Current Issue
May 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

In the 1830s, as U.S. authorities began forcing Native Americans from their homelands, Catlin, of Pennsylvania, visited more than 50 tribes to paint their vanishing way of life. His nearly 500 portraits countered the common stereotypes, showing Indians as noble individuals. “I was luckily born in time to see these people in their native dignity and beauty and independence, and to be a living witness to the cruelties with which they have been treated worse than dogs,” he wrote. Catlin was criticized for hiring actors to perform Indian war dances to promote a touring gallery of his paintings, and fell deeply into debt. In 1879, seven years after his death, they were donated to the Smithsonian.

(Dan Winters)

Author Andrew Chaikin writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

The Apollo suits were blends of cutting-edge technology and Old World craftsmanship. Each suit was hand-built by seamstresses who had to be extraordinarily precise; a stitching error as small as 1/32 inch could mean the difference between a space-worthy suit and a reject. While most of the suit’s materials existed long before the Moon program, one was invented specifically for the job. After a spacecraft fire killed three Apollo astronauts during a ground test in 1967, NASA dictated the suits had to withstand temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The solution was a state-of-the-art fabric called Beta cloth, made of Teflon-coated glass microfibers, used for the suit’s outermost layer.

Read more of Chalkin's essay.

(Dan Winters)

Author Jerry Adler writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

This was the full flowering of the “Cambrian explosion,” the sudden appearance of a vast new panoply of life-forms—creeping, burrowing and swimming through seas that had held nothing like them in the previous three billion years. Cambrian fossils are known from many sites, but usually only from remains of shells and other hard parts; here, owing to some accident of geology, entire organisms were preserved with eyes, tissue and other soft parts visible.

Read more of Adler's essay.

(Dan Winters)

Using devices fashioned largely from household items, Franklin came up with a theory about positive and negative charges, posited that lightning was electrical in nature, invented the grounded lightning rod and even described the concept of the electrical battery. “I never was before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and my time,” the 41-year-old wrote to London scientist Peter Collinson in 1747. Such letters, published by the Royal Society a year before he was ever said to fly a kite in a thunderstorm, won Franklin international acclaim as America’s first accomplished scientist.

(Smithsonian Libraries, The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology)

Building a sawmill for John Sutter in Coloma, California, in 1848, James Marshall spotted something glittering in the American River. He picked up a small flake of metal and bit it to confirm his hunch: It was gold. The piece was sent to President James Polk, who told Congress that gold had been discovered in California. Nearly half a million people surged into what would become known as the Golden State, madly digging up as much as 12 million ounces of gold within five years and igniting the settlement of the West.

(Dan Winters)

In Philadelphia, a year before setting off on the 1804 journey with his close friend William Clark, Capt. Meriwether Lewis paid $5 for a silver-plated, mahogany-boxed, three-and-a-half-inch compass. It would guide them some 7,000 miles across the American West and help them produce one of the expedition’s greatest achievements: the first map depicting the true scope of the Rocky Mountains. The compass is one of the few surviving instruments from the famed Corps of Discovery, authorized by President Thomas Jefferson.

(Dan Winters)

In the early 1970s, astronomer Vera Rubin and colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science attached this instrument to several large telescopes to analyze distant spiral galaxies. What they found would change our understanding of the universe: The galaxies’ outer arms were rotating at velocities that should have made their stars fly away—but didn’t. The only explanation, Rubin decided, was that the galaxies contained far more mass than we could see. It was the strongest evidence yet for the existence of dark matter, now believed to make up 26.8 percent of all the stuff that exists.

(Dan Winters)

Saying he’d be “personally responsible” for the results, physician Jonas Salk in 1952 injected his polio virus vaccine into children already stricken with the disease, along with himself, his wife and three sons. He’d grown the virus in test tubes of monkey kidney cells, then killed it with formaldehyde. His feat—“Salk Polio Vaccine Proves Success; Millions Will Be Immunized Soon,” The New York Times declared—helped arrest the contagious paralytic disease, which had terrified the world for decades.

(Dan Winters)

In his 64 years of life, James Smithson, the French-born illegitimate son of a British duke, never set foot in America. But the Oxford-trained chemist, who died childless in 1829, stipulated that his fortune—11 boxes of gold sovereign coins, about $10.8 million today—be sent to the United States for “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” Congress debated creating a university or lab, but decided to found the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Today it comprises 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and nine research centers and holds some 137 million artifacts.

(Dan Winters)

When defense lawyer Clarence Darrow squared off against politician and fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, it was the theory of evolution that was contested. High-school teacher John T. Scopes was convicted after raising the theory in class—violating Tennessee state law. Although the state Supreme Court overturned his guilty verdict, Scopes left teaching for a profession grounded in evolutionary thinking: geology.

(Dan Winters)

Jackson’s 1982 solo album, Thriller—still the best-selling recording of all time—vaulted the King of Pop into the stratosphere of fame. Time magazine commissioned Warhol, the godfather of the Pop Art movement and ultimate arbiter of celebrity culture, to create a silk-screen-on-canvas portrait of Jackson in 1984. The result was an instant classic, but not everyone was a fan. “I finished the Michael Jackson cover,” Warhol said, adding, “I didn’t like it.” The cover, he felt, “should have had more blue. I gave them [the editors] some in the style of the [Jane, Peter and Henry] Fonda cover I did for Time once, but they wanted this style.”

((Cade Martin).Michael Jackson (detail) / © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
Author Miriam Pawel writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

Five decades ago, a 35-year-old Mexican-American applied for unemployment in Bakersfield, California, and argued with the caseworker about how to characterize his previous job. He rejected each option: clerk, playground supervisor, intermediate social worker with a second language. None, he said, described what he did. Community organizer was not part of the American lexicon in April 1962. Neither was the name Cesar Chavez. Only seven years later, he would be on the cover of Time magazine.

Read more of Pawel's essay. (Cade Martin )

After Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words by telephone to his assistant in the next room—“Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you”—in Boston in March 1876, he arranged a public demonstration. On November 26, he conversed from Boston with Watson in Salem, 16 miles away. The press was dazzled: “Professor Bell doubts not that he will ultimately be able to chat pleasantly with friends in Europe while sitting comfortably in his Boston home.”

(Cade Martin )

In 30 fireside chats—brief, plain-spoken radio addresses from the White House—President Roosevelt pioneered the use of a new medium to reassure the nation during the Great Depression. “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking....I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be,” he said in his first broadcast, March 12, 1933. His audience was vast: 90 percent of American households owned a radio.

(Cade Martin )

Returning from European battlefields, African-American veterans faced unrelenting discrimination. Hughes lashed out at the injustice: “It’s a lie! It’s a lie! Every word they said. / ....For here in the South there’s no votes and no right.” Published in a collection entitled The Negro Mother, the book immediately went through seven printings, selling, Hughes told a friend, “like reefers on 131st Street.”

(Cade Martin )
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

The simple black judicial robe has been a part of my life for nearly four decades. I first wore one in 1975 when I became a trial judge in Arizona. When I was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1981, I brought that same robe with me to Washington and wore it on my first day on the bench. Although I retired in 2006, I still wear a robe in my role as a “circuit-rider,” sitting frequently, as many retired justices do, on various federal Courts of Appeals across the country.

Read more of Justice O'Connor's essay. (Cade Martin )

By age 10, Armstrong mastered a tin horn purchased for a dime. He soon graduated to a cornet, belting out standards, including “Home, Sweet Home,” on the streets of New Orleans. But the boy who would become one of the founding fathers of jazz didn’t switch to his first trumpet until 1924. Soon, as biographer Laurence Bergreen reported, Armstrong—who could hit 200 high C’s in a row—was bringing down the house at the Roseland Ballroom. “Finally, I cut loose one night,” Armstrong recalled of a performance there. “All the boys just couldn’t play for watching me.” From the 1930s on, he preferred Selmer trumpets, including this one, made in France.

(Cade Martin )

When Nat Turner, leader of a slave uprising in Virginia, was captured after a manhunt, he was clasping this pocket-size Bible. The artifact, long held at a Southampton County courthouse, passed to descendants of Lavinia Francis, who survived when her slaveholding family was killed during the insurrection. Francis' descendants were among those who donated the Bible in 2012. “The Spirit appeared to me and said that I should fight against the Serpent,” Turner said before he was hanged.

(Cade Martin )

The Korean-born Paik’s 15- by 40-foot video-and-neon map of the United States incorporates 336 television monitors and pulses with footage from all 50 states and takes the viewer on an odyssey from Alaska to Hawaii. The father of video art, Paik (1932-2006) presided over a chaotic New York City studio crammed with wiring, switches and neon tubing that was once described as resembling a television repair shop three months behind schedule. The goal of his fanciful and iconoclastic artworks, he once said, was to subvert television, to “turn it inside out.”

(Cade Martin / Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (detail) / © Nam June Paik Estate)

Poet Mark Strand writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

When we look at photographs of authors, especially famous authors, we scan their faces, hoping to find some connection between the way they look and their work. We never find it, or at least I never have, because we don’t know if such a connection actually exists or whether we would recognize it if it did. A penetrating gaze, a goofy grin, even wild hair, could belong to an average person as well as to a genius. Even if we have numerous photographs of a single author, as we do of Whitman, it would be impossible to find that revealing feature or gesture that would establish the connection we seek.

Read more of Strand's essay. (Cade Martin )

In the mid-1870s, firearms manufacturer E. Remington & Sons, seeking to increase already soaring profits, diversified into an emerging technology: the typewriter.“I am trying to get the hang of this new-fangled writing machine,” said Mark Twain, who soon ditched the typewriter and reverted to his pen. He proved to be an exception: By 1910, total sales of typewriters in the United States reached two million annually.

(Cade Martin )

Launched on July 10, 1962, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first trans-Atlantic television signals, ushering in a new era of global communications. A special broadcast—carried by TV networks in the United States, Canada and Europe—showed live images of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, remarks by President John F. Kennedy, a baseball game and the French singer Yves Montand. Amid the rising tensions of the cold war, many viewed Telstar as a literal beacon of hope that, in the words of Pope John XXIII, would help “strengthen brotherhood among peoples.”

(Cade Martin )

This is one of the few extant prehistoric masks produced by the Southeast Woodlands, or Spiro, peoples of present-day Oklahoma, among the ancient Plains tribes who numbered 500,000 or so and ranged across grasslands from the Gulf of Mexico to central Canada. The red-cedar face, lacking a mouth hole for breathing and eye openings, likely wasn’t worn as a mask at all. It was undoubtedly a “highly ceremonial” object, says Tom Evans, a curator at the American Indian Museum. The piece may have been associated with a cult devoted to deer worship.

(Cade Martin )

When the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall on the basis of her race, a furor ensued. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes offered the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a venue, and on Sunday, April 9, 1939, she performed for 75,000 spectators, wearing her fur coat to ward off the chill of a windy, 50-degree day. “I could not run away from this situation,” Anderson recalled. “If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”

(Cade Martin )
The Andersons of Fort Wayne, Indiana, installed this 15- by 10- by 13-foot structure of double-hulled steel in their front yard—one of the 200,000 private shelters built in the 1950s and ’60s. Designed to hold a family for two weeks, such enclosures could save the “millions” of people “threatened by radioactive fallout” after an atomic bomb blast, the federal Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization stated in 1959. (Susuan Seubert)

The Al Qaeda attack of September 11, 2001, has left countless traces, but this twisted metal stairwell sign from the top of one of the Twin Towers has special poignance: a reminder of the 2,753 lives lost there as well as the 20,000 people who escaped, many led to safety through the stairways by heroic first responders. Donated by New York City police, the sign was found at Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, where much of the 1.5 million tons of debris was taken to be sorted and searched for human remains.

(Susuan Seubert)
Defenseman Bill Baker wore this jersey as a member of the U.S. team at the Games in Lake Placid. Made up of college or minor-league players, the team was not expected to win. But in a semifinal watched by millions the team shocked the top-ranked Soviets 4-3. The U.S. would go on to clinch gold in the finals, while the Soviets, who had won every Olympics after 1960, settled for silver. (Susuan Seubert)
The dark comedy “M*A*S*H” was set during the Korean conflict but aired while America was grappling with the war in Vietnam. “Funny was easy,” Larry Gelbert, the show’s first writer, recalled. “How not to trivialize human suffering by trying to be comic about it, that was the challenge.” This signpost marking the characters’ hometowns appeared on the show’s California set for its 11-year run, which ended with a 1983 finale seen by an unprecedented 125 million people. (Susan Seubert / Gift of Twentieth Century-Fox (through Robert B. Morin))
Illustrated by Hans Holbein the Younger, this map was based on narratives by Columbus, Vespucci and others. It depicts Earth as a sphere, in keeping with newly accepted ideas, although it shows the globe being turned by an angel wielding a crank. Cuba was a mainland, consistent with Columbus’ account, and the Americas were hugely underestimated—a mistake later corrected partly by explorers the map had encouraged. (Susan Seubert / Smithsonian Libraries. The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology)

Staff writer Abigail Tucker writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

So pandas have power over us, what University of Oxford scholars called “soft, cuddly power” in a recent journal article analyzing the political role of China’s ambassador bears. “What other countries see is this cute, cuddly creature, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” says Kathleen Buckingham, lead author of the paper, which appears in the latest issue of Environmental Practice. She adds, “From a Chinese perspective, sharing the care of such a precious animal strengthens the bonds that China has with its ‘inner circle’ of countries.”

Read more of Tucker's essay. (Susan Seubert)

The battleship Maine, in Cuba to protect American interests during the island’s revolt against Spain, blew up in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, killing three-quarters of the crew. The explosion may have been an accident, but the U. S. treated it as a hostile act and declared war on Spain. The “splendid little war” lasted only ten weeks and strategically expanded U.S. territory, adding Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. (Susuan Seubert)

Author Tony Horwitz writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

Pocahontas is the most myth-encrusted figure in early America, a romantic “princess” who saves John Smith and the struggling Jamestown colony. But this fairy tale, familiar to millions today from storybook and film, bears little resemblance to the extraordinary young woman who crossed cultures and oceans in her brief and ultimately tragic life.

Read more of Horwitz's essay. (Susan Seubert)

Author A. Scott Berg writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:

With recent advancements in radio, newsreels with sound, and transmission of photographs, the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis was the first event to be shared globally in real time. And the impossibly photogenic Lindbergh was the original modern-media superstar—as recognizable in India as in Indiana. Overnight, his plane became the most well-known conveyance since Noah’s Ark.

Read more of Berg's essay. (Susan Seubert)

To record when a piece of mail was processed aboard ship, the Navy used wooden postmark stamps. This one bears an ominous date: Dec 6, 1941 PM. It was recovered from the battleship Oklahoma after it was hit by several torpedoes, listed to a 45-degree angle, capsized and sank in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Oklahoma lost 429 sailors and Marines, a third of its crew. (Susan Seubert)
This fabric and rubber mask was standard issue for every doughboy. The hose connected to a canister that held an air filter, and it was designed to protect the wearer against such toxic agents as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas, which were deployed by both sides in what has been called the “chemists’ war.” Poison gas killed 90,000 soldiers, prompting the Geneva Protocol of 1925, among the first international treaties banning chemical weapons in war. (Susuan Seubert)
In 1976, nine French wine experts in a blind taste test comparing French and California wine awarded first prize, to their own shock, to these two bottles of Napa wine. The so-called “Judgment of Paris” led to a boom in California wineries, from 330 in 1975 to 3,754 in 2012. “It put us squarely on the world map of great wine-producing regions,” says Robert Mondavi. (Susan Seubert)

101 Objects that Made America: America in the World

Pulled from the Smithsonian collections, these items range millennia, from pre-historic dinosaurs to the very first supercomputer

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus