The philatelic collections date back to 1887, when Spencer F. Baird bequeathed his personal stamp collection to the Institution. The stamps were placed in the custody of A. Howard Clark, Curator of the Section of Historical Relics, United States National Museum (USNM). The collections then fell under various successor units: the Section of Historical Collections (1889-1897), the Division of History and Biography, Department of Anthropology (1897-1904), and the Division of History (1904-1948). In 1908, David W. Cromwell, a well-known New York philatelist, began making a series of donations to the Smithsonian Institution, which by 1915 housed some twenty thousand United States and foreign postage stamps. These stamps, as well as Baird's collection and others acquired by the Division over the years, were placed on display at the Arts and Industries Building.
In 1911, the Post Office Department began transferring to the USNM holdings of stamps and related objects from its Postal Museum. This collection eventually amounted to some two hundred thousand items, mostly consisting of domestic and foreign stamps, envelopes, and postal cards as well as albums of models, photographs of Post Office facilities, and die proofs. The Post Office Department agreed to make periodic transfers of United States issues and foreign stamps to the Smithsonian, to insure the continual growth of what became known as the National Postage Stamp Collection. From 1913 to 1921, Joseph B. Leavy served as the first Philatelist of the Collection.
The Collection was organized as the Section of Philately in the Division of History through 1947, and became the Division of Philately in the new Department of History in 1948. In 1957, the Division was renamed Philately and Postal History (changing again to Postal History in 1969). It was affiliated with the Departments of Civil History, 1957-1968, Applied Arts, 1969-1977, and National History, 1978-1979, as a result of museum reorganizations. In 1980, the Division was organized as the National Philatelic Collection (NPC) in the National Museum of American History, reporting to the Director. A decade later, in 1990, the National Philatelic Collection became the National Postal Museum (NPM).
Curators at the National Postal Museum research the history of the American postal system and collect American postage, special stamp editions of famous individuals or subjects, postal stationery, Post Office equipment and uniforms, and foreign stamps primarily for what they show about American history. Curators and staff included Joseph B. Leavy, Philatelist, 1913-1921; Catherine L. Manning, Philatelist, 1921-1943, Assistant Curator of Philately, 1944-1951; Franklin R. Bruns, Jr., Assistant Curator of Philately, 1951, Associate Curator in charge, 1952-1957, Associate Curator, 1971-1977, and Supervisor, 1978-1979; Francis J. McCall, Assistant Curator of Philately, 1957, Acting Curator, 1958, Associate Curator, 1959-1963; George T. Turner, Acting Curator of Philately, 1959-1961, and Associate Curator, 1962; Richard H. Howland, Acting Curator of Philately, 1962-1963; Carl H. Scheele, Assistant Curator of Philately, 1960-1963, Acting Curator, 1964-1968, Associate Curator, 1969, Curator in charge, 1970-1977; Reidar Norby, Assistant Curator of Philately, 1969, Associate Curator, 1970-1983, Curator, 1984-1988; Robert G. Tillotson, Executive Director of the National Philatelic Collection, 1980-1982; Herbert R. Collins, Executive Director of the National Philatelic Collection, 1982-1990, Director of the National Postal Museum, 1990; and James R. Bruns, Curator, 1984-1989, and Deputy Executive Director, 1990, of the National Philatelic Collection, and Acting Director of the National Postal Museum, 1991- .