The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Have you ever come across a photograph of an event which appears to be a unique and memorable experience, but which isn’t found in any of your record books? Here at the Archives we process a great number of images which lend themselves easily to research and investigation, but every so often we are just plain stumped. Here’s our latest case:
This photograph was taken by Ruel P.Tolman, former Director of Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum], and is included in a scrapbook of photographs of Smithsonian staff, grounds and buildings, exhibitions, and Washington D.C. scenes. We’ve asked for your help identifying individuals in Tolman’s scrapbooks before, and now we’re coming to you for help identifying this event.
This is a photograph of a pressurized gondola sitting on display in the streets of D.C. (we don’t know exactly where, but we would like to!). This gondola appears to be one of the two Explorer vessels operated by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps. These gondolas were used to study radiation and cosmic rays in the atmosphere at altitudes of 50,000 to 63,000 feet. Auguste Piccard launched the first study using a pressurized aluminum gondola in 1931, and by 1936 the Army Air Corps had developed and launched stratosphere expeditions, Explorer on July 27, 1934 and Explorer II on November 11, 1935.
On the body of the vessel, we can see a partial marking of ‘PHIC SOCIETY,’ which in full probably read ‘NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY.’ In the photo directly below this marking is an illustrated panel which appears to depict the vessel in use, hanging on long lead lines which would have been attached to a gigantic balloon. There are two other photographs on this page of Tolman’s scrapbook. They are both of the interior of Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Pencil inscriptions in the full scrapbook page read "Lincoln Ellsworth Lecture April 15, 1936" and "National Geographic."
On April 15, 1936, the Antarctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth was awarded the National Geographic Hubbard Medal, presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the presentation of the medal, Ellsworth delivered a lecture on April 15, 1936 in Constitution Hall. The content of the lecture was published under Ellsworth’s name as "My Flight Across the Antarctic," in the July 1936 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
The thing of it is, Lincoln Ellsworth explored the Antarctic by plane, not by balloon. In his 1939 account, “My Four Antarctic Expeditions,” Ellsworth makes no mention of experience with either of these gondolas. So what’s the connection?
Here are the questions you can help us with in uncovering the context of the photo:
Do you (or someone you know) remember an exhibition of either Explorer or Explorer II in Washington? Does this street look familiar to you? Locations can tell us a lot about an event.
Thank you for any help you provide and we wish you the best of luck in solving this mystery!
- Ruel P. Tolman’s Images: Who Are You?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7433 - Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal - Lincoln Ellsworth medal, National Air and Space Museum
- LTA, Balloons, USA, "Explorer II" (Nov 1935); Stevens, Albert William (Capt); Anderson, Orvil A. (Lt), by Rise Studio photographer, 1935, Archives Division, National Air and Space Museum
One of the best things about working in any archive is finding all sorts of things you weren’t looking for. Finding that letter or memo that you didn’t know about but gives you a new understanding of what was happening is one of the many reasons why people continue to go back to original documents time and time again.
I was lucky enough to have this happen to me just the other day. I’m working on a project around the Smithsonian’s activities during the world wars and as I was reading correspondence between the curators and the administration of the United States National Museum, I found a sheaf of documents that led me to new people and a new way World War I had an impact on the Smithsonian Institution and its staff. I found a stack of pledge sheets where Smithsonian employees were signing up to support the initiatives of the U. S. Food Administration. The U. S. Food Administration was a government agency set up during World War I to promote the conservation of foods that were in short supply and needed for soldiers abroad. Their efforts included the invention of meatless Mondays, which many of us may now recognize from current healthy eating initiatives. Meatless Mondays were accompanied by wheatless Wednesdays and efforts to reduce the consumption of dairy and fats.
Employees from across all branches of the Smithsonian pledged to follow the U. S. Food Administration recommendations. The most exciting part of finding these pledge sheets are the less visible Smithsonian employees they capture. Hidden among the curators, aids, and administrators who pledged are the charwomen and laborers of the Smithsonian. Often unrecorded in documents that have survived the test of time, these few pages show that everyone at the Smithsonian was doing their part for the war effort. They also are one of the few places we can learn more about the employees of the Smithsonian who are often forgotten. Looking at their signatures, you can not only get a sense of their personality, but see a place where they wrote themselves into the historical record with their own hand.
With a little sleuthing, these signatures can even tell us a little bit more about them. By looking for these men and women in the U. S. Census records and old Washington City Directories, I was able to find who some of these people were. Joseph N. Samuels, a laborer in the Natural History Building, would have been 30 at the time he signed this pledge. The 1915 Boyd’s City Directory for Washington, D.C., identifies him as a Laborer at the National Museum and tells us he lives in a house at 4432 Kane Place, NE, in Anacostia. Alberta Jackson, a charwoman in the Natural History Building, is recorded in the 1920 census as a ‘roomer,’ just three years after she signed her pledge. Forty four years old, black, and widowed at the time of the census, she was born in D.C. Her coworker Marie Donaldson signed the pledge just after Alberta and probably lived a similar life. In a 1924 City Directory she is recorded as a renter at 630 Morton Place, NE. This directory lists her as a forewoman at the National Museum, likely a promotion from her position as a charwoman in 1917.
While these may only be bits and pieces of a few peoples’ lives, they are clues to who these often forgotten employees were and how they contributed to the nation’s war effort and to the Smithsonian, making it what it is today.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Census Records, National Archives and Records Administration
- U. S. Food Administration, Wikipedia
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