The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Tomorrow marks the anniversay of a momentous occasion for children visiting the National Mall; on April 12, 1967, the Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley opened a carousel in front of the Arts and Industries Building.
Some people were concerned at the time that the carousel, along with popcorn wagons, outdoor puppet and musical performances, would lead to the Smithsonian becoming an "ivy-covered Disneyland" ("Some Fresh Air for the Nation's Attic," New York Times, April 9, 1967), but as we can see today, that did not happen.
The first carousel was a 1922 Denzel carousel that was accompanied by a 153 Wurlitzer Band Organ. It is hard to imagine now, but at the time , rides were 25 cents (currently the cost is $3.50).
Due to wear and tear the carousel was replaced in 1981 with a carousel from Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. This carousel is 10 feet larger in diameter and has 60 horses, as opposed to the former which had 33. The carousel was built in 1947 by Allan Herschell Company. The seemingly benign carousel however, has a rich history, best told in Amy Nathan's book, Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. Gwynn Oak Amusement Park was a segregated park and became integrated after a nearly decade-long effort in 1963.
The carousel continues to bring laughter and joy to those who ride it today, many of whom may not know of its place in history, but enjoy it nonetheless.
- Round and Round Together: Take a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, Amy Nathan
- The Carousel on the National Mall, Washington Post
In 1931, Roxie Collie listed airplanes, tennis racquets, and windy days as interests under her name in her yearbook from Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. The eldest in a family of 15 children, her hobbies included the outdoors, animals, engines, and model airplanes, which were considered improper for a female during that time. In college she had the opportunity to play basketball and participate in track, as well as being the first to wear blue jeans at the all-girls college. She also enjoyed mowing the college’s courtyard in her coveralls. She received her B.A. from Meredith in 1932, and her M.S. in plant ecology from the George Washington University in 1951.
That pioneering spirit led Roxie Collie Laybourne to go on to create the important field of forensic ornithology, which identifies dead birds from feather samples or fragments which can be quite small. Some aircraft accidents have been caused by bird strikes (collision between birds and aircraft) and forensic ornithology has improved safety through the use of bird data, by making modifications to flight plans and creating programs to scare away birds at some airports.
Laybourne worked on aircraft engines during college and took an aeronautics correspondence course, after not being able to attend aviation school because she was female. She even got into trouble with her college after going to the airport to see Amelia Earhart. After graduating she worked at the National Fisheries Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C., and the North Carolina State Museum before coming to the Smithsonian in 1944 in the Division of Birds as a museum aide for a short-term position. Nevertheless, she stayed on at the Smithsonian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bird and Mammal Laboratory, and founded the forensic ornithology program in the 1960s.
Her method was to identify species of birds from feathers by using light and scanning electron microscopy, in conjunction with studying the substructure of the wings. The feather identification program came about after Laybourne assisted in the investigation of a fatal crash at Logan Airport in Boston in 1960 and starlings were determined to be the cause. Laybourne then started using the Smithsonian’s collection of preserved bird specimens for feather study to identify species that were involved in bird strikes.
Her techniques and tools are still used today and even have aided criminal investigations. One case Laybourne assisted with was a homicide involving a woman who shot her husband in his sleep and some of the feathers from the pillow went in with the bullet. Her work also aided various agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the FBI, and the U.S. military.
Known as the “Feather Lady, ” she also taught bird-skinning courses to many budding ornithologists.
In a 2001 oral history interview with Smithsonian Historian Pamela Henson, Laybourne talked about mental challenges of the work and said it was not meant for everyone. She considered the field to still be developing. Laybourne retired in 1988 but still performed feather identifications as a Smithsonian Research Associate until her death in 2003 at age 92. The Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian continues this important work.
Audio clips from Roxie C. S. Laybourne Interviews, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9610.
Roxie Laybourne talking about the importance of sharing knowledge.
Roxie Laybourne talking about her approach to life.
Roxie Laybourne talking about working at the Smithsonian Institution.
- Record Unit 9610, Roxie C. S. Laybourne Interviews, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 04-086, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds, Curatorial Records, 1972-2000, Smithsonian Institution Archives
"Just ask Miss Weiss," was a familiar refrain for many years at the mid-twentieth century Smithsonian. Ever organized and efficient, Miss Weiss handled all of the correspondence for the United States National Museum, served as registrar who processed all new acquisitions, oversaw the mail room and shipping, facilitated customs and passports for travel and international shipping, and even served as a "nurse" at the first aid station! One of the first women managers at the Smithsonian, Miss Weiss was devoted to the organization that she described as "one big family." When she arrived in 1931, the Smithsonian was small, with the treasurer handing out pay to each employee individually. By the time she retired in 1971, it was a much larger organization, spanning the globe.
Born in Shipman, Illinois, in 1906, Helena M. Weiss attended business college and trained as a secretary. In 1929, her employer in Pennsylvania advised her to seek a government job to gain security during the Great Depression. He sent her to Washington, DC, to the care of his cousin, and the intrepid young woman headed to the nation’s capital, only to find the cousin had left for Canada. On her own, she moved into the home for elderly women where the cousin lived, and cried herself to sleep for the first week. But she soon found a job at the Veterans’ Administration (VA), a congenial roommate of her own age and a lovely apartment.
The work at the VA stenography pool was rather boring. When she heard of a job at the Smithsonian, she pursued the opportunity, even though she knew little about the Institution. On May 22, 1931, Miss Weiss was appointed a CAF-2-6, Junior Clerk-Stenographer in the Division of Correspondence and Documents. She worked for several different departments, including Anthropology and Geology. But most of her career was spent in the Division of Correspondence and Documents, directed by the kindly Herbert S. Bryant. During those years, correspondence to and from the Smithsonian went through a central office, with two stenographers typing hundreds of letters every month.
Eventually Miss Weiss succeeded Bryant - becoming one of the first women managers at the Smithsonian. She loved the diversity of her work, being fascinated by the scientific research and the unique objects acquired by the National Museum. In December of 1948, as she took over as director, to her amazement the Wright Flyer went on display to one of the largest crowds the Museum had ever seen. She anxiously awaited the arrival of the Hope Diamond being delivered by the US Postal Service through the regular mail, and she marveled at the size of the Fénykövi elephant in the Natural History Museum rotunda, despite the fragrance of the enormous hide when it first arrived.
Some of Weiss' other duties included the planning of field trips for curators to archeological sites in Iraq, geological sites in Canada, remote islands in the South Pacific, the Smithsonian’s new field station in Panama, and, most memorably, to the site of Parícutin, a new volcano in Mexico. The Parícutin volcano so fascinated her that she visited the region herself to see this rare phenonmenon. For all of these trips, Miss Weiss would arrange passports and visas, ship collecting supplies overseas, and ensure that precious specimens made it safely back to the National Museum. Several curators captured her contributions in a hand-drawn birthday card.
Miss Weiss' work often put her at the center of scientific discussions. In her Oral History interviews, she recalled feeling like she was part of a science fiction novel as she took notes at meetings with astrophysicists in the 1950s and early 1960s as they planned exploration of space and talked of a man on the moon. These discussions seemed simply incredible to her, but she knew the scientists were quite serious. And to her amazement, she lived to see it all come to pass.
For Miss Weiss herself, any amount of work could and would be done for the Institution she loved. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, as a performance award, appointed her an "admiral in the Smithsonian Navy." Indeed, when she retired in 1971, her workload was distributed to several different employees. But as she said herself, "people never give up at the Smithsonian."
- Record Unit 9587 - Oral history interviews with Helena M. Weiss, 1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 05-112 - Helena M. Weiss Papers, 1923-2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-184 - Helena M. Weiss Papers, 1908-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On March 8, 1903, more than just the animals went wild at the National Zoo. Around noon that day, nine year old Raymond Welty, of 1228 H Street NE, Washington, DC, had a little too much free time on his hands. While trying to ward off boredom, Raymond came across a Mr. Henry Tate's horse and buggy. With no Mr. Tate around and the horse looking oh so lonely, Raymond – not one to look a gift horse in the mouth – hopped into the driver's seat and took up the reins. Careful to avoid his father's house, Raymond took a ride to 15th and M streets, where he convinced his unwitting friend, ten year old William B. Palmer, to come along for the adventure.
With Raymond wielding the whip, the boys raced around the city. First, they excitedly steered the horse down Pennsylvania Avenue, careening past some of their favorite spots. They then shot down to the Ellipse, and took the horse through the muddied National Mall. For almost three hours they ran the horse to the ground, but Raymond eventually tired of this and thought it would be great fun to travel up to the National Zoo. He steered the horse towards the Pike and they made their way to Rock Creek Park. Once there, they entered the Zoo at its main entrance and began to tear down the hill. It was raining, and the muddy roads were very slippery. All at once little Raymond was unable to guide the beleaguered horse, and the horse, buggy, and boys flew over a fifteen-foot embankment, and crashed in a giant heap.
Fortunately, an alert police officer R. L. Carroll, of the tenth precinct, witnessed the boys' attempt at reliving the Kentucky Derby, and rushed to their aid when their sport went afoul. Officer Carroll pulled Raymond and William from underneath the buggy, and led Mr. Tate's horse to safety. The boys came out unscathed; but the horse sustained injuries to its legs and chest. Exhausted from the long trek, it was treated by a veterinarian and taken back to the police station to wait for Mr. Tate.
Now apprehended, the two criminals were also taken to the station, while an angry Mr. Tate identified what was left of his buggy. After questioning the boys, William, speechless with terror, received only a summons and lecture about his behavior. However, Raymond – the mastermind of this ill-fated escapade – was sent to the House of Detention where he told authorities that he had the time of his life, explaining:
If the horse had held out, Bill and I'd have had a great time...We wasn't thinking about anything but the animals in the cages at the Zoo. We was driving along pretty fast, down the hill by the main entrance. The horse was going some, too, let me tell you - say, whose horse was it anyhow? I forgot to ask...Was I scared. Say you can't scare me with horses. I like horses.
Not one for remorse, Raymond was kept at the House of Detention for safekeeping, though his father, James Welty, was able to visit his wayward son.
It turns out this was not the first offense for young Raymond. Prior to his jaunt around DC, Raymond was picked up by police on two separate occasions for running away. A 1910 census entry for a Raymond Welty showed that the then seventeen year old was a member of the National Training School for Boys, a juvenile correction institution. Could this be the same Raymond? His rap sheet would suggest it as a strong likelihood.
- Record Unit 74 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966, Smithsonian Institution Archives