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Airmail! The National Postal Museum

1 September 2010

Airmail! The National Postal Museum

38º 53′ 51″ N / 77º 00′ 29″ W

The National Postal Museum is unusual. It is a Smithsonian Museum but located within a U.S. Postal Service Building — and what a building! Typically Washingtonian … made of marble and decorated with Ionic columns several stories tall. The entrance (Massachussettes Ave NE and 1st St NE) is directly across a narrow street from Union Station which is also a stop on the Metro Red Line. It could hardly be easier to get to this museum with three available airports: Ronald Reagan National Airport,  Dulles International Airport and Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

After entering and walking along a magnificent three story high marbled lobby a set of escalators takes visitors down to the museum. This escalator does not deliver the visitor into the basement — instead the visitor walks into daylight. Pleasingly, the museum’s main floor is within an atrium several stories in height and this allows the display of three suspended aircraft which played roles in the airmail of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as an immense skylight. The floor also has two mail trucks, a mail rail car and a stagecoach. Rooms to the side contain additional artifacts and displays related to the history of mail delivery in the USA.

The oldest aircraft is the Wiseman-Cooke from before 1920, named after the two of the men who built the aircraft. The design is from 1909 and is influenced by Curtiss, Wright and Farnham. The aircraft was used to make the first airmail delivery of public mail and was the first aircraft to be built and flown in California.

Wiseman-Cooke aircraft — photo by Joe May

The deHavilland DH-4 is the “B” model, used in the 1920s, which had many improvements including the long exhaust stack to improve pilot vision and a plywood covered fuselage for durability.

deHavilland DH-4B — photo by Joe May

The final aircraft on display is a Stinson Reliant which saw airmail service in 1939 through 1949. This aircraft has the hook deployed as if to snatch a mail canister attached to a rope suspended about 15 feet (~4m) above the ground. The inspiration was from the method devised to grab mail bags without having to stop a train. It must have been quite a sight to witness these pick-ups. An on board flight officer handled the delivery drops and snatches.

Stinson Reliant as if flying in to grab a mail bag (albeit the flaps are not deployed) — photo by Joe May

Detail of the Reliant's hooking gear and bay for dropping and grabbing mail bags — photo by Joe May

Entry is free and restrooms are easily accessable. This museum is sized for both children and adults — although there are no eating or café options there are too many sidewalk carts and eating places to count in Washington DC, and Chinatown is only six blocks away.

Ford Model T mail truck — photo by Joe May

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