.

The museum is open daily from 10am to 5:30pm and is good for elementary-aged students up. There are a handful of activities that appeal to children. The first area titled “Systems at Work,” discusses how machines read barcodes, machine-printed writing, and handwriting. Pick up a scanner to find information about a piece of mail’s journey. There were a trio of stations where children can insert postcards to cancel the 1997 Stegosaurus or 1859 Ben Franklin stamp. My child loved the throwing bins game. The game reminded me of skee ball. The job of a postal clerk was to sort as much mail as possible in a short amount of time.

Various postal bags were set up and we had to throw the packages into the correct destination bin. It was a lot of fun trying to race to see how fast we could complete the assignment. Older students and adults will enjoy the zip code challenge game. Using a touch screen, see how fast you can sort letters by using keying in the correct zip codes. Postal workers sorted letters at a speed of more than one per second! In the “Systems at Work” exhibit is operation equipment, a vintage distribution case, mail pouch, locks, and mailboxes.

I thought it was interesting that customers in the 19th century purchased their own scales to find out what their mail weighed before taking it to the post office. Other neat artifacts on display are 20th century hand stamps, a parcel post egg crate, butter box, bee box, and laundry. Learn about what two people were on the first postage stamp. Here’s a hint, both are U.S. Presidents. We take for granted how swift our mail gets to a destination today. In the early 1900’s, it took 16 days to send mail from St. Louis, Missouri to Ft. Yuma, California traveling from post office to mail wagon, then railroad and stagecoach. Known as The Star Route of mail service, I didn’t realize how many ways mail traveled including by dogsled and row boat.

Other activities that appealed to my child were driving a large truck, boarding a stagecoach, learning about Owney, the mascot of the Railway Mail Service, walking through a fake forest and seeing coconut mail.

Two exhibits that I particularly enjoyed were Fire & Ice and Alphabetilately A to Z. Fire & Ice takes a look at the Hindenburg and Titanic. Both tragedies are remembered in stories, video, pieces of mail and artifacts. It asks visitors the question, “in a disaster, what possession would you save? Stop at the stamping station to receive a souvenir postcard. Alphabetilately A to Z is a look at the ABC’s of stamps. Stamps are used from advertising, to duck hunting licenses and more. Consider yourself lucky and probably, rich if you own any collection of stamps from the letter E category.

“Postal Inspectors” is a fascinating look at the dangers postal workers endure to safely handle and deliver mail. This is an exhibit younger children should avoid due to pieces including a real “Tommy Gun,” anthrax suit, and mail bomb mock-up. There are also examples of fake money orders and information on identity theft.

The building is stroller and handicap accessible. Drinking fountains and bathrooms with changing facilities are available. The museum shop sells pricey, but neat postal themed items, including stamps, of course, apparel and more. Commemorate your visit with a coin press of the National Postal Museum.

Getting There

Metro is the easiest way. Take the red line to the Union Station stop. Exit through Massachusetts Avenue. The National Postal Museum is across the street. We decided to drive and parked in the garage at Union Station. There are several family friendly options for dining from sit down cafes and restaurants to a food court. Plus, my child loved seeing the Amtrak trains and buses waiting to depart the station. Be sure to get your parking ticket stamped at the machine before exiting for two hours validation. We ended up only paying $1.

Other Information

  • On Saturday, February 9, 2013 the museum will hold a Valentine’s Day Card Workshop from noon to 4pm.
  • Be sure to look for other family-friendly programming throughout the year. In the past the museum has hosted events to get kids interested in stamp collecting, which are always great fun!
  • Coming in September 2013 is the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery. To quote the website: “This new space will enable the National Postal Museum to reach its full potential by dramatically increasing the collection’s visibility, advancing its educational mission, and reinvigorating public interest in philately.”

Bottom Line

The National Postal Museum is a free way to spend a few hours learning about the history and importance of mail and the postal system.

Photos by Kathleen Molloy.

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