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Art & Museums

Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum New Gallery Displaying Important Philatelic Collections

By Mike Persley*

To view images full size, left click on each

On April 10, 1912, Mr. W. Defmeyer sent a letter from Berlin to a friend back home in the United States.

“Dear Def,” he wrote, “I am sorry that I neglected to send you a wire on the first of April. I forgot all about it until Tuesday, you see. I arrived in London late Saturday, and was very busy all day Monday and I forgot about it. I hope that you will accept my good wishes, even if they are a bit late. I hope to see you next year.”

It would, however, be the last time, that his friend or anyone else back home would hear from him. Mr. Defmeyer sent his letter from an early stop aboard the Titanic, and within days he would be one of the 1,500 people that died on the ship’s maiden voyage.

This imposing edifice was originally built to serve as the main post office for Washington, DC.

This imposing edifice was originally built to serve as the main post office for Washington, DC.

The letter is one of many on display in the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery which opened in late September at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum at Massachusetts Avenue and First Street, NE, directly across from Union Station.

By means of engagingly interactive and other well-designed exhibits, the gallery tells stories and shows history through a small “bit of paper covered at the back with a glutinous wash,” otherwise known as the stamp. From their beginning, stamps — and the letters they’ve helped send — have shaped history in ways that we sometimes take for granted, from the way that we communicate to their effect on pop culture.

Wells Fargo Pony Express Stamp.(Apr. - Oct. 1851)

Wells Fargo Pony Express Stamp.(Apr. – Oct. 1851)

The gallery tries to remind us of the importance of stamps.

“We try to use stamps and mail to tell the American story from colonial times to the present,” Dan Piazza, one of the gallery’s curators, told this reporter.

According to Cheryl Ganz, the gallery’s chief curator, “anybody who spends a couple minutes looking should find some stamp or image that excites them, or connects to their life.”

Upon entering the gallery one is first presented with a brief history of the stamp, followed by the display of the world’s first postage stamp, the “Penny Black,” issued by Great Britain on May 1, 1840. The one on display is from the original printing. Its design included a picture of Queen Victoria set to a black background. It cost a penny.

Before postage stamps, mail recipients usually paid the postal fees, which often varied according to distance within a single country.

With the Penny Black, mail could be sent anywhere within the United Kingdom for a standard fee, and the senders prepaid for delivery; the stamp provided proof of payment. Postage stamps quickly became very popular among the British people, and the use of mail soared.

1-pence Soth Africa "Seated Hope" single.

1-pence Soth Africa “Seated Hope” single.

Within a decade other nations began issuing their own stamps. By 1850, seven countries other than Great Britain were using stamps as their primary form of payment for mail delivery. Within the next century, the diversity of topics depicted on stamps expanded rapidly.

5-cents Franklin original model, 1847.

5-cent Franklin original model, 1847.

The United States released its first two postage stamps in 1847 — five-cent stamp featuring a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, and a 10-cent stamp honoring George Washington.

10-cent Washington original model, 1847.

10-cent Washington original model, 1847.

As the use of postage stamps expanded across the globe, so too did their importance in history, and much of what is on display highlights important historic events and societal concerns.

For example, on display is a collection of letters sent by Amelia Earhart, herself an avid stamp collector, who brought copies of mail she carried with her on her flights across the globe and stamp collectors purchased the mail in order to help fund her flights.

The gallery holds several of the letters, including mail from Earhart’s first flight over the Atlantic, and letters she carried with her on her final flight.

Amelia Earhart collection interactive in the Mail Marks History exhibit.

Amelia Earhart collection interactive in the Mail Marks History exhibit.

In 1901, a stamp issued by Nicaragua depicting one of that country’s active volcanoes helped convince President McKinley to favor Panama over Nicaragua for the canal that was to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp to support breast cancer research. The stamp contained an eight-cent surcharge with proceeds going toward funding to fight the disease. As of today, the stamp has raised just over $72 million.

The gallery also contains rarities that appeal to the more fervent stamp collector, or philatelist, including:

A letter sent to John Hancock on July 4, 1776, just after he signed the Declaration of Independence, containing the red stamped proof required by The Stamp Act, one of major catalysts for the American Revolution;

A four-block group from the only known sheet of 100 famously misprinted “Inverted Jenny,” the stamp issued on May 10, 1918  that placed an upside-down, Curtis JN-4 blue airplane within its red frame, and the gallery is the only place where they are displayed in a block;

24-cent inverted Jenny block of four (1918). Loan from William H. Gross.

24-cent inverted Jenny block of four (1918). Loan from William H. Gross.

A letter dated August 2, 1971 postmarked by American astronaut Dave Scott upon the landing on the moon of Apollo 15 mission.

Special care has gone into maintaining and preserving these unique collections. Stamps and envelopes are very fragile paper, so displaying them in improper conditions could severely damage their quality.

“If you took a newspaper and a magazine and put it in your window and walked away and came back a year later,” explained Ganz, “the paper would become brittle, the colors would be faded. That’s what would happen to our objects.”

To avoid such damage, all of the items are on display in specially designed cases with lighting that turns on only when a person walks up to them. The large windows overlooking Massachusetts Avenue have been fitted with special glass designed to reduce the light coming in by 85 percent; sophisticated interior humidity and temperature controls further protects the collections from damage.

DEC - museums(Postal)-pic7)While most of the stamps and related materials have been in both the Smithsonian collections for years — many for over 100 years, the exhibits are enhanced by generous, long-term loans from individual collectors such as William Gross who also provided the funding for the creation of the gallery space, and from the Postmaster General whose loans include art related to the materials on display.

Among the gallery’s largest and most impressive collection is its “Stamps Around the Globe” exhibit, which contains stamps from every continent of the world dating as far back as the mid-19th century.

Stamps Around the Globe exhibit.

Stamps Around the Globe exhibit.

For some countries, such as in Africa and South America where political instability has caused power changes multiple times either as a result of the end of colonial rule or military coup, visitors are able to view stamps issued during each of those periods.

For example, for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the display holds one of its current postage stamps along with a stamp issued between 1971 and 1978 when it was known as the Republic of  Zaire; and there is yet another stamp issued during its colonial period (1908-1960) when it was the Belgian Congo.

Another example is an Egyptian stamp with an image of a statue of Ramesses II that had been issued when Egypt was a British protectorate between 1915 and 1921.

The collection contains stamps and related items from every country that has ever issued stamps, including many that no longer exist.

A particular highlight of the gallery  is the separate room, the National Stamp Salon, dedicated to showing the U.S national collection, which dates back from the colonial period to today.

DEC - museums(Postal)-pic8A)There will be found letters sent by Benjamin Franklin when he was the Postmaster General for the colonies. Because of his position, Franklin was allowed to send mail for free by marking so on his envelopes. One letter, Franklin curiously signed, as B. Free Franklin.

DEC - museums(Postal)-pic8B)The collection also holds several designs and drawings of stamps created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a devoted stamp collector. One design shows the early drawings of a Susan B. Anthony stamp; another, which the president designed for Mother’s Day, incorporates an image by the 19th century American artist James McNeill Whistler.

The gallery’s 12,000 square feet of exhibition space located adjacent to the original main hall that runs the length of the historic former main post is just part of the Postal Museum which holds nearly six million items.

Among those displayed in the expansive downstairs exhibition galleries are large objects like a railway post office car in which mail was sorted and dropped from trains as they passed through communities along their routes.

Railway mail car Interior

Railway mail car Interior

It is the hope of the curators to “use stamps and mail as a lens to a new way of looking at history.”

“If you look at an envelope, an envelope is full of clues about what happened to that envelope,” said curator Ganz, “there’s so many great stories in there.”

*The writer, a resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he majored in political science, and is now studying for his Masters degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.  

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Anthony L. Harvey is a collector of contemporary art, with an emphasis on Washington artists. He is a founding member of the Washington Review of the Arts. For many years he was the staff person in the United States Senate responsible for arts and Library of Congress oversight by the Senate's Rules and Administration Committee and the House and Senate's Joint Committee on the Library.