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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cold Cases and Archival Mysteries

"Archivist" is a very broad term describing what we in the profession do on a daily basis. We wear many hats: a master staple-remover hat, a scanning robot hat, and a metadata wordsmith hat are amongst the many ready to be plucked off our racks. My favorite accessory is my deerstalker hat, which has the obvious effect of increasing my powers of reason and deduction.

An archivist must often step into the role of detective: we work with a whole lot of old stuff, and not all of it comes with a convenient label or explanation. Most of the time (though not always) we know where our mystery materials came from, in archives-speak, the acquisition. But sometimes, that's all we know. Who wrote this letter? What's happening in this photograph? What is the strange black powder in this box (that mystery was solved: it was powdered vinyl)? WHY is this HERE?

So we dig. We take what we do know about the mystery object and start following the clues. We compare handwriting samples, photography styles, other materials with similar subjects. Sometimes the trail leads to something, and we follow it (holding a comically large magnifying glass, of course) and give our now not-so-mysterious object a proper home. Sometimes materials remain a mystery for a very long time. Let's call these cold cases.

Cold cases are a frustrating dilemma for an archivist. They are hidden in the collection, making them difficult for researchers to use (or even locate), and we have no way of knowing how these mystery materials could impact scholarship.

Thank goodness for the internet.

As the old saying goes, hundreds of brains are better than one. Let's solve some mysteries!


These mystery photos were found scattered across multiple "miscellaneous" boxes in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. What's shown here is just a sampling from one of the rolls found. Here's what we know about them:
  • They were developed by Moses Asch.
  • There are hundreds of photographs to parse through, but the majority appear to have been taken in New York City circa 1949. This date is based on a campaign poster for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. in one of the photographs.
  • The negatives have an aspect ratio of 1.33 (30 mm x 40 mm), though the closest film format to this ratio and time period is 828 film.
As far as we know, Asch was not a photographer, but this could be proof otherwise. If he didn't take them, who did? And why so many New York City street scenes? Do you recognize any of the locations? Was this an artistic endeavor or simply an effort to document the New York of 1949?

What do you think?

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Four-legged Heroes

Balto, Frederick G. R. Roth, cast 1925
January 27th marks the anniversary of the start of the 1925 Serum Run, in which over a dozen dogsled teams risked their lives to transport a much needed serum to the town of Nome, Alaska. Cases of misdiagnosed tonsillitis were first brought to the attention of the town doctor in late December 1924; by the end of January, Nome was in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic. Given the winter travel conditions, restocking the town's supply of antitoxin before the entire population was infected appeared hopeless. Airmail within Alaska was in its infancy and flying in below freezing temperatures was deemed too dangerous. Instead it was suggested that the serum be transported using a relay of mushers and their dogs. The first team was to leave Nenana, Alaska on January 27th, in the hopes that the serum would make it to Nome by the beginning of February. The teams exceeded expectations and the antitoxin was delivered to Nome on February 2nd.

The statue above was cast in the likeness of Balto, the lead dog from the final team. The monument was commissioned to recognize all the participating dogs, many of which lost their lives in the relay. The accompanying plaque reads, "Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925."

Commemorated in December 1925, Balto now stands watch in New York's Central Park near the Children's Zoo.

-Rachel Brooks, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photograph Archives

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate

The island of Manhattan, featuring some of the priciest real estate in the United States, inspires dreams of great fortunes that can be made by shrewd investors. Who hasn't marveled over the phenomenal rise in value of Midtown commercial and residential property in Manhattan, and wished they'd been able to get in the market when lots could be bought for even one-tenth of their current value? As this featured pamphlet from 1908 demonstrates, would-be real estate tycoons have been daydreaming for more than 100 years about the fortunes they could make by snapping up some odd little property, just off Broadway, for a song.

Map of Hot Real Estate Areas in Manhattan in 1908
The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate: Fabulous Fortunes Made by Fearless Investors in the Last Fifty Years was originally published as a column in the Sunday, November 29, 1908 issue of the New York Herald newspaper, and reprinted as a pamphlet in the same year. Written by Cromwell Childe, a freelance writer whose other publications have such beguiling titles as Water Exploring: A Guide to Pleasant Steamboat Trips Everywhere (1902), Where Shall I Go? Short Summer Trips for Busy Men (1902), and Trolley Exploring: An Electric Railroad Guide to Historic & Picturesque Places About New York, New Jersey, and New England (1903), this essay was designed to whet the appetite of investors and prospective clients of the New York Realty Owners group, which was founded in 1896. As an advertisement at the back of the pamphlet boasted, "The New York Realty Owners incorporated will give you the same advantages as the Astor estate secures to the members of its family" (the Astors being the descendants of John Jacob Astor, the first multi-millionaire in the United States, whose real estate holdings included large tracts of land throughout Manhattan). Rich with anecdotes, this pamphlet is a delightful read for anyone who loves New York City.

Scene of Wall Street and Broadway, Manhattan, Circa 1908

Childe's essay offers some interesting insights into the factors that alternately spurred and hindered rising real estate values. As he noted on page 8, "Most men would likely figure ... that the chief factor in the development of Manhattan has been its rapid transit. That may be right, but the passenger elevator should have a good slice of the credit." Taller buildings offered more residential or business leases to generate profits for investors. On the other hand, as Childe observes on the same page, "family feuds, litigation and the whims of wealthy owners have brought about many oddities in the development of New York," dragging out the resolution of land claims in the courts and creating the rare opportunity to purchase a misshapen parcel or scrap of real estate that would grow in value.

Along with the street-car and elevator, there were other developments in Manhattan creating a hot real estate market during the first decade of the twentieth century. Ground had recently been broken for the construction of Pennsylvania Station (which opened in 1910) and Herald Square. Another hot area of growth was the Upper East Side, where Andrew Carnegie's mansion --later to become the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum --was built from 1899 to 1902.

This pamphlet was recently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library as a gift transfer from the Museum of the City of New York. It also bears the stamp of the New-York Society Library, the oldest library in the city, founded in 1754 and still operating on a subscription basis.

Childe, Cromwell. The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate: Fabulous Fortunes Made by Fearless Investors in the Last Fifty Years. New York: New York Realty Owners, 1908. Call number: HD268.N5C45 1908 CHMRB Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, with the assistance of Daria Wingreen-Mason, Cullman Library Technician

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lincoln canes live on

(NAA 76-55:6) Crown of Lincoln Cane belonging to Zuni Pueblo, 1975.
Photo Lot 76-55, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
With the success of Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, and its recent nomination for 12 Academy Awards, Abraham Lincoln-themed blog posts are all the rage, and who are we to go against grain?  At the National Anthropological Archives (NAA), our records show that Abe’s cane seems to have made the rounds in the 150 years following his administration.  A “Lincoln Cane” appears in several photos in our collection with the earliest from 1877 and the most recent from 1975.  A closer look reveals that the cane in these pictures is actually multiple canes, and though they never actually belonged to the president, their history is still very interesting.

That history begins in the 16th century when Spanish explorers came in contact with the pueblo civilizations in what is now the Southwest United States.  As detailed by Martha LaCroix Dailey in the New Mexico Historical Review, the Spanish, though assuming overall control of the territory, recognized the pueblos as “semi-autonomous municipalities with certain inherent rights of self-government.”  In addition to their own leaders, the pueblos began electing or appointing officers to act as liaisons between them and the Spanish government.  These officers then “received a black cane trimmed with silver and silk tassels as a symbol of authority.”
(NAA 06342700) Portrait of Antonio Al
Churleta (Tse-wa-àn-ye), Governor of San
Juan Pueblo, holding a Lincoln Cane, circa
1877. BAE GN 2031, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government acknowledged the land grants and authority given to the pueblos by the Spanish, “and in some cases, the Mexicans issued new canes to some of the pueblos.”  As was the case with Spain, the Mexican government did not always or was not always able to ensure the pueblos remained free from injustice or the encroachment of settlers.  But the pueblos at least received formal recognition from these governments.

When the United States took control of Southwest territories following the Mexican War, it agreed to honor the Spanish land grants.  However, the Office of the State Historian of New Mexico notes that the presidents of that era did not recognize the pueblos’ sovereignty, and the years between the Mexican and Civil wars saw the suspension of the cane tradition. 

(NAA 06366500) Portrait of Mariano
Carpintero, Governor of Sandia Pueblo,
holding a Lincoln Cane, 1899.
Photograph by De Lancey Gill. BAE
GN 2079A, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
( NAA 06348800 ) Portrait of Jesus
Antonio Moya, Governor of Santa
Ana Pueblo, holding a Lincoln Cane,
1899. Photograph by De Lancey Gill.
BAE GN 2208A, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
This lasted until 1863 when Dr. Michael Steck was appointed Superintendent of Indians for the Territory of New Mexico.  The pueblo tribes of that territory filed petitions for U.S. Land Patents with Steck to get the U.S. to honor its treaty agreements.  Steck saw to it that the patents were granted, and, having learned of the cane tradition through research, ordered 19 ebony canes with “A. Lincoln” and the tribe’s name engraved on their silver crowns.  He presented the patents and the canes to the pueblo governors, and the tradition was reborn in the “Lincoln canes” as they came to be called.

More canes were ordered and presented as other pueblo tribes received their patents, and Dailey notes the canes became a “significant material possession of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.”  A Lincoln cane is now a “symbol of the office of governor” who will “perform a service to his people for his term of office,” head “the secular affairs of the pueblo,” and also act “as liaison to outsiders.”

The significance of the Lincoln canes is evident in the photos on this page, which depict pueblo governors holding their canes.  The cane in the top picture, which belongs to the Zuni pueblo, had an anecdote in Dailey’s article.  At one point the tribe lost its cane and requested a new one from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Dailey notes that “uneasiness characterized the pueblo and a serious search took place.”  The original was eventually found and the replacement was returned.

This Zuni Lincoln cane photo is part of Photo Lot 76-55 at NAA and is one of several photos involving the cane from 1975 which testifies to the enduring importance of the Lincoln cane.  You can learn more about Lincoln canes at New Mexico Office of the State Historian’s Web site.

— Adam Minakowski, Reference Archivist, National Anthropological Archives

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why the Chicken Really Crossed the Road: An Inaugural Tale

President Nixon’s 1973 Inaugural ball at the Museum
of History and Technology, January 20, 1973,
by Richard K. Hofmeister, Smithsonian Institution
Archives, Record Unit 285, Box 10,
Folder: 11, 73-518-14A or SIA73-518-14A.
This weekend DC plays host to the presidential inauguration. As visitors flock to the area, the Smithsonian will open its doors to museum goers and inaugural ball guests alike. The buildings are no stranger to inaugural events. As early as 1881, the Smithsonian’s  National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building) hosted its first Inaugural Ball for President James Garfield, even before the building was completed.  The museums provide a fascinating backdrop for such festivities, and Garfield’s ball began a trend that has continued to this day.

One particularly memorable experience occurred on January 20, 1973, as President Richard Nixon attended several official inaugural balls, including one at the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). Over seven thousand people, dressed in fine feather, filled the museum to celebrate. Lines were out the door, and the crowds had nowhere to dance. Despite the confusion and heat the room had a celebratory air and guests were excited to see the man of the hour.

Chicken that disrupted President Nixon’s 1973 Inaugural ball,
January 20, 1973, by Unknown, Smithsonian Institution Archives,
Record Unit 285, Box 10, Folder 12, SIA2009-0415 and 73-688-22A.
It seems, however, that people were not the only spectators anxious to catch a glimpse of the President. While guests danced the night away, a female participant became quite ruffled when a chicken flew into her one thousand dollar VIP box and began to assault her. Fortunately, then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist, came to the disgruntled socialite’s rescue. He captured the bird and began to smooth the chicken’s feathers until it calmed down. He then returned the culprit to its home in the colonial barnyard exhibit of the Growth of the United States Hall.

The chicken, along with a few other fellow fowls, took up residence in the museum in 1969 to give a sense of realism to the American farm life exhibit.  The birds lived in the exhibit and according to museum staff, were usually quite docile. However, this little chicken must have had political ambitions and decided crossing the exhibit road to participate in the inaugural ball would be a fun adventure. Secretary Ripley remarked that the incident was “a real chicken caper” that certainly added to the excitement of the night.  Once again, a visit to the Smithsonian, whether a school trip or an inaugural ball, proved to be a unique adventure. 

Courtney Bellizzi, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Col. West A. Hamilton: Soldier at Heart

Holdings at the Anacostia Community Museum include the personal papers of individuals with national or local reputations.  Among these materials are the papers of Col. West A. Hamilton, a soldier of note whose accomplishments garnered recognition both nationally and from the local black middle class community in Washington, D. C. 

Colonel West A. Hamilton was born in 1866 to John A. Hamilton, a missionary and social worker, and Julia West Hamilton, a prominent club woman and activist in Washington, D. C.   Hamilton committed his life to military and public services.    He enlisted in the District of Columbia National Guard in 1905.  On the Mexican border, Colonel Hamilton served with General John “Black Jack” Pershing during the 1916 Mexican Border Campaign.  Hamilton served in both World Wars I and II and received several awards and decorations.  It was during World War I that he commanded the 372nd Infantry and was awarded the Croix-de-Guerre “for his leadership and courage in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.”  In World War II, he commanded the 366th Infantry in North Africa and Italy.  Called a “soldier at heart,” Hamilton was honored at the White House in 1983 and received an honorary promotion of Brigadier General by the District of Columbia National Guards.

Colonel West A. Hamilton
Scurlock Studio Records
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

After his retirement in 1949, Colonel Hamilton focused his attention on helping others by actively participating in several civic and educational organizations in the District of Columbia.  In 1951 he was appointed as a member of the D. C. Board of Education and participated in the formulation of policies to implement the desegregation of the public schools of D.C.  During the 1960s, Hamilton was criticized by some African Americans for not doing enough during his tenure on the school board to assist blacks.  Regardless, Hamilton was admired by many for his long military service and compassion for helping others through his community service. 

Colonel Hamilton married twice but never had children. He died in 1985 just shy one year from his 100th birthday.

The majority of Colonel West A. Hamilton papers at the Anacostia Community Museum Archives document his involvement with Washington D.C.’s educational system.  There are also materials and photographs from his long serving military career and the Hamilton Printing Company he established with his brother Percival in 1910.     

Jennifer Morris

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bringing the Kalahari to Mexico City

Postcard for Cine en Culturas retrospective of
John Marshall's work, held Nov 10-14, 2012 in Mexico City.
From November 10-14, 2012, audiences in Mexico City were treated to an extensive retrospective of the ethnographic and documentary films of John Marshall. Marshall is best known for his life-long involvement with the Ju/'hoansi, a group of !Kung Bushmen who live in the Kalahari Desert in northeastern Namibia. This retrospective covered both major films and lesser-known works about the Ju/'hoansi, and also explored Marshall's work in the United States, including a documentary series on police work in Pittsburgh, PA.

The retrospective was hosted by Cine en Culturas, an annual program produced by Ethnoscopio as part of the DocsDF documentary film festival. The program was put together with the collaboration of the Human Studies Film Archives (archival home of Marshall's Ju/'hoan Bushman collection) and Documentary Educational Resources (distributor of Marshall's films).

Trailer for the John Marshall retrospective edited by Cine en Culturas.

The incredible team behind Cine en Culturas brought Marshall's work to a Spanish-speaking audience for the first time. Their efforts resulted in Spanish-subtitled versions of all the films shown, including the six-hour series, A Kalahari Family, as well as a fine catalog with a mix of new and previously published essays on Marshall's work, all carefully translated into Spanish. The catalog presents important reflection and scholarship on Marshall's films that was previously only available in English, including an article by our own Jake Homiak, Director of Anthropology Collections and Archives Program at the National Museum of Natural History.

Ticket holders line up at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City
for a screening of John Marshall's N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman.
© Francisco Palma Lagunas
I was lucky enough to attend the retrospective as an invited guest and speaker. What a gift it was to spend a week immersed in Marshall's films and engaged in discussions about his work and his legacy. Mexico City filmgoers provided the best gift of all - sold-out screenings almost every night of the retrospective, held primarily at the beautiful, newly-renovated Cineteca Nacional. A Kalahari Family (2002) was screened in its entirety throughout one afternoon and evening in a smaller, more intimate theater in the city's energetic downtown. Not only did this six-hour marathon sell out, but many audience members stayed long after for a passionate discussion about the series' implications and lessons for the present.

John Marshall is well-regarded as a major figure in ethnographic film. His work has been the subject of PhD theses and academic articles, and scores of undergraduate students have seen his seminal film, The Hunters (1958), in Anthropology 101 classes. His archival film and video collection is recognized as an important piece of our global documentary heritage and is listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register. This is all impressive, but it doesn't tell us about the actual impact archival films might have on an individual.

My experience at Cine en Culturas showed me what that impact can be. Each night, anthropologists, filmmakers, students, and cinephiles filled the theater to learn about a time, a culture, a way of life very different from their own. Each night, that audience stayed long after the screening for Q&A sessions and discussions that covered a wide range of topics:  John Marshall's working style and deep commitment to the Ju/'hoansi; the evolution of documentary filmmaking techniques; the ethics of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking; the successes and failures of international development work; the current political and economic standing of the Ju/'hoansi; the struggles of indigenous groups in Mexico and worldwide.

N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman screens at the Cineteca Nacional.
© Francisco Palma Lagunas
Having worked for John Marshall on his last project, the reception his films received in Mexico City was deeply gratifying on a personal level. It was equally wonderful from a professional perspective, reinforcing the value of the work that the Human Studies Film Archives has undertaken to preserve Marshall's large audiovisual collection and make it accessible for research and exhibition.

Karma Foley, Smithsonian Channel
(and former contract audiovisual archivist at Human Studies Film Archives)

I am grateful to Francisco Palma Lagunas for his beautiful photographs of the Marshall retrospective, and his permission to use them in this post.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Link Love: Amateur Film of Mexico in the Archives of American Art

In August 2012, Megan McShea, the audiovisual archivist for the Archives of American Art, posted about the amateur films of artists Stefan Hirsch and Elsa Rogo shot in Mexico between 1935 and 1941 that had just been preserved with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.  For this story see

A followup blog post by Elena Jackson Albarrán, assistant professor of History and Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean Studies at Miami University of Ohio, is a rare essay based on actual experience with using amateur film in an academic setting: Dr. Albarrán brings the knowledge of Mexican history and art to the reading of this film and, hence, finds what could otherwise be missed without that contextualization.

Reproduction of Schoolhouse Vista, a tempera by Efren Villalobos, age 11, 1932?. 
Stefan Hirsch and Elsa Rogo papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- Pamela Wintle, Human Studies Film Archives

Friday, January 4, 2013

Sneak Peek into the Stacks: A Civil War Chromolithograph

The colorful image shown below and the musical score it illustrates were created to celebrate a Union victory in the American Civil war--the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, February 11-16, 1862.  Henry Tolman & Co. was the publisher, but the mark of L. Prang & Co. at the lower right indicates that the print is a chromolithograph by Louis Prang, who developed this method for mass-production color printing and established his company in 1860.  He wanted to challenge elitism by making comparatively inexpensive copies of paintings for mass consumption, which proved lucrative for him.  His attempt to democratize art paralleled the proliferation of photographic imagery which swept the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Despite its potential for mass distribution, chromolithography was a complicated, time-consumimg technique.  In view of the instantaneous communication that we expect technology to provide in the 21st century, it amazes me that a musical composition could be written, illustrated, printed, and distributed to commemorate a contemporary historical event in the same year.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Cover for sheet music, "The Battle of Fort Donelson / A Musical Description" by Charles Grobe, 1862, with chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co.  From the Sam DeVincent Collection of  Illustrated American Sheet Music,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top of the World! Rooftop Gardens

Over the past decade there has been an escalating interest in green roofs to reduce our carbon footprint on the environment.  The older cousin of green roofs--rooftop gardens--can be traced back to ancient times where they were found on top of temples, ziggurats, castles, and villas.  Closer to home, our rooftop garden heritage is rooted in sod houses.  In the United States, the practice of creating rooftop gardens has evolved from out of happenstance to pleasure to environmental consciousness.

In the mid- to late 19th century the frontier was being settled by immigrants chasing the American dream of owning their own land and making it profitable.  Needing to find a way to construct buildings without timber, stone, or brick, they turned to the earth.  Rectangular pieces of sod were cut from the ground measuring approximately 2’x1’x6”.  These “bricks” were then stacked to form walls.  What timber was available formed the base of the roof and often sod was laid on top to insulate the building.  Grass, and sometimes flowers, adorned the roofs of these ‘soddies’.

The term “roof garden” was coined around 1893 for urban rooftop spaces that were developed for summer entertainment.  The movement started with roof garden theaters in New York City.  After their popularity fizzled out, wealthy residents of Manhattan began adopting the idea for their own rooftop terraces to provide a respite from the teeming city.

Unidentified rooftop garden, New York, New York, circa 1920s. Eleanor Weller Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution
As a society we are always taking old things and making them new, constantly improving upon previous techniques.  In addition to providing a pleasurable space to relax, many of today’s rooftop gardens emulate green roofs by being environmentally friendly.  They can reduce temperatures and increase oxygen levels as well as act as a water retention system. 

Here at the Archives of American Gardens we have a few green roofs, rooftop gardens and vertical gardens documented..

For more examples of "sod homes" see the examples online at the Library of Congress' American Memory site for the Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection at the North Dakota State University, Institute for Regional Studies.

Written by Julie Hunter, 2012 Summer Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens