In August 1996, the Smithsonian marked its 150th anniversary with a huge birthday celebration on the National Mall. For its sesquicentennial, a term which this author constantly forgets no matter how many times she looks it up, the Institution threw itself a two-day birthday party, sprinkled with special exhibit tents, concerts, nineteen birthday cakes, a special website, and a fireworks show. And though the Smithsonian pulled out all the stops to celebrate its 150th birthday, the Institution’s centennial in 1946 was a much more reserved affair.
Leading up to the Institution’s 100th anniversary celebrations, staff had been busy supporting the war effort on the homefront and as members of the armed forces. Additionally, while keeping museum doors open during World War II, employees were also preoccupied with safeguarding the Smithsonian’s collections against potential threats. By the Institution’s centennial, operations were just returning to normal. In 1946, the Smithsonian collected more than two million specimens for the first time since the war began and field expeditions, suspended during the global conflict, continued.
Still, even as the Institution was just beginning to resume its full operations, the Smithsonian still made time to commemorate its centennial.
The National Museum of Natural History hosted an exhibit between August 10 and September 25, 1946, in its foyer that covered advancements at the Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years. It featured the Institution’s early history, its growing fine arts collections, its international exchange activities, and various programs and initiatives.
In addition to the exhibition, Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, Chancellor of the Smithsonian, successfully fought for the Post Office Department to release a commemorative, 3-cent stamp for the major anniversary. Though Stone passed away before it was issued, designers followed his suggestion to feature the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle. As well as approving the stamp, President Harry S. Truman issued a statement to publicly recognize the centennial.
Writers also celebrated the Smithsonian’s anniversary in major publications. Chief of the Institution’s editorial division Webster P. True authored The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1946, and the Scientific Monthly, since absorbed by Science, devoted an entire issue to the Smithsonian.
Learn about the ways in which the Smithsonian plans to commemorate its upcoming 175th anniversary, beginning in August 2021.
- “Looking Wayback on the Smithsonian’s Sesquicentennial” by Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Issue, Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum
- The Smithsonian at 175, Smithsonian Institution
- Statement by the President Marking the Centennial of the Smithsonian Institution, August 10, 1946, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
- “Smithsonian Outlines Plans for Expansion at Annual Meeting,” Evening Star, 18 January 1947, Chronicling America, Library of Congress
- “Smithsonian Receives Truman’s Greetings at Centennial Fete,” Evening Star, 10 August 1946