On this day in….
….1846 — President James K. Polk signed into law the Smithsonian Institution Act. How it came about is odd, to say the least, beginning in 1829 when James Smithson (ca. 1765-1829), a British chemist, died in Italy and left a will with an interesting footnote.
Smithson was born the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland and named James Lewis (some sources say “Louis”) Macie. All in secret. And in Paris (that’s in France, not England). All the secrecy means that his actual birth date is not known. Illegitimacy was bad back then, and probably still is among the British royalty. Eventually Macie was naturalized in England and, at the age of 22, changed his name to James Smithson, which was his father’s surname. Smithson never married and had no children.
Smithson’s will stated that if his only nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died without heirs, his estate would go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.”
Hungerford died six years later, without children.
On July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift, and President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for the funds. After two years of negotiating [Really? Two years? Governments.... — That was an editorial comment], Rush returned to the United States with eleven boxes containing 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. The gold was melted down, totaling over $500,000 in 1838 money.
Interestingly, even though Smithson’s will stated that his estate was to found the Smithsonian Institution, once Congress had the money, it considered creating a national university, a public library, and an astronomical observatory. Typical Congress…. [another editorial comment]. Finally Congress agreed that Smithson’s bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history. [Imagine that! Congress doing what was right! — Ooops. Another editorial comment.]
The Smithsonian Institution as it exists today comprises nineteen museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and the National Zoo. The original Smithsonian Institution Building, shown on the three stamps below, is popularly known as the “Castle.” Smithson’s mineral collection is housed in the National Museum of Natural History. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner, and the National Air and Space Museum, home of the Wright brothers’ plane and the space capsule that carried the first American into space, is the most visited museum in the world.
James Smithson was originally buried in Genoa, Italy, in 1829. The grave site was scheduled to be re-located in 1905. That’s when Alexander Graham Bell, a regent for the Smithsonian, requested that Smithson’s body be re-interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian building, and that was accomplished in 1904.
What is most interesting about all of this is that Smithson had never been to the United States.
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What is currently known as the United States Postal Service was established by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775, while meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That means that it is older than the United States itself! It also is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution:
Article I, Section 8, Clause 7, known as the Postal Clause or the Postal Power, provides that “The Congress shall have power … To establish Post Offices and post Roads.”
The first United States postage stamp, Scott #1, featured Benjamin Franklin:
Benjamin Franklin has been on more United States postage stamps than all but one person. Five cents paid the rate for a ½-ounce letter sent under three hundred miles.
Franklin had been Postmaster General for the City of Philadelphia since 1737. In 1753, the British Government appointed Franklin the Joint Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies. Under his direction he extended mail delivery outside the Colonies, initiated night travel for postal riders to speed mail delivery, and created a dead letter office for undeliverable mail. By 1757 Franklin had surveyed the post roads and reorganized postal operations to provide smoother communication among the Colonies, a task that was crucial to the American Revolution.
At the same meeting of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first United States Postmaster General. He served in that capacity until November 7, 1776, when he left to serve as United States Ambassador to France.
The Post Office continued to evolve. On February 20, 1792, President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act which established the Post Office Department. Eighty years later, the Post Office Act of 1872 elevated the Post Office Department to a Government Cabinet. Almost one hundred years after that, on August 12, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act that replaced the Post Office Department with an independent United States Postal Service, effective July 1, 1971.
Scott #1 was authorized by Congress and approved on March 3, 1847. Stamps were issued on July 1 in New York City, July 2 in Boston, July 7 in Philadelphia, and July 11 in Washington, DC. The earliest known use of Scott #1 is on an envelope dated July 7, 1847, and mailed from New York City to Liverpool, England.
Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson, a banknote engraving firm, prepared the design for Scott #1. Originally President Andrew Jackson, recently deceased, was supposed to be on the stamp. Franklin’s portrait, based on artwork by James B. Longacre, was deemed more acceptable as a unifying icon for a nation divided over slavery because of his role in securing independence for the country seventy years earlier.
Ultimately 3,564,000 stamps were issued but few survive today.
Generally postage stamps are valid for postage in perpetuity, but this stamp was declared invalid for postage effective July 1, 1851. However, there are known uses of Scott #1 for postage as late as 1860.
The same design is used on Scott #1a, 1b, and 1c, all color variations, and
Scott #3, issued in 1875.