A couple of months ago, Tony Cohn, host of Smithsonian’s Sidedoor podcast, contacted the Archives about an upcoming episode they were preparing. Sidedoor highlights the unseen or little-known stories about collections at the Smithsonian. Although these collections are seldom seen, they are no less of a treasure to scholars or others interested in what the creator might reveal through an object or documentation that remains.
This Sidedoor episode was to feature author, Daniel Stone’s latest book, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. The Food Explorer was David Grandison Frairchild (1869-1954) and Cohn wanted to know if the Archives had any collections from him.
This is the type of question we field every day at the Archives, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to explore our collections for a botanist I was unfamiliar with. I made a quick search of our collections using the Archives’ website and came up with several options. Although there is correspondence between Fairchild and the Smithsonian (Fairchild worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture), the item I thought might be particularly special was his field journal covering 1896-1897 in Record Unit 7286.
Record Unit 7286 is a very small collection, a single box, consisting of one small pocket journal (crammed with his notes), and some photographs. But as I looked through the journal, I found, pressed between its pages, a large black insect with wings. This bug (whatever it was), had very likely been there since 1896-1897 and I couldn’t wait to share this find.
Prior to recording the program, Cohn and his producer, Rachel Aronoff, visited to see the material I’d found. I had an array of collections where David Fairchild appears, but was especially excited to show them the journal. The little book and the photographs amazed them and they got excited too. Why? Because Daniel Stone, the author they were going to interview, may never have seen this hidden gem. That’s because I found no record of him visiting the Archives while researching Fairchild.
On the day of the interview, Cohn, Aronoff and Stone arrived. Cohn and Stone discussed Fairchild’s collecting adventures, how challenging and sometimes dangerous it was in the field, and some of the exotic species he collected that became everyday items in your local grocery (bananas, avocados, lemons). Then it was time for the reveal.
Cohn told him about the journal and I presented it to him. Since neither, Cohn, Aronoff, nor I knew much about Fairchild’s collecting, we asked Stone to take a look and tell us what he could about it. Stone, because of long hours with Fairchild’s writing, was able to tell us that it documented Fairchild’s time in Java and his interest in termites. And he also helped us understand what the photos showed - these were of fungus that the termites cultivated in their mounds for food. One of the best moments, however, was when Daniel saw the termite and smiled. Not something he’d seen during his research.
What a great hunt and a fun afternoon. All of us learned something new and enjoyed sharing another hidden treasure at the Smithsonian Institution Archives through Sidedoor.
Checkout the interview: Sidedoor podcast # 19: America's first food spy, or the book: The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. It’s available wherever books are sold.