Neither Snow nor Rain: a West Virginia Post Office in the Smithsonian

Museum of History and Technology, Post Office. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number SIA RU000285 [SIA2010-2988].

Museum of History and Technology, Post Office. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number SIA RU000285 [SIA2010-2974].

Museum of History and Technology, Post Office. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number SIA RU000285 [SIA2010-2942].

Museum of History and Technology, Post Office. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number SIA RU000285 [SIA2010-2973].

Postmaster General Winton M. Blount and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley at the opening of the reconstructed General Store/Post Office. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number 94-1522.

By the late 1960s, curators at the National Museum of History and Technology (NMHT), now the National Museum of American History, were focusing on how to present aspects of the American experience to visitors of the museum in different ways. Instead of using "sterile techniques which have too frequently given visitors the false impression that all objects were clean, in perfect condition, and unrelated to the people who built and used them," curators were now attempting to create exhibits that visitors could identify with more personally. Carl Scheele, Curator for the Division of Postal History, knew of the perfect object that would be personal and identifiable by almost everyone who visited the museum, but he did not know where to find it.   

By the spring of 1971, Carl Scheele had travelled roughly ten thousand miles through thirteen different states and 600 different cities to find the perfect example of what he knew to be the "single institution that has been common to virtually every American's experience for 200 years," the country store-post office. He found the example he was looking for in a small town in West Virginia called Headsville.

Henry Head, postmaster of Sheetz Mills, Virginia since 1855 (prior to West Virginia's 1863 statehood) constructed the post office and general store in the early 1860's. The name of the post office officially changed to Headsville, Mineral County, West Virginia, on March 5, 1868 and stayed in operation until shortly before 1909. The general store sat vacant and largely unused for many years and in 1971, the Smithsonian purchased the building from the grandson of the last storekeeper for $7,500.00. This price also included the store's remaining stock of non-perishable goods, which had remained largely untouched for roughly 60 years.

Smithsonian restoration specialists Charles H. Rowell and his assistant Reverdy Marcy undertook the herculean task of disassembling and transferring the post office to the Smithsonian, roughly 130 miles away. In total, it took Rowell and Marcy two weeks to disassemble the structure, label each part, and prepare the building for fumigation before the building's reassembly.

The reassembly of the post office took place on the Constitution Avenue side of NMHT and utilized the furnishings and objects from the original store, as well as materials already in the museum's collections, in order to recreate the late 19th - early 20th century period of American history. In addition to the period furnishings and objects, three members of the United States Postal Service, each outfitted in period dress, staffed the post office in order to immerse visitors in a "living historical exhibit."

The Smithsonian Station Post office officially opened on September 27, 1971 in the midst of celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution. The dedication ceremony commenced with the presentation of colors by the 3rd United States Infantry (“The Old Guard,” the Army’s offical ceremonial unit). The director of the National Museum of History and Technology, Daniel J. Boorstin gave the welcoming address, and Postmaster General Winton M. Blount gave the dedicatory address. The culminating event of the ceremony was the presentation of the first postmarked letter from the post office given by postmaster Blount to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley.

The Smithsonian Station Post Office canceled its last stamp in 2006 when the National Museum of American History closed for extensive renovations. However, the Headsville Post Office is currently on loan to the American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania and still operates as a contract post office today.

Related Collections

Record Unit 285, National Museum of History and Technology Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Record Unit 276, National Museum of History and Technology Office of the Director, Records, 1944-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Record Unit 334, National Museum of American History Office of the Director, Subject Files, circa 1945-1987, and related records, 1920-1930, Smithsonian Institution Archives


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