The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Stumbling Upon . . . Calvin Coolidge
In a recent reference inquiry a patron was interested in an unusually large mammoth skeleton that was presented to the United States National Museum (presently the National Museum of Natural History) in 1926, and whether President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace, received a private viewing of this specimen in April 1927.
My first course of action was to conduct a search of our holdings for "Calvin Coolidge." This search produced eight results, one of which was Record Unit 46 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary Records, 1925-1949. I reviewed the Calvin Coolidge correspondence in Box 8 of this collection, but did not find correspondence related to a visit in April 1927. I then reviewed the index for the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution . . . for the Year Ending June 30, 1927, for "Coolidge, Calvin," and found six such references, including one for Grace Coolidge. Pursuing these references, it became evident that President Coolidge was part of a "Conference on the Future of the Institution," which occurred in February 1927.
Furthermore, it was revealed that Grace donated a "white satin brocaded evening dress, worn in the White House, for the series of costumes of the wives of the President." A review of the Report on the Progress and Condition of the United States National Museum for the Year Ended June 30, 1927, (page 147) revealed that the donation by Grace was assigned Accession Number 93081, which led me to our collection of Accession Records (Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, 1877-1975). The correspondence accompanying the accession record includes a letter acknowledging that Grace visited the Division of History on May 26, 1927 to inspect a figure crafted to embellish the dress she recently donated.
So far what I have been able to establish is that President Coolidge attended a conference at the Smithsonian in February and Grace Coolidge visited the United States National Museum in May 1927. Although there is no correspondence specifically referencing a private viewing of a mammoth specimen in April 1927, there is evidence that the two visited or had contact with the Smithsonian during the period of February-May of the year in question. Now, what about the mammoth specimen?
A review of the Annual Report, Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, 1926-1927 found in Record Unit 158 - United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, acknowledges that, not only did the division receive a portion of an unusually large mammoth specimen in 1927; furthermore, the specimen had been restored, mounted, and placed in a wall case in the main hall of the United States National Museum!
Admittedly, there is no direct evidence to confirm President Coolidge and his wife, Grace visited the Smithsonian and received a private viewing of a mammoth specimen in April 1927. Reviewing the appropriate resources available revealed that the Smithsonian did indeed receive such a specimen, which was put on display in the main hall of the Unites States National Museum. There is also evidence that the Coolidge's visited and donated to the museum during the time in question. Perhaps the Calvin Coolidge Papers held by the Library of Congress, contains evidence of an April 1927 visit to the Smithsonian. This suggestion was passed along to the patron and hopefully will provide the answer they are looking for.
As for the unexpected, the stumbled upon; the August 12, 1929 letter found in Record Unit 46 suggests that Calvin Coolidge, then a private citizen six months beyond his tenure as President, may have been able to raise two or three million dollars for a new building for the Smithsonian. Did this ever come to fruition? A new question to consider, and the whole process begins again.
- Record Unit 46 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1925-1949, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 158 - United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Adminsitrative Files, 1877-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Calvin Coolidge Papers, Library of Congress