The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
While researching my last blog post on the "mad wolf" who escaped from the National Zoo, I came across an old black-and-white photograph in the Smithsonian Institution Archives that caught my eye. The image is grainy, but appears to show a man and a wolf, separated by a chain-link fence, holding each other's rapt attention while the man operates some sort of recorder. Unable to shake the curious image from my mind, I decided to dig through the city's various archives to see if I could learn more.
It turns out the photograph was taken at the National Zoo around mid-afternoon on Wednesday, September 22, 1908. The man in the photograph was an employee at Droop & Sons, a musical supply store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Several representatives from Belasco's Theater stood nearby, just outside the frame, impatiently puffing cigars. A reporter in attendance explained that they had all come "to collect sundry the howls of timber wolves on a phonograph record" (Record Unit 74, Box 287 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966)
The managers of the Belasco planned to use the recorded howls in their production of "The Wolf," a new melodrama scheduled to open in less than a week. Set in the remote Canadian frontier, the play had just completed a successful run at the Lyric Theater in New York City, where the show's creator, Eugene Walter, had devised an ingenious gimmick. He carried a phonograph machine to the Bronx Zoo, where he recorded the cries of seven hungry wolves, and then replayed the "blood-curdling wolf howls" during the most dramatic moment of the third act. By all accounts, the howls struck a chilling cord. "The effect is so realistic that the audience are said to hold their breath, expecting the animals to rush upon the stage," the trade literature gushed ("Real Wolf Howls," Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1908, p. 11).
Now that "The Wolf" was scheduled to play the Belasco in Washington, DC, Walter sought to repeat the same gimmick using wolves from the National Zoo. Although it required several trips to the Zoo's home at Rock Creek Park, managers from the Belasco eventually got a "true record of the howling of timber wolves." Local critics were suitably impressed, marveling that "audiences witnessing 'The Wolf' will have the satisfaction of knowing that the atmosphere of the Canadian backwoods is really something more than mechanical, and that the blood-curdling howls emanate from the throat of real wolves, transported to the stage via the record of the talking machine" ("Howl of Wolves via Phonograph," Washington Times, September 27, 1908, p. 2). Audiences ate it up, and so the same gimmick was repeated each time the production traveled to a new city.
Although it might not seem like it, the play's use of cutting-edge technology to augment the American theatergoing experience places "The Wolf" in the same grand tradition as other cultural milestones, like The Jazz Singer, The Wizard of Oz, and Toy Story. In the case of "The Wolf," however, it wasn't just the technology that was significant. After all, the Edison Phonograph Machine had been around for more than 30 years, and had already reached millions of Americans thanks to the increasingly ubiquitous nickelodeon theater.
Instead, "The Wolf" signaled change of a different sort. For the first time in human history, hearing the wolf's howl did not portend immediate danger. Although wolves had once roamed all of North America, they had been largely extirpated from the eastern half of the United States by the time Walter's play debuted, and were quickly disappearing from the western half as well. Humanity might have lost the wolf's howl altogether had technology not intervened at just the right moment. The phonograph allowed us to salvage the animal's haunting lamentation, if not the animal itself, and redistribute its disembodied wail across its former range.
More than a century has passed since Eugene Walter's special effects first echoed through the Belasco Theater, and the wolf's howl is now more remote than ever. Speaking from my own experience, I've heard wolves howl in countless movies, but never in real life, never with my own two ears. Determined to change this fact, I recently paid several visits to the National Zoo in search of the genuine article. For weeks, my efforts proved futile. It turns out wolves are no more willing to howl on command today than they were in 1908.
I had almost decided to give up when one of the zookeepers informed me that the wolves sometimes howl when they hear police sirens in the distance. I decided to give it one last shot. With the zookeepers' assistance (thanks Rebecca Miller and Christina Castiglioni!), I played recorded police sirens over the park's public address system early one morning, and documented the wolves' reactions on my own piece of cutting-edge technology (an iPhone 4). One of the wolves on the Zoo's American Trail paid us no mind, but the other, a nine-year-old female named Crystal, was immediately curious.
The quality is not great, but if you ignore the ambient static and the canned sirens, you can clearly discern the same sonorous howl that first thrilled theatergoers more than a century ago (particularly around the 0:50 mark). What's less clear is whether a howl that emanates from a hand-raised wolf behind a chain-link fence in a concrete jungle still counts as the "call of the wild" in any sense of the phrase. But that's for another blog post.
- Since 1887, the Smithsonian has hosted more than a hundred gray wolves, including the two currently on display at the Rock Creek Campus.
- Check out Luis Jiménez's beautiful painting, Howl, in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which captures the wolf's emotive cry better than most photographs.
- Biologist Gudrun Pflueger has spent a lifetime studying gray wolves and is now among the world's foremost authorities. Later this month, the Smithsonian Channel will air a new documentary about her remarkable life. If you can't wait that long, you can always head over to the Smithsonian's YouTube channel, where Dr. Pflueger will teach you how to howl like a wolf.
- Some of you may have noticed that the title of my blog is drawn from Jack London's remarkable classic, The Call of the Wild (1903). Fans of the author can check out this portrait held at the National Portrait Gallery to see what he looked like just before he made it big.
- Record Unit 7267 - Vernon Orlando Bailey Papers, 1889-1941 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives – Bailey was the Chief Field Naturalist for the U. S. Biological Survey, the organization charged with eradicating wolves from the United States
- Record Unit 7174 - Stanley Paul Young Papers, 1921-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives – During his lifetime, Young was the nation's foremost expert on the history and biology of North American wolves
- Richard Lynch Garner Papers, 1891-1941, National Anthropological Archives – Garner was one of the first people to view the phonograph machine as a scientific instrument. His recordings of primate vocalizations were groundbreaking.
There they were, tucked between the pages of a catalog of Alaskan bird skins, and eggs by Edward William Nelson , but . . . what were they? They certainly didn’t look like they belonged to a bird. About five inches long, wavy and coarse, with brown and white banding, the mystery hairs presented themselves as a question and an opportunity. Being a pre-program conservation intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on the Field Book Project has been such a pleasure and the path to discovering the answer to this hairy problem is exactly the kind of thing I love about working with cultural heritage items.
Just looking at the hairs with an unaided eye, my first guess was that they were the guard hairs of a porcupine. The first step to find out if I was right was to head to the microscope. Working first with a stereo microscope and then with a polarized light microscope, I set to work learning more about the hairs. The animated GIF below illustrates how polarized light microscopy works (click on the picture below to see it). As the microscope stage is turned, the hairs change appearance. When viewed through a transmitted light analyzer (a type of filter,) the polarized light allows us to observe different features based on how light is refracted or transmitted through structures differently. The first image in the GIF is the hair under unfiltered polarized light.
The microscopy yielded lots of important information, for instance you can see the striations and the empty space known as the medulla, rather than a central shaft. Along with the scale pattern, this verified that these were not feathers. The particular scale and medulla patterns seen above, when compared to a known example indicated that it wasn’t quite a porcupine. On to the next guess. A deer, perhaps? Nope! The unique ribs on the hairs meant it probably couldn’t be a deer, despite a lot of similarities. What other animals were there in Alaska that might have this type of hair structure?
I was officially stumped, so I turned to the experts. Luckily, being an intern with the Smithsonian has its perks and the experts were right across the National Mall at the National Museum of Natural History. I met with Suzanne Peurach, a Collection Manager on the U. S. Geological Survey staff (a descendent of the same organization Edward William Nelson worked for), in the Division of Mammals. In no time, she and her colleague, Al Gardner, deduced that it was not in fact a deer hair, nor was it that of a porcupine. It turns out I had been looking at animals in the wrong part of the world. Edward William Nelson didn’t just spend time in Alaska, though the book I was working with detailed an Alaskan collection. For nearly a decade, Nelson was a field researcher in Mexico. It was here that he would have picked up the two hairs which had spent so much time puzzling me, not in the cold of Alaska. The hairs turned out to be those of a javelina, a.k.a. collared peccary! Using existing slides to compare, Suzanne found the same ribs that I couldn’t find in any other specimen I had looked at. Furthermore, she pointed to a clue I had not even seen (that’s why she’s the expert). The split ends of the hair, which I had not thought of as special, were the key indicator that it belonged to a member of the family Tayassuidae, which includes the javelina.
As I said, being a conservation intern at the Smithsonian Archives has been a wonderful experience, and the best part of it by far is the opportunity to meet and work with the people who make up the staff and volunteer corps of the Smithsonian. Microscopy had given me a lot of clues, but it was the access to and the spirit of collaboration among experts at the Smithsonian that ultimately guided me to the answer of the mystery hairs.
- Record Unit 7364 - Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-320 - Edward William Nelson Field Notes, 1869-1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives