Object Groups

The National Museum of American History preserves a wide variety of historical artifacts, archival documents, and library materials. In these Object Groups, curators have gathered items that relate to each other and provided background and contextual information to supplement basic object identifications.

Featured Object Groups

All Object Groups

  • Survey Print
    Nearly 40 examples of prints from three government survey expeditions to the American West: the U.S. and Mexico Boundary Survey, the U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere, and the U.S. Pacific Railroad Surveys.
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  • A collection of adders including a Magic-Brain Calculator, an Exactus Mini-Add, a Troncet Arithmographe, and a Locke Adder.
    From the mid-19th century, Americans have used simple instruments to assist them in doing arithmetic. Some of these did not actually add and subtract, but made it easier for users to do so. These included not only the abacus, but also devices called adders.
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  • An image displaying several adding machines from the Division of Medicine and Science.
    For most of human history arithmetic has been an act of human intelligence, aided only occasionally by devices like counters, the abacus, or the slide rule. The collections of the National Museum of American History document the development of adding machines, from stylus-operated models to increasingly compact, light and powerful key driven instruments. The corporate collections of the pioneering firms of Felt & Tarrant and Burroughs are especially well represented.
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  • American Samplers
    By the 1700s, samplers were being worked by young women to learn basic needlework skills. Samplers are important representations of early American female education and this group features 50 of the 137 American samplers in the Textile Collection.
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  • A picture of the Arithmetic School, a toy by Playskool.
    Objects for math instruction reveal the changing role of arithmetic in American education. From the 1820s, teachers in public schools encouraged mental discipline by using textbooks and blackboards, while the teaching abacus and special geometric models utilized tactile learning. In the early 1900s, psychologists and math teachers used new educational theories to develop special flash cards, standardized tests, and educational games. During the 1950s and 1960s, more abstract approaches gained prominence. Recently, inexpensive electronic calculators have been used to teach— as well as perform —arithmetic.
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  • The Art of Frank Gasparro consists of 115 drawings, plaster models, photographs, newspaper clippings and ephemera collected by, and related to, Frank Gasparro, the 10th United States Chief Engraver. Christina Hansen, Gasparro's daughter, donated the collection in 2009 to the National Numismatic Collection (NNC).
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  • Balm of America Banner image, a collection of medicine
    Selected objects from the Museum’s significant collection of patent medicines. Begun in 1930, the collection has grown to over 4,000 products dating from the 19th century to the present day.
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  • A representative sample from the bookkeeping machines collection in the Division of Medicine and Science.
    Beginning in the 14th century, a small number of European businesses kept careful written records of receipts and expenditures. These bookkeeping methods gradually diffused throughout Europe and the United States.  With the advent of typewriters and adding machines, many large retail firms, government offices, and banks invested in custom-made, expensive bookkeeping machines. The bookkeeping machines in the collection of the National Museum of American History come from a variety of makers, including adding machine manufacturer Burroughs, cash register maker NCR, and typewriter firms Remington and Underwood.
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  • The Bristol-Myers Squibb European Apothecary is an eclectic collection of more than 1300 pharmaceutical artifacts assembled over a period of forty years by Dr. Jo Mayer, a German Jewish pharmacist.
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  • An image featuring several calculating machines from the collection.
    This group contains the calculating machine collection from the Division of Medicine & Science at the National Museum of American History. During the late 19th and early 20th century, calculating machines served as common tools of scientists, engineers, statisticians, actuaries, government officials, and payroll clerks. Around 1970, calculating machines began to be replaced by cheap electronic calculators and the devices became hefty reminders of a bygone era.
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  • The following group of California mission postcards includes views associated with the twenty-one missions established between 1769 and 1823 by Spanish Franciscan missionaries along the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco.
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  • A selection of cash registers exemplifying their technological development from 1878 until 1970.
    As American business and cash purchases expanded in the second half of the 19th century, shopkeepers bought recorders and registers to secure their money and track transactions. This object group traces the development of the register from its invention in 1878, suggests the dominance of the market by National Cash Register Company during much of the 20th century, and shows the introduction of electronic point of sale terminals and the rise of the Universal Product Code.
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  • Clothing houses people. These objects provide not just warmth and wrapping of the human form, but also establish identity and distinctiveness. The Virginia Lee Mead collection objects give insight on a Chinese immigrant family through the clothes in which they lived
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  • Some of the simplest computing devices made and sold are aids to counting.  From ancient to early modern times, scribes performing calculations moved small stones or metal tokens along lines.  More recently, mechanical counters have been widely used to count crowds and objects,  and as parts of machines. In the nineteenth century, several inventors patented mechanical counters.  Patent models surviving in the Mathematics Collections at the National Museum of American History suggest the range of their concerns.   
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  • A collection of dividers and compasses in the Division of Medicine and Science's Mathematics collection.
    Dividers and compasses are instruments for mathematical and engineering drawings that have also been used in schools. Additionally, dividers were employed in conjunction with other measuring and calculating instruments, such as sectors. The metal, wood, and plastic objects in this collection were used in Europe, North America, and Japan from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
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  • An image showing a variety of drafting pens and pencils from the Division of Medicine and Science.
    While writing implements are found throughout NMAH, this object group focuses on about three dozen pens, pencils, and related objects in the mathematics collections. It illustrates some of the diversity in writing tools used for technical drawing in Europe and the United States from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
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  • A collection of desktop electronic calculators in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.
    The expansion of American business, science, and technology in the years following World War II created a demand for powerful computing machines at a relatively moderate price. The development of compact electronic components—first sturdy vacuum tubes, and then transistors, made this a physical possibility; and led to the introduction of the desktop electronic calculator in the early 1960s.
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  • Engraved woodblock of the “Dance of the Nahikai” by Henry Hobart Nichols published in  the Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, 1883-84.
    This group contains over 77 examples of the engraved wood blocks and electrotypes used in illustrating the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1879 until 1965 now in the Graphic Arts collection in the National Museum of American History.
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  • Historic objects relating to the management of diabetes
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  • During the opening months of World War II, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens of the United States, were forced out of their homes and into detention camps established by the U.S. government. Many would spend the next three years living under armed guard, behind barbed wire. This collection explores this period when racial prejudice and fear upset the delicate balance between the rights of the citizen and the power of the state. It tells the story of Japanese Americans who suffered a great injustice at the hands of the government, and who have struggled ever since to ensure the rights of all citizens guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  
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  • Some kinematic models from the Division of Work and Industry.
    The Smithsonian’s collection of kinematic models is housed in the National Museum of American History. These models were published by the German firm of Martin Schilling at the turn of the 20th century. Kinematic models were used to produce mathematical curves and other mathematical concepts useful to mathematicians, engineers and scientists.
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  • Those learning and using mathematics have long consulted tables of numbers. This collection from the Division of Medicine and Science illustrates the role of numbers in everyday American life—in schools, commerce,weights, measurements, banking, taxation, sales, shipping, payroll, manufacturing, gunnery, and public safety.  
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  • Cartoonist, book illustrator, and children’s author David Crockett Johnson painted over 100 works relating to mathematics and mathematical physics. 80 of these paintings are in the Museum's collections.
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  • A set of seven copper-soldered wooden volumetric measures from largest to smallest, 1 dekaliter (a dekaliter is 10 liters), 1/2 dekaliter (5 liters), 2 liters, 1 liter, 5 deciliters (a deciliter is 1/10 of a liter or 100 cubic centimeters), 2 deciliters, and 1 deciliter.
    These objects illustrate the development of standard American weights and measures. The U.S. Constitution explicitly grants the federal government authority to establish uniform national standards. From 1834, these were customary British units. Not long after the French Revolution of 1789, France introduced a system of weights and measures that survives today as the metric system. These units were adopted internationally during 19th and 20th centuries. While the U.S. took steps to adopt the metric system, current American weights and measures remain a mix of the this system and customary units.
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  • "Mexican America" is a sampling of objects from the collections of the National Museum of American History. The stories behind these objects reflect the history of the Mexican presence in the United States.
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  • Consolidated Coal Company Miners showing proper method of shooting coal, March 6, 1924.
    This group features a variety of mining lamps, lights, hats and helmets from the collection of the Division of Work and Industry. Mining lights include oil-wick lamps, carbide lamps, and safety lamps. The mining hats are often soft caps with metal or leather mounts for a light. The hard plastic helmets have mounts for mining lights, usually electric lamps.
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  • This searchable online collection contains a small sampling of objects from the National Numismatics Collection, which is comprised of approximately 1.6 million objects, including over 450,000 coins, medals and decorations and 1.1 million pieces of paper
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  • The collection contains more than 500 quilts—both quilts made for functional, utilitarian purposes as bedding, and others made mainly for decorative purposes—and quilt-related items.
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  • Capt. William Andrew Field's parallel rule.
    Parallel rules help draftsmen, surveyors, cartographers, architects, and navigators draw accurate parallel lines. The collection includes both hinged and rolling parallel rules from the 18th to 20th centuries.
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  • Patent Models at the National Museum of American History that relate to graphic arts.
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  • This sampling of over 40 patent models includes textile machinery (1837-1840) and sewing machines (1842-1854).
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  • A planimeter with a closed curve.
    Situations frequently arise in which a person needs to measure the area of a two-dimensional space bounded by a closed curve. Planimeters are instruments used to help find that area, by tracing the curve with a needle point connected to a measuring wheel that converts the distance of the tracing to the result of an integral function. Planimeter users include cartographers representing landscapes with irregular boundaries, medical professionals measuring an image of a tumor or internal organ, biologists observing irregularly-shaped natural phenomena, or machinists monitoring steam engines for efficiency.
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  • Without indoor plumbing, bathing in the early 19th to the early 20th centuries involved filling small portable tubs with water, bucket by bucket. 10 examples of portable bathtubs are featured here.
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  • This collection features printing matrices—either engraved plates and blocks or lithographic stones—used to print the Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and its accompanying volumes.
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  • Some examples of protractors in the collection
    Protractors are mathematical drawing instruments used to draw and measure angles, typically used by students in geometry. But protractors have a long history of applications in navigation, surveying, engineering, and war.
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  • Learn the story behind recombinant DNA, an early genetic engineering technique, from its conception in the lab to its commercial use to produce drugs for the pharmacist’s shelf.
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  • This group contains length measures (rulers, yardsticks, and the like) as well as other (usually rectangular) instruments for drawing, measuring and calculating. These include architect's scales, plotting scales, triangular rules, and Gunter's scales.
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  • Sectors are mathematical calculating instruments chiefly used by Europeans - including in North America —from the 16th to 19th centuries. This collection of 23 objects illustrates the three main forms of sectors. They are made from brass, ivory, and wood, and they range in length from 3" to 13" when folded.
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  • A Eugene Dietzgen Company set of drawing instruments.
    From the 18th through the 20th centuries, instrument makers and retailers sold a selection of dividers, compasses, protractors, curves and triangles, rulers, calipers, sectors, pencils, and other mathematical and drawing tools in sets to draftsmen, architects, builders, and engineers. These sets were often packaged in sturdy wooden cases or pocket holders covered in leather.
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  • An image of various slide rules from the collection of the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.
    Slide rules were the primary calculating instruments for engineers, scientists, students, and others in North America, Europe, and East Asia from the late 19th century until inexpensive electronic calculators became available in the late 20th century. This collection of over 250 objects also illustrates earlier aspects of the history of slide rules and the variety of calculating tasks that inventors have attempted to simplify by designing slide rules.  
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  • A few squares and triangles from the Mathematics collection in the Medicine and Science.
    From the 17th through the 20th centuries, draftsmen, surveyors, navigators, military engineers, and architects used set squares, T-squares, L-squares, and drafting triangles to draw vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. These instruments were sometimes combined with scale rules and other drawing instruments.
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  • A collection of tabulating machines in the collections of mathematics, Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History
    Beginning in the late 19th century, Americans used special tabulating machines to compile the large quantities of data accumulated by governments, large businesses, and scientists. Operators punched holes in cards. Machines read these, accumulated totals, and sorted the cards for further processing. Tabulating machines would be displaced by electronic computers beginning in the 1950s, although punched cards remained in use somewhat longer.
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  • Explore Puerto Rico’s history, from the 16th to the 20th centuries, through the eyes of collector Teodoro Vidal. Vidal captured the island’s history by collecting thousands of objects. Over 80 artifacts are featured here.
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  • The abacus is a computing device on which arithmetic calculations are performed by sliding counters (beads, pebbles, or flat discs) along rods, wires or lines.
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  • The Brown Box
    Ralph Baer donated his video game test units, production models, notes, and schematics to the Museum in 2006. 11 objects are featured in this online collection.
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  • S. J. Ferris Self-portrait
    A selection of prints collected by Stephen James Ferris (1835–1915), a Philadelphia painter and etcher. The collection includes over 2,000 European and American prints and a variety of artistic subjects, compositions, and styles.
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  • A group of objects related to the sinking of the Titanic, including the stories of the Carpathia rescue ship, Bernice Palmer, and Harry Cheetham.
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  • During the last third of the 19th century American mathematics matured and American women gained access to both undergraduate and graduate education. Most of the items in the Smithsonian collections that relate to women mathematicians are connected with pioneering women who joined the growing American mathematical community before World War II. The objects in this collection illustrate diverse aspects of the personal and professional lives of several women mathematicians.
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