First Smithsonian Guidebook Published




Date: September 1857


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  • The first guidebook to the Smithsonian, illustrating many of the building's interior spaces and exhibits, is published. The content of the guidebook is divided up into sections that discuss the history, purpose, and possessions of the Smithsonian Institution. A brief outline of James Smithson's bequest to the United States and the subsequent founding of the Smithsonian Institution to meet the terms of the will, which stated using the money for the creation of "an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men," is followed by an outline of the purpose that the Institution followed in its early days under the leadership of Secretary Joseph Henry.
  • The guidebook describes the activities and holdings of the Institution. The layout of the Institution building (popularly known as The Castle) is given on a map with a corresponding key that lists the locations of the many exhibits. This layout differs from guidebooks after 1865 and the Castle today-large sections of the structure were gutted by the great fire of 1865. The active scientific pursuits of the Smithsonian are represented both in the text and on this map-much space was devoted for the purpose of conducting scientific experiments in several laboratories.
  • In addition to the laboratory space, the Institution building housed what was perhaps the most extensive scientific library in the United States. The holdings of the Institution's library were constantly increasing due to the Smithsonian's program of international scientific publication exchange that did much to further the scientific progress of the world by facilitating and easing exchanges of information among scientists; the volumes of the library were also increased by the original research of Smithsonian-sponsored scientists such as those that founded an effort to study weather in the United States that laid the groundwork for what became the National Weather Service. The library also held many engravings and etchings, as well as busts of important figures in American history. The Institution also housed a large lecture hall in which public lectures were regularly given for the purpose of educating the general public; these continued until the lecture hall was destroyed in the fire of 1865.
  • The Museum on the second floor displayed fine collections of: North American mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, minerals, fossils, rocks, a meteorite from Coahula, Mexico, and plants. There were also specimens from Latin America and Europe. Vertebrates included grizzly bears, cinnamon bears, black bears, panther, jaguar, ocelot, lynx, elk, many species of deer, sheep and goats, wolves, foxes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, prairie dogs, and gophers. The collections included the U.S. government collections in mineralogy, geology and natural history - many collected on U.S. government exploring expeditions. In 1858, the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1832-1842) collections were transferred and included natural history, anthropology and geology specimens and artifacts from around the globe. The Institution had such varied items on display as a Syrian Sarcophagus, mummies, and black basalt "idols" from Central America.


  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Stanley, John Mix 1814-1872
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • An Account of the Smithsonian Institution, its Founder, Building, Operations, Etc. (Publication)
  • Meteorological Project
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL)
  • International Exchange Service (IES)


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Image of Smithsonian Institution Building floor plan from the new Guidebook, 1856. Smithsonian Institution Archives, negative number mah-43804j.
  • Many of the guidebooks for the next several decades were based on this first edition, and deviate from it very little aside from including the new exhibit arrangements and details (such as the National Museum, now known as Arts and Industries, and the National Fish Commission, which was headed by the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Spencer Fullerton Baird) and the removal of information on Smithsonian property destroyed by the fire of 1865. The guidebooks changed only incrementally as the institution slowly evolved over the half century that it was directed by Secretary Joseph Henry and Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird.
  • Field, Cynthia R., Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing. The Castle: An Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993, p. xi.
  • Rhees, William Jones. An Account of the Smithsonian Institution, Its Founder, Building, Operations, Etc., Prepared from the Reports of Professor Henry to the Regents, and Other Authentic Sources. Washington: Thomas McGill, Printer, 1857.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


September 1857


  • Floorplans
  • Inaugural Edition
  • Firsts
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Mummies
  • Guide books
  • Exhibitions
  • Human remains (Archaeology)
  • Museums
  • Sarcophagi
  • Museum publications
  • Museum visitors

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