The List: The Smithsonian Institution Celebrates American Archives Month

From automobiles to beards, check out some of the more unusual artifacts in the Smithsonian Institution Archives

An 1894 exhibition of automobiles at what is now the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building
An 1894 exhibition of automobiles at what is now the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

In honor of American Archives Month, the Smithsonian Institution is hosting an Archives Fair on Friday, October 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ripley Center. There, meet archivists and see some of the ephemera and materials held within the Smithsonian collections in person. Bring your own family heirlooms and precious items to participate in the popular “Ask the Smithsonian” program and get tips on preserving them (free consultation appointments can be made online).

With Archives Month in mind, we bring you a list featuring items from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, home to pieces of the Smithsonian’s history from its 19th century birth through recent times. Here are a few of the archive’s offerings:

1. The Last Will and Testament of James Smithson: The Institution’s founder James Smithson was a wealthy British scientist who never set foot in America. He stipulated that, if his nephew died without a legitimate heir, the Smithson fortune would go towards creating an establishment for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Institution bears the name of this unlikely founder and strives to carry out his mission to this day.

2. 1894 Exhibit of Automobiles: This 19th-century photo looks like one of a historical exhibition. At the time, though, the display of automobiles on view in the Arts and Industries Building (now closed for renovation) must have looked like the future. Nearly a decade before the Ford Motor Company was even established, the cars on display were still a new-fangled invention with little practical application.

Hans Langseth and the world's longest beard. The beard is currently held at the Natural History Museum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

3. The Wright Brothers’ Letters to the Smithsonian: Before the Wright brothers became world famous for inventing the first successful airplane, they wrote to the Smithsonian asking for help. This set of six letters, beginning in 1899, asked for information on aeronautics and suggestions for relevant readings. The last letter, dated June 1903, came just six months before their legendary flight, December 3, 1903.

4. Letter Offering to Sell a Two-Legged Dog: In 1902, Frank Elliott of Phillips Station, Pennsylvania, wrote to the Smithsonian with a proposition: that the Institution pay him $800 for a remarkable two-legged dog named Clelonda. The dog, Elliott wrote, “is the liveliest dog I ever saw, handling himself with only the two hind leggs as well as other dogs can with four.” Despite its reputation as “the Nation’s Attic,” the Smithsonian declined the offer.

5. The World’s Longest Beard: Hans Langseth was born in Norway in 1846. When he died on November 10, 1927, he was an American citizen and had a beard 18-and-a-half feet long. During his years as a farmer in Minnesota and North Dakota, he used to roll up the beard and tuck it into his jacket. Later on, he joined a circus act and displayed his beard full-time. His relatives cut off the beard and donated it to the Natural History Museum upon his death, where it remains one of the Smithsonian’s strangest artifacts, and a photo of museum staff “trying on” the beard resides in the Institution Archives.

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