The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
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
July is birthday celebration month for my family. There is at least one birthday every week, mine so happens to be today, my son’s next week, my daughters the following week, and of course we can’t forget Americas birthday on the 4th of July. So to say the least I have been making check lists non-stop making sure everything is in place. While doing this I thought I would draw on some inspiration through some of our photos we have at the Archives. Below is my part of my “To Do” party checklist, accompanied with photos I found in our collections.
1. Theme of the Party: I personally don’t do a theme type party because with my kids being so close in birthdays we have joint parties, and getting a boy and girl to agree on something at their age is about pointless. However here at the Smithsonian the birthday parties’ range from Smithsonian wide birthday parties to parties for exhibits and right on down to personal birthday parties for employees. To say the least the Smithsonian loves to celebrate birthdays.
2. Guest List: Having a soon to be 6 and 7 year old I find this one of the hardest parts for planning a party because I never know how small or big to have it. If you are like my daughter a small simple tea party birthday party would be perfectly fine. However if you are like my son, inviting everyone under the sun like the Smithsonian did during its 150th Birthday Celebration is more the way to go.
3. Cards: This is always one of my kid’s favorite things to do when it comes to birthdays. Standing in the card aisle playing every singing birthday card they can put their hands on is almost like Christmas for my kids. But I don’t think there is anything more personal and fun then creating your own card like the one that was presented to Helena Weiss for her birthday.
4. Cake: In my opinion, my kids would argue otherwise, the birthday cake is what makes or breaks a birthday party. I would have to say the cake from the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday and the cake from Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration are definitely crowd pleasers.
5. Activities: My kid’s favorite part of a party. Simple games such as pin the tail on the donkey or water balloon toss is sufficient enough for my kids now, but at the Smithsonian, we really like to throw a celebration. Native American ritual dancing and fireworks were just a few of the many activities that happened during the Smithsonian 150th birthday celebration.
Last insight on birthday parties, no matter how big or small the best thing to remember when celebrating a birthday is to have fun!
- Images from the Smithsonian's 150th birthday celebration, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In the fall of 1914, a three hundred pound block of ice was shipped from the Cincinnati Zoo to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It held the remains of the last of a species that had once turned the skies of North America dark when its enormous flocks were in migration. The cold and lonely final migration was made by Martha, the last known passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), who had resided at the Cincinnati Zoo since 1902. Estimated to be twenty-nine years old, she was named in honor of George Washington’s wife, Martha.
Passenger pigeons were more brightly-colored than the related Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). They were also larger than other species of pigeons that we are used to seeing today, some 14-16 inches long, with long wings, and a long, pointed tail. They had particularly large breast muscles that enabled them to fly for long distances. The male passenger pigeon had an olive-gray back, rusty breast, slate-blue head, and iridescent neck. Female passenger pigeons were similar to males, but were somewhat duller and browner. It is estimated that the passenger pigeon was once the most numerous species of bird in North America, if not the world, and had lived there for over 100,000 years. Between three and five billion passenger pigeons once inhabited the deciduous forest region of the eastern United States and from southern Canada to Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia. During the breeding season, massive flocks gathered to mate in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, the Ohio River valley, and the lower Great Lakes, but they wintered in the southeastern US. These social birds lived in enormous colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. When flocks migrated overhead, their formations were a mile wide, went on for days, and turned the skies dark.
The noted 19th century bird painter, John James Audubon, watched flocks of passenger pigeons migrate overhead on his way to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1813. All he could hear was a continuous “buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, fifty-five miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” No one could imagine they could so quickly go extinct, but uncontrolled hunting, loss of habitat by logging and farming, and perhaps disease conspired to wipe this species off the face of the earth. After the last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon in 1900, surveys in 1910-1911 failed to record any wild birds. A few survived in captivity, and the Cincinnati Zoo’s Martha was the last.
After Martha arrived at the US National Museum, she was studied by ornithologist Robert Shufeldt and her skin was prepared for display by taxidermists William Palmer and Nelson Wood. She was on display in the Natural History Building’s Bird Hall in the 1920s through the early 1950s, and in the Birds of the World exhibit that ran from 1956 until 1999. She also had four flights to break the monotony, winging her way first class, escorted by a flight attendant, to the San Diego Zoological Society’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference in 1966, and in June 1974 returning to the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens for the dedication of a new building named in her honor. She will return to public display on June 24, 2014, in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History. Be sure to stop by to see her!
- Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- "Martha," The Last Passenger Pigeon, National Museum of Natural History Centennial website
- Passenger Pigeons, Encylopedia of Life
- Project Passenger Pigeon
Recently the Archives was contacted by Mark Silverschotz, formerly Ultimate Frisbee player at Columbia University and then law student at Georgetown, was among the dozens of staff instructors recruited by Larry Schindel, founder of the Washington Area Frisbee Club. Silverschotz was interested in looking for images of himself and his friends during the 1978 Frisbee Festival on the Mall.
Not ever hearing of the event I had to do some research through our green negative log books and I was fascinated to see that the Archives had 38 rolls of film from just the 1970’s.
Sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum, the festival included exhibitions of disc tricks and moves by disc champions, both human and canine alike. Also during the festival, workshops were held to help show Frisbee enthusiast, young and old, how to maneuver the small Frisbee discs.
Silverschotz’s was kind enough to provide me with his recollection of the 1978 festival:
What was great about the 1978 festival, other than seeing Apollo 11's Mike Collins hanging out with a bunch of Ultimate players, was the chance to reconnect with people from the larger Frisbee community. And to give disc sports an air of legitimacy. One somewhat controversial aspect of the event was an effort by some to focus on the 'non-competitive" nature of simple Frisbee tossing. But the Ultimate players would have none of that, and successfully insisted on conducting a robust demonstration game. On the freestyle side of things, Erwin and Jens Velasquez, then reigning 'freestyle" champions gave a rousing demonstration of their skills. What was most fun, however, was when the instructors broke off from the group, each finding a dozen or so 'civilians' who wanted to improve their disc throwing technique. All in all, it was a great event.
- Accession 11-009 - Smithsonian Photographic Services, Photographic Collection, 1971-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives
My son and I recently spent a sick day watching "Sesame Street" reruns. One of the episodes was "National Try a New Food Day!" in which each segment involved one of the characters trying a new food or one prepared in a new way. This special day appears to be fictional, but I decided to use examples from the show to convince my toddler to try mashed potatoes (it didn't work).
The National Zoo Park restaurant used to have its own version of "Try a New Food Day" in the form of the Anteaters Association.
The Anteaters Association was an informal group established in 1944. A search of the press reveals many conflicting accounts of the origin of the group and its name. During an oral history interview (Record Unit 9513), Lucile Quarry Mann recalls that it was the result of a fireside chat between William M. Mann, Director of the National Zoological Park, and L. Gordon Leech, Manager of the independently-operated National Zoo Park Restaurant. It was autumn and Leech was concerned about business now that zoo attendance had dropped. The two men discussed serving special luncheons featuring wild game to bring diners to the restaurant during the colder months. Mrs. Mann recounts a story in which she told her husband and Leech, "Oh, you’re just a bunch of anteaters!" in response to the idea, thereby inspiring the group’s name (she also notes that she doesn't actually remember saying this, but both her husband and Leech insisted this is what happened). Listen to Lucile talk about the origins of the Anteaters Associations below.
. Lucile Quarry Mann discusses the origins of the Anteaters Association, Record Unit 9513, Interview 5 by Pamela Henson, Oral History Interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann, 1977, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
The Anteaters Association grew from an occasional luncheon to a multi-day event open to members and invited guests only. It became popular among Smithsonian and National Geographic administrators as well as local bankers, government officials, and anyone else who had the time for a leisurely weekday lunch. Featured meats ranged from the relatively tame pheasant to elephant steak, kangaroo, and whale blubber. Mrs. Mann noted that they had iguana tail once (the only edible part of the iguana), but it wasn’t very popular. "It looked all right on the plate, but anybody who’d seen it in the kitchen, I think, kind of lost their appetite."
Dick West, a United Press International columnist, was invited to a luncheon in November 1960. He says of the invitation, " . . . when I opened it my stomach began flip-flopping like a troupe of Russian gymnasts . . . I have followed its activities for yerrs [sic] with a fascination bordering on nausea." The luncheon featured barbecued elk tidbits and roasted buffalo. His research assistant, Dr. Zhivago, apparently ate the meal with relish, but West declared that he was now a vegetarian.
Raymond J. Crowley, an Associated Press columnist, also had some trepidation prior to attending his first Anteaters Association luncheon in November 1964. He purchased a cheese sandwich to take with him so that he wouldn't starve if he couldn't stomach the hippopotamus. Crowley, however, was more adventurous than West. He notes, "It looked like dark colored roast beef, rather tough. So your correspondent put his cheese sandwich back in his pocket and ate hippo. It tasted just the way it looked.”
Sometime in the mid 1960s, Leech was outbid on the zoo restaurant contract (it was put out to bid every 3 years) and he opened a restaurant called “The Explorer” in Rockville, Maryland. The Anteaters Association continued at the new location, but the restaurant was never a financial success.
- Throwback Thursday: Anteaters Open Season with Roast Elephant, DC Public Library
- Accession 01-157 – Marion P. McCrane Papers, 1962-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9513 – Oral History Interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann, 1977, Smithsonian Institution Archives