29¢ National Postal Museum
Issue Date: July 30, 1993
City: Washington, DC
Printed By: American Bank Note Company
Printing Method: Lithographed and engraved
Located in the lower level of the Washington City Post Office Building on Capitol Hill, the National Postal Museum opened its doors to the public on July 31, 1993. The Smithsonian Institution’s newest addition, the museum is devoted to housing the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps. Fascinating interactive exhibits tell the colorful history of the nation’s mail service.
In 1692 King William II of England gave Thomas Neale the right to provide the American colonies with a postal service and the first national postal system in America was born. When Benjamin Franklin became deputy postmaster general in 1753 the postal system was in desperate need of changes. In an effort to improve the frequency and reliability of mail delivery, Franklin made numerous changes, including replacing riders on horseback with stagecoaches.
As the nation’s boundaries grew, stagecoaches continued to transport mail and passengers across the country. Concord coaches appeared during the 1820’s and were used well into the early 1900’s.
A great innovation, the method of sorting mail on a moving train developed just as railroads were connecting every corner of the country. In 1838 Congress approved an act designating all U.S. railroad routes as postal routes. A significant improvement over the traditional method of delivering mail by horse-drawn coaches, the railway service signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Like many of the other changes the Post Office Department instituted, the railway service was created out of a desire to provide a faster and more reliable service to its patrons. Originally trains merely transported mail from one destination to another. However by 1862 “Railway Post Offices” or RPO’s had been created. As trains sped across the countryside, postal clerks sorted and dispatched mail on specially designed railroad cars.
Catcher arms at railway platforms enabled clerks to pick up mail sacks from towns as the train whizzed by. Sacks of letters destined for a town were tossed onto a platform from the moving train. The clerks took great pride in their work and could sort up to 600 pieces of mail an hour, and up until the mid-1900’s Railway Mail Service dominated the movement of the mail.
As early as 1896 the Post Office Department was considering using automobiles to replace horse-drawn vehicles. Not only would they reduce the time needed to deliver mail, but it was also hoped they would reduce the number of postmen needed as well. In 1899 experiments in Cleveland and Buffalo proved successful. In fact the time to deliver mail was reduced considerably - by more than 50%! Plus, automobiles could be used to equal advantage in both large metropolitan cities, as well as small towns and rural areas.
Shortly after the turn of the century the Post Office began earnestly testing the feasibility of using “motorized wagons.” In 1906, Baltimore was selected as the site for the first city-wide testing of automobile service. In time, automobiles dramatically changed the movement and organization of our mail service.
Eventually trucks replaced automobiles, which had a limited carrying capacity. Ford Model A trucks were used by the Postal Service for nearly 25 years as the principal vehicle for city mail delivery. So exhausted was the fleet by the end of its term that the trucks were sold for a mere $8.00 apiece. Today the Postal Service maintains over 140,000 trucks.
On May 15, 1918, the Post Office inaugurated its new airmail service. Although it was first suggested planes be used to transport mail in 1910, the idea was way ahead of technology; airplanes were too slow, fragile and unreliable to compete with the mail train. Seven years later however, World War I had proven the usefulness of airplanes, and when it was recommended that an experimental airmail route be established, the Post Office readily agreed.
The Army agreed to provide pilots in order to give its young trainees experience in cross-country flying. A simple 218-mile route was chosen that would offer service to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Like any other government venture, the airmail service stemmed from a long tradition of federal support for projects that would improve transportation and communication, making the launching of airmail service more than just a milestone in postal history. The goal of the new service was to prove that mail could be flown on a regular basis, regardless of weather, thus paving the way for transcontinental and eventually transoceanic flights.