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Monday, December 21, 2020

Holiday Imagery, Scanned and Unscanned

By David Haberstich
Curator of Photography

19th-century Christmas card, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Christmas series,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Holidays are always a logical, popular theme for Collections Search Center bloggers, and Smithsonian archival collections contain thousands of holiday-related images. This December I hoped to highlight several Archives Center collections that are rich with Christmas and New Year’s materials. The first one that sprang to mind was the Christina Patoski Holiday Photoprints, especially because I knew the collection contained an image related to Hanukkah (Chanukah) that I wanted to include. These colorful photographs of gaudy front-lawn and front-porch decorations, printed on Cibachrome (a favorite photographic paper during the “chemical photography” era due to its characteristic deep, brilliant color rendering), were exhibited in the National Museum of American History in 1993-1994, then acquired as a gift from the photographer. My plan was thwarted when I discovered that none of these photographs had been scanned! Given pandemic restrictions and my telework situation, scanning them in order to include an example in this post was problematic. Nevertheless, I’ve included a “work-around” to highlight this collection.

Photographs by Stuart Cohen, created as a visual homage to his hometown, “Marblehead at the Millennium” (1999), include a view of children opening gifts on Christmas morning, as well as another of Santa Claus arriving in Marblehead, Massachusetts in a lobster boat, prior to his annual Christmas walk through the town. Beautiful black-and-white prints! You’ll have to take my word for that, as I was chagrined to discover that they had not been scanned either. Mea culpa!

Nevertheless, much of the Archives Center’s extensive holdings of holiday imagery has been digitized and can be found online. For example, the huge Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, with its hundreds of subject categories, is particularly rich in holiday imagery, including greeting cards, commercial advertising incorporating holiday themes, and gift wrap designs. 

The Norcross Greeting Card collection is known for its “antique” greeting cards.  Above is a card from Series 3, the Rust Craft Card Company Records, about 1920.

And a humorous (slightly naughty) card from 1929, below:

And two of Santa’s reindeer out for a drive, 1953:

The Bernard Levine Sample Book Collection contains colorful gift wrap designs. Below, however, is a bold black-and-white concept.

As a substitute for an Archives Center photograph of holiday displays by Christina Patoski, I offer one of her related images, featured on a web site from her exhibition at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles, 2004: Put this in your browser:

You can bet that one of my personal goals for the year is to scan the Patoski and Cohen photographic collections. Watch for examples in next year’s December holiday blog—as well as in SOVA before that.

I’m closing with an administrative note. As new Collections Search Center blog manager, I viewed 28 other Smithsonian blogs, and found that most provide author’s names and affiliations at the top, whereas the custom for this particular blog has long been to place them at the end of each post. With the blessing of the previous blog manager, I’ve made an executive decision to cite authorship at the top from now on. The fact that this change is being implemented with a post written by myself is sheer coincidence, and has nothing to do with my relentless search for personal fame and glory. Season’s greetings to all!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Anthropology’s Neighboring Fields: New Virtual Finding Aids for Three NAA Collections

The National Anthropological Archives (NAA) primarily contains the papers of anthropologists, archaeologists, and anthropological societies and institutions. However, there are other disciplines that are connected to anthropology and its work, and these disciplines are also reflected in the NAA’s collections. Today I want to highlight the collections of a geologist (Richard LeRoy Hay), a paleobotanist (C. Earle Smith Jr.), and an animal behaviorist (Richard Lynch Garner).

Richard LeRoy Hay (1926-2006)

Richard LeRoy Hay was a geologist who was best known for his contributions to the fields of sedimentary petrography and archaeological geology. Hay worked with Mary Leakey, a celebrated paleontologist, and her husband, Louis Leakey, on their excavations at Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli in Tanzania. The geological framework that he provided for their excavations helped to place their discoveries into a chronological context.

Annotated photographs of Olduvai. The Richard L. Hay papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Hay earned his B.S. and M.S. in geology from Northwestern University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He served in the US Army Corps of Engineers (1952-1954) and worked for the US Geological Survey (1954-1955) prior to moving into academia. He then taught at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge (1955-1957); the University of California, Berkeley (1957-1983); the University of Illinois, Urbana (1983-1997), where he was the Ralph E. Grim Professor of Geology; and the University of Arizona, Tucson (1998-2006). He made his first trip to Olduvai Gorge in 1962, when he was at the University of California, Berkeley.

Though he performed geological fieldwork in many other locations, he is best known for his work at Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli because of the paleontological importance of the finds at these locations. Olduvai Gorge has provided the longest continuous known record of human evolution and the development of stone-tool industries.1 In Laetoli, Hay performed a geological analysis of the tuff where a trail of roughly 70 footprints were found. The footprints are believed to have been made by Australopithecus afarensis and provide evidence of the evolution of humans by providing information about the shape of the foot and the development of bipedal movement.2

Annotated photographs of Olduvai. The Richard L. Hay papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Hay published frequently on Olduvai Gorge, and his detailed study of the geologic history of Olduvai, Geology of the Olduvai Gorge (1976), was his most significant publication. He also published on his work at Laetoli, coauthoring “Pliocene Footprints in the Laetoli Beds at Laetoli, Northern Tanzania” (1979) and “The Fossil Footprints of Laetoli” (1982) with Mary Leakey.

Hay was a fellow of the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the California Academy of Sciences. His work was celebrated in his lifetime, earning him the Geological Society of America’s Kirk Bryan Award in 1978, the Rip Rapp Archeological Geology Award in 2000, and the Leakey Foundation’s Leakey Prize, for intellectual achievement in the field of human evolution, in 2001. His collection is of moderate size, comprised of 25 boxes, and contains correspondence, field notebooks, maps, photographs, data, and documentation of geological specimens.

C. Earle Smith Jr. (1922-1987)

C. Earle Smith Jr. trained in economic botany, which is the study of the relationship between plants and people, at Harvard University, earning his B.A. in 1949, his M.A. in 1951, and his Ph.D. in 1953. He went on to study this relationship between people and plants in an archaeological context, becoming one of the founders of the modern field of archaeobotany.

His research focused on archaeologically recovered plant remains and their usage by humans, studying the early domestication and distribution of corn, cotton, avocado, and beans. His first discovery in this field occurred while he was still an undergraduate, when he discovered the earliest remains of corn found to that point with fellow student Herbert Dick at Bat Cave, New Mexico, in 1948. He continued to pursue his archaeobotanical studies by serving as the botanist at archaeological excavations in Latin America, working primarily in Mexico and Peru.

Photograph of botanical samples from Tehuacan. The C. Earle Smith Jr. papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to his ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Yucatán, Panama, the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Australia, Smith worked at a variety of institutions throughout the United States. He was an assistant curator of botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and acting director of the Taylor Memorial Arboretum (1953-1958); a curator of botany at the Field Museum of Natural History (1959-1961); the Senior Research Botanist for the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1962-1969); on the faculty in anthropology and biology departments at the University of Alabama (1970-1987), serving as the acting chair of anthropology department (1981-1986); and the President of the Society for Economic Botany (1979). His collection is comprised of 21 boxes and contains correspondence, research notes, data, manuscripts, publications, and photographs.

Richard Lynch Garner (1848-1920)

Richard Lynch Garner was a self-taught zoologist from southwest Virginia. He studied primate behavior, analyzing the vocal communication of apes. He made sound recordings in zoos starting in 1884, moving on to study apes in their natural habitat in the Ogawai River region in 1892. He asserted that he was able to understand the languages of apes and that he could teach them to speak human languages.3 He brought apes back to America to exhibit them in a travelling show, claiming that he was able to communicate with a chimpanzee named Susie.

Richard Lynch Garner performing studies with a child and a chimpanzee. Richard Lynch Garner papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Garner expanded his studies to observe general primate behavior, spending time in an elevated cage within an area inhabited by chimpanzees and gorillas. His collection also contains his observations about the local people and their customs which he made during his trips to Africa. Garner “saw himself as a defender of paternal southern views of race from northerners and from Christian missionaries”4 and the observations he made in Gabon reflect this perspective.

Garner is a slightly different kettle of fish than Hay and Smith, as his studies did not meet modern standards or methods and many of his conclusions have proven false. Even during his lifetime, he was denigrated by the professional scientific community.5 However, his papers provide a glimpse into early evolutionary study and the colonialist and racially biased outlook which influenced scientific thinkers of his time. Garner’s influence on the academic community is evidenced by the route through which his papers reached the NAA. They were originally in the possession of J. P. Harrington, a noted linguist, whose interest in Garner’s work prompted him to write a biography of the scientist. The collection is quite small, consisting of only five boxes, and contains a diary, correspondence, manuscripts, poetry, data, financial and legal records, maps, biographical material, artwork, and photographs.


Katherine Christensen

Contract Archivist, National Anthropological Archives


1 “Olduvai Gorge,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 5, 2020,

2 “Laetoli Footprint Trails,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, accessed November 5, 2020,

3 “Missing Links,” University of Georgia Press, accessed November 18, 2020,

4 Rich, Jeremy. “Heresy Is the Only True Religion: Richard Lynch Garner (1848–1920), A Southern Freethinker in Africa and America.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 12, No. 1 (January 2013): 65-94.

5 “Missing Links,” University of Georgia Press, accessed November 18, 2020,

Monday, November 16, 2020

New Virtual Finding Aids for Two Linguistic Anthropology Collections

Linguistic Anthropology is the study of the effects of communication—in all its diversity and forms—on society and whether differences in language and its usage relate to differences in the way the world is perceived and understood.1 The two anthropologists discussed in this blogpost whose materials are at the National Anthropological Archive studied different aspects of communication. Garrick Mallery focused on sign language and pictorial representations, while William A. Smalley focused on the written language.

Garrick Mallery (1831-1894)

Pen & ink drawings of Native American sign language prepared for use in the BAE 1st Annual Report (1879-1880), MS 2372 Garrick Mallery Collection on Sign Language and Pictography, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Garrick Mallery pioneered the study of sign language and pictographs. He developed an interest in Native American sign language and pictography while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and was one of the first ethnologists to join the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879. Under the BAE’s auspices, he collected and examined sign language vocabulary from Native American groups throughout the U.S. and Canada. He additionally related the Native American sign language he documented to examples from the wider world, both of hearing individuals and the deaf.

Plate of Neapolitan gestures prepared for use in the BAE 1st Annual Report (1879-1880), MS 2372 Garrick Mallery Collection on Sign Language and Pictography, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Mallery completed several publications on the topic of Native American sign language throughout the 1880s, notably Introduction to the Study of Sign language Among the North American Indians (1880), A Collection of Gesture- Signs and Signals of the North American Indians (1880), and "Sign-language among North American Indians Compared with that Among other People and Deaf-mutes," which appeared in the BAE 1st Annual Report (1881). Many of these publications (some annotated by collaborators) are included in MS 2372 Garrick Mallery Collection on Sign Language and Pictography.

Although he is most widely known for his work with sign language, he also performed extensive research into Native American pictography, with a particular interest in Dakota and Lakota winter counts and petroglyphs (examples of winter counts and copies of petroglyphs are included within the collection).

Battiste Good’s Winter Count (page 19), MS 2372 Garrick Mallery Collection on Sign Language and Pictography, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

William Smalley (1923-1997)

Like Chris Gjording, whom I discussed in my last blog entry, Smalley coupled anthropology with Christian ministry. The child of missionaries, he was born in Jerusalem in 1923. He developed an interest in anthropology while an undergraduate at Houghton College because he felt that was relevant to missionary work. He attended the Missionary Training Institute (1945-1946), the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) at the University of Oklahoma (1946-1947) for training in linguistics for Bible translation, and Columbia University’s graduate program in anthropology with a concentration in linguistics. Smalley worked on language analysis problems in the southern region of Vietnam when he was sent there by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1950. After Vietnam, he was sent to Luang Prabang, Laos, in 1951. While in Laos, Smalley developed the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA) with Reverend G. Linwood Barney and Father Yves Bertrais. He and his wife returned to the United States when civil war broke out in Laos in 1954. His dissertation focused on his work on the Khmu’ language and he received his doctorate from Columbia in 1956. His dissertation was later published, in abbreviated form, in 1961 as Outline of Khmu' Structure.

Sayaboury Script. The William A. Smalley papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

His work with the Hmong language continued after he became a professor of linguistics at Bethel University in 1978 and found the large Hmong community in the Twin Cities. He studied the adaptation of the Hmong to life in America with the University of Minnesota Southeast Asia Refugee Studies Program, publishing "Adaptive Language Strategies of the Hmong: From Asian Mountains to American Ghettos" (1985) and "Stages of Hmong Cultural Adaptation" (1986). Smalley also continued his study of the Hmong written language, as new scripts had been developed since his participation in the creation of RPA (such as Sayaboury Script, pictured above). He was particularly interested in the Pahwah script, which had been created by Shong Lue Yang in Laos. In addition to studying the script, he studied its creator, and published two books on the subject: Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script (1990) and The Life of Shong Lue Yang: Hmong "Mother of Writing" (1990), both of which he co-authored with Chia Koua Vang and Gnia Yee Yang.

Smalley also studied the languages and dialects of Thailand. He lived in Thailand from 1962 to 1967 and from 1969 to 1972 while working as a translation consultant for the American Bible Society and as a translations coordinator and consultant for the United Bible Societies. He later returned to Thailand as a Fulbright research fellow in 1985 and 1986. He published Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand (1994); "Thailand's Hierarchy of Multilingualism" (1988); and "Language and Power: Evolution of Thailand's Multilingualism" (1996) as a result of his work there.


1 “Linguistic anthropology,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed September 2, 2020,

Katherine Christensen

Contract Archivist, National Anthropological Archives

Monday, October 19, 2020

Safer Than Water

Despite some of the more inebriating effects, for thousands of years people considered beer a healthier alternative to water. But prior to the 19th century, they did not understand why beer was safer. Many just held the belief that beer was not dangerous and water was harmful and could not be trusted, unaware that they were routinely polluting their own fresh water sources. Despite beer's "healthier" reputation, it could still go bad through bacterial contamination and/or poor sanitation and fermentation.

For many Early American and European brewers, beer went bad quite often. In a letter dated 1623, George Sandy of the Virginia colony wrote, "It would well please the country to hear he had taken revenge of Dupper for his Stinking [sic] beer, which hath been the death of 200." Like most food or beverage products, beer is not immune to bacterial growth or becoming rank from improper brewing practices. But through increased discoveries and understanding of the scientific study of microorganisms and biochemistry during the 19th century, brewing consistent quality beer became the norm by the 1880s.    

While Louis Pasteur is most famous for his discoveries in the causes and prevention of diseases, his lesser known research in fermentation was a giant leap forward for the brewing world. Pasteur began that work in 1857, examining distilling problems and eventually turning his attention to beer yeasts and their fermentation.   

Anheuser Busch advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977, Beer Series. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.  NMAH-AC0060-0002897-02.

After two decades, in 1876 Pasteur published his findings, "Études sur la Bière." He found that beer became foul not from "spontaneous generation," but when harmful bacteria were introduced at some point in the fermentation process, thus rendering the beer contaminated. Applying his discovery of bacterial effects on fermentation to his pasteurization process, he was able to produce bacteria-free brewer's yeast samples. But this was not the final step in improving the quality of beer or research in brewer's yeasts.         

Besides problems with bacterial infection, the accidental introduction of undesirable yeast strains also spoiled beer. Prior to the late 19th century, breweries struggled to control the type of yeast strains in the brewing process. Most batches of beer commonly contained more than one strain of yeast, each imparting its own characteristics. Multiple strains affected the fermentation, as well as the taste and smell of the beer; for many brewers, producing a consistent flavor and quality proved difficult at best.  Even modern brewing giant Carlsberg Brewery was no different than many other brewers in their struggle to produce beer of consistent quality.   

Soon after Pasteur published his research, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg Brewery, read it. Motivated by the findings and his desire to brew high-quality beer, Jacobsen built a laboratory within his brewery.  But despite his financial ability to build a state-of-the-art lab, he needed a scientist to head the laboratory. Upon the recommendation of a friend, Jacobsen hired botanist Emil Christian Hansen for the position in 1877.   

Phillip Best Brewing advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977,
Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

Hansen's primary task was to investigate various issues that caused inconsistency. Through his research, Hansen had found that the yeast sample Carlsberg used had become contaminated with a second and different strain.  What he found was that not all yeast strains produced a positive effect in the fermentation process; some yeast strains were harmful to beer and fermentation.    

Utilizing Pasteur's research, Hansen developed a method to isolate and create individual-pure yeast strains.  By November 1883, Carlsberg brewed its first batch utilizing the pure strain, which Hansen named Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis.  The following year, all beer brewed by Carlsberg Brewery used this strain. But what do Pasteur's and Hansen's discoveries have to do with American beer?  

The same year Pasteur published his "Études sur la Bière," Anheuser-Busch's founder, Adolphus Busch, read the work and became the first American brewer to institute a pasteurization process in bottling his beer.  This insured Anheuser-Busch produced a bacteria-free product, resulting in a fresher tasting and better preserved beverage.  Pasteurization allowed Busch to ship his beer long distances, thus transforming Anheuser-Busch from a mostly local brewery to a national and even international prominence almost overnight. 

While Pasteur's discoveries in pasteurization caught immediate American attention, Hansen's contributions to brewing were not far behind.  The same year Carlsberg began using its pure strain, William Uihlein, owner of Schlitz Brewery in Milwaukee, reportedly bought a sample of Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis for his beer. Within a few years, additional American breweries, Pabst, Wahl-Henius, and Dewes, instituted the use of pure yeast strains, as well as employing chemists.   

Schlitz Brewing advertisement, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977,
Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

By the end of the 19th century, Pasteur's and Hansen's work played a significant role in transforming local American breweries into giants of American industry. The discoveries of these two European scientists brought new understanding to the roles of yeast and bacteria in brewing. And people finally knew why beer was safer than water to drink. 

Joe Hursey, Reference Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Friday, October 16, 2020

New Virtual Finding Aids for Three 20th Century Cultural Anthropology Collections


In my last post, I told you about two biological anthropologists whose papers are in the National Anthropological Archives whose finding aids have recently become available on SOVA. This time around, I will tell you about three cultural anthropologists. All funding for the legacy finding aids project was provided by the Smithsonian Collections Information (CIS) pool.

Chris Gjording (1943-1993)

Chris Gjording. The Chris Gjording papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Chris Gjording was an anthropologist and Jesuit priest who worked in Central America in the last two decades of the 20th century. Prior to gaining his M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1985) in social and cultural anthropology from the New School for Social Research, he taught philosophy and liberation theory at Gonzaga University (1973-1975). Gjording was strongly influenced by liberation theology, which was a movement that arose in the Roman Catholic church in Latin America and stressed aiding the poor by improving the socioeconomic structures that oppressed them.1 As a result, his work was focused on the poor in Central America and the social and political climate which surrounded them. For his dissertation, he studied the Guaymí people and the transnational Cerro Colorado mining project on their lands in Chiriquí, Panama. A revised version of his dissertation was published under the title Conditions Not of Their Choosing: The Guaymí Indians and Mining Multinationals in Panama by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991. He also visited and documented the conditions in Guatemalan Indian refugee camps in Los Lirios and Maya Balam in Quintana Roo, Mexico, and wrote articles for a Spanish language bimonthly newsletter focused on the social, economic, and political situation in Honduras called Informaciones. His papers document his research and activities in Central America.

Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

Marvin Harris lecturing. The Marvin Harris papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Marvin Harris was one of the major anthropologists of the 20th century who is best known for developing the concept of cultural materialism. Harris described this paradigm as a scientific research strategy “based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence”2 in his 1979 book Cultural Materialism. He applied this research method to taboos, food preferences, and family and social structures, arguing that the Aztecs practiced cannibalism due to a protein deficiency and that Yanomami warfare was caused by the pursuit of animal protein. Some of his arguments were controversial, such as his belief that the Hindu religion’s prohibition against the consumption of beef was based on the economic usefulness of cows as draft animals. He also focused on the difference between emic and etic refers to analysis of a culture by perspectives. In social sciences, emic someone participating in that culture3, while etic refers to analysis by someone outside the culture4. He used video as a method of etic analysis, studying families in their home environment during the late 1960s and early 1970s. 
Harris authored several important books in the field of anthropology (The Rise of Anthropological Theory and Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture), as well as several books which reached a wider, non-academic audience (Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches and Cannibals and Kings). While he was on the faculty of Columbia University (where he had studied, earning his B.A. in 1948 and his Ph.D. in 1953, and taught from 1953 to 1980), he was active in the anti-war movement, serving as vice-chairman of Vietnam Facts, helping to organize the Ad Hoc Teaching Committee on Vietnam, organizing a symposium with Morton Fried and Robert Murphy at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in 1967 which led to the publication of War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression (1968), and openly siding with the students during the 1968 Columbia student uprising. After his time at Columbia, he served as a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida (1980-2000).

Anthony Leeds (1925-1989)

Page from Anthony Leeds’ scrapbook with photographs from Salvador. Anthony Leeds papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Anthony Leeds studied at Columbia at the same time as Marvin Harris, receiving his B.A. in 1949 and his Ph.D. in 1957. His main focus as an anthropologist was urban development, although his papers at the NAA include research in rural areas as well. Like Gjording, Leeds was interested in the social, economic, and political situation in Latin America and he analyzed these factors in cacao production in the Bahia region of Brazil for his dissertation: “Economic Cycles in Brazil: The Persistence of a Total-Cultural Pattern: Cacao and Other Cases.” He studied the social and political cultures of squatter settlements in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, and Santiago de Chile. With funding from the Social Science Research Council and the Ford Foundation, he studied twelve favelas (Brazilian slums5) in Rio de Janeiro from 1965 to 1966, organizing Peace Corps volunteers, academics, and favela residents to collect data. 

Leeds also taught at a number of colleges and universities: Hofstra University and City College in New York City from 1956 to 1961, the University of Texas-Austin from 1963 to 1972, and Boston University from 1973 to 1989. While at Boston University, he served as an active mentor to many of his students.


1“Liberation Theology,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 1, 2020,

2 Harris, Marvin. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. (New York: Random House, 1979), xv.

3“Emic,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, accessed May 1, 2020,

4“Etic,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, accessed May 1, 2020,

5“Favela,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, accessed September 28, 2020,

Katherine Christensen
Contract Archivist, National Anthropological Archives

Monday, October 5, 2020

Parks for the People

October marks American Archives Month, a time to celebrate archival collections across the country that document innumerable chapters in the United States’ history. The work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted is captured in countless archival collections thanks to his firm having a hand in creating over 6,000 landscapes and gardens over the course of a century. In addition to renowned landscape designs, Olmsted is famous for his insightful and enduring design principles. Many research repositories are gearing up to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 2022 by sharing collection materials related to Olmsted online. 

The Archives of American Gardens (AAG) includes over six hundred photographs of public parks and gardens that Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm designed. AAG has digitized and described many of these photographs in the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center so that researchers can discover and enjoy the parks and gardens on their own. For instance, AAG houses historic glass plate negatives of Olmsted’s iconic Central Park in New York City. Forty years after a section of the park opened in 1858, landscape architect (and Olmsted firm alumnus) Thomas Warren Sears captured the pastoral haven amidst urban skyscrapers with his camera.

Central Park, New York, New York (NY147006), circa 1890-1910. From the Thomas Warren Sears Photograph Collection. 

In addition photographing the pastoral scenery at Central Park, Sears collected images of people enjoying Central Park. 

The Mall, looking north,” (NY147022), 1894. J.S. Johnstonphotographer. From the Thomas Warren Sears Photograph Collection. 

AAG’s Historic Garden Stereograph Collection includes commercial stereographs of families making use of rustic architecture in Central ParkCalvert Vaux, Olmsted’s co-designer for Central Park, had the inspiration to incorporate unmilled wood fences, pergolas, and summerhouses into the park’s design.

[Rustic Rest.]” (STR015026), circa 1900-1910 from Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection. 

Detail from “[Rustic Rest.]” (STR015026), circa 1900-1910 from Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection. 

The largest of Central Park’s original rustic architectural structures was the Kinderberg, a 110-foot summerhouse that Vaux designed for the park in 1866. Park officials dismantled the Kinderberg in the 1940s when it fell into disrepair, so photographs like these are invaluable for capturing the landscape’s early appearance.

Detail from “View in Central Park, N.Y.” (STR015027), circa 1900-1910 from Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection

AAG even records evidence of a romantic turn-of-the-century date!  

Detail from “Lovers' Lane, Central Park, New York, U.S.A.” (STR015021), circa 1900-1910 from Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection. 


Central Park is only one example of an Olmsted park featured in AAG’s collections; these images and many others assist researchers as they investigate how Olmsted-planned parks evolved after the firm finished its work. AAG’s efforts to document the past also help the public discover clues about how Olmsted landscapes impacted people’s lives. Thanks to research institutions across the country sharing images from their collections online, the public can better assess how well Frederick Law Olmsted achieved his goal of transmitting the benefits of greenspaces to a diverse array of people. “It is one great purpose of the Park,” Olmsted noted, “to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork.” Archives can help the public envision parks in the past and consider how people’s experiences in them differ—and remain the same—today 


Alanna Natanson

Archives of American Gardens Intern 

Smithsonian Gardens


“About the Olmsted Legacy.” National Association of Olmsted Parks. Accessed July 2, 2020. 

“Olmsted–Designed New York City Parks.” New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Accessed July 2, 2020.    

Olmsted, Frederick Law. “Selected Writings on Central Park (1858, 1870).” In Empire City: New York Through the Centuries, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson and David S. Dunbar, 278-291. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. GoogleBooks 

Sain-Baird, Jessica. “The Story Behind Central Park’s Rustic Architecture.” Central Park Conservancy. June 15, 2017. 


All images are from Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens.