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

Shaylyn Esposito

Wild America

Author David Sibley writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
As a young man John James Audubon was obsessed with birds, and he had a vision for a completely different kind of book. He would paint birds as he saw them in the wild "alive and moving," and paint every species actual size. He travelled the U.S Frontier on foot and horseback seeking birds of every species known to science. He wrote of his time in Kentucky, around 1810, "I shot, I drew, I looked on nature only; my days were happy beyond human conception, and beyond this I really cared not." As Jonathan Rosen points out in The Life of the Skies, these paintings promoted a romantic vision of the wilderness of the New World, to be viewed by people who would never see these birds in real life. Perhaps that is one reason Audubon found more success in England than in the young United States, and why his work still holds its appeal today, as the wilderness he knew and loved recedes further into the past.
Read more of Sibley's essay. Mark Laita
Author David Mamet writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
The great Mari Sandoz, historian and novelist of the Plains, called the buffalo the Indians’ “chief commissary.” We Americans today are captivated by the still living survival of that primeval nomad life. Or say, better, perhaps, by our fantasy of such.
Read more of Mamet's essay. Mark Laita
Excavated from Nevada’s Lovelock Cave in 1924, more than a decade after two guano miners reported finding artifacts at the site, this strikingly contemporary decoy, made of rush and feathers, was found near human bones, woven baskets and blankets made of rodent skin. The cave served as seasonal storage for an unnamed tribe of hunters and gatherers, who, two millennia before European settlement, thrived in then-marshy land, bagging waterfowl with spears or nets. Mark Laita
Unique to this continent, the American bald eagle first served as an official national symbol in 1782 on a seal approved by the Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin, who’d helped design a seal that was rejected, said he would have preferred a turkey, calling the eagle a “coward” with “bad moral character” largely because it steals food from other birds. Tioga, a 15-year-old at the National Zoo, can’t fly—he had a fractured shoulder when found as a fledgling; he eats hand-delivered rats, fish and chicken legs. Mark Laita
This six-foot slab shows 620 annual rings, so we know that the California tree it came from started life before Christopher Columbus arrived in America. Some have lived more than 2,000 years, making redwoods among the world’s oldest living things. They have been felled to make “bats, barns, bridges, bungalows,” one alliterative botanist wrote, as well as “porches, piles, pails, pencils, pillars, paving-blocks, pipe lines.” Today, about three-quarters of ancient coast redwood forest is protected from logging. Mark Laita
They weren’t the first dinosaur remains found in the United States, but the fossils at Como Bluff in Wyoming—a site rail workers happened upon in 1877—were so spectacular they set off a dinosaur obsession, with natural history museums everywhere eager to score some. This stegosaurus cast is based on bones collected at the site in 1887 by men working for Yale geologist Othniel Charles Marsh. When Marsh described the first stegosaurus a decade earlier, from the same Late Jurassic rock formation, he called it “one of the most remarkable animals yet discovered.” Mark Laita
Once, passenger pigeons filled the skies—“an almost inconceivable multitude,” wrote an ornithologist who in the early 1800s calculated that a Kentucky flock held more than two billion. Then houses replaced habitats, and people killed the birds en masse, baking them in pigeon pies. The Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha spent her life, offered a $1,000 reward for a mate, but she died alone, in 1914, and was shipped on ice to the Smithsonian, the last of her species. But new hope is on the wing: Geneticists say they might be able to bring the passenger pigeon back in a feat of “de-extinction.” Mark Laita
Author Tim Cahill writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Some have said I wasn’t there. When a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell made the first known descent through the Grand Canyon in 1869, from the Green River Station in Wyoming nearly 1,000 miles down to the Virgin River, it was described as the last heroic feat of exploration in the United States, the one that, as Wallace Stegner says, filled in the “great blank spaces” on the map. Powell gathered a party of nine men, mostly former soldiers, and had four stout wooden boats shipped out from Chicago by rail.
Read more of Cahill's essay. Mark Laita
Inspired by sketches he made in the West, Albert Bierstadt painted Among the Sierra Nevada, California while in Rome. Born in Germany and raised in Massachusetts, he turned to oils at age 23 and became famous for idealized landscapes, many of which aggrandized the unspoiled American frontier and encouraged people to think of it as a kind of Eden. “We exaggerate, we paint the attitudes that appeal most forcibly to the eye,” he once said, “the attitudes that the eye will choose and hold the longest.” Mark Laita


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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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


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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.” Michael Jackson (detail) / © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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
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
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
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


The U.S. Army's UH-1 helicopter, better known as the "Huey," flew more than seven million flight hours between October 1966 and December 1975. Include the Huey Cobra model, and the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association estimates that the Huey had more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare.

The UH-1 “sprang from the cold, muddy battlefields of the Korean War, where the original M*A*S*H helicopter, the Bell 47, recovered thousands of wounded soldiers and delivered them straight to critical care units,” writes David Hanselman in the National Air and Space Museum's collection notes for this fabled aircraft. In 1954, when the U.S. Army launched a design competition for a new medical evacuation helicopter, Bell Helicopter Company was expected to compete for the contract since their -47 had performed so well in Korea.

According to the diaries of Bell engineer Bartram Kelley, who designed the Huey, the Army wanted a helicopter that could carry a payload of 800 pounds, with a top speed of 131 knots and a maximum endurance of 2.7 hours. The requirements called for a pilot and medical attendant to be able to take off from an unprepared area, day or night, and land at a pre-determined destination on an unprepared area. There they would pick up two litter patients and return to the point of departure.

The Army was impressed enough with Bell’s XH-40 prototype to sign a contract for 200 medevac helicopters, plus an additional 100 to use as trainers to teach pilots to fly at night and in bad weather. And so began the saga of the Huey, which became a familiar sight in the sky for an entire generation of soldiers.

See the gallery above to learn more about the Bell UH-1’s history. All photographs are part of the Lt. Col. S.F. Watson (U.S. Army) Collection at the National Air and Space Museum.

Above: Two Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters in flight over Vietnam, circa late 1960s/early 1970s. Lt. Col. S.F. Watson (U.S. Army) Collection/NASM.
Author Mark Bowden writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Though unmanned, remote-controlled drones had been used in times of war since World War II, they were revolutionized in 1995. The Gnat, developed by the San Diego defense contractor General Atomics, carried something new: video cameras. Soldiers had long coveted the ability to see over the next hill. Manned aircraft delivered that, from gas-filled balloons in the Civil War and from airplanes in the 20th century, but only until the pilot or his fuel was exhausted. Satellites provide an amazing panorama but they are expensive, few in number and not always overhead when needed. The Gnat gave commanders a 60-mile panorama from a platform that could stay airborne more or less permanently, with vehicles flown in 12-hour shifts. Later renamed the Predator, it quickly became the U.S. military's preferred surveillance tool.
Read more of Bowden's essay. Cade Martin
Author Stephen L. Carter writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Nowadays, we have trouble envisioning Lincoln without his top hat, but how he began wearing it remains unclear. Early in his political career, historians tell us, Lincoln probably chose the hat as a gimmick. In those days he was rarely seen without his stovepipe, the traditional seven- or even eight-inch-high hat that gentlemen had been wearing since early in the century. True, Lincoln’s version was often battered a bit, as if hard worn, an affectation perhaps intended to suit his frontier image.
Read more of Carter's essay. David Burnett
Ulysses S. Grant was poised to destroy Robert E. Lee’s army when the generals convened at Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. But Grant (in the leather-backed chair, writing at the table) asked only that Lee (in the other chair) have his men surrender their arms and go home—not to prison. Rather than disperse his army for guerrilla action, Lee accepted. The Civil War wasn’t quite over, but their restraint shaped the peace. David Burnett
In March 1863, a runaway slave named Gordon entered Union lines at Baton Rouge and joined the army. When military doctors discovered the scars of the overseer’s lash on his back, a photographer recorded the sight. Gordon marched off to a fate unknown, but his widely reproduced portrait—100,000 copies should be “scattered over the States,” said the New York Independent—helped persuade restive Northerners that the conflict was indeed about slavery. David Burnett
Gilbert Stuart’s great oil painting—commissioned by Pennsylvania Senator William Bingham and given to Britain’s Marquis of Lansdowne for his support of the American cause during the War of Independence—immortalized Washington’s famed resoluteness, painful dentures notwithstanding. Yet “it is notorious,” the founding father’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote, “that it was only by hard begging that Mrs. Bingham obtained the sittings” for Stuart, who painted only the face from life. He used stand-ins for the figure (whose “fleshiness” Custis decried). David Burnett
Fined $100 for voting in the 1872 presidential election, defiant Anthony—“I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” she told the judge—had co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which gave her this ivory-headed gavel; it became a talisman of the women’s movement. Before she died, in 1906, she told a friend “it seems so cruel” that her struggle for “a little liberty” would outlive her. Victory came in 1920, when the 19th Amendment granted women the vote. David Burnett
Five years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, romanticized in some accounts of the Plains Wars as Custer’s last stand, the Lakota chief Red Horse gave his version, describing the cavalry’s sudden attack—and the Indians’ fierce counter. Custer’s men, Red Horse said, “became foolish,” pleading, “‘Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.’” The Sioux took none. But the victory was short-lived: Red Horse surrendered in 1877, and told his story confined on the Cheyenne River Reservation. David Burnett
On February 1, 1960, four African-American collegians sat at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were asked to leave. They refused. Thus Ezell A. Blair Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil and David L. Richmond launched the sit-in phase of the civil rights movement, which would integrate countless public spaces—including, six months later, the Woolworth’s counter. “Greensboro,” Taylor Branch wrote, “helped define the new decade.” David Burnett
It was a bit past 8 a.m. in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Survivors would recall the singing of cicadas being overtaken by the sound of an airplane. After the Enola Gay (named by Col. Paul Tibbets, its pilot, for his mother) dropped a five-ton atomic bomb on their city, very few would recall anything like an explosion, only a blinding flash or a sudden wave of pressure. Yet the blast and aftermath would leave 70,000 to 100,000 people dead. “It was devastating to take a look at it,” Tibbets would say. Japan, which had previously rejected a call to surrender, would do so soon after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9. David Burnett
Wilbur Wright saw the desire to fly as a legacy from the ancients “who, in their grueling travels over trackless lands...looked enviously on the birds.” On December 17, 1903, his brother and fellow high-school dropout Orville kept their biplane airborne for 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in what is generally recognized as the world’s first recorded, controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight. Their key innovation was a system for controlling pitch, yaw and roll; it remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft. David Burnett
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power,” psychologist William Moulton Marston wrote in 1943. He had already modeled a new archetype on his wife and fellow psychologist, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne, a homemaker who lived with the Marstons in a relationship that included shared children. Wonder Woman, a magic-lasso-toting dispenser of justice, broke the superhero glass ceiling in All Star Comics in December 1941. Smithsonian Libraries, The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology
The five-shot Colt Paterson was the first modern revolving pistol. Patented in 1836 and named for the New Jersey city where it was made, the gun had what would later be considered design flaws—the trigger, for example, remained hidden until the gun was cocked. But in 1844, the Texas Rangers found that the Paterson shifted the balance of power against their Comanche foes. David Burnett
Dolley Madison was born a Quaker, but, she once wrote to a cousin, “I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed.” When British troops sacked Washington in 1814, she organized White House staff and slaves to save documents, silver, china and a Gilbert Stuart copy of his monumental Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. But she couldn’t save the mansion itself. This charred timber, a remnant of the only time a foreign power occupied the nation’s capital, was discovered during a renovation more than 100 years later. David Burnett


Author Martha Stewart writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Isaac Merritt Singer's sewing machine was a vast improvement upon earlier versions, capable of 900 stitches a minute -at a time when the most nimble seamstress could sew about 40. Though the machine was originally designed for manufacturing, Singer saw its domestic potential and created a lighter weight version, which he hauled to country fairs, circuses and social gatherings, dazzling the womenfolk.
Read more of Martha Stewart's essay. Guy Billout
Author Charles C. Mann writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Clovis points are wholly distinctive. Chipped from jasper, chert, obsidian and other fine, brittle stone, they have a lance-shaped tip and (sometimes) wickedly sharp edges. Extending from the base toward the tips are shallow, concave grooves called “flutes” that may have helped the points be inserted into spear shafts. Typically about four inches long and a third of an inch thick, they were sleek and often beautifully made.
Read more of Mann's essay. Guy Billout
Eli Whitney’s hand-cranked machine could separate white cotton fiber from its sticky green seeds, processing 50 pounds of cotton a day, ten times as much as doing it by hand. Excited planters quickly seeded entire fields with the crop. As demand for raw cotton grew, more labor was needed for picking it, and slavery, which had been waning, made a cruel comeback; by 1810 the number of slaves had doubled. While Whitney’s design was a success, it was easily pirated. He spent all his profits from the cotton gin on lawsuits defending his patent. Guy Billout
In 1872, Levi Strauss, a merchant in San Francisco, partnered with a Nevada tailor to invent copper-riveted “waist overalls” of heavy brown cotton—a hit with gold miners. Then came shrinking, fading blue denim. Today Americans buy 450 million pairs of jeans a year; the global market may top $50 billion by 2018. “Jeans represent freedom; they signify democracy in fashion,” designer Giorgio Armani has said. Few adult American men could squeeze into this pair of Levi’s, one of the oldest known: The waist is 27.5 inches and the inseam 26 inches. Guy Billout
Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, began experimenting in their Los Angeles apartment with a homemade device—powered by a bicycle pump—that pressed thin sheets of plywood together with glue. First they developed a plywood leg splint for injured soldiers. Then they moved on to home furnishings, such as this signature chair, with its molded laminated plywood seat and back. Today the Eameses’ pieces are treasured, but the original Eames motto was egalitarian: “Create the best for the most for the least.” Guy Billout
Author Steven Levy writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
What distinguished Eniac from the others was that a working machine performing thousands of calculations a second could be easily reprogrammed for different tasks. It was a breathtaking enterprise. The original cost estimate of $150,000 would rise to $400,000. Weighing in at 30 tons, the U-shaped construct filled a 1,500-square-foot room. Its 40 cabinets, each of them nine feet high, were packed with 18,000 vacuum tubes, 10,000 capacitors, 6,000 switches and 1,500 relays. Looking at the consoles, observers could see a tangle of patch cords that reminded them of a telephone exchange.
Read more of Levy's essay. Guy Billout
On New Year’s Eve 1879, Thomas Edison lit 100 incandescent bulbs at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was a brilliant display of persistence. “Before I got through,” Edison said, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” His solution: a carbonized paper filament under a glass vacuum bulb. Edison also patented, among other things, the phonograph and the movie camera. Guy Billout
In 1888, George Eastman liberated photography from big devices that used cumbersome glass plates when he introduced a portable box camera preloaded with flexible film. It cost $25 and was easy: Simply pull a string, press a button and wind the film. Some 13,000 people bought the camera in its first year. "Through the ingenious and wonderful little instrument...," one magazine said at the time, "we are able to cry 'Eureka!'" Guy Billout
Samuel Morse unveiled this prototype at an 1837 exhibition. Seven years later, the first telegraph line—linking Washington, D.C. and Baltimore—became operational, and within 20 years wires criss-crossed the country. The invention led to the North’s victory in the Civil War, says historian Tom Wheeler: “Lincoln used the telegraph to put starch in the spine of his often all- too-timid generals and to propel his leadership vision to the front.” Guy Billout
When New Jersey railroad owner Robert Stevens wanted a new steam train in 1831, he ordered one from England. A steamboat mechanic assembled the parts, but the vehicle derailed easily, so he added an extra pair of front “guide wheels.” The innovation was a huge success, and the railroad bought 15 more locomotives, this time made in America with guide wheels. The John Bull launched the era of U.S. manufacturing prowess: By the end of the 1830s, America was exporting its engines around the world. Guy Billout
The first Ford Model T rolled out of a Detroit auto plant on October 1, 1908. Before long, Henry Ford’s mass-production techniques would make cars more and more affordable: Prices fell from $850 in 1908 to $260 by 1925. This 1913 “touring” edition could reach speeds of 45 miles per hour with gas mileage of 13 to 21 miles per gallon. “I loved that car more than any I have ever had,” John Steinbeck said of his Model T. “It understood me.” Guy Billout
The shuttle program, President Nixon said in 1972, would cause space travel to become routine. After the first space shuttle launched on April 12, 1981—exactly 20 years after the first human spaceflight­—the five-craft fleet collectively flew 542 million miles, greater than the average distance to Jupiter. Discovery, the busiest, carried the Hubble Space Telescope as well as John Glenn at 77. The shuttles, said the Economist, “threw space open as a place where ordinary men and women could not only live, work and fool about...but also routinely slip the bonds of time.” Guy Billout


Author Frank Deford writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Negro baseball leagues allowed African-Americans the chance to play the national pastime for pay (if not for much). The heyday of the Negro Leagues was the '30s, the cynosure of most seasons the East-West All-Star Game, which was usually played in Chicago at Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox. Indeed, in 1941, just before America entered the war, that fabled season when Ted Williams batted .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, the Negro League All-Star Game drew a crowd of more than 50,000 fans.
Read more of Deford's essay. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
Author William Least Heat-Moon writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
This ration ticket, this seeming inconsequential token of conquest and devastation, is the graphic expression of an 1883 act of Congress that furthered the appropriation of Indian lands west of the Missouri by moving tribal peoples onto assigned reservations, where, proclaims the act, “they may live after the manner of white men.” The reality was something else.
Read more of Heat-Moon's essay. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
For years scholars puzzled over the purpose of the cylindrical clay jars found at New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Then, in 2009, an anthropologist found traces of theobromine, a biomarker for cacao, inside the vessels. That discovery marked the first known use of cacao drinks north of the Mexican border, evidence of long-distance trading. The expensive beans were fermented, roasted, ground and then mixed with water and whipped into a froth. The Pueblo peoples, like the Mayans, may have sipped the chocolate drinks from the geometrically painted jars as part of an elite ritual. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
In 1942, some 120,000 Japanese-Americans—half of them children—were imprisoned in ten camps in the Western United States. Forty-nine-year-old Iku Tsuchiya carried this black metal suitcase when she was transported with her husband and four children from their flower farm in San Leandro, California, to the Topaz camp in Delta, Utah. The family—number 21519—was released in 1945. In 1988, Congress provided an official apology and $20,000 in reparations for each person who suffered internment. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
Blogger and journalist Andrew Sullivan writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
I first saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1989 in Washington, D.C. just as the epidemic was gathering pace. The overwhelming feeling was terror. I remember bumping into acquaintances on the patchworked landscape. “What’s going on?” I asked, lamely. “Oh, just looking for friends.” Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial not so far away, it cataloged names—names we knew, names we heard recited like a metronome over the scene. But these names weren’t organized in a single aesthetic design, crafted in the same font; they were brought to life separately, each representing a distinct human being, with an actual life and an untimely death.
Read more of Sullivan's essay. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
When banking failures made hard currency scarce, Americans turned to scrip—as much as $1 billion of the temporary money circulated during the crisis. Most was printed on paper, but some towns used whatever was at hand, even old tires and fish skin. In Pismo Beach, California, the chamber of commerce and 11 local businesses traded the plentiful pismo clamshell. This 50-cent piece, issued by Restwell Cabins, bears the motto “In God We Trust” and was numbered and signed in India ink. Other shells fetched more “clams”—up to $20. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
Author Ian Frazier writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
This plow is one of the Smithsonian’s most prized objects, and the unpretentious way it is displayed can be ascribed to an unusually strong love of Democracy in the vicinity. The genius of blacksmith Deere’s innovation was to discard the cast-iron moldboard—the blade—from the traditional plow of the rocky farm fields of the East, and replace it with a dynamically curved moldboard of wrought iron or steel.
Read more of Frazier's essay. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
In 1827, wheelwright Lewis S. Downing and coach builder J. Stephen Abbot debuted the luxury ride of their time. Crafted from white oak and ash, the sturdy stagecoaches were brightly painted, lined with leather and damask, and could be crammed with mailbags and as many as 20 people. A novel suspension smoothed the way for horses and passengers alike—“an imposing cradle on wheels,” Mark Twain called the conveyance. More than 1,700 were built before the automobile made them obsolete in the early 20th century. Max Aguilera-Hellweg
For six months in 1964, novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters traveled cross-country in a Day-Glo-painted 1939 school bus dubbed Furthur, performing street theater and experimenting with LSD. Tom Wolfe credited the Pranksters with the birth of acid rock, the rise of the Grateful Dead and the “electro-pastels” of ’60s poster art. Kesey decided to donate the bus to the Smithsonian in 1992 but found a family of foxes living inside. So he opted for this plywood sign instead: The collage of paint, ads and text promoted the Pranksters and posed their signature question: “Can you pass the Acid Test?” Max Aguilera-Hellweg
During a six-week leave from the Merchant Marine in World War II, Woody Guthrie recorded an astonishing 167 songs. This version of his pointed response to what he viewed as the complacency of “God Bless America” contained a radical, anti-capitalism verse that was later cut: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property.” The song was not a hit until counterculture folk artists­—including Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary—picked it up in the 1960s. But Guthrie, in deteriorating health, never really knew how famous his song became. Max Aguilera-Hellweg


Author Sloane Crosley writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
But 20 years later, is Barbie really such a menace to society? Or is she an institution of plastic Americana, a blank slate on which we’ve superimposed half the population’s challenges? As an American woman (a child of the mid-’80s, I was weaned on Barbie and the Rockers), I have officially decided to cut Barbie a little slack. Terrible makeup and all.
Read more of Crosley's essay. Mark Ulriksen / Barbie and associated trademarks and dress are owned by and used under license from Mattel, Inc. © 2013 Mattel, Inc. All rights reserved
Chuck Berry in the 1950s linked country-western guitar with rhythm and blues—and helped give rise to rock ’n’ roll. As songwriter, singer, “duckwalking” performer and propulsive guitarist—the twanging “School Day,” the stomping “No Particular Place to Go”—the St. Louis-born Berry appealed, importantly, to both black and white audiences in a segregated time. His 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode” was so epochal it went into outer space aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 as evidence of what humankind had been up to lately. Mark Ulriksen
Berlin, who immigrated to New York City from Russia at age 5 in 1893, grew up in extreme poverty after his father died. He had little access to education, including piano lessons. Self-taught, he picked out tunes on black keys only—limiting himself to the key of F sharp. He produced a dizzying string of hits —God Bless America to White Christmas—on specially constructed pianos with a lever system that transposed notes into any key. “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” Jerome Kern said of his fellow composer. Mark Ulriksen
One day while George Lucas was finishing production on American Graffiti, the sound designer, Walter Murch, called for “R2-D2”—film lingo for “Reel 2, Dialogue 2.” “R2-D2!” said Lucas, who was already writing Star Wars. “What a great name.” Some of the R2-D2s in the movie series were remote-controlled models. This one, from Return of the Jedi, was a costume worn by actor Kenny Baker. Mark Ulriksen / © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd
Dorothy’s magic shoes were silver in L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz, but the makers of the 1939 film made them red to exploit a new technology called Technicolor. (They also padded the soles, to muffle Judy Garland’s dance steps.) In 1989, jewelry company Harry Winston created a pair, using real rubies. Estimated value: $3 million—the equivalent of the movie’s production budget. Mark Ulriksen / Ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz used courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. / ™ & © Turner Entertainment Co.
Hunting in Mississippi in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt declined to shoot a bear that guides had tied to a tree. His gallantry inspired a political cartoon featuring TR and a wide-eyed cub, which inspired Brooklyn shopkeepers Morris and Rose Michtom to create a plush version, nicknamed Teddy. They started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company and made U.S. toy history. 1903, American History Museum
A presidential pardon inspired a million nurseries
Before Cassius Clay’s first heavyweight title fight, in 1964, a sportswriter was told to trace the quickest way to the hospital, the better to find Clay afterward. But he shocked champion Sonny Liston in six rounds and declared himself “king of the world.” As Muhammad Ali, he became the most divisive athlete of the 1960s—a champion, a Black Muslim, a conscientious objector in wartime. Later, he was beloved. “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” he told biographer David Remnick. “I had to show that to the world.” Mark Ulriksen
Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles (including 1996-97, when he wore this jersey), becoming a dominant global brand and turbocharging pro hoops. Fellow players spoke of his genius. Biographer David Halberstam noted that MJ had 4 percent body fat—half the average for a pro athlete. Sociologist Harry Edwards said that if he had to introduce an alien to “the epitome of human potential, creativity, perseverance and spirit,” he would take the alien to Jordan. The man, now 50, hasn’t played in the NBA for ten years, yet players of all ages still aspire to be like Mike. Mark Ulriksen
Author Jeff MacGregor writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
In America every car is a declaration of independence. The special genius of this car lies not in what it is, but in what it did. Richard Petty, “The King,” won the Firecracker 400 behind the wheel of this car on July 4, 1984, down in Daytona Beach, Florida. It was his 200th Nascar career victory, an achievement unmatched in stock-car racing history, and he did it on the nation’s birthday in front of Ronald Reagan, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Nascar’s most famous track. This car carried the sport’s greatest star to what may have been the sport’s greatest moment.
Read more of MacGregor's essay. Mark Ulriksen

America in the World

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
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
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)
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. Susan 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
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. Susan 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
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
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
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. 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
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


Whether the Pilgrims actually stepped on Plymouth Rock while disembarking from the Mayflower or not is up for debate. There are no mentions of the Rock in any contemporary historical accounts of the landing. References to the Rock as the "Landing Place of the Pilgrims" come from oral histories that were not recorded until over 100 years after the colonists' arrival. Photo credit: Erik Anestad
Author Diane McWhorter writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
Word of the bombing reached Martin Luther King in Atlanta as he was about to step up to the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit. “Dear God, why?” he had silently asked. Then he appealed to secular powers, writing President John F. Kennedy that unless “immediate federal steps are taken,” the “worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen” would come to pass in Alabama. His telegram to Gov. George Wallace charged, “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”
Read more of McWhorter's essay. Albert Watson
“He was one of the brightest, most resolute, determined-looking men that I have ever encountered,” Gen. Nelson A. Miles said of Geronimo after capturing the Apache war leader in 1886. He would spend his remaining years as a U.S. Army prisoner, though he appeared in public. He rode horseback in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, and asked the president to be returned to his homeland, to no avail. “I should have fought until I was the last man alive,” he reportedly said on his deathbed in 1909. Albert Watson
John Brown felt the first stirrings of his “Eternal war with Slavery” years before he led the bloody raid of the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal in 1859. At age 12, he had seen an enslaved boy beaten with iron shovels. In this daguerreotype—taken by Augustus Washington, the son of a former slave, in his studio in Hartford—Brown raises his right hand as if to dramatize his antislavery pledge. Albert Watson
In signing the Civil Rights Act, which banned major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic and religious minorities and women, President Johnson deployed 72 pens, providing plenty of keepsakes. One went to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said the new law would “bring practical relief to the Negro in the South, and give the Negro in the North a psychological boost that he sorely needs.” LBJ told the East Room crowd that the historic ceremony was occurring on his daughter Luci’s 17th birthday and exactly nine years after his heart attack in 1955. Albert Watson
“Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions,” the third president wrote of his cherished desk. “These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.” Jefferson was only 33 when he authored the Declaration at this mahogany laptop of his own design, which was constructed by his landlord. He used it for nearly 50 years. Albert Watson
Harriet Tubman gave credit to God for her success in bringing fugitive slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, she moved to Auburn, New York, where she could be found in church shouting and inspiring others to join in her praise. “She possessed such endurance, vitality and magnetism that I inquired and was informed it was Harriet Tubman—the ‘Moses of her people,’” said the minister of the AME Zion Church, where Tubman raised money and helped clothe needy families. Albert Watson
As shiny as aluminum foil, the four-engine Boeing 307, or Stratoliner, soared to 20,000 feet, flying above bad weather, and cruised at 220 mph, trimming the trip from the U.S. to Europe by two hours. The pressurized cabin was fitted with sleeper berths and reclining seats. Howard Hughes’ personal plane had a master bedroom, two bathrooms, galley and living room. Albert Watson
In need of funds after the French and Indian War, the British imposed new taxes on the colonies, including a penny for each sheet of newsprint, which would be required to bear this stamp. “Are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?” an angry Samuel Adams said in protest at such taxation without representation. And that wasn’t the only injustice, since the Crown could refuse newsprint to publications it disliked—censorship. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but it couldn’t undo the colonists’ fury. This proof is one of just 32 surviving originals from 1765. Albert Watson
Author Natalie Angier writes in our 101 Objects Special Issue:
The drug’s impact was immediate and immense. By 1962, well over one million American women were taking oral contraceptives. By 1964, the pill had become the most popular form of reversible birth control, a position it retains today both here and abroad. Yet some historians dispute the common notion that the pill kick-started the sexual revolution.
Read more of Angier's essay. Albert Watson
Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill made the giant flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, but Francis Scott Key made it famous, composing, on the morning of September 14, 1814, the lyrics that became the national anthem. Although Key’s words—some lifted from a poem he’d written in 1805—exalted American patriotism, they were set to a tune from the mother country: “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular English drinking song. Hugh Talman / NMAH, SI

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