Postal Museum Celebrates Train Day

WASHINGTONOne young daughter sat on her dad’s shoulders as she blew a green train whistle and watched model trains travel a track. Another young boy jumped up, peering over the table to get a view of the model “Polar Express” train coming around the bend and blowing smoke behind its path.

It was all part of the National Postal Museum’s annual “Train Day” celebration this weekend, commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Three model train groups set up tracks throughout the museum, and visitors enjoyed a fun-filled day of train-themed games and activities.

photo: Tasos Kalfas

When entering the atrium, visitors began at the Railway Post Office Training School, where they could learn to talk like a railway post office clerk. They learned terms like “rattler” (a freight train) and “dressing a rack” (preparing a train for mail service).

After testing their railway knowledge, visitors moved to the “Train Whistle Code School.” Kids could pick from different colors of bright yellow, blue, green, and purple train whistles to try their codes, filling the entire atrium with echoing whistle noises.

photo: Tasos Kalfas

Boys and girls gathered around the “Coloring Corner” to color train cars, the museum’s mascot Owney the dog, who traveled with the railway post office, and other patterns.

Visitors pretended to be railway mail clerks inside the museum’s railway post office car, at which visitors sorted letters by destination in the train’s cubbies, just as railway mail clerks used to do.

Young children also tried their hands at being railway clerks. One at a time, they hopped on a small electric train engine and rode in a circle. They swung by one station picking up a mail bag before turning the bend and dropping the mail bag in a box on the other side of the track. The activity was meant to simulate how railway mail cars seldom made stops to pick up and drop off mail.

The Rappahannock Model Railroaders from Fredericksburg, Virginia, displayed a model train set in the museum atrium. The set showed people waiting on platforms and construction workers performing road maintenance.

The Northern Virginia NTRAK model railroading club’s track included smaller-sized trains and a freight-style Postal Service truck parked outside a bank and another Postal Service truck in what looked like a residential neighborhood. The trucks donned the old “standing eagle” Postal Service logo.

The largest track belonged to the Washington, Virginia, and Maryland Garden Railway Society in the museum lobby. Their set featured a large Amtrak train and displayed an early-1900s-style car which read “U.S. Mail” and also had the “standing eagle” logo.

Public Programs Manager Motoko Hioki said the event spiraled off of Amtrak’s celebration of train day several years ago.

Union Station, Washington DC
photo: Martin Kent Miller

Union Station, which serves several Amtrak routes is next door to the Postal Museum. The station used to host a National Train Day celebration at which several Washington-area model railroaders displayed their tracks. However, the station no longer does the event.

Hioki said around 5,000 people attended the Postal Museum’s train day event over the weekend.

The museum’s next event is called the “Dog Days of Summer” and is set for late July. The museum will celebrate railway mail dog Owney and other animals who played a part in postal history.

“We will also be celebrating the museum’s 25th birthday” Hioki said, though she declined to say how.

At the Dog Days event, the museum will partner with local animal rescue groups and the Amtrak Police K-9 Unit to host an adoption fair, according to the museum’s website.

The event is scheduled for July 28 and 29 at the National Postal Museum.

by Tasos Kalfas, @TasosKalfasWRGW

Postal Service and Postal Museum Unveil New Stamp, Exhibit

There was no Blue Angels flyover, but there were still plenty of planes overhead in the atrium of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, where dozens gathered Tuesday for the unveiling of the U.S. Postal Service’s “Air Mail Blue” stamp and the opening of the museum’s “Postmen of the Skies” exhibit.

The stamp, printed in blue and donning a classical look, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. airmail service and features a drawing of a Curtiss JN-4H biplane.

Another stamp with the same design but printed in red will be issued Aug. 11 in College Park, Maryland to commemorate the transfer of airmail service from the U.S. Army to the Post Office Department.

“Airmail service has been one of our organization’s most significant contributions to America’s growth,” said Postal Service Vice President of Supply Management Susan Brownell. “Single-person flights, carrying bags of mail from one city to another, eventually led to a world-shaping passenger aviation industry and transportation network.”

The Postmen of the Skies exhibit explores the beginning of the U.S. airmail service and the pilots who first flew the mail. The exhibit features items worn by the airmail pilots and tells their stories.

“Our new exhibition invites visitors to witness and experience the birth of commercial aviation,” Director of the National Postal Museum Elliot Gruber said. “Actually, one of the pilots featured in the exhibition flew the De Havilland DH-4 airplane that hangs above our heads right here.”

The exhibit also displays a 1929 airmail board game in which “players rolled dice to move forward and the first pilot to deliver their six letters won the game,” according to the exhibit.

The U.S. airmail service began May 15, 1918 when “a small group of Army pilots delivered mail along a route that linked Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City,” according to the Postal Service.

Head Curator Nancy Pope detailed the story of the first airmail flight.

“Unfortunately for the Post Office, [pilot George] Boyle didn’t head north. He headed southeast and crashed in Waldorf, Maryland,” she said. “His mail was put on a truck to DC and unceremoniously put on a train to New York City. Fortunately, for the Post Office Department, the other three pilots did a magnificent job that day.”

Those three delivered the mail successfully.

Bill Harris, deputy director of Air Force history and museums policies and programs at the Pentagon, noted, ““[The airmail operation] helped redefine the use of aircraft and its role in military doctrine that would be sorely tested in the skies above Europe and the Pacific during the second world war and beyond.”

Today, the Postal Service still uses planes to fly the mail but does not have an official airmail service. The organization uses contractors to carry airmail.

 by Tasos Kalfas, @TasosKalfasWRGW

Postmaster General Calls on Congress to Enact Postal Reform

WASHINGTON—Postmaster General Megan Brennan called for sweeping postal reform at the U.S. Postal Service’s Temporary Emergency Committee meeting Friday morning, as the Postal Service faces another year of financial losses.

“Despite our best efforts, under the current legal framework we will not be able to stem the tide of our ongoing losses and return to financial stability without legislative change,” she said.

Brennan called on Congress to pass the Postal Reform Act of 2017 and to confirm President Trump’s nominees to the currently-vacant Postal Service Board of Governors.

According to the Postal Service’s website, the board is responsible for implementing an array of postal policies, including the company’s budget and long-term planning.

President Trump made three nominations to the board in October, but the Senate has yet to confirm them.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees postal policy and is responsible for initial confirmation of the Board nominees, did not respond to our emails asking when nominee confirmations might occur.

Nonetheless, Brennan was hopeful that the nominees would be confirmed soon.

“We’re encouraged, in talking with some of our key public officials, that they understand the urgency of this,” she said in a web conference. “As we’ve said from the outset…we are best served, as is the American public, by having a fully constituted board, so I’m optimistic we’ll have them confirmed and on board by our next scheduled meeting.”

As for the Postal Reform Act of 2017, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced the bill in January of last year, but Congress has made no recent move to approve the bill.

If passed, the bill would amend the Postal Service’s employee and retiree health benefits and revise rules surrounding postal rate changes. The bill would also allow the Postal Service to work with state and local authorities to provide government goods and services and would encourage the use of centralized delivery, through which customers can opt to pick up their mail at a centralized location instead of at their front door.

The bill establishes a Postal Service “Chief Innovation Officer” to focus on innovation within the company and would reduce the number of seats on the Board of Governors to five, which has historically consisted of nine governors, who serve seven-year terms.

At Friday’s meeting, Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett outlined the Postal Service’s financial results in quarter one of fiscal year 2018. The Postal Service faced a net loss of $540 million, as first class mail revenues declined about four percent and marketing mail revenues declined about five percent. With the holiday season, package revenues increased around nine percent and international mail revenues increased around the same amount. However, this was not enough to offset the losses.

Brennan attributed the Postal Service’s financial troubles to the high cost of employee benefit programs and to the Congressional mandate to deliver to every American home and business. She suggested that the price cap on stamps and mail services prevents the Postal Service from earning enough revenue to cover costs. She also noted that current regulations limit the Postal service’s “ability to pursue new sources of revenue.”

The National Association of Letter Carriers, the national labor union for city-delivery mail carriers, released a statement on the Postal Service’s first quarter results, echoing the Postmaster General’s call for action from Congress.

“Congress should address the pre-funding burden it imposed in 2006, which requires USPS — alone among all public and private entities — to prefund future retiree healthcare benefits decades into the future,” they wrote. “This produces an onerous annual burden of billions of dollars.”

The only current postal legislation being considered by Congress is the renaming of post offices, a common practice to honor community leaders and other important officials.

by Tasos Kalfas, @TasosKalfasWRGW

President Trump Targets Postal Service in Morning Tweet

WASHINGTON, DC – This morning, President Trump took to Twitter to voice concerns about the United States Postal Service.

He wrote, “Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!”

President Trump Tweet

It is unclear if Amazon is the source of the Postal Service’s financial troubles because the details of any deals between the Postal Service and retail giant are confidential, and the financial troubles of the Postal Service are often attributed to the requirement that it pre-fund its employee’s health insurance benefits and to the decreasing volume of first-class mail.

According to a Forbes article, shipping industry analyst David Vernon “estimated…that Amazon pays the USPS $2 per package, which is about half of what it would pay United Parcel Service and FedEx.”

The Forbes article noted that Postal Service chief financial officer Joseph Corbett “wrote in a post for PostalReporter.com in August that the [Postal Service] is required by law to charge retailers at least enough to cover its delivery costs.”

In 2013, the Postal Service made an agreement with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. The Postal Service also provides “last-mile” delivery for the retailer.

The Postal Service offered no comment in response to the tweet.

While Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced postal reform legislation in January, Congress has made no recent moves to reform the Postal Service.

by Tasos Kalfas, @TasosKalfasWRGW

Smithsonian National Postal Museum Holds Holiday Card Workshop

WASHINGTON, DC – The National Postal Museum was bustling with visitors Saturday as the museum held its annual holiday card workshop.

Visitors of all ages attended the event, at which they could design their own holiday greeting cards.

NPM Attendees

As visitors entered the museum atrium, they started by choosing two pieces of cardstock, one large and one small. They then moved to embellish their cards with stickers, twine, and other materials available at the various craft stations. Visitors could sit at the tables in the atrium to assemble their cards with glue, scissors and other materials.

The museum’s Post Office was open for visitors to mail their cards affixed with the museum’s special postmark.

The museum also provided a photo booth for visitors to share their photos on social media using the hashtag #nationalpostalmuseum.

Sponge Bob MailboxIn addition to the card making, visitors had the opportunity to write holiday messages to families at The Children’s Inn, an organization that provides housing and support for families with children receiving care at the National Institutes of Health. Visitors wrote messages on Spongebob-themed postcards and deposited them in a special Spongebob-themed mailbox. Director of Education Matthew White said he saw both parents children deposit postcards.

Referring to the Spongebob postcards, Public Programs Manager Motoko Hioki noted in an email, “The letter writing set up is still there in the museum atrium…if anyone wants to participate in the letter writing, they are welcome to do so at the museum until Thursday, December 14th.”

The Postal Museum holds several public events throughout the year, including another card workshop around Valentine’s Day. Volunteer Coordinator Maggie Sigle said the museum also does letter writing campaigns around Veterans Day for Operation Gratitude, an organization that sends care packages and letters to U.S. troops and first responders.

Hioki, who organizes the museum’s public events, detailed their Wine and Design program, available as a once-a-month happy hour event. At these programs, people can come to the museum after hours and complete various postal-related arts and crafts. The events typically occur once a month.

Hioki was instrumental in starting the Wine and Design program at the museum. “People don’t write letters anymore,” she said. “Encouraging people to write is something important to me.”

The Postal Museum continues to provide educational activities for the general public to learn more about stamps, postal history, and the stamp collecting hobby. It is open seven days a week, from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.

 by Tasos Kalfas, @TasosKalfasWRGW

All photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum