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Showing posts from October, 2019

America's Pastime Saved by Beer

It is October and the World Series is on the minds of fans, especially here in Washington D.C. For many people baseball revives memories of sitting in the stands drinking an ice-cold beer on a hot Sunday and watching the game from the cheap seats. To the fans, this is paradise and a way to enjoy America’s national pastime. But as American as this seems, there was a time when Sunday baseball, beer, and the cheap seats not only did not exist, they were banned.

Rewind to the early 1870’s, a time when the future of baseball looked bleak. Stadium attendance was low and fans were leaving the game. Corrupt and drunken players on the field and gambling in the darkest corners of the stadiums were running off baseball’s fan base. It was not uncommon for players to throw games for gamblers or not show for games with teams refusing to finish tournaments or seasons. This behavior threatened the end of an American sport.

The game’s salvation came in the form of William Ambrose Hulbert, in 1875. Hulbe…

Soaring through the Archives of Air and Space with Transcription Center

Have you ever wondered what you should pack for a trip to the moon? Or what female aviator clubs were like in the 1930's? How about the history of grape soda and its relationship to America's first transcontinental flight?

       Inflight Coverall Garment, Jacket, Apollo,                     Items taken aboard Apollo 11, NASM Archives.
                                 D19791187000, National Air and Space Museum.

Well you're in luck! The answers to these questions -- recorded in the pages of diaries, letters, and scrapbooks held in the Archives of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) -- are now more easily discoverable thanks to volunteer transcription.


Since 2015, staff in the NASM Archives have launched (pun intended) over 200 projects in the Smithsonian Transcription Center--including stowage lists from six different Apollo missions, records from Calbraith (Cal) Perry Rodgers' 1911 transcontinental flight (which was sponsored by the makers of the popular grape soda, …

Letting the Cat out of the Archives

October, according to National Today, is a month with not one, not two, but four cat-related holidays! There was both Global Cat Day and National Feral Cat Day on October 16, National Black Cat Day on October 27, and National Cat Day on the day that this is scheduled to be posted, October 29. Therefore, it seems only logical that I write a post fit for the occasion.

I simply needed to search “cats” on SOVA – the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives – to find a veritable plethora of cat-related content, containing everything from family photos to paper dolls. The largest clowder of cats appeared to be in the “Warshaw Collection of Business Americana: Animals Series,” so that’s where I started. I looked through a few folders until I came across one which contained two old books with intriguing titles and covers: The Cat Doctor, by Dr. A.C. Daniels (date unknown) and Christopher Cricket on Cats, by Anthony Euwer (1909). The former is an old cat-care guide with a deceptively cute cover – ca…

Archives Contextualize Artist's Work for Conservator

As a textile conservator I am trained to search for clues in textiles; a small label, a repair, or the structure of the fabric help me to understand the history of an object. Much like a detective I sometimes have to dig deeper to solve an object’s mysteries. This past year I had the opportunity to conduct in-depth archival research on a set of quilts in the AnacostiaCommunity Museum’s collection (ACM).
Several quilts that are part of an artwork titled The Shroud Series incorporates fabric patches with photographic images printed on them. The artist Fay Fairbrother designed the quilts based on traditional patterns, and kept them “simple in order for the photographs to speak.”  The quilts juxtapose historic photographs of early twentieth century lynching and gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan with period portraits of African American and white families. This harrowing subject matter made me want to know more about the artists’ life and sources. 

I started my research on Fay Fairbrother by s…

The Interplay of Art, Music, and Portraiture

American portraiture captures rich conversations between artists, musicians, and singers. On the occasion of the Smithsonian’s Year of Music, this essay explores the interplay of art, music, and portraiture in the United States, from the Early Republic to today.
During the eighteenth century, artists were often inspired to portray individuals and groups in the act of playing instruments or singing. A popular theme was the informal family concert, which exemplified the harmony and personal values shared by the represented members. An example is the painting Family of Dr. Joseph Montégut (c. 1797-1800), which has been attributed to José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza. It depicts a French surgeon who has settled in New Orleans. He is surrounded by his wife, great aunt, and children, who are about to play for their parents. Two hold flutes, while a daughter’s hands are poised on the pianoforte keys. This composition of a French Creole family in Spanish-governed New Orleans presents …

Prove It on Me: Ma Rainey and the Queer Blues

"When you see two women walking hand in handJust look 'em over and try to understand"             – George Hannah, "The Boy in the Boat"
In 1925, the Chicago police arrested blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey in her home for hosting a so-called “lesbian party.” While Rainey had been married to a man for 21 years, she was known to take female lovers. It was even rumored that she was romantically involved with another famous blueswoman, Bessie Smith, who bailed Rainey out of jail the following day.


Getting her start on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s, Ma Rainey made her mark as a blues performer just as the genre’s popularity hit its stride in the 1920s. By 1925, she was two years into a lucrative recording contract with Paramount Records, had worked with Louis Armstrong, and was in the middle of what would become a four-year musical partnership with Thomas Dorsey’s Wild Cats Jazz Band. Ma Rainey had earned the title “Mother of the Blues,” and sh…

Plane Spotting: The Photography of Rudy Arnold and Hans Groenhoff

If you are an aficionado of aviation photography, then chances are you have seen the works of Rudy Arnold and Hans Groenhoff. In the 1930s and 1940s, you could open up almost any aviation magazine or mass circulation publication and find a photograph from one of these two men.The photos of Arnold and Groenhoff have been part of the collections of the National Air and Space Museum Archives for many years, but now you can view their amazing work through the Smithsonian OnlineVirtual Archives (SOVA)!
Rudy Arnold was born in 1902 and began his career by studying at the New York School of Photography. Around 1928, he started his own business, with a focus on aviation photography. He primarily worked out of Floyd Bennett Field, Roosevelt Field, and LaGuardia Airport in New York.

Arnold was known for his extensive use of air-to-air photography.


Hans Groenhoff was born in Germany in 1906 and emigrated to the United States in 1927.  A glider pilot and amateur photographer, Groenhoff's photogr…

Transcribing Deaf Folklore from the 1981 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Promoting Accessibility through Transcription Young visitors learn some American Sign Language at the 1981 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Jeff Ploskonka, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.
In 1981, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival included programming about folklore from the Deaf community—often represented with a capital D. Presentations featured Deaf theater, poetry, “signlore,” puns, and many other forms of Deaf folklore. Participants recalled experiences from their childhood, what it’s like to be “deaf in a hearing world,” and some of the challenges they face daily. Overall, the Festival provided attendees with a glimpse into what it’s like to live as a deaf or hard-of-hearing American.

Until now, the audio recordings of discussions and presentations at the Folklore of the Deaf program have been archived in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections but inaccessible to non-hearing people. Now, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is working to caption the audio recor…

Charlotte Cushman's Love With No Name

Language is slippery. Take Charlotte Cushman, for example. Born in Boston in 1816, Cushman started a career in the opera to support her family after her father’s death. When her talent for singing and dramatic acting was recognized, she started touring with theater companies, performing Shakespeare around the United States and Europe. Her deep contralto voice allowed her to play both male and female parts onstage and she became best known for some of her male roles, including her performance as Romeo opposite her sister as Juliet. By mid-century, Cushman had become a household name, and she was easily one of the 19th century’s most famous actresses. Today, we might also look back on Charlotte Cushman’s life and call her the 19th century’s most famous lesbian actress. She sustained numerous monogamous relationships with women, including artist Rosalie Sully and actress Matilda Hays. She also garnered a large female following. Shortly before her death in 1876, she gave a farewell performa…