What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Artifacts

The Day the Lone Ranger Died

The Radio Connected Us to the World More Deeply Than the Technologies That Followed

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By Manuel H. Rodriguez
December 13, 2016

The digital age, we are told, has made media more immediate, more democratic, more visceral than what came before.

I have my doubts. Was there ever anything more visceral than the radio of the early 20th century?

When I was a child in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, our family never missed a broadcast of The Lone Ranger, and the introduction, always accompanied by Rossini’s William Tell Overture, is still fixed in my mind.

“A fiery horse with the speed …

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Why Canoes Are the Quintessential Vehicle for Escape

From Postwar 'Canoedling' to Unplugging from Our Smart Phones, the Timeless Boat Takes Us Back to Simpler Days

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By Mark Neuzil
November 21, 2016

A canoe is like a banjo—it makes everyone happy. Propelled with paddles, sleek, long, narrow, lightweight—mostly open—and fast: Every canoe I’ve owned makes me smile at its memory. I remember my oldest daughter, at age 10, mimicking the cry of a loon, and the loon crying back, while on a Boundary Waters trip. Or that one big fish that one time in that one hole whose location I’m never going to disclose because then it won’t be my memory alone. …

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Why Campaign Buttons Will Survive the Digital Age

For Many Voters, Wearing Political Paraphernalia Is Their Personal Connection to a Candidate

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By Harry Rubenstein
November 7, 2016

On April 30, 1789, enthusiastic onlookers filled the streets, dangled out of windows, and perched on rooftops to catch a glimpse of George Washington as he made his way through the streets of New York to Federal Hall to assume the new office of President of the United States.

As at many political events that would follow, there were vendors along the procession route busily making and selling souvenirs to commemorate the day. Among the items sold were small brass …

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The Swag—and Swagger—Behind American Presidential Campaigns

From a Coloring Book to a Painted Axe, Election Ephemera Remind Us of Hard-Fought Elections of Yore

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By Megan Smith
October 10, 2016

America’s founding is rooted in the power of the people to select their own leader. Efforts to sway the vote—via gritty campaigns driven by emotion, piles of cash, and brutal, drag-out battles—are equally American.

Years, decades and even centuries later, the essence of these fights can often be glimpsed through their ephemera—the signs, slogans, and campaign buttons that both bolster true believers and aim to coax the reluctant into the fold. These objects can suggest campaign strategy as well as the …

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The Mob, the Mayor, and Pinball

Why 20th-Century Law Enforcement Wielded a “Sledgehammer of Decency” on the Game Machines

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By Michael Schiess
October 4, 2016

Soon after I founded the Pacific Pinball Museum, an ex-police officer contacted me, offering to sell a rare artifact that was once confiscated by the Oakland Police force.

The object in question was a Bally Bumper pinball machine from 1936. For many, this machine is the quintessential pinball experience. You launch a ball up a slanted table and try to …

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Whatever Happened to the Little Red Caboose?

Manufacturing of the Iconic Train Car Stopped in 1981, But They Still Hold a Special Place in American Pop Culture

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By H. Roger Grant
September 22, 2016

Americans have many icons. But those dealing with the exploration and expansion of the United States seem especially beloved: stagecoaches, steamboats, trains—and the railroad caboose. From the mid-19th century through the last decade of the 20th century, the “little red caboose behind the train” has had iconic qualities similar to the little red schoolhouse, being the subject of songs, books, and toys that remain popular today. So what’s the caboose, and why has this icon largely disappeared from the national …

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A Photograph That Speaks Volumes About Pre-War Innocence and Post-War Hope

My Parents’ 75-Year-Old Wedding Portrait Captures Our Family Just Before WWII Changed Everything

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By Jim Shultz
September 15, 2016

It’s the only photograph we have of them all together.

My mother beams with the smile of an 18-year-old married only minutes before to the man who would be her husband for 49 years. My father is 21 and elegant in a gray double-breasted suit and matching fedora. To their right stands my mother’s mother, a widow who raised two children alone in the Great Depression. To their left stand my father’s parents, a pair of short and stout …

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Remembering 9/11, From a Scrawled Note to a Bit of Fuselage

How Objects Both Ordinary and Extraordinary Help Us Reflect on the Devastation

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By Cedric Yeh
September 8, 2016

Three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress officially charged the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History with collecting and preserving artifacts that would tell the story of that day.

But where to start? If you were given the task, what objects would you collect?

Curators working at the attack sites were grappling with those questions. If they tried to collect the whole story, they would have quickly been overwhelmed. Instead they identified three points of focus to guide them: the attacks themselves, first responders, and the recovery efforts.

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In the Segregated 20th Century, Schoolchildren Embodied Black Uplift

How a Leading Portraitist Captured Their Refinement and Restlessness

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By Sara Catania
September 1, 2016

For much of the 20th century, the Scurlock family of portrait photographers—first Addison Scurlock and his wife Mamie and then their sons Robert and George—were the premiere chroniclers of the aspirational lives of Washington D.C.’s black middle class. Over time they forged close working relationships with W.E.B. DuBois and Howard University, as well as photographing Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, and Booker T. Washington.

But alongside this work—now preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as “Portraits of …

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When Secret Societies Sold Life Insurance

Before the Great Depression, Fraternal Lodges Offered Financial Security Without the Stigma of Charity

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By Lisa Hix
March 22, 2016

Once, when I visited my brother, who lives in a small Texas town, he took me down a winding road to a turn-of-the-20th-century cemetery in a forest clearing. There, we found three tall tombstones in the shape of tree trunks, each stamped with an insignia reading “Woodmen of the World.” What were these strange things?

When I got home, I dug into the mystery of these stone stumps, discovering the profoundly insecure time before Americans had Social Security, when anxieties about …

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