The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Buster Keaton’s Donation to the Smithsonian
One of the things we do here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) is keep track of original records about donors and the objects they have given to the Smithsonian—and so we have donor and accession records dating back to our earliest years. Because of this, it’s common to receive a reference request beginning something like, “My great-great grandmother donated a spinning wheel to the Smithsonian back in the 1880s. Can you tell me about it?”
Some of our accession records are on microfilm, and these are searchable by donor name. When you find a card for that donor, it will include an accession number assigned to the object, which will then lead you to the accession folder containing the correspondence connected to the accession.
It was because of a recent reference request that I found myself searching the microfilm with for a donor whose name started with “Ke”.
I’m a big silent movie fan, especially silent comedy. So, when a card headed Keaton, Buster whirled past, I had to stop the microfilm reader and take a closer look. The card read:
If you’ve seen Buster’s film Our Hospitality you’ll remember the scene where he rides a “gentleman’s hobby-horse” through the decidedly un-crowded streets of 1830s New York City. This early bicycle had no pedals and was powered by simply straddling the seat and running.
I couldn’t resist checking the records for Accession 71392. They began with a letter from William deC Ravenel of the Smithsonian to Keaton Studios (click on image to enlarge):
The reply came from Harry Brand of Joseph M. Schenck Motion Picture Enterprises (click on image to enlarge):
Today’s fans of Buster know his delight in antique transportation—the trains of The General; steamboats in Steamboat Bill, Jr.; trains and bicycles in Our Hospitality. His depictions were so accurate that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not watching an actual movie from the Civil War in The General.
I was happy to discover that not only was Buster’s historical accuracy validated by the Smithsonian, but that in the 1920s the Smithsonian harbored a cadre of Keaton fans! Today Keaton’s “hobby-horse” is housed at the National Museum of American History.
To enjoy the “gentleman’s hobby-horse” in motion, watch the scene from Our Hospitality: