February Anniversaries | History | Smithsonian

February Anniversaries

Momentous or Merely Memorable

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60 Years Ago
Attention Paid

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's drama of mashed illusions, opens on Broadway February 10, 1949, starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, the failing salesman whose product is himself. Written in just six weeks, the play is praised for Miller's deft use of flashbacks and his honest, sympathetic treatment of Loman's disintegration. "One of the finest dramas in the whole range of American theatre," says the New York Times. Salesman wins four Tony Awards and the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama and propels Miller to the forefront of American letters. He dies in 2005, age 89.

90 Years Ago
Grand Plan

President Woodrow Wilson signs an act making more than a million acres of Arizona's Grand Canyon a national park February 26, 1919. European American pioneers, tourists and prospectors began to stake out the area in the late 1880s, though evidence of human presence in the six million-year-old canyon goes back 12,000 years. Host today to five million people a year, it is the ninth most visited national park.

100 Years Ago
And Back Again

"Let the President press the button and Navy will do the rest any old time," says Rear Adm. Robley Evans at the culmination of a 14-month, 43,000-mile trip around the world by Theodore Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet." The 16 battleships and their escorts (above: in Sydney Harbor), sent as a peacetime show of naval power in the face of increased tension with Japan, return to Virginia February 22, 1909. The cruise, the largest of its kind yet attempted, results in improved U.S.-Japanese relations, better ship design—and a recommendation that Navy ships be painted gray.

100 Years Ago
Lifting Every Voice

Outraged by the 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois, an interracial group of social activists (below center: W.E.B. Du Bois) founds the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, February 12, 1909. Calling for "civil and political liberty" for African-Americans, the association holds conferences, publishes black writers, organizes protests and battles racial injustice in Congress and in court. NAACP challenges lead to, among other victories, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education. Today the group has half a million members in 50 states and abroad.

170 Years Ago
Digging It

American inventor William Otis, 25, patents the first steam shovel on February 24, 1839. He dies later that year of typhoid. Otis, a contractor, had designed the machine in 1835 (below: an 1841 version) while building a Massachusetts railroad. A steam-powered chain hoist raises and lowers the bucket, which can also be moved from side to side. Immigrant labor keeps hand-shoveling cheap for a time, but by the 1870s steam shovels are a force behind America's westward expansion and mining operations, and, in the early 1900s, the Panama Canal.

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