August 28, 2012
As the 2012 presidential campaign gains steam with party conventions, round-the-clock television ads and the usual up-tick in party-affiliated rhetoric, it becomes necessary to remind ourselves of the timelessness of such divides. In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington warned against the dangers of political factions: “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
We have yet to heed his advice.
Political history curators Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein of the National Museum of American History have spent decades collecting the ephemera of our two party system, putting ideologies aside in the spirit of assembling the most valuable mementos for American history students of the future. Attending both conventions every four years, Bird and Rubenstein (known as “Harry and Larry”) preserve materials that best represent the atmosphere of the presidential campaigns, from the red, white and blue confetti that rains down at the end of speeches, to the dapper buttons of the candidates’ devotees.
In celebration of the work that Harry and Larry embark on every year, we’ve assembled a few tokens of presidential campaign memorabilia from the Smithsonian collections.
August 14, 2012
Are video games making us violent? Is all that screen time playing Angry Birds bad for us? Are we becoming lazy and inferior beings? Concerns about how we spend our leisure time are so 21st century, but an 1889 catalogue of Milton Bradley’s finest toys and games reveals the anxiety is rooted in history. Playing games has had a bum rap for generations and game makers had to fight “a deep-rooted prejudice against all such pastimes.”
Great minds like Thomas Jefferson worried about the harmful effects of such activities. The third president once mused:“Almost all these pursuits of chance [i.e., of human industry] produce something useful to society. But there are some which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards, dice, billiards, etc. And although the pursuit of them is a matter of natural right, yet society, perceiving the irresistible bent of some of its members to pursue them, and the ruin produced by them to the families depending on these individuals, consider it as a case of insanity, quoad hoc, step in to protect the family and the party himself, as in other cases of insanity, infancy, imbecility, etc., and suppress the pursuit altogether, and the natural right of following it.”
Gateway temptations have long been plentiful.
From the Smithsonian Libraries, a recently digitized collection of catalog materials (which also include medical journals waxing poetic on the location of the human soul), we present an amusing sampling:
But enough with children’s games, how is a lady to entertain? A further search in the collections reveals helpful game playing tips from the Chicago Corset Company, which in 1887 offered women a how-to for throwing the liveliest, most rocking affair of parlor and lawn games, wearing, of course, the company’s latest hot-seller the, “Health Preserving Corset.”
In its Handbook of Games and Pastimes, women were admonished for wearing the competitor’s corset. By doing so, “she is preparing herself to be a dumpy woman.” The new corset with elastic material promises to maintain “the dainty waist of the poets” without contributing to the “perishing of the muscles that support the frame.” Unlike men, who simply suffer from slovenly stooping, the text tells us, women lose height “by actual collapse.” Yikes!
Once instructed on the virtues of new corset models, the properly swaddled lady of leisure is free to play lawn tennis, learn to read palms and stage elaborate themed productions, such as: two young lovers trying to become intimate while a sleeping old woman waits nearby; Pocahontas and John Smith courting each other; or a soldier preparing for war. The guide offers step-by-step instructions for each role-playing game and, as a thoughtful reminder, the company advertises its Misses’ Corsets, to help “train your daughters to a healthy and symmetrical body.”
A game and corset for every age!
August 10, 2012
It was just 166 short years ago that President James K. Polk signed into law a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution. Founded at the bequest of the British mineralogist and chemist James Smithson, the Smithsonian was created for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” and we’ve been at it ever since. Over the years, the Institution has grown to 19 museums and the National Zoo. Here’s a look at how it got there:
April 4, 2012
Sarah Stierch, the Smithsonian Archives’ new Wikipedian-in-Residence, freely admits there are some drawbacks to crowd-sourcing an encyclopedia.
“When you have the world writing the world’s history, you’re going to have: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, General Custer, John F. Kennedy, maybe Jackie O,” she says. “And then you’re going to have ‘Seinfeld,’ Justin Bieber, The Hunger Games, and Lady Gaga. The end. That’s the history of the world.”
Since Wikipedia’s birth in 2001, the non-profit website has ballooned to almost 4 million articles in English and has versions in 283 languages. Readers write the articles, correct mistakes, and police the database for “vandalism” (by nominating frivolous or unreliable articles for deletion). But not all Wikipedia articles are created equal.
“Seinfeld episodes are some of the best, well-sourced articles out there,” Stierch says in exasperation. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a classic American television show, I love it. But then you have a stub [a short, unlinked article] for some of the most important female scientists or artists on Earth? What’s going on here?”
Stierch, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Archives, is working to change that. On March 30, shortly after Stierch started her residency, the Archives hosted “She Blinded Me With Science: Smithsonian Women in Science Edit-a-Thon.” Ten Wikipedians showed up, armed with laptops and ready to tackle the significant dearth of articles on notable female scientists. Smithsonian archivists stood by to help the Wikipedians sort through the Archives’ and Libraries’ resources, both online and offline. Each editor chose a name or two from a list compiled by the archivists and started digging through the records. Many articles had to be started from scratch. Stierch has made it her mission to get more women on Wikipedia, both as editors and as subjects.
“This is the most women I have ever seen at an edit-a-thon,” Stierch declared at the beginning of the four hour session, surveying the seven women in the room.
According to the last Wikimedia Foundation editors survey, only nine percent of Wikipedia editors are women, down from 13 percent in 2010.
“The majority of the editors are white males around 30 years old with higher education, a bachelors or masters degree,” Stierch says. “So, we’ve got a group of smart people, but just like history, it’s being written by middle-aged white guys.”
Before starting the residency with the Archives, Stierch had started coordinating edit-a-thons all over the world for Women’s History Month, both to encourage more women to get involved in Wikipedia and to improve the website’s coverage of women. At the same time, the Archives staff had been writing blog posts on women in the collections and updating their Women in Science Flickr set. When Stierch joined, they put their heads together and came up with the Women in Science Edit-a-Thon.
“One of the biggest complaints we get is that women who are involved in science don’t always have a great chance of having their articles saved on Wikipedia, because people don’t think they’re notable enough,” Stierch says. “But if you’re in the Smithsonian Archives, you’re notable. And I’m so happy that the Archives wants to work with us to document that.”
Among the edit-a-thon’s targeted scientists were Mary Agnes Chase, a botanist who funded her own research in South America at the turn of the 20th century because it was considered inappropriate for women to do field work, and Mary J. Rathburn, a Smithsonian zoologist from the same time period who described over a thousand new species and subspecies of crustaceans.
Midway through the edit-a-thon, Stierch tweeted, “We’ve already had numerous articles nominated for deletion. But we’ve saved them.”
This isn’t Stierch’s first stint at the Smithsonian; last year, she was a Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Archives of American Art, which contributed 285 images to Wikimedia Commons, the free image bank of Wikipedia. Now a Museum Studies graduate student at the George Washington University, Stierch sees a lot of overlap between Wikipedia and the Smithsonian’s mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. In spite of the need for more demographical diversity, this mission has already connected very different people with many varied interests.
“I have met everyone from people who have their PhDs, who are lawyers, who have books on the New York Times bestseller list, who are jazz musicians, and punk rockers with mohawks,” Stierch says of the Wikipedian community. As Wikipedian-in-Residence, Stierch connects these tech-savvy Wikipedians, who need more resources, with Smithsonian archivists, who are eager to disseminate their vast stores of information to a wider audience (Wikipedia has an estimated readership of 365 million people).
“So many people who aren’t involved in the museum feel distant from the curators and the archivists,” she says, waving toward the Edit-a-Thon “war room.” “Knowing they’re all hanging out in the same room over there makes me very happy.”
March 21, 2012
Each March, the Smithsonian Institution Archives celebrates Women’s History Month by posting historical photographs of female scientists, science journalists and engineers to a Flickr Commons album. Taken from the 191os to 1960s, the portraits capture many women who were pioneers in their fields. But for a number of the photographs, however, there is little in terms of caption information identifying the women.
The women are pictured at their desks with microscopes, botanical illustrations or jarred specimens; standing at chalkboards displaying graphs and equations; and in labs tending to test tubes, beakers and petri dishes. A few are scraping away at archaeological sites.
“There are a lot of firsts,” says supervisory archivist Tammy Peters of the photos that are identified. “First woman to get a PhD in geology, or first woman to get this particular degree.”
The images come from a cache of records from a news organization called Science Service. Founded in 1921, Science Service popularized and disseminated scientific information. (It is now called the Society for Science & the Public.) ”It was kind of at the forefront of putting information about these women out there,” says Peters.
But with so many of the photos lacking identification, the Smithsonian Institution Archives decided it would reach out to the public for help in identifying and researching the scientists. Each March, a handful of largely unidentified portraits are posted to the Archives’ Flickr site.
“I was a little skeptical at first about what we could achieve through crowd-sourcing,” says Peters, “but we had really great success.” According to the archivist, the first real “OMG moment” was sparked by a photograph (above) posted in March 2009. In it, a young woman with a black bob, eyes deadlocked on the camera, sat at a desk, pen in hand. She was identified simply as “E.S. Goodwin.”
Thanks to the detective work of Flickr users, bits and pieces surfaced—first, her wedding announcement and then a high school yearbook photo. The woman was positively identified as Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin, an artist based in Washington, D.C. who had attended the Corcoran School of Art in the 1920s. Given that her portrait was in the Science Service files, the archives guessed that Goodwin was a scientific illustrator.
Then, came a surprise. Linda Goodwin Eisenstadt posted a comment: “This is my grandmother.” Eisenstadt was able to fill in many of the gaps in Goodwin’s life story. She lived from 1902 to 1980, and was, in fact, an illustrator for Science Service. In the 1920s, she drew cartoonographs, which comically illustrated political, social and economic statistics.
Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, a research associate at the archives, compared drawings Eisenstadt provided to others in the Smithsonian collections and ultimately found 38 unsigned cartoonographs that she could comfortably attribute to Goodwin.
“This is still is one of my favourite ‘stories’ on Flickr,” wrote Flickr user Brenda Anderson.
Of the 15 photographs of scientists the archives posted this month, Peters has strong leads on eight. She was particularly curious about Bertha Pallan, an “expedition secretary” shown holding atlatl darts (right).
“Certain images are going to attract your attention. This was one of them,” says Peters. “It is a stunning picture.” So far, Flickr users have reported that Pallan grew up in Southern California in the early 1900s. She married three times; her third husband was Oscar Cody, or “Iron Eyes Cody,” an actor who played Indian roles in numerous 20th-Century American films. Most significantly, Pallan has been referred to as the first female Native American archaeologist. She was secretary for an expedition of the Gypsum Cave in Nevada, when this photograph was taken.
Perhaps you know more.
Browse through this year’s additions.