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

USPS to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of U.S. Airmail Service

The U.S. Postal Service celebrates the centennial of official airmail service in the U.S. this year with a pair of new stamps, one of which will be issued today (May 1) in a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

Airmail service officially started May 15, 1918 with flights between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as flights between Philadelphia and New York City.

The new blue-and-white United States Air Mail stamp – which is a forever first-class domestic commemorative – features a drawing of the type of plane typically used in the early days of airmail, a Curtiss JN-4H biplane. The stamp is printed in intaglio — a design engraved into the stamp paper – and has been produced in panes of 20. A stamp in dark red with the same design will be released this summer, also likely in Washington, D.C.

The first-day ceremony at 11 a.m. will be part of a day filled with events at the National Postal Museum.

The museum will open an exciting new exhibit – “Postmen of the Skies” – which also celebrates the centennial of airmail.

Pilot goggles, leggings, helmets and logbooks, along with route maps, telegrams and airmail-related pop culture artifacts, will invite visitors to witness and experience the birth of commercial aviation. Visitors will also experience rare historic photos and see an archival “you-are-there” video that tells the story of the origins of airmail.

The American Philatelic Society and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum will host the launch of Stamp of the Century, a book about the famous philatelic error, the Inverted Jenny. The authors, Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher, will be on hand from noon to 2 p.m. to talk with museum visitors and sign copies of their book, which will be for sale in the museum gift store. From 6 to 8 p.m. the next evening, the authors will be part of the museum’s History After Hours program for an evening book talk and signing. The book is also available from the APS at www.stamps.org/publications.

Two interactive events take off that day, as well. There will be an airmail-themed scavenger hunt and visitors can try their luck at an airmail board game.

After a series of experimental flights in previous years, the Post Office Department and U.S. Army worked cooperatively to launch official airmail service in 1918. Army planes and pilots were used to fly the first mail runs. The Post Office Department took charge of service later that summer, operating it from Aug. 12, 1918, through Sept. 1, 1927. The first east-west route (New York to Chicago) started December 18, 1918.

The stamp celebrates the courage of the pioneering airmail carriers and the foresight of those who fostered the new service and made it a success. Airmail delivery, daily except Sundays, became part of the fabric of the American economy and spurred the growth of the nation’s aviation industry.

Dan Gretta designed the stamp while Greg Breeding was art director.

Scheduled to speak at the first-day ceremony are Bill Harris, deputy director, Department of the Air Force; Susan Brownell, vice president of supply management for the United States Postal Service; Elliot Gruber, director, and Nancy Pope, head curator, both of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

NPM Receives Donation from Family of Dr. George S. Brooks

The National Postal Museum announced yesterday that they have accepted a donation from the collection of the late Dr. George S. Brooks of Winchester, Kentucky. The donation consists of three volumes of postally used envelopes that Dr. Brooks assembled in honor of his son LTJG George S. Brooks, Jr. USN, who was lost at sea aboard the submarine USS Pompano off the coast of Japan during World War II.

Nimitz Cover
Envelope addressed by LTJG George S. Brooks, Jr. USN to his mother, postmarked the day before USS Pompano departed Midway Island on the patrol mission from which it never returned. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz later autographed the cover.

Pompano left Midway Island on patrol August 20, 1943 and never returned; its exact fate has never been conclusively determined. The elder Brooks channeled pride and grief for his son into collecting military mail that chronicled the hardships and sacrifices of wartime, especially the difficulties faced by military personnel and civilians in communicating from forward areas, secret locations and prisoner-of-war camps. Some of the last envelopes exchanged by Lieutenant Brooks and his parents – one marked simply “missing” – are an especially poignant part of the collection.

Mobile, Alabama Cover
The Confederate States established a post office department separate from the United States on 1 June 1861, but did not immediately issue new stamps. In the interim, the postmaster at Mobile, Alabama issued his own stamps that were in use for less than six months.

The donation was made by George S. Brooks II, accompanied by his wife, Kathy, and other members of his family. Mr. Brooks is the grandson of Dr. Brooks and the nephew of Lieutenant Brooks.

Confederate White Necktie Cover
In July 1862 the Confederate States issued a five-cent blue stamp printed from plates that were made in London and smuggled to Richmond, Virginia via a ship that ran the Union Navy blockade. Some printings of this stamp exhibit the striking “white tie” variety, caused by damage to the printing plate.

“Besides adding considerable depth to our military mail collections, the Brooks family’s gift will make it possible for the National Postal Museum to share their grandfather’s passion for collecting with others,” said Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately.

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