Ray S. Bassler and Helena M. Weiss in the Natural History Building Office, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image No. SIA2018-108353

“Dear Sir”: Letters to the Smithsonian, 1948-1971

A look at some of the most interesting, and hilarious, letters that Helena M. Weiss received as Chief of the Office of Correspondence and Documents, and later, Registrar for the U.S. National Museum – and why they matter.

In 1956, Helena M. Weiss received a letter asking for information about “how to capture them, also how to raise them… what to put them in, also what to feed them.” Interestingly, the letter-writer neglected to specify what he or she meant by “them,” leaving Weiss only to guess what exactly the inquiry was referring to.

 Typewritten letter

From 1948 to 1956, Weiss was Chief of the Office of Correspondence and Documents for the United States National Museum (USNM).  In 1956, she became one of the Smithsonian’s first female managers when she accepted the position of “Registrar.” She had a large array of duties, from tracking and recording each and every accession to preparing curators for international field work; however, responding to the deluge of letters that arrived in the Smithsonian mailroom every day was one task that Weiss found particularly amusing – and important.Young woman sitting at desk in office looking at the camera

Weiss remarked that she “had a very strong feeling” that the Smithsonian should answer letters from the public. This was no small feat, since the Smithsonian received over 250,000 letters a year. Especially committed to making sure that letters from schoolchildren got answered, Weiss often collaborated with curators to see that students in areas without “access to reference books” received informative replies from experts at the Smithsonian.

Children and adults alike sent a variety of objects to the Smithsonian for identification. Weiss recalled that the specimens she received often reflected the different seasons in the year. In spring, farmers would send in bone samples or rocks they found while plowing their fields. In the summer, beachcombers would send various objects they discovered in the sand. Sometimes Weiss would find correspondence accompanied by meteorite samples, and other times, she would come across inquiries containing less appealing items, such as hairballs.

Helena Weiss, George B. Griffenhagen and Bane From the rather unsavory to the entertaining, Weiss truly read and saw it all. She recalled one letter that proclaimed, “I’m studying nature, give me all you have on it.” Other notes were more specific. At one point, a series of inquiries came in regarding a Smithsonian “wrecking kit.” Weiss later found out that a radio program called The Joy Boys had jokingly announced that the Smithsonian was giving away these kits – hence the sudden interest in an item that the USNM knew nothing about.

Driven by her belief that that “the Smithsonian had an obligation to serve the public,” Weiss took all the inquiries she received seriously, however bizarre or hilarious. She was firmly committed to her important role at the USNM, and very much invested in the legacy and mission of the Smithsonian. The work that she did was not only important for advancing the expansion of Smithsonian museums and the Institution’s commitment to the public, but also for making the workplace a more inclusive and progressive one. When the author of the aforementioned 1956 letter wrote to ask for information about unidentified creatures and how to care for them, he or she addressed the note, “Dear Sir.” As a trailblazing female manager, Helena Weiss helped to create an environment where future letter writers might be more inclined to address their notes, “To Whom It May Concern.”

Man in front of podium talking with woman beside him holding large certificate

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