August 31, 2011
With Labor Day Weekend at hand, everyone’s talking about hitting the road. We’ve combed through Smithsonian’s collections to find the best vacation artifacts, from before the automobile to the interstate era.
1. Pullman Parlor Car: Back in 1888, before the car or airplane, taking a ride in a luxury train like this was the way to see America. This photo in the American History Museum‘s collection shows the plush carpeting, swivel chairs, and ornate chandeliers that made Pullman cars the standard for comfort in early train travel. The company’s founder, George Pullman, also innovated the world’s first sleeper bunks in railroad cars.
2. The Golden Gate, Yellowstone: When Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, it was still a remote hinterland, accessible only to rugged adventurers. Over the next several decades, roads were arduously carved out of the steep mountainsides, as shown in this 1891 oil painting by Grafton Tyler Brown. By the time the road trip had become a staple of American leisure time, in the 1950s, Yellowstone would be one of the country’s most popular parks and vacation destinations.
3. The Beach House Brochure: The Jersey Shore has been a tourist hot spot for some time. As the Smithsonian Libraries blog explains, The Beach House, in Sea Girt, N.J., provided ocean view rooms to visitors at the rate of $3 a day. This circa 1896 brochure details all the activities vacationers could enjoy during their stay, from croquet to archery.
4. Section of Route 66: The creation of the legendary Route 66 in the 1920s and 30s, from Chicago to Los Angeles, set the stage for the road trip to become a mainstream vacation activity of choice. While the “Mother Road” revolutionized interstate commerce, it also provided a conduit for ordinary Americans to explore the country at their own pace, epitomizing the freedom of the open road. A fifty-foot concrete slice of it, poured in 1932, was donated to the American History Museum in 2000.
5. 1934 Trav-L-Coach House Trailer: House trailers, the precursors to today’s RVs, emerged in the same decades as the country’s first highways as a means for road trippers to travel in comfort, visit less developed areas, and save on lodging. This trailer was used by the Cate family of Lakeport, New Hampshire for their seasonal visits to Maine as well as occasional road trips to Florida and Vermont. The cozy wooden trailer was equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, and closets–but passengers would have had to venture outside to use a bathroom.
6. 1955 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon: Ever wonder why so many station wagons are covered with imitation wood? Many of the “woodies,” like this 1955 Ford , were made of steel but designed to resemble their earlier ancestors, which had evolved from the small wooden buses used to ferry affluent passengers to rural estates and country clubs. The Harders, a family from California, used this station wagon to visit National Parks, with the rear cargo area serving as a playpen for the children during downtime.
August 24, 2011
The NFL’s lockout is over, the preseason is in full swing, and the regular season is set to kick off on September 8th. As we celebrate the return of football to America’s stadiums and airwaves, it seems timely to point out that one of the country’s greatest stores of football artifacts is held within the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. From relics of the sport’s dawn to modern-era tchotchkes, trace the evolution of the game via this unique collection.
Photos from early Princeton team: The early 1900s were an era in which football’s rules were still being debated and the game was just entering the national consciousness. This grainy set of photos shows Princeton’s team trying out the newly invented forward pass, among other innovations, in leather helmets and striped sweaters.
Red Grange etching: Grange was one of the game’s first superstars. At a time when the NFL lacked the credibility of college football, Grange’s 1925 signing with the Chicago Bears helped solidify the floundering league–and the crowds that gathered to watch him play may have well saved several franchises. This 1928 etching by Henry Farre shows “The Galloping Ghost” emerging from a scrum and running towards the end zone at Soldier Field.
William Zorach Sculpture: Zorach, a Lithuanian-born sculptor, was renowned for bringing European avant-garde concepts to American modernism. In 1931, he turned his eye towards the gridiron, creating this sleek lineman on one knee, now part of the American Art Museum’s collection.
Ivory Soap Giveaway: Back in 1935, before football had become the national obsession it is today, NFL tickets were freebies and given away with soap. This Proctor & Gamble newspaper ad details how fans can get a free admission to see the Philadelphia Eagles play the Brooklyn Dodgers (there was a football team too) with the purchase of four bars of soap. The copy reads, “Cheer on your team! Tire yourself out! Come home and dive into an exhilarating Ivory bath.”
Joe Namath Yo-Yo: Not many professional athletes make it on to a Yo-Yo. But there are few figures who deserve it more than Namath. Most famous for his prophetic guarantee that his Jets would upset the Colts in Super Bowl III, “Broadway Joe” was one of the NFL’s first crossover stars, hawking pantyhose in commercials, popularizing the glamorous sideline fur coat look, and starring in several films and TV shows.
Roger Staubach Jersey: In 1973, fresh off their first Super Bowl win, the Dallas Cowboys were just coming to national prominence and would soon be known as “America’s Team.” Because of the supposed Cowboys curse–many believed they were unable to win while wearing their navy blue jerseys–Staubach wore a white #12 jersey for most of the season, leading the team to a 10-4 record.
NFL Lunchbox: The 1970s were a time of lunchboxes, and the box of choice for any school-going football fan was surely this one. With the NFC teams’ helmets arranged in formation on the front and the AFC’s on the back, the tote is simply a testament to old school face masks and nonpartisan fandom. Go football!
Super Bowl XIV Ball: In the waning days of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 70s dynasty, Terry Bradshaw took home his second consecutive Super Bowl MVP as his team defeated the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 with this ball. Held at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, the game still holds the record for Super Bowl attendance, with 103,985 fans packed into the stadium.
Jerry Smith AIDS Awareness Trading Card: As recently mentioned on the Around the Mall blog, the American History Museum is home to a set of trading cards produced in the early 90s to raise awareness of AIDS. Smith, a standout Redskins tight end during the 60s and 70s, became the first former pro athlete to succumb to AIDS when he passed away in 1986.
Monday Night Football Stamp: In 1999, as part of its “Celebrate the Century” series, the USPS paid homage to Monday Night Football’s impact on American culture with this commemorative stamp. At 33 cents, it can’t mail a letter anymore, but it does make for a nice tribute to ABC’s innovative decision in establishing this football institution.
Brett Favre Portrait: In 2001, before his scandals and serial unretirements, Favre was simply a quarterback at the top of his game. After posing for this unusual Rick Chapman photo, he went on to set nearly every career passing record, play in 297 straight games, and become one of the sport’s most iconic players.
August 17, 2011
There’s another baby boom at the National Zoo! This summer efforts at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, where Zoo researchers have long advanced their study of veterinary and reproductive sciences, have paid off. The Smithsonian’s reserve for endangered species welcomed the arrival of red pandas, scimitar-horned oryxes, tufted deer, clouded leopards and a white-naped crane. Take a closer look at these new bundles of joy.
1. Red Pandas
Born: June 5, 2011
Sex: Two Females
Mother: Low Mei
Born: June 17, 2011
Sex: Two Females
Parents: Shama and Tate
Red pandas resemble raccoons and are native to parts of China, the Himalayas and Myanmar. On June 5, Low Mei gave birth to two female cubs in her brand new facility at the SCBI. On June 17, three-year-old Shama also gave birth to two female cubs. Shama and her mate, Tate, live on the Asia Trail at the National Zoo. Animal keeper Jessica Kordell says “each cub means a chance for the species to survive.”
2. Tufted Deer
Born: July 23, 2011
Tufted deer are smaller than white-tailed deer and have brown coloring with white underparts, a gray head and very small antlers. On July 23, the 14-year-old tufted deer Marilyn gave birth to her fourth fawn at the Front Royal facility. (Say that ten times fast.) SCBI is currently working on a number of basic reproductive research projects related to the tufted deer, which is considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
Born: May 13, 2011
Parents: Jao Chu and Hannibal
Clouded leopards in the wild live throughout southeast Asia, in countries such as southern China, Taiwan and the Malaysian peninsula. At SCBI, Jao Chu gave birth to one female cub on May 13. As of July 25, the cub was weighing in at 3.6 pounds and had started eating meat. SCBI is at the forefront in developing new techniques for successful breeding, including hand-rearing cubs from birth and matching them with mates when young. Clouded leopards are currently listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN.
Born: May 6, 2011
Parents: Brenda and Eddie
White-naped cranes breed in China, Mongolia and Russia, and winter in southeast China, Japan and the Korean peninsula. Cranes Brenda and Eddie hatched their first chick on May 6. The chick, a male, is a result of natural breeding and is healthy according to its keepers. “Usually crane chicks are timid and always stay beside one of their parents when keepers are around, but this chick is bold and will often run ahead of its parents to meet the keeper delivering food to them,” says the Zoo’s Chris Crowe. White-naped cranes are currently listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN.
Born: June 12, June 18 and June 22, 2011
Sex: Three Males
Scimital-horned Oryxes are white with a red-brown chest and black facial markings. They have long, thin, curving horns that resemble a scimitar sword. The scimitar-horned oryxes at SCBI produced three male calves in June. The calves, born June 12, June 18 and June 22 are doing well, according to SCBI research physiologist Budhan Pukazhenthi. SCBI is a pioneer in artificial insemination techniques for the scimitar-horned oryx, and the center’s future goals for this species include establishing a genome resource bank to help their global genetic management.
Born: May 28, 2011
Six-year-old Amani gave birth to five cubs on May 28 at their SCBI facility. “We are very excited that Amani had such a large litter of cubs this time,” says cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier. “These cubs are very significant for the future of the population, and each birth gives us an opportunity to learn more about cheetah biology and how females raise their young.” This litter is particularly important to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) because this is the only litter of cheetahs born this year in a North American zoo.
Many of the newborns will not be on exhibit, but visitors can see clouded leopards, red pandas and a scimitar-horned oryx at the National Zoo in D.C.
August 10, 2011
Last week, I had one of those inner sanctum Smithsonian experiences. Cheryl Bright, manager of the National Invertebrate Collection, gave me and a few other journalists a behind-the-scenes tour of Pod 5 at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Also known as the “wet collections,” Pod 5 contains over 25 million biological specimens—some of which are the first of their species ever discovered—jarred and preserved in fluids.
The library of specimens, made famous by Dan Brown’s 2009 bestseller The Lost Symbol, is cold and damp, conditions that minimize the evaporation of the alcohol in the jars. One of Brown’s characters works at the Museum Support Center, and Brown based his description of the pod on a tour Bright gave him in April 2008. The novelist was pretty spot on when he wrote, “The massive room looked as if a mad scientist had taken over a Walmart and packed every aisle and shelf with specimen jars of all shapes and sizes.”
Bright, who has worked for the Smithsonian since 1978, guided us to the National Worm Collection. Who knew there was such a thing? The collection contains 15 different phyla, 15 classes, 23 orders and 405 families of worms. A worm, as far at the collection is concerned, she says, is “anything longer than it is wide that doesn’t have a backbone.”
Bright introduced us to some of her personal favorites. One by one, she took each worm out of its jar and laid it in her hand for us to see, and even pet. This week’s list features five of the weirdest worms in the collection:
1. Giant Amazon Leech – Haementeria ghilianii, or the giant Amazon leech, can certainly grow to giant proportions. At up to 18 inches long, it is the largest leech in the world. The species was thought to be extinct, from the 1890s until the 1970s, when two adults were collected in French Guiana. One ended up at the University of California-Berkeley. Grandma Moses, as she was named, produced more than 750 baby leeches in just three years. Scientists in the fields of medicine, neurology and natural history studied Grandma Moses’s breeding colony and published a total of 46 pieces of research. When the leech died, UC Berkeley decided that the National Worm Collection was a suitable resting place for her. In Bright’s hand, Grandma Moses was the shape of a cobra’s hood, wide in the center but tapered on either end.
2. Sea Mouse – The second critter Bright revealed was a sea mouse collected on July 23, 1935, off the coast of Washington State and the San Juan Islands. The worm was just about the width and length of her hand. Covered with bristly hair, it actually looked like a mouse. She explained how they live and burrow in the muddy sea floor. I pet the furry, wet thing and cringed a bit, before Bright flipped it over and showed us the familiar segmented body of the worm.
3. Scale Worm – Bright then pulled out what she called “another showstopper.” The pale scale worm was long and had a fringe along each side of it. But its wildest feature had to be its jaws. Unlike most worms, which have internal jaws, this one had a head with visible teeth. Bright joked that while normally you fish with worms as bait, the best way to lure one of these ocean-dwelling worms is to actually put a fish on a hook and dangle it down in the crevices where the worm lives.
4. Blood Worm – Bright handled a brown, curly blood worm and pointed out how at one end, it had four internal jaws. The jaws just looked like four holes, almost like in a button. Compared to the others she had shown us, this one looked more like your average worm, just longer. But average worm it is not. This one is venomous. “It will not kill you,” says Bright, “But it feels worse than any bee sting.”
5. Giant Tube Worm – Giant tube worms, which live upwards of a mile deep in the ocean, have the girth of a quarter and can grow to about three feet long. There is one such worm in the National Worm Collection that was found in the Galapagos Rift in the late 1970s. Dr. Meredith Jones, a former curator at the National Museum of Natural History, first saw the giant worms while studying the rift in 1977 or 1978. He collected one, and it sat on his desk for a year and a half, says Bright, until he got the funding to do another dive. On that dive in 1979, he collected dozens of the animal, which helped him learn more about the deep-sea ecosystem of hydrothermal vents. In fact, through his own collecting and donations from other scientists, he amassed the largest and most diverse collection of marine worms from this environment.
August 3, 2011
With the impending release this Friday of the documentary summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I thought we should all be prepared in case we ever face chemically enhanced apes that attempt to take over our world. In the past on our site we’ve investigated zombies and kept a running record on robot technology, but the threat of ape rebellion had yet to be cataloged. The National Zoo’s Amanda Bania, a keeper who works with the great apes, told me that gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and the other ape species can best us in many ways, even without being injected with mysterious serums by James Franco. This week’s list deals with 5 ways that apes outdo humans:
1) Apes are 7 to 10 times stronger than humans of a comparable weight, or as Bania puts it: “Apes are insanely strong. In a one-on-one they have us beat hands-down.”
2) They have four hands. While not technically true, apes’ feet are basically like hands, according to Bania. Their lower appendages are adapted to help them climb trees with ease. Additionally, their hands have “a have a reduced thumb and their fingers are longer, which helps them grip when moving through the trees,” says Bania. “You couple that with strength and it’s not a fair fight in the trees.” While orangutans are the only arboreal ape, giving them the best climbing skills, they are also the most solitary, so good luck getting them into any sort of infantry regiment.
3) Their army will be led by a chimpanzee. Chimps are exceptionally smart, which makes sense when you consider that they (and the more mild-mannered bonobos) are the primates most closely related to us (a 98.76 percent match by DNA). Chimps have to navigate complicated social structures in their groups. One might think that the 800-pound gorilla would boss his way around a group, but they operate in a single-male monarchy, says Bania. He would have no experience leading an army of other male apes (unless he had a WAC-equivalent composed of of bonobos—their social groups are female-led).
4) Chimpanzees are battle-tested. Not only would the chimpanzees be leading the revolution, but they are known to go on “border patrols” and even kill opponents. “There is group-on-group warfare in chimp society where if they find other males in their territory, they will hunt them down and kill them, more often than not,” says Bania.
5) Even their stupidest members are still smart. The intelligence scale of primates is rather clear. With humans at the top, it then moves from chimps and bonobos to other great apes to lesser apes on down to monkeys and then prosimians such as lemurs, which are at the National Zoo and “aren’t the brightest.” But, Bania is quick to point out, “Duke University has a lot of cognitive research with lemurs that shows they can work on a computer and do sequencing.”
In the end, “If anyone was going to take over and give us a run for our money, it would be chimps,” says Bania. Fortunately, the National Zoo doesn’t have any so we here in D.C. are safe. For now.