Deltiology is the hobby of collecting postcards—an avocation that’s not as rare as it seems. I had one friend whose lifelong passion netted thousands—many mailed by traveling friends, others collected from before he was born.

Much more common is philately—which, in the words of Wikipedia, involves “the collecting of postage stamps and related objects.”

These “related objects” can include postmarks—those black, bold and often blurry post-office stamp-marks, indicating where and when an item was mailed. Collectors of these are sometimes seeking an oddly named town—or, more often, the date when a brand-new postage stamp was issued.

Taking a special angle on these hobbies, a Pennsylvania student recently managed to collect a postmarked postcard from every single American state.

But it took a lot of help.

Tales Out of School

Residing with her family in the state-fair town of Bloomsburg, 12-year-old Priscilla attends a homeschool co-op in nearby Montoursville.

For the 2023—24 school year, she enrolled with 14 others in a grade 4—6 course on state geography. Her teacher, Jessica Harding, said she wanted to “add some fun to the mundane memorizing of states and capitals”; so Mrs. Harding challenged the kids to see if they could, working as a class, collect a set of postmarks from every U.S. state. “I was also trying to spark interest in this great big nation and all of its beauty,” the teacher added.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Challenge - Frayed Passport

Postmark assignment for Mrs. Harding’s 4th-to-6th-grade class in state geography.

When Priscilla’s mother, Lyn—a longtime friend—posted a Facebook plea for help, I was only days away from two multi-state vacations, placing me in a good position to oblige.

At first, I assumed the class wanted state-specific cards—ones depicting a town, a lake, or some other landmark; naturally, I had a few of these lying around from exchanges with my deltiologist buddy. But no: Mrs. Harding wanted postmarks from each state; the card itself was immaterial.

With no time to shop before my first trip, I scrounged around the house and came up with a set of blank postcards from …Alaska! Oh, well—postmarks were the main thing, right?

Into my luggage went several pens and a folder with the AK cards, plus Priscilla’s address and a sheet of stamps.

Up-in-the-Air Mail

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - DC Postcard - Frayed Passport

DC postcard, purchased at BWI airport—but mailed much later in Baltimore.

For the initial trip, an Amtrak-loving friend and I would fly from Baltimore to Seattle, then return on three overnight trains: Seattle to Los Angeles; L.A. to New Orleans; and then from the Big Easy back to Maryland.

At BWI, I bought a handsome DC postcard—but quickly encountered an unforeseen problem: Most airports don’t have USPS drop-boxes—or even those mail-slots that were once common in American train stations. And this difficulty led to another:

In our era of rampant paranoia, it is bad form to approach a stranger and ask if they will mail something; most such folks look at you like you’re fobbing off a home-made bomb—rather than a small piece of cardboard with a message that can plainly be read by one and all.

Thus unable to mail from BWI, I tucked this inaugural missive into my folder; eventually, it went down an ancient mail-slot inside Baltimore’s Penn Station—at the very end of our trip.

With a mere 40-minute Minnesota layover on our Seattle flight, I was nonetheless able to score, scribble, stamp and send a Minneapolis-St. Paul card. Turns out MSP actually does have several of those bulky blue mailboxes you generally find on the street; of the five airports we flew through on our trip, MSP was the only one so equipped.

One with Teeth

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Departure Board - Frayed Passport

Awaiting Amtrak departure at Seattle’s King Street Station.

Even though postmarks were the goal, I still tried for local postcards wherever possible. But with our overnight stay in Seattle followed by a morning train, my Washington State card came from the Alaska stash, posted in our hotel lobby as we headed out for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, a 36-hour run down the West Coast.

Happily, our train was early for its afternoon stop in Portland, OR; with nearly an hour to poke around a tiny gift shop, I was once again able to buy, write, stamp and mail a state-specific card—aided by yet another drop-box right at the depot.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Amtrak Train in Portland - Frayed Passport

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight pauses in Portland, OR, where the writer was able to buy, write, stamp and mail a postcard from a drop-box right at the depot.

After one night on the Starlight and another in L.A., we made our way to that city’s Union Station for a 10 p.m. departure on our second train, the Sunset Limited; dropping our bags in the lounge, we headed for Olvera Street, a bustling South-of-the-Border-style market across the street.

Some might see Olvera as a tourist trap, but I was fascinated by the countless stalls of colorful clothing, toys and souvenirs—including one cramped shop, somehow bigger inside than out, stocking hundreds of postcards; I picked up four for a dollar, feeling sheepish at spending so little. Since the Sunset would pass through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, I selected one PC for Los Angeles, a second for Sedona and another honoring Route 66—which had indeed crossed briefly into Texas on its legendary, long-ago run from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Route 66 Postcard - Frayed Passport

Route 66 postcard, purchased at L.A.’s Olvera Street market and later mailed in El Paso.

My L.A. card went into another drop-box at Union Station—oddly enough, with retractable, one-way plastic teeth in its slot. Later, an Amtrak attendant told us this was to keep the city’s surging homeless population from peeing through the slot onto the mail.

Frankly, I could not see how this was even physically possible—but still, it was good to know Priscilla’s postcard would arrive dry and clean.

North of the Border

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - LA Union Station - Frayed Passport

Union Station, Los Angeles.

The Sunset crosses into Arizona in the middle of the night, thereafter making a 15-minute stop in Tucson. Ever mindful of getting inadvertently left behind, I dashed about the depot and, in the absence of a slot or box, finally found a cabbie who said he’d take care of it.

Our next state, however, was trickier.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Amtrak Sunset Departure - Frayed Passport

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited awaits its evening departure from L.A., starting a two-day trip across the Southwest to New Orleans.

The Sunset makes only two stops in New Mexico, and ongoing riders cannot get off at either one. But I had found a copy of the train’s passenger manifest beside the free coffee in our sleeping car. Used by crew and not intended for the public, this lists every rider by name—together with their car and their points of boarding and departure.

Decoding this document, I learned that the lady in the room right next to ours would debark in Deming, NM—and she agreed to mail my card (yet another from Alaska) while visiting her brother in Las Cruces.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Back of Alaska Postcard - Frayed Passport

Another of the writer’s generic Alaska postcards, mailed from New Mexico but somehow postmarked in Texas.

Later that day, the Sunset made its 45-minute afternoon stop in El Paso, where the train runs so close to Mexico that you can practically reach out and touch the border wall. Again unable to find a box, I handed my missive to a friendly station-agent.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - El Paso Crew Change - Frayed Passport

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited awaits its new crew at a station-stop in El Paso.

Checking with Lyn much later, I was crestfallen to learn that the card from Las Cruces had somehow also gone out of El Paso; so Priscilla got two from Texas—in keeping, I guess, with that state’s fame for larger quantities.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I came down with something nasty on this trip, forcing my friend and me to scrap our third leg and fly home from the Crescent City instead. I mailed an Alaska card from our New Orleans hotel and—since my buddy often travels to Hawaii for his job—filled out another for his next Pacific trip.

I had a Georgia card ready but could not find a box, slot or helper during my ATL layover—even though that city’s Hartsfield-Jackson is America’s busiest airport.

At long last dropping my DC card at the Baltimore train station where my car was parked, I headed home to heal—and to prepare for that second big trip: my wife and I were driving from our Central PA home to see our son in coastal Mississippi.

Now tired of mailing Alaska cards that weren’t from Alaska, I searched on eBay and splurged for a complete set of 50—all bearing handsome, state-specific artwork, plus a colorful “Greetings from…” logo on the front.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Postcards from Each State - Frayed Passport

The writer finally broke down and bought a complete set of state-specific postcards on eBay.

Around the same time, Priscilla—doing quite well with her growing collection— decided that, rather than merely contributing to the class total, she would work to get all 50 states on her own.

“As the fourth child with two older brothers close in age,” Lyn explained later, “she has a competitive streak that comes out.”

So now, both of us were truly all-in.


Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Postcard Map - Frayed Passport

Priscilla’s postcard map, in the process of being filled in as postmarks arrived from around the country.

Mostly spanning Interstates 81 and 65, the 18-hour trek to see my son would cross eight states: PA, MD, WV, VA, TN, GA, AL and finally MS. With Lyn texting regular updates of Priscilla’s colored-in U.S. map, I knew she already had PA, MD and GA; so our first goal was West Virginia.

At an I-81 rest stop in that state, I asked the info-desk about mail and was reminded that postal trucks don’t travel on the interstate—something I surely should have known.

Explaining my school-related mission, I hoped the attendant might offer to take the WV card home for his own outgoing post; but he insisted we proceed to the next exit—where, it turned out, we could not locate the post office he specifically recommended. Pressed for time and pulling quickly in at a 7-11, I finally handed my card to a tired-looking fellow in an even more tired-looking 1960s muscle car. Unsurprisingly, that one never reached Priscilla; God only knows where it is now.

I had more luck with a lady gassing up at a Sheetz in Virginia; and we covered Tennessee from our Knoxville hotel, where we had elected to break the drive in half.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Ocean Springs - Frayed Passport

Sunset over the bayou in the lovely Gulf Coast town of Ocean Springs, MS.

The Mississippi card went from our son’s home in Ocean Springs and then, after a week in that pleasant, up-and-coming Gulf Coast town, we headed home—whereupon I encountered my most frustrating fail:

With a two-way total of roughly 12 hours in Alabama, we really could’ve posted from almost anywhere. Early during our return, at a gas-stop north of Mobile, my wife noticed a residential mailbox beside the road—with its flag raised for pick-up. All but certain that this belonged to the owners of the station we’d patronized, I thought to myself, “This is a no-brainer.” Which turned out to be a fitting idiom: That postcard never arrived.

Now fairly certain that my wayward West Virginia effort had likewise flopped, I hauled out the unused Georgia PC and got off the highway just over the state line; there, I found a tiny post office in the town of Bunker Hill, WV, where—with considerable satisfaction—I actually watched the staffer stamp my outgoing card.

Friends in Far Places

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Utah and Iowa Postcards - Frayed Passport

Two state-specific cards that went out with help from the writer’s friends.

That was it for travel; but I still had a sizable stash of matching cards.

Checking Priscilla’s map, I found relatives to oblige us in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey and New Hampshire; I simply popped a completed card into a separate envelope to each.

I hit the jackpot with one Kansas cousin, who not only mailed a KS postcard but also, due to upcoming travel, likewise managed MO and OK.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Posing with a Postcard - Frayed Passport

Number 50 has arrived! Twelve-year-old Priscilla holds up a card from North Dakota—the final postmark in her effort to collect one from every state.

Still persevering, I made a general Facebook plea that netted several “friend-of-a-friend” contacts; this nailed down Utah, Massachusetts and Kentucky.

All told, that made 27 I had managed to arrange; so I shared the happiness when Lyn finally posted a Facebook photo of proud Priscilla holding No. 50—fittingly, postmarked from North Dakota, one of the least-peopled states in our country.

Can’t imagine how she got Wyoming; at a mere 600,000, it is our most sparsely populated state.

Alaska is pretty sparse too; but they do have nice postcards.

Postcards from the Edge: Collecting Postmarks for Every State - Full Collection - Frayed Passport

Priscilla’s entire collection of cards; fanned out on top are those sent by your faithful Frayed Passport correspondent.

About the Author

Joe Smith headshot

Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, teacher and speaker in Central PA. Published in several websites and periodicals, Joe has also penned books on Hitchcock, the Bible, church life and under-the-radar movies—along with a volume of Great Jokes and Riddles. He plays trumpet in a community band; reads 100 books a year; serves as officer in his local church; struggles to keep cheering for the Buffalo Bills; listens to music whenever not sleeping; and maintains a small collection of unused postcards.

He can be reached at

All images courtesy of the author.

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