The Smithsonian: Recycling Since 1862

Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Photograph of a portrait of Joseph Henry (1797-1878), physicist and first Secretary of the Smithsoni Not surprisingly, like any large organization, the Smithsonian has always used a lot of paper in its daily operations. But did you know that the Smithsonian had what was, most likely, one of the earlier organizational recycling programs in the U.S.? We thought that Earth Day would be the perfect time to revisit the Smithsonian’s first forays into green practices. The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, and his staff conducted a large amount of domestic and international correspondence. They wrote to agents, donors, and recipients who participated in the Smithsonian’s international publications exchange; the Institution’s large network of volunteer meteorological observers; scientists and military officers on expeditions and surveys; speakers in its lecture series; and numerous other individuals, government officials, and scientific organizations. The Smithsonian was also a major publisher, which required large amounts of paper not only for correspondence with authors, illustrators, referees, and printers, but for manuscripts, proofs, and the finished articles and books. During the Civil War, the Smithsonian found itself challenged on many fronts, not the least of which was a significant jump in the cost of paper. The increase coincided with a cessation of income from the Smithsonian’s investments in southern state bonds; delays in receiving federally appropriated funds for the care of the national collections; and the receipt of the interest on its endowment, deposited in the U.S. Treasury, in devalued currency rather than gold.


1862 memo from Secretary Joseph Henry requesting staff to collect waste paper (click to enlarge), Le At the end of December 1862, Secretary Henry took action. He sent a memo to the staff asking that baskets be placed in every room of the Smithsonian Building or “Castle” for the collection of waste paper, which would then be sold. In so doing, Henry launched what was probably the Smithsonian’s first recycling program. Given that a fire in the building some two years later destroyed most of the Institution’s records since its founding, it is perhaps not surprising that this memo wasn’t found within the voluminous institutional records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It was actually found by the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Joseph Henry Papers Project staff many years ago in the National Archives, among correspondence from the Institution’s meteorological observers in the records of the Weather Bureau. The Smithsonian Institution Building, the "Castle," after the fire of January 24, 1865, by G. D. Wak Today, the Smithsonian’s recycling efforts continue.  And while the Smithsonian Institution Archives recognizes the importance of paper and the history it documents, it fully supports current efforts to recycle waste paper and other reusable products. Smithsonian staff can contact the Archives and Information Management Team if they have trouble distinguishing between which paper (and electronic) documents should be saved and which can be recycled. If you live in the D.C. area and  would like to help some of the Smithsonian non-paper-based recycling efforts,  you can bring your electronics to the front desk at the National Zoo as part of their Recycle at the Zoo program, which helps safely recycle electronics while earning money for conservation. Kathleen W. Dorman, is a Research Associate in the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and former Associate Editor of the Joseph Henry Papers Project.

Kathy Dorman is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution.

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