- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

In 1673, the King's Best Highway was a lonely 268-mile route linking New York and Boston. Every couple of weeks, a post rider would set out to deliver the mail usually official business correspondence to the taverns along the way. With a lantern lighting its footsteps, the horse would pick its way through the woods, the rider notching tree trunks with an ax so others could follow his trail.

Visitors to the National Postal Museum can follow that trail themselves through a simulated stretch of the highway complete with notched trees. This exhibit, documenting the early innovations of mail delivery, is one in a comprehensive collection exploring the annals of the U.S. Postal Service.

Located a stone's throw from Union Station, the National Postal Museum is housed in the majestically restored Washington City Post Office Building. Opened in 1993, the museum boasts 23,000 square feet of exhibit space containing more than 13 million stamps and postal-history artifacts, a research library and a museum shop.

It includes the National Philatelic Collection, which is the world's largest postal-history compilation. Exhibits cover the westward expansion, pony express and airmail, the mail and the progression of democracy (before radio and television, politicians relied on the mail to make their points), motorizing the mail, philatelic rarities, and the art of cards and letters. There are mailboxes, folk art, information about modern marketing techniques, and original handwritten correspondence spanning more than 300 years of postal service.

It's all interspersed with myriad interactive displays more than 40 machines, devices and touch screens that will fascinate mature visitors while keeping smaller hands and minds busy.

Esther Washington, head of education, calls the place "a family museum" and adds that many of the facility's activities are offered in adult- and child-size versions so families can participate together.

"America's history is interwoven here," she says, "and we focus on allowing people to learn about their own country, transportation and the Postal Service in a way that's fun."

She's right; the National Postal Museum is fun delightful, in fact. Visitors beginning their tour enter the first gallery, Moving the Mail, and observe a number of different vehicles used to carry the mail.

Three authentic aircraft dangle from the ceiling, reminiscent of a time the early 1900s when commercial aviation was at the forefront of delivery. One, a Wiseman-Cooke aircraft, made the first mail flight sanctioned by a U.S. postmaster.

People can step into a railway mail car to learn about the workings of the Railway Mail Service, first employed during the early 1800s. The mail trains revolutionized the delivery operation because mail was sorted aboard the moving trains and a system of mail cranes was used to exchange mail at stations on the routes without stopping.

There's an exhibit on the pony express, to many a daring symbol of the Old West, that was created to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western ends of the transcontinental telegraph lines. In fact, the pony express lasted just 18 months, from April 3, 1860, to Oct. 26, 1861.

"Riders were issued a Bible and a gun, but they never carried either, because these things were too heavy," Ms. Washington says.

One display illustrates the dilemma of moving mail, inviting patrons to create an overland postal route with the help of a topographical map.

Arguably the most intriguing exhibit is contained in a gallery called Customers and Communities. There, visitors can look through the customer-service window of an authentic post office this one used in Dillsburg, Pa., from 1916 to 1971 and step into the shoes of the postmaster.

Using a rear-projection presentation, visitors are presented with postal customers representing different time periods and requesting various services. The first customer, for example, is a 1920s-era woman who inquires about opening a postal savings account.

Besides the exhibits, one-hour museum tours are offered daily. Public programs include lectures, performances, films and craft workshops. The museum also schedules at least two family programs each month, which might include child-oriented lectures and art projects.

Don't think the National Postal Museum is one of Washington's best-kept secrets: In fact, it is one of the best-visited Smithsonian Institution museums in the city outside of the Mall. Most important, Ms. Washington says, Smithsonian staff had the country's children in mind when they created the National Postal Museum.

"A lot of times you see kids perfectly happy and the parents bored or the parents engaged and the kids going crazy," Ms. Washington says. "We try to keep everyone happy here at the same time."

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