What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


In the Segregated 20th Century, Schoolchildren Embodied Black Uplift

How a Leading Portraitist Captured Their Refinement and Restlessness

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

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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The Laptops That Powered the American Revolution

Always on the Go, Our Founding Fathers Waged Their War of Words From the Mahogany Mobile Devices of Their Time

By Bethanee Bemis
February 23, 2016

Delegate to the Continental Congress. Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. General Washington’s aide-de-camp. Secretary of state. President of the United States. Secretary of the treasury. During their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton epitomized the role of American Founding Father, all of them heavily involved in the birth of the new United States and the shaping of its government and future. Between them, they performed some of the most important tasks in forming our nation, but for all …

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When Human Hair Could Braid Two Hearts Together

Before Chocolates Reigned on Valentine’s Day, a Tuft of Your Beloved’s Tresses Was the Most Fashionable Sign of Affection

By Helen Sheumaker
February 8, 2016

In 2016, Americans will spend more than $18 billion on Valentine’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. We’ll show our love and affection by buying heart-shaped chocolate boxes, sparkling wine, flowers, cards, and jewelry. Nowhere on the list is hair.

Imagine getting a keepsake made of hair from someone’s head! It would seem morbid. But through the 1800s, Americans showed their feelings with hair. At home, hair was sewn into notebooks, put under glass in lockets, and sent through …

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How to Drink Like a Gangster

Four Cocktails to Die for, Courtesy of America’s Underworld

By Scott M. Deitche
January 8, 2016

For his brief reign atop the Gambino crime family, in the late 1980s, John Gotti, the “Teflon Don,” was the heir apparent to Al Capone as America’s top mob boss. Gotti was as extravagant as he was charismatic, with a larger-than-life persona that extended to his taste for the finer things, including drink. As gifts, he liked to give his loyal underlings bottles of Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac, which can run in the thousands.

After Gotti was sentenced to …

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Why Americans of All Ages Love Little Golden Books

Twelve Lively, Kid-Centric Book Covers from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

November 3, 2015

In the early 20th century, most children’s books were large, lavishly illustrated, and expensive. They were absent from the bookshelves of most American families, and enjoyed primarily in libraries and schools. All that changed in 1942 with Little Golden Books—a series of slim, brightly colored books that revolutionized how, where, and what children read.

The book series—introduced by Simon & Schuster, the Artists and Writers Guild, and the Western Printing and Lithographing Company of Racine, Wisconsin—were designed with children in mind. …

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An Unforgettable—But Not Timeless—Walk Down the Aisle

Wedding Gowns From Priscilla of Boston's Bridal Shop Reflect Changing Fashions

September 8, 2015

Before Princess Di’s puffed sleeves and 25-foot train, before Vera Wang designed $1.5-million gowns, before we loved watching brides-to-be melt down on TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress, and before every bride scoured the Internet to “pin” her top 50 wedding day looks, Priscilla Kidder was a department store buyer who thought brides needed more choices.

So in 1945, Kidder, a former yarn store owner and model, left her job at R. H. White’s in Boston to open “The Bride’s …

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The Jersey Doctor Who Donated 29 Boxes of Postcards to the Smithsonian

His Hundreds of Thousands of Alluring Images Will Make You Wish You Were There

July 31, 2015

The postcard—dated February 7, 1940—shows an image of bright blue water, palm trees, and people lounging under umbrellas. A printed title rubs it in— “Enjoying Mid-Winter Bathing and Sunshine at Miami Beach, Fla.” So does a space at the bottom of the postcard that the sender mercifully left blank: “Temperature Today is ___ °”

This postcard ended up in the hands of an avid collector—Dr. Victor A. Blenkle of New Jersey. If it made him wish he were there—a familiar feeling …

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Growing Up at Gettysburg

My Family’s Antique Shop by the Historic Battlefield Has Helped Customers—and Me—Connect to Our Nation's History

By Andrew Small
July 2, 2015

“Do you have the kind of bullet that killed Lincoln?” asked a tourist buying a Derringer pistol, wearing a God Bless America t-shirt. I looked up from the counter a bit confused. I’d come in late after watching Steven Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 149th Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address. I was cold and my coffee had only begun to wake me up.

“It should be the size of …

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World War I’s Heart Is Kept in the Heartland

The Conflict That Disillusioned the World and Killed More than 100,000 Americans Is Remembered in Three Powerful Midwestern Memorials

By James MacLeod
May 22, 2015

World War I was one of the most destructive events in human history, killing around 16 million soldiers and civilians worldwide, including 116,000 Americans. It did more than just destroy lives. It destroyed confidence in progress, prosperity, and the rationality of civilized society, perhaps the most treasured characteristic of the 19th century.

The Great War also arguably destroyed much of the next generation: those who would have provided leadership to Europe in the dark days of the 1920s and 30s, …

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