What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Artifacts

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

prez-glimpses-1

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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Artifacts

The Gentleman’s Agreement That Ended the Civil War

Two Generals Sat Down at Appomattox and Choreographed an Unusually Civil Armistice in the Most Punishing Conflict Ever Fought on American Soil

Appomatox furniture, Lee's surrender to Grant.

By Harry R. Rubenstein
April 3, 2015

One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 9, 1865, a lone Confederate horseman violently waving a white towel as a flag of truce galloped up to the men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry near Appomattox Court House and asked for directions to the headquarters of Major General Philip Sheridan. On orders from generals Robert E. Lee and John Gordon, the rider, Captain R. M. Sims, carried a message requesting a suspension of hostilities to allow negotiations of surrender to …

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Artifacts

Your Chinese Menu Is Really a Time Machine

Sweet and Sour Pork and Chop Suey Aren’t Just Delicious; They Also Tell Stories of Waves of Immigration from China

Cedric Yeh, pig, Chinese New Year, Chinese food, Chinese restaurant

By Cedric Yeh
February 19, 2015

I grew up in a Chinese restaurant called the Peking Restaurant in rural New England during the 1970s and ’80s. I was that kid you saw running around the tables and through the waiters’ legs, and playing with whatever I could get my hands on. I had access to some cool things—pupu platters for my birthdays, all the fortune cookies I could eat, the pleasure of celebrating two different new year’s days every year with treats like a roasted pig …

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Engagements

Selma’s Best Supporting Role

The Film May Have Focused on Martin Luther King, But Diane Nash Was the Reason He Was There in the First Place

Diane Nash

By Christopher Wilson
February 12, 2015

If you watched the film Selma, you met Diane Nash when you saw her driving with Martin Luther King, Jr., into the Alabama town early in 1965. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had just begun to stage demonstrations to illustrate the need for federal forces to protect African-Americans exercising their right to vote in Selma, and throughout the former Confederacy.

Nash, somewhat surprisingly, stays in the background throughout much of the film—though an FBI field report excerpt flashed on …

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Artifacts

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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Encounters

Creating a Mexican-Afro-Cuban-American Beat

The Rhythms I Play and Dance Collided on the American Continent—Then I Made Them My Own

shoes, Martha Gonzalez, Quetzal, fandango, tarima, zapateado, stomp box

By Martha Gonzalez
December 5, 2014

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival was in full bloom on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in late June. Audiences flocked to different stages and exhibits that shared the finest music cultures in the world. As I approached the workers’ trailer, I knew it was the last time I would hold my tarima (stomp box) and old zapateado shoes. I’d participated with my band Quetzal in a moving tribute concert to legendary folk singer Pete Seeger the previous evening, and …

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