Published On: Sat, Mar 18th, 2017

Najwa Earns Her Detective Badge at Postal Museum’s Women’s History Month Scavenger Hunt

Nduku on several occasions said she wanted to sign Najwa up for the girl scouts.  Coincidentally, at the National Postal Museum’s Women’s History Month Family Day, they were having a events and a scavenger hunt for girl scouts, and they let Najwa participate.  We started with the tasks for earning the detective badge.  If there’s a way to really get a six year old into a museum, make it a game.

National Postal Museum
Behind the Badge exhibit at the National Postal Museum

The day’s events started in the Behind the Badge exhibit at the National Postal Museum.  When one thinks of the postal service, they think mail carriers and the Brentwood facility exposed to anthrax many years ago.  But, there’s more career options with USPS.  They have their own police enforcement called the Postal Inspection Service.  And they do things like cops, spies, forensics, etc.

Step 1: Practice the Power of Observation

The first task was to watch a short video about what the Inspectors do and write a description of their job.  Najwa said they were cops.  Close enough.  “They prevent and investigate fraud using the mail.”  There were panels that went into more detail of how they did it.  Part of the first task was to name some tools used by Postal Inspectors to catch criminals.  Who knew Inspectors used miniature cameras hidden in clocks and disguised recording devices hidden in pens?

Step 2: Communicate in Code

The next step was in Tools of the Trade exhibit.  And even more proof that Inspectors do spy work.  Najwa had to explain what the cipher and telegraph codes were used for.  Who knew Inspectors communicated in code?

Najwa at National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

The second part of Communication in Code took us back to the upper level.  There, Najwa was introduced to Morse Code.  The activity was using a small flashlight to shine dots and sashes to communicate a message.  I flashed the light; Najwa translated.

Step 3: Fingerprint for Fun

Next, we had to get our hands dirty.  Or at least a finger’s worth.  We took our fingerprints then had to figure out which of the three types of fingerprints we are.  Najwa is an arch; I’m a whorl.  The rest of the step was back to the Behind the Badge exhibit on the lower level.  In Analyzing Evidence, there’s an activity to match the prints.

National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

Step 4: Try Out Detective Science

The types of crimes Inspectors investigate apparently extend past thieves who take packages off people’s porches or send illegal stuff in the mail.  This next activity is look at three different types of evidence from a crime scene to solve the crime.  There’s a metal-charred safe door in Clues Amid Ashes.  There’s paper-counterfeit money orders in Faking the Money.  And there’s a handwriting-suspicious letter in Explosive Delivery.

Solving these crimes required focus, paying attention to details, and a lot of reading.  I was impressed Najwa was determined to figure them out.  She was determined to get her Detective Badge.

National Postal Museum
Postal Inspectors Stephaine (sic?) Harden and Ron Corley are part of the team protecting the mail’s most valuable and sensitive shipments.
National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

The next step was the scavenger hunt throughout the entire museum.  But with the detective stuff completed, Najwa earned her badge.

National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

After getting her badge, I was thinking Najwa would be satisfied, that she had enough postal education, that she was ready for lunch since it had been hours since we last ate.  But no.  She was just getting started!  There was a second sheet of paper with the rest of the activities and as I was packing everything up, she was headed back to the upper level for the next activity.

#1: Meet Amelia Earhart

There’s an entire exhibit just on Amelia Earhart.  The first activity was snap a selfie with her.

#2: See the Spider Press

Back in the day, postcards and stamps were intense manual labor.  People used what’s called a spider press, called that because of the long handles needed to turn the pressing roller, though there were only five handles rather than eight.  There was a demonstration of how to make post cards using the spider press, which was the first part of the next activity.  You had to learn which famous stamp was printed on the spider press.

Workers back then got paid by the number of pieces they printed rather than by the hour.  So, in their haste to print as many pieces as possible, sometimes they made mistakes.  Like putting the paper in the press upside down.  That’s what happened when they printed what is now called the Inverted Jenny.

Inverted Jenny at National Postal Museum

The Inverted Jenny is a U.S. postage stamp first issued on May 10, 1918 in which the image of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane in the center of the design appears upside-down; it is probably the most famous error in American philately. Only one pane of 100 of the invert stamps was ever found, making this error one of the most prized in all philately. A single Inverted Jenny was sold at a Robert A. Siegel auction in November 2007 for $977,500.

In December 2007 a mint never hinged example was sold for $825,000. The broker of the sale said the buyer was a Wall Street executive who had lost the auction the previous month. A block of four inverted Jennys was sold at a Robert A. Siegel auction in October 2005 for $2.7 million. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, prices fetched by Inverted Jennys have receded. Between January and September 2014, five examples offered at auction sold for sums ranging from $126,000 through $575,100. Prices seem since to have recovered, for on May 31, 2016, a particularly well-centered Jenny invert, graded XF-superb 95 by Professional Stamp Experts, was sold for at a Siegel Auction for a hammer price of $1,175,000. The addition of a 15% buyer’s premium raised the total record high price paid for this copy to $1,351,250.

For the next activity, Najwa had to interview a postal inspector, but she was speaking on the upper level.  So, since we had time to kill until she came back to the booth, Najwa wanted to check out another exhibit called Systems at Work.  Najwa remembers it from our last visit to the Postal Museum.

One activity in the exhibit was showing how mail was sorted back in the day.  Workers had to manually look at the address of each package then toss it in a big sack with the rest of the mail going to the same place.  You read the address, see which city it was going to, and toss it in the correct bin.  There’s only six locations to choose from and maybe a dozen of so packages.  When you toss the packages in the sack, which had no bottom, the package rolled back to where you got it.

Najwa must have tossed each of the dozen of so packages in the correct sacks about 10 times each!

Eventually, as in back in the day, the ZIP code was invented.  To sort mail, workers now used this machine to manually enter the ZIP code into, umm, a computer?  I didn’t really read all about it, but there was a game where you had 90 seconds to correctly enter in these ZIP codes using a simulation of the machine used back in the day.

The numbers are arranged weirdly, and everyone who gave it a shot, made mistakes.  Some people made many mistakes.  This isn’t a qwerty keyboard with a number pad.  Each time you got one wrong, there was a buzzer letting you know.  Najwa watched enough adults fail enough times to know that she wanted no part in it.

National Postal Museum - Systems at Work

As with any industry, technology continues to revolutionize the postal service.  From manually sorting mail by hand to bar code scanners, the postal service has gone as high tech as any other package deliverers, but who thinks about the USPS like that?  Next thing you know, they’ll be dropping off our mail using drones.

At this point, I’m running out of gas.  We still hadn’t eaten in hours and I was ready for a refuel.  How can I convince her it’s time to go home?  Just when I thought of what I could bribe her with, she’s off and running to see if the Postal Inspector was back for her interview.

#3: Interview a Postal Inspector

The best activities, if you ask me, are the ones where Najwa has to interact with people, ask them questions, learn something from them, especially when they’re women of color.  It’s important to me that Najwa sees women, especially who look like her, in non-traditionally black women roles, whatever those are.  So glad to meet JerVay Rodgers.

There were three questions that Najwa had to ask.  And she took them very seriously, asking the question and making sure to write them down.

Najwa: What is your job?
JerVay: Postal Inspector.Najwa: What do you like best about your job?
JerVay: Travel the world.


Najwa: What did you study in school to prepare for this job?
JerVay: Criminal Justice.

National Postal Museum - JerVay Rodgers, Postal Museum
National Postal Museum - JerVay Rodgers, Postal Museum
National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

#4: Learn from the Experts

Activity number four was interview representatives from the U.S. Postal Service and ask the same questions.  Najwa sometimes amazes me with the way she interprets things.  See, as far as Najwa was concerned, JerVay was a representative of the USPS.  So, Najwa wrote JerVay’s responses to the questions that were supposed to be asked of the USPS reps.  So, that counts, right?

#5 Play A Game: Dead Letters

Every now and again, someone attempts to mail something that can’t be mailed.  Sometimes it’s indecipherable handwriting, maybe insufficient postage, or an address that doesn’t exist.  This game was looking at items that were being mailed and determine which ones could be mailed and which ones couldn’t.

The first one was a mini beach ball, inflated, with stamps plastered on it and an address.  Surprisingly, it can be mailed!  I’m tempting to test it myself and mail an inflated beach ball to myself.  There was also a folded up paper swan but with stamps and a visible address to mail it to.  It will be mailed.  And then there was an envelope with no postage on it.  Instead of a stamp, it was Mark Warner’s signature, U.S. Senator for Virginia.  Apparently, senators have what’s called “franking privileges,” one being about to mail stuff without postage.

Next there was an envelope with no postage sent by the president.  Ironically, no franking privilege for the president.

National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum

Everyone was given a giant post card.  It had Spongebob Mailpants on it.  They were from a promotional something or another the postal service was doing sometime in the past, something about post office boxes being did up as Spongebob.  These postcards also already had to postage on them making them free to send.  So, Najwa wrote out the postcard to herself, so we should be getting it in the mail next week.

Inside of the national Postal Museum, they have a post office.  Of course, right.  And when anything is sent from there, they’re post marked National Postal Museum.  Cool.

National Postal Museum

#6: Explore Postal History

Being Women’s History Month, this last activity was about the first female Post Master.  We had to walk through the “forest,” a really cool exhibit that tells the story of the very, very, very beginning of the postal services.  When you get through the forest, you come to a sign about Mary Catherine Goddard.

In 1775, Mary Katharine Goddard became postmaster of the Baltimore post office. She also ran a book store and published an almanac in offices located around 250 Market Street (now East Baltimore Street, near South Street).

When on January 18, 1777, the Second Continental Congress moved that the Declaration of Independence be widely distributed, Goddard was one of the first to offer the use of her press. This was in spite of the risks of being associated with what was considered a treasonable document by the British. Her copy, the Goddard Broadside, was the second printed, and the first to contain the typeset names of the signatories, including John Hancock. During the American Revolution, Goddard opposed the Stamp Act vehemently, recognizing it would increase the cost of printing.

Goddard was a successful postmaster for 14 years. In 1789, however, she was removed from the position by Postmaster General Samuel Osgood despite general protest from the Baltimore community. Mary Katherine Goddard generally did not take part in public controversies, preferring to maintain editorial objectivity; therefore, few articles contain her personal opinions, and her defense was not mounted publicly. Osgood asserted that the position required “more traveling…than a woman could undertake” and appointed a political ally of his to replace her. On November 12, 1789, over 230 citizens of Baltimore, including more than 200 leading businessmen, presented a petition demanding her reinstatement. It was, however, unsuccessful. Following her dismissal, Goddard sold books, stationery, and dry goods. She died August 12, 1816, still beloved by her community.

She was posthumously inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998

National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum
National Postal Museum
One last exhibit before we leave.

And finally, we were ready to head back upstairs to activity #7, which was to collect your prize.  The prize was a small, model airplane, presumably representing Amelia Earhart, but Najwa didn’t seem so interested in it.  It’s still sitting on my desk and she hasn’t even asked about putting it together.  She just wanted to complete the scavenger hunt because “when we start something, we finish.”

National Postal Museum

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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.

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