What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Artifacts

The Electric Guitar’s Long, Strange Trip

From Its Gentle 16th-Century Acoustic Origins to the Souped-Up ‘Frankenstein’

Frankenstein, Van Halen, electric guitar, Frank 2

By Monica M. Smith
February 10, 2015

I remember the first time I saw Eddie Van Halen on MTV, the way he played two hands on the fingerboard during his short “Jump” guitar solo. I loved his cool “Frankenstein” guitar, so named because he cobbled together a variety of guitar parts and decorated his creation with colored tape and paint. Even as a 13-year-old who grew up primarily listening to, and playing, classical music, I felt compelled to run out and buy his band’s “1984” LP at …

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American Indians, Playing Themselves

As Buffalo Bill’s Performers, They Were Walking Stereotypes. But a New York Photographer Showed the Humans Beneath the Headdresses.

Chief Iron Tail original portrait

By Michelle Delaney
January 27, 2015

Chief Iron Tail, photographed by Gertrude Käsebier

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Were Postcards America’s First Form of Social Media?

Before We Posted Our Family Christmas Photo on Facebook, We Mailed Images of Our Idealized Selves and Lives to the People We Loved

Daniel Gifford, Christmas, postcard

By Daniel Gifford
December 23, 2014

My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, passed away when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, it is fairly obvious now that she was a hoarder on a colossal scale, but since this predated reality television, we tended just to say she was a packrat. As we cleaned out her house in rural Missouri, there was something special waiting: two boxes brimming with postcards. These were not of the “wish you were here” variety depicting washed-out hotel …

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America’s First Rock Star

Plymouth Rock Has Been the Subject of History Lessons, Songs, and Speeches for 400 Years. Why Do We Love It?

A piece of Plymouth Rock.

By Matthew Dennis
November 25, 2014

“Plymouth Rock is a glacial erratic at rest in exotic terrane.” So begins John McPhee’s classic 1990 New Yorker article, the best short piece ever written about the great American relic, pointing out how geological forces carried this rock far from its original home—Africa. It is an iconic mass of granite geologically formed by fire, but it certainly also qualifies as a sedimentary and metamorphic chunk of American political culture. Plymouth Rock has long been a symbol of America’s beginnings, …

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Searching for Utopia in Illinois

A Massive Limestone Carving From a 19th-Century Mormon Temple Reminds Us of Americans’ Many Quests to Forge New Communities

Mormon, sunstone, National Museum of American History

By Barbara Clark Smith
October 21, 2014

One of 12 sunstones that ornamented a Mormon temple built in Nauvoo, Illinois in the early 1840s.

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The Cane That Struck Against Slavery

For Eight Years, Congress Refused to Hear Petitions on Abolition. John Quincy Adams Received This Gift in Recognition of His Battle Against the ‘Gag Rule.’

The Cane That Struck Against Slavery

By Harry R. Rubenstein
September 22, 2014

The cane John Quincy Adams received for his fight against the gag rule.

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