The Smithsonian has opened the world's largest stamp gallery, and it's guaranteed to enthrall all, not just stamp enthusiasts.
Whether young and old(er), stamp collector or philatelic neophyte, this free gallery delights.
On opening day, visitors:
- Interacted with actors portraying Benjamin Franklin, America's first postmaster general, and Disney stars Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety -- all subjects of U.S. stamps.
- Made their own stamp collections, starting with six free stamps.
- Designed their own stamps (here's mine, in honor of my bird, Nureyev)...
The gallery's grand entryway, "Gems of American Philately", is stamp "'Shock and Awe'," Smithsonian National Postal Museum philately curator Daniel Piazza told me. It has 13 of the rarest stamps, including:
- The "Inverted Jenny" -- America’s most famous stamp and one of the most famous errors. In 1918, while making the Curtiss Jenny stamp to celebrate America's first air mail flight, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing failed to detect one sheet of 100 stamps showing the blue biplane, the JN-4-H "Jenny", flying upside down.
That's not the only big boo-boo. The May 15, 1918 first air mail flight went the wrong way, and also crash-landed -- "the wrong way all-around," Piazza said. The pilot took off from a spot (now) on the National Mall, and aimed for Philadelphia. Pre-radar, the pilot was to follow railroad tracks northeast to Philly. But he followed the tracks the wrong way, and crash-landed in a Waldorf, Maryland farmer's field. At least the Jenny did not invert, and neither the plane, the pilot, nor the mail was hurt.
- One of 32 surviving revenue stamp proofs of Britain's 1765 Stamp Act. It infuriated American colonists so much that they eventually revolted.
Some of the most poignant items:
- Sept. 11 -- A mailbox dented, but not destroyed, on Sept. 11 across from the World Trade Center. A fire hose nozzle used by firefighters at the 90 Church Street Post Office to battle the inferno across the street. A postmark hand cancelling device set at Sept. 11, 2001.
- A Pearl Harbor U.S.S. Oklahoma postmark handstamp, dated Dec. 6, 1941. Japanese bombers sank that ship and many others in the surprise attack early Dec. 7, 1941, triggering America's entry into the war.
- Amelia Earhart's plaid flannel-lined brown leather flight suit and other memorabilia, including her autographed mail she carried on various flights. Earhart sold them to publicize and help finance her flights.
- One of the few surviving letters from the Titanic, dated April 10, 1912, plus a watch worn by its postal clerk.
- The breast cancer awareness stamp that has raised almost $72 million for research.
- The exterior stained-glass wall, "Windows into America", of 54 historic U.S. stamps. Extending for a block along Massachusetts Avenue, looking toward the U.S. Capitol Building, the wall glows dramatically at night.
The gallery includes stamps that were never issued because the topics were "too touchy," noted Piazza. Such topics include an abolition stamp six decades after the Civil War; the first stamp showing the U.S. flag in 1957; the 1992 Black Heritage series stamp showing civil rights leader and author W.E.B. Du Bois ...
At the gallery, you can search by topic, heritage, state, year... by using:
- Interactive screens framed like a perforated stamp.
- Hundreds of pull-out frames with actual stamps, their proofs, original artwork, and other related items. Many of these 20,000 items had never been on public display. (You may be all shook up by the items re the 1993 Elvis stamp, the all-time most popular stamp.)
Various parts of the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, named for its prime benefactor, are designed for various audiences, ranging from beginners, especially young ones, to lifelong collectors and enthusiasts -- don't miss the National Stamp Salon.
Think stamp collecting is, well, un-cool? Check the gallery's wall of famed collectors: Franklin Delano Roosevelt; John Lennon; Queen Elizabeth II and her father King George V; Charlie Chaplin; -- and Pope Francis.
So, to enjoy this newest Washington attraction, you don't have to be a stamp collector or enthusiast -- but you will be after this.
For more info: William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, www.npm.si.edu/StampGallery, Smithsonian National Postal Museum, www.postalmuseum.si.edu/, 2 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E. (at North Capitol Street, N.E.), Washington, D.C., 202-633-5555. Free admission.