National Postal Museum

V-Mail Stationery, 1942

This week’s Smithsonian Snapshot marks the June 15, 1942, launch of V-Mail, the overseas communication service used between military personnel, family and friends.

During World War II, Army Post Offices, Fleet Post Offices and U.S. post offices were flooded with mail sent by service members and family. V-Mail was a solution to the volume of mail competing with essential wartime supplies for cargo space.

The U.S. adapted Great Britain’s Airgraph service and integrated microfilm technology into its wartime system. V-Mail letters were copied onto microfilm, which was shipped overseas and reproduced at one-quarter of the original size at a processing station where it was then delivered to the addressee.

V-Mail required standardized 8 ½-by-11-inch stationery like that pictured here from the Wessel Co. in Chicago. The distinguishing marks and uniform size of the stationery helped workers gather the folded letter sheets to be photographed onto 16 mm microfilm. All sheets were set to standard dimensions, weight, grain and layout so they fit in the Kodak microfilming machines.

Correspondents could obtain two sheets per day from their local post office for free. Others opted to purchase the materials that were available in neighborhood stores.

The National Postal Museum’s collection of V-Mail stationery demonstrates the intersection of governmental and commercial efforts to facilitate mail for the military. Frequent letter writing was encouraged for its morale-boosting effects on America’s soldiers.

To learn more about American military history, visit the National Museum of American History’s “Price of Freedom” exhibition website. To learn more about V-Mail, visit the National Postal Museum’s, “Victory Mail” online exhibition website.

This item is one of 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is not currently on display. To learn more about this item, visit the National Museum Postal Museum website.

Pony Express Mail, 1861

This week’s Smithsonian Snapshot celebrates the April 3, 1860, anniversary of the Pony Express.

In 1860, a relay system of horses began to carry mail across the 1,966-mile “central route” between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. This privately owned service was known as the Pony Express.

The Pony Express was replaced by a stagecoach line after only 18 months. Because of its short-lived service, there is not much surviving mail.

In June 1861, this envelope was carried from San Francisco to A.W. Canfield in New York City. It took 12 days to reach its destination. It features full markings, stamp and a patriotic cachet from the Pony Express mail route. This tells the important story of postal history during the late 1800s. It was collected by the Smithsonian in 1971.

During the Pony Express journey, riders stopped about every 10 miles at one of 165 stations along the route. At each station, the rider exchanged his horse for a rested one. The Pony Express service guaranteed mail to reach the East Coast in about 12 days. The additional cost for this service was $5—roughly $133 in today’s currency—per half-ounce.

To learn more about the history of the world’s best-known mail carriers, visit the “Pony Express: Romance versus Reality” exhibit on view at the National Postal Museum.

This item is one of 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is not currently on display. To learn more about this item, visit the National Postal Museum’s website.

Happy 78th birthday, Elvis!  Still the most popular stamp ever issued by the USPS, another interesting fact that some people may not know (or remember) is that the Elvis stamp design was chosen by the American voting public.  There were two different images shown to the public (posted in the post offices with all the rest of the Wanted signs!), who then had the opportunity to decide which one should be immortalized on a stamp.  Young Elvis won out over Old Elvis in a landslide 3-1 vote nationwide (no surprise there).  For more information on the voting process (and to judge for yourself which image should have been on the stamp), see the National Postal Museum’s Website here.

Stamp details:
Issued on: January 8, 1993
From: Graceland, TN
Designed by: Howard Paine
Illustrated by: Mark Stutzman
SC #2721

Photograph of letter carrier with child in mailbag

Creator: Unidentified photographer Medium paper; photo-emulsion

Date: c. 1900

Location: United States of America

Source: National Postal MuseumContained in National Postal Museum Collection
Image ID: A.2006-22

Notes: This city letter carrier posed for a humorous photograph with a young boy in his mailbag. After parcel post service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service (with stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination). The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples. Photographer: Unknown

See other images from the National Postal Museum

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Some are shocking. Some are tragic. Some are funny. All are honest.

For 11 years, people have sent their most personal stories via postcard to PostSecret. 

Now the community art project and popular blog is the subject of an exhibition at our National Postal Museum. “PostSecret: The Power of a Postcard” explores the relationship between our private lives and shared experiences. It features more than 500 decorated postcards, and is open through Sept. 2016.

National Postal Museum
Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic
March 22, 2012 - January 6, 2014
On April 10, 1912, the ultra-luxurious RMS Titanic departed Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage. Its exuberant passengers and crew–2,229 in number–anticipated a pleasant journey to New York City. Four day later, the huge vessel struck an iceberg. More than 1,500 people died when it sank into the frigid North Atlantic at 2:20am on April 15. No mail survived.
Photo courtesy National Museums Northern Ireland.
Visit to learn more.

The National Postal Museum opened twenty years ago today!  For anyone who hasn’t visited, check it out [in person next to Union Station or on the interwebs if a visit to this nation’s capital isn’t in the cards anytime soon].  The education and outreach events are fantastic, the exhibitions lovely and informative, and the building itself is worth a gander.  Owney is there, too.  Museums are fun!  Stamps are fun!  Museums about stamps are the funnest!  Happy birthday, NPM!

Stamp details:
Issued on: July 30, 1993
From: Washington, DC
Designed by: NPM; CSAC; USPS
Illustrated by: Lou Nolan; Richard Schlecht
SC #2779-2783

National Postal Museum
Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic
March 22, 2012 - January 6, 2014
In 1936 and 1937, Hindenburg regularly carried passengers and mail between Europe and the Americas. Of the ninety-seven aboard, thirty-five perished in the scorchign disaster. A small percent of the mail survived. Photo courtesy National Archives.
Visit to learn more.

Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Messenger of sympathy and love

Servant of parted friends

Consoler of the lonely

Bond of the scattered family

Enlarger of the common life