March 12, 2012
On March 12, 1912, Juliette Gordon Low gathered 18 girls in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, and swore them in as the first Girl Guides (later called Girl Scouts) in the United States. The inductees signed an official register and hoisted up mugs of hot chocolate to toast the momentous occasion.
One hundred years later, more than 50 million girls have made the same Girl Scout Promise—to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law. With over 3.2 million members, the educational organization has the distinction of being the largest for girls in the world.
Rightly so, much is underway to celebrate the centennial of the Girl Scouts. Historian Stacy A. Cordery’s biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, published just last month, provides an intimate look, through diaries, letters, institutional correspondence and photographs, at Low’s life and the personal challenges, including the loss of her hearing and a failed marriage, that she overcame on our way to establishing the organization. (For an interview with Cordery, see “The Very First Troop Leader.”) This summer, on June 9, the National Mall will play host to the largest of the festivities, “Rock the Mall,” a sing-along expected to bring together some 200,000 Girl Scouts, friends and family from around the world. And, of course, welcoming visiting Girl Scouts wandering north of the Mall, is the National Portrait Gallery, and its current exhibition “Juliette Gordon Low: 100 Years of Girl Scouts.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition, which opened January 13 and runs through January 6, 2013, is a grand portrait of Low by artist Edward Hughes (above). Gifted to the National Portrait Gallery by the Girl Scouts, the painting was commissioned in 1887 by Low’s husband William Mackay Low shortly after the two married and moved to England. Hughes, an esteemed London portrait painter whose subjects included the royal family, depicts her in full Southern-belle, Georgia-dubutante glory, wearing an airy, pink, floral dress. Actually, the portrait stands in contrast to many photographs of Low taken decades later, after she founded the Girl Scouts, in which she is suited in crisp uniforms.
A couple of these photographs, on loan from the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah and the Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center in New York City, accompany the portrait, as well as a few artifacts, including the patent for the Girl Scout symbol, a trefoil with each leaf standing for one part of the three-fold Girl Scout Promise; an official Girl Scout Membership Pin; and a 1927 reprint of the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls, Official Handbook of the Girl Scouts.
The “once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout” mentality came out in the organizing of the exhibition. Both the pin and the handbook are on loan from National Portrait Gallery staff members. “It wasn’t a goal, but it sort of organically happened,” says Kristin Smith, an exhibition and loan specialist. “As we were talking about it in different meetings, people would say, ‘I was a Girl Scout,’ and they would offer up something that they had.” Smith, a former Girl Scout herself, purchased the copy of the handbook and loaned it to the museum in her daughter’s name. “My daughter, Sophie, is a Brownie now,” says Smith. “I thought she would be thrilled to see her name on the label in the exhibit.” Later this month, Sophie and her troop are participating in “Her Story,” a museum program that uses the collection to teach Girl Scouts about historical figures who sought justice and equality for women. The program qualifies scouts for a certain badge.
“What I would like them to see is the history of the organization—how far back it goes and how strong it is today in terms of the number of members internationally,” says Smith. “Also, the spirit of Juliette Gordon Low. She was such an incredibly strong woman, who had a difficult life but really created an amazing legacy for herself.”
Author Stacy A. Cordery will discuss her biography of Juliette Gordon Low and sign copies this Wednesday, March 14, at 6 p.m., in the National Portrait Gallery’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.
December 14, 2011
One March morning in 2008, Carlene Stephens, curator of the National Museum of American History’s division of work and industry, was reading the New York Times when a drawing caught her eye. She recognized it as a phonautograph, a device held in the museum’s collections. Credited to a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1857, the phonautograph recorded sound waves as squiggles on soot-covered paper, but could not play those sounds back.
The article reported that scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, had managed the seemingly impossible. They played back the sounds.
Using equipment housed developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress, Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, a senior scientists in the lab’s physics and engineering divisions, analyzed high resolution digital images scans of a phonautogram found in a Paris archive. (A group known as First Sounds had discovered a recording there and had sent scans of it to Haber and Cornell.) The recording was a 10-second clip of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” Made on April 9, 1860, the sound snippet predates the oldest known playable sound recording— Handel’s oratorio, made by Thomas Edison and his associates in 1888.
“When I read the article, I thought, oh my gosh,” says Stephens. The American History Museum has about 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made. Pioneers (and competitors) Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner donated the recordings and other documentation to the Smithsonian in the late 19th century. The inventors conducted experiments from 1878 to 1898, and stashed their research notes and materials at the Smithsonian, in part to establish a body of evidence should their patents ever be disputed.
There are a few cryptic inscriptions on the wax discs and cylinders and some notes from past curators. But historians did not have the means to play them. Stephens realized that a breakthrough was at hand.
“I have been taking care of these silent recordings for decades. Maybe finally we could get some sound out,” says Stephens.
So she contacted Haber and Peter Alyea, a digital conversion specialist at the Library of Congress. Stephens called their attention to a group of recordings made in the 1880s by Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell and another associate Charles Sumner Tainter. The team had created an early R&D facility at Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, called Volta Laboratory. (Today, the site is home to Julia’s Empanadas at 1221 Connecticut Avenue.)
“From 1881 to 1885, they were recording sound mechanically. They recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas that they tried,” says Haber. “There are periods of time when a certain group of people end up in a certain place and a lot of music gets created, or art—Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. There are these magic moments, and I think that historians and scholars of technology and invention are viewing Washington in the 1880s as being one of those moments.”
Eager to hear the content, Haber and Alyea selected six recordings—some wax discs with cardboard backing, others wax on metal and glass discs with photographically recorded sound—for a pilot project.
“We tried to choose examples that highlighted the diversity of the collection,” says Haber. In the last year, they have put the recordings through their sound recovery process, and on Tuesday, at the Library of Congress, the pair shared a first listen with a small audience of researchers and journalists.
The snippets are crude and somewhat garbled, but with a little help from Haber, who has spent hours and hours studying them, those of us in the room could make out what was being said. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” declared a speaker, who proceeded to deliver a portion of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on one disc. A male voice repeated a trill sound as a sound check of sorts and counted to six on another. From one recorded in 1884, a man enunciated the word “barometer” five times. And on yet another, a voice states the date—”It’s the 11th day of March 1885″—and repeats some verses of “Mary had a little lamb.”
In fact, during one recitation of the nursery rhyme, the recorders experience some sort of technical difficulty, made obvious by a somewhat indiscernible exclamation of frustration. “It is probably the first recorded example of someone being disappointed,” jokes Haber.
The National Museum of American History hopes to continue this partnership with Lawrence Berkeley and the Library of Congress so that more of the sound experiments captured on early recordings can be made audible. At this point, the voices on the newly revealed recordings are unknown. But Stephens thinks that as researchers listen to more, they may be able to identify the speakers. In its collection, the museum has a transcript of a recording made by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Could the inventor’s voice be on one of the 200 Volta recordings?
“It is possible,” says Stephens.
Male voice reciting opening lines of “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, probably 1885:
Tone; male voice counting “One, two, three, four, five, six”; two more tones; deposited at the Smithsonian in October 1881:
Male voice saying “ba-ro-me-ter,” produced on November 17, 1884:
Male voice saying the date and reciting “Mary had a little lamb,” produced on March 11, 1885:
This post was updated on December 22, 2012 to include the contributions of Earl Cornell and the group First Sounds.
November 29, 2011
As a kid growing up in California, Jeffrey Milstein loved to go to the Los Angeles International Airport to watch the planes come in. He quickly became obsessed with aircraft, building model airplanes and sweeping out hangars in exchange for flying lessons from a former Navy pilot. As a teenager, he earned his wings—a private pilot’s license.
Flying is a hobby for Milstein, not a profession, however. He studied art and architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and had a successful career as an architect and graphic designer. In the last decade, though, Milstein has concentrated his efforts on photography and, in doing so, has been able to work his love for aviation back into the fold.
“Returning to the airport approaches, this time behind a camera instead of a control column, he photographed aircraft at the precise moment when they passed overhead, inbound to land,” writes Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in the foreword to Milstein’s 2007 book AirCraft: The Jet as Art.
Now, borrowing the same name as Milstein’s book, a new exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum through November 25, 2012, features 33 of Milstein’s formal portraits of the underbellies of airplanes. The images measure up to 50 by 50 inches.
“Milstein’s photographs of frozen moments evoke speed, technology and the excitement of flight,” said Carolyn Russo, curator of the exhibition, in a press release. “The enormity of the images seem to pull you into the air, as though you are going along for the ride.”
Capturing a plane traveling at up to 175 miles per hour at just the right moment and angle is no easy task. ”It’s like shooting a moving duck,” Milstein told msnbc.com. “The planes are moving so fast, and I have only a hundredth of a second to get my shot. I have to keep the camera moving with the plane and then fire the shot exactly at the top dead center. It took a lot of practice.” The photographer’s favorite place to shoot from is runway 24R at LAX. ”You have to find the right spot underneath the flight path. Not too far away and not too close. The plane can’t be coming in too high or too low, and if the wing dips a little bit to correct for wind, the symmetry will be unequal. It is just a matter of finding the ‘sweet spot’ so that the aircraft is lined up exactly in the camera’s frame,” he told Russo.
Then, in Photoshop, Milstein strips away the backgrounds of his photographs, replacing them with stark white backdrops as to not detract from the seams and detailing on the planes undersides. He blows them up in size and creates bold, photographic archival-pigment prints to sell and display in galleries.
“My first career was architecture, and if you think about it the way I am presenting the aircraft is really like architectural drawings,” said Milstein in a 2007 interview. Some describe the photographs as “clinical.” Russo has compared them to a collection of pinned butterflies. But, as Boyne puts it, Milstein allows the planes “to stand alone in all their stark, efficient, minimalist beauty.” Keyword: beauty. The way that Milstein presents the airplanes, they are eye candy for both aviation fanatics and art aficionados. His photographs cast airplanes as both marvels of engineering and masterpieces of art.
* For more of Milstein’s photographs, see Air & Space magazine’s story, “The Jet as Art.”
November 22, 2011
Plymouth Rock, located on the shore of Plymouth Harbor in Massachusetts, is reputed to be the very spot where William Bradford, an early governor of Plymouth colony, and other Pilgrims first set foot on land in 1620. Yet, there is no mention of the granite stone in the two surviving firsthand accounts of the founding of the colony—Bradford’s famous manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation and Edward Winslow’s writings published in a document called “Mourt’s Relation.”
In fact, the rock went unidentified for 121 years. It wasn’t until 1741, when a wharf was to be built over it, that 94-year-old Thomas Faunce, a town record keeper and the son of a pilgrim who arrived in Plymouth in 1623, reported the rock’s significance. Ever since, Plymouth Rock has been an object of reverence, as a symbol of the founding of a new nation.
“It is important because of what people have turned it into,” says Larry Bird, a curator in the National Museum of American History’s division of political history. “To possess a piece of it is to look at a historical moment in terms of image making and imagery. We choose these moments, and these things become invested with values that continue to speak to us today.”
In 1774, Plymouth Rock was split, horizontally, into two pieces. “Like a bagel,” writes John McPhee in “Travels of the Rock,” a story that appeared in the New Yorker in 1990. (Bird considers McPhee’s story one of the best pieces written about the rock.) “There were those who feared and those who hoped that the break in the rock portended an irreversible rupture between England and the American colonies,” writes McPhee. Actually, the upper half was transported to the town square where it was used to rile up New Englanders to want to gain independence from the Mother Country. Meanwhile, over the course of the next century, people, wanting a stake in the history, slowly chipped away at the half of the rock still on shore.
The National Museum of American History has two pieces of Plymouth Rock in its collection. “The one that I like is painted with a little affidavit by Lewis Bradford, who is a descendent of William Bradford,” says Bird. “He paints on it the exact moment of time in which he chips it from the ‘Mother Rock.’” The label on the small, four-inch by two-inch rock reads, “Broken from the Mother Rock by Mr. Lewis Bradford on Tues. 28th of Dec. 1850 4 1/2 o’clock p.m.” The artifact was donated to the museum in 1911 by the family of Gustavus Vasa Fox, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
Much larger, weighing in at 100 pounds, the second hunk of rock was once part of a 400-pound portion owned by the Plymouth Antiquarian Society. The organization came into possession of the rock in the 1920s; it bought the Sandwich Street Harlow House, where the stone was being used as a doorstep. The society ended up breaking the 400-pound rock into three pieces, and the museum acquired one in 1985.
“Like a Lincoln fence rail piece, a tiny piece of Mount Vernon or even a piece of the Bastille, Plymouth Rock is part of who we are as a people,” says Bird.
Bird plans to feature the piece of Plymouth Rock chipped by Lewis Bradford in his forthcoming book, The Triumphal Souvenir. The book and its coinciding exhibition, planned for 2013, highlight personal mementos of the historical past.
November 14, 2011
Nearly 30 years ago, a caterer named Martha Stewart published her first cookbook, Entertaining. The bestseller became the template for hosting get-togethers of all kinds—cocktail parties to clam bakes, omelette brunches to Chinese banquets, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas open houses, even at-home weddings. Needless to say, it launched Stewart’s career.
This Thursday night (7 p.m. at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.), Marc Pachter, interim director of the National Museum of American History, will be sitting down with the author, entrepreneur, magazine publisher, television host and all-around doyenne of domesticity to discuss the evolution of American domestic culture and her profound impact on it. The program, hosted by the Smithsonian Associates, is in timing with the recent release of her latest book, Martha’s Entertaining: A Year of Celebrations—an update to her inaugural book. I spoke with Stewart, by phone, in advance of the event:
First of all, how would you describe the role you have played in the evolution of American domestic culture?
It wasn’t planned, but what’s happened, what actually occurred, was that the role of the champion of the homekeeping arts became mine. And, pleasantly, so. It has been wonderful for the last 30 years to be considered a teacher, a mentor and an important force in promoting the domestic arts as an art form rather than a chore.
What is the most dramatic way in which domestic culture has changed in America in the last three decades?
I think really what’s happened is that so many people are taking pride in their homes, more pride than they had before. I think what we have done is make the home more important in terms of a place where you can express yourself personally, where you can entertain, where you can decorate, where you can garden with style and with knowledge. And, we have been providers of the style, of the knowledge, of the information and the inspiration.
You have had such a huge impact on domestic culture—to the point that if someone is really crafty and skilled at entertaining and decorating, she is often called a “Martha Stewart.” To you, what does it mean to be a “Martha Stewart?”
Well, it means someone who is interested in actually enjoying life in a more intellectual way. Intellectual, not hoighty-toighty, but in a celebratory way.
In your new book Martha’s Entertaining, you have a section devoted to breakfast trays. And, you admit that the idea of breakfast served in bed is old fashioned. But, I wonder, are there any other domestic traditions you mourn the loss of?
There are kind of a lot of them. One of them is the family meal. Sitting down at the table for the family dinner every night has really become a thing of the past. Most homes do not have that. I think people don’t even realize how good it was. We always sat down. There were eight of us, and we sat down. It took awhile. It took 18 years for there to be eight of us. My mom had babies over a period of 18 years. But when we all sat down, we talked. We had a conversation. The parents actually led the conversation. And, I don’t remember it being anything but a pleasant experience. I am sure there were arguments and stuff, but I don’t remember it as anything but interesting. That doesn’t exist anymore, because of school schedules, work schedules, travel schedules, sports schedules. Sports teams and the avid nature of high school sports really kind of took away from all of that.
When does sticking to tradition become a bad thing?
If it becomes boring. If it becomes rote. If it becomes totally unchanged. I mean, you have to evolve. Just as technology has evolved, traditions evolve. I think when you look through the pages of the new entertaining book, you can see big elements of change in my style. I certainly change from year to year over the 30 years. My Christmas now looks pretty different from what it used to look like, but there are still inklings of the old traditions within the new.
In your new book, you say, “entertaining guests is not really about ‘shortcuts.’” But pulling off a multi-course meal or a cocktail party requires a certain level of efficiency. As a career woman, isn’t there a shortcut that you would endorse?
Oh, I mean, you learn the shortcuts along the way. I used to bake all my bread. I don’t bake my bread anymore, unless I am trying out bread recipes. I know where to get the very, very best breads. I also am able to, thank heavens, have help now. When I wrote the first Entertaining book, I didn’t have any help. Now, I have much more help.
At the event, Martha Stewart will also be giving a presentation on entertaining in the home and signing copies of Martha’s Entertaining. For ticket information, visit the Smithsonian Associates’ website.