August 4, 2009
August is National Inventors’ Month. To commemorate the occasion, the Lemelson Center for the study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History invited visitors over the weekend to help construct a record-breaking 8-foot-tall light bulb—made completely out of LEGO bricks.
Tricia Edwards, education specialist at the Lemelson Center, said it took two days, one LEGO master builder and about 300,000 LEGO bricks to complete the light bulb, a universal symbol of a “bright idea.”
Inventions come in all different sizes, shapes and makes, and not all inventions were planned or sought out. Edwards recalls a favorite story of discovery, the creation of the chocolate chip cookie.
In the 1930s, Ruth Graves Wakefield, who along with her husband, owned the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, was trying to make chocolate drop cookies, which legend says she was famous for. After realizing she didn’t have the right ingredients, she broke up a Nestles chocolate bar thinking the chocolate pieces would melt all the way through—of course the pieces stayed in chunks. In need of a dessert for the evening’s guests, Wakefield served the cookies anyway. Soon the scrumptious rounds were a must- have on every dessert tray.
The invention of the chocolate chip cookie makes every cookie lover happy.
What invention brightens up your day?
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a passion for stamp collecting, a hobby he had cherished since childhood. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum highlights his philatelic interests, and provides rare insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of his administration.
During his administration, Roosevelt played a critical role in much of the creation, design and promotion of some 200 stamps released during his time in office (1933-1945).
Whether celebrating Mother’s Day, Arctic exploration, National Parks or New Deal programs, FDR believed three cents of postage (the going rate back then) could deliver more than just a letter. Curator Cheryl Ganz explains FDR’s motives in the video above.
July 28, 2009
“Every now and again there is a first lady that just captures the public’s imagination,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the first ladies exhibition at the National Museum of American History.
“Jackie Kennedy was one of them.” Today marks what would have been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ 80th birthday.
Stopping by the museum to see the first ladies’ gowns and other artifacts has become a much-loved tradition among the museum’s frequent visitors. The collection on view contains a handful of Jackie’s belongings, including the classic one-shouldered, yellow gown that she wore to the administration’s first state dinner in 1961. Also on display are her three-strand costume pearls, acquired by the museum in 2005.
For many who venture to the exhibit, the visit is less about the items behind the glass and more about the women who once wore them, Graddy said. The American public has always had a certain awe and respect for the life of the first lady.
Not on view, but in the museum’s collection are two other Kennedy gowns, designed by OIeg Cassini, Kennedy’s in-house designer, as well as the Bergdorf Goodman gown she wore to the 1961 inaugural ball. The delicate nature of the materials in the first ladies’ dresses requires that the museum rotate its collections to assure their preservation for future generations.
Also a crowd pleaser: an interesting collection of Christmas cards that Jackie Kennedy designed to help raise funds for the construction of Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“The amazing fortitude, grace and dignity that Jackie showed during those times when she led the country in mourning for the President—people have very strong memories of that. I think seeing material that was Mrs. Kennedy’s in some way, makes them connect to that,” Graddy said.
July 15, 2009
For many, summertime is synonymous with a hot dog, a bleacher seat and the crack of a bat. But how about a history lesson? Ask author and columnist Fred Bowen, and he will tell you that history and baseball are the perfect pair—especially when writing for children.
Bowen’s books provide life lessons for kids and are based on the history behind some of the athletic world’s biggest all stars. The author’s weekly column, “The Score,” has been featured on WashingtonPost.com and the newspaper’s weekly KidsPost page since April 2000.
This Saturday, July 18, Bowen will be speaking and signing books at Nationals Family Baseball Day, a program sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, at the museum. (Kids, bring your autograph books because also rumored to be joining him are Nats players Josh Bard and Josh Willingham.)
You have a have a history degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from George Washington University. With credentials like that, why do you write for children?
A couple of things, one I have children. My son is now 25, and I would read sports books to him when he was much younger, and I wasn’t very impressed with them. A lot of the time they would be kind of silly. I knew how important sports were to me as a kid, and how they were important to him and so many kids. I was really aiming to make a better quality kids’ sports book. Actually, my history degree is good, because my books combine sports fiction and sports history. There’s always a chapter of sports history in the back of the book. My love of history has come in handy for the writing.
The column came about because the people at the [Washington] Post knew my books, and were interviewing people about what they should include in the KidsPost. They wanted me to write for them occasionally, but I said to them,“You’re trying to get kids to go from reading the Kid’s Post, to reading the regular newspaper. I’m a newspaper reader, and I love to read all kinds of columns, and you don’t have a columnist, I can be your columnist.” They asked me what would you write on. I pulled out a piece of paper that had about 30 ideas on it. One of the great things that I love to do with the column is to explain to kids the history of the games that they love.
Your books offer children life lessons as well as a little history. You’ve used baseball legends like Christy Mathewson, Ernie Banks and Rip Sewell. What’s your favorite baseball lore?
There are a lot of great baseball stories. In my book I write about Ted Williams. Williams was the last guy to hit .400. He hit .400 for pretty much the entire year, then right toward the end of the season his batting averaged dipped to .39955, which under the rules of baseball statistics you can round up to .400. Williams had two games left, a double header. His manager told him if he wanted to sit out the last two games and preserve his average, he could. Williams said no.
“If I’m not a .400 hitter all year, I don’t deserve it,” he said. He went six for eight with a home run. I always say to my editors, you know, it’s a good story if your hair stands up.
You seem to have as much of a passion for coaching sports as you do for writing about them. What’s the best advice you’ve ever given as a coach?
I remember one time my son was very disappointed that his team at basketball camp didn’t get into the championship game. He said, “I just want to play for a championship sometime.”
I said, “You better enjoy playing more than you enjoy winning, because you are going to do a lot more playing.” It’s the idea of really trying to enjoy the sports for what they are, instead of just winning.
What’s the best advice you were ever given by a coach?
I wrote a piece for my column about the first uniform I ever had. This guy named Mr. Upton had me be the bat boy, at age six, for my older brother’s baseball team, and I was doing it in my jeans and stuff. One day Upton came around to the park. I was there with my older brother and dad. Mrs. Upton had taken one of the team’s uniforms and made it my size. I couldn’t have been happier. It was right up there with getting married and having children. It’s those kinds of memories that I try to tap into once and awhile.
What’s your biggest all-star moment?
My own sports experience is that I played everything growing up. In high school I played golf and soccer. I never played anything in college, but I continued to play recreational basketball, softball and all that kind of stuff. The funny thing is, I was back in my hometown and I ran into a guy I played little league baseball with. We were talking about playing baseball and growing up. I mentioned I was never really that great of an athlete.
“Fred if you had been good, you wouldn’t have written the books,” my friend said.
A lot of really good sports books are written by observers, they are not really the participants. As a kid, I remember really loving the sports, but it was not a perfect relationship—the sports didn’t necessarily love me back. You had to get something or learn something besides unbroken triumph, so I think that if I had really been good at sports, I wouldn’t write the way that I do.
Why do you think your books are so popular with children?
I think kids really like sports. It’s a big part of their lives. Sometimes I’ll be in front of parents and they will say to the kids it’s just a game. Well the kids are thinking, it’s just school. They take the game pretty seriously. I think that the kids sense this isn’t a story about a dog playing left field or something, this guy is taking it just as serious as I do.
June 30, 2009
A 44-cent stamp can carry a letter to the other side of the world. But can a stamp get a man to Antarctica and back?
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought a special stamp might stoke public support for the expensive expedition. In fact, Roosevelt, who was an avid stamp collector, was so convinced of it, he even put pencil to paper and drew out a design for the stamp himself. The president’s sketch, all squiggles and dashes, eventually became the 3-cent Byrd Antarctic Expedition II stamp, commemorating Rear Admiral Richard Byrd’s exploration of the South Pole by plane.
In the fall of 1933, stamp makers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing presented FDR with four different designs for the Byrd stamp. Roosevelt rejected all of them. The president knew stamps. He began his own collection at the age of eight. And even as president, he managed to set aside at least 30-minutes of his day to tend his stamp albums. During his presidency, stamps became an important communication tool to impart hope and optimism.
“Studies had revealed the impact on color on mood,” explains Smithsonian curator Cheryl Ganz, “and FDR applied this knowledge in the colors he chose for stamps.” Over the course of his presidency FDR would sketch out designs for five other stamps and had a direct influence on the artwork of every stamp issued (more than 200) between 1933 and 1945.
FDR’s rough sketch for the 1933 3c Byrd Antarctic Expedition II Stamp will be on view through June 2010, along with a rotation of the five other FDR sketches and stamps in a new exhibit, “Delivering Hope: FDR and Stamps of the Great Depression,” at the National Postal Museum. Highlights include some of FDR’s prize pieces from his stamp collection, as well as a number of his specialty tools that the hobby called for and more original sketches by FDR.
I spoke with Ganz about FDR’s stamp collecting habits.
Was this the first time a president had ever become so engaged in the making of stamps?
Yes, there were other presidents who were stamp collectors. For example, Herbert Hoover was a stamp collector. But FDR was the first president who took such a strong, personal interest in the postage stamp. And as a result, his postmaster general James Farley made sure that FDR approved every single stamp design before it went into production. So, he’s the only president, that I know of, who has ever done that for every single stamp.
How did FDR’s enthusiasm for stamps change the world of stamps and stamp collecting?
FDR had an incredible impact on stamps in multiple ways. First of all, what images would be on stamps, as well as, the design of the stamps. Everything from streamlining or simplification of design, to a lightening of color of design, and to how a stamp design was arranged in its graphic. So his affect on stamps was multiple. And he used stamp designs to sell his programs and to reinforce his role as president during this difficult time of the Great Depression.
Was this a good thing for the presidency?
Yes I think it was. He used stamp collecting as his stress buster. So first of all, in a very, very difficult time, very much like today, when we had so many problems at once, and no easy answers. After a demanding day, FDR would spend a half hour every night before he went to bed working on his stamp collection to just clear his mind before he’d go to sleep. So his hobby was incredibly useful so that he remained fresh at all times. And it also helped him as a life long learner. When we went into World War II, just from collecting stamps he knew every island in the Pacific—its location, its size, its population, its strategic importance. So as a life long learner the stamps added to his understanding of many, many things.
What’s the most intriguing stamp story of the FDR period? Did he have a significant impact on philately (the study of stamps)?
I don’t know if I have one intriguing story, but here’s one that I really like. He would put things on stamps to help people understand the programs of the new deal. For example, there is a stamp with Boulder Dam on it —today we know it as Hoover Dam. If you look at this stamp showing this huge dam, the first thing you think of is, oh my goodness, it put a lot of people to work to build that dam. But then you realize. oh my goodness, it’s creating electricity. So there are factories and businesses all able to benefit from this, and oh my goodness, it created irrigation for farmers so it’s helping the farming business out, too. It was a regional economic stimulus package much like the Tennessee Valley Authority at that time. While that may not be the most intriguing stamp story, I think it’s a good example of stamps coming in your mail and reinforcing all the positive things that the government was doing for you at that time.