The National Museum of American History Explores the Promise of America Through Three 19th Century Communities

Exhibition Marks Museum’s New Focus on American Identity
February 10, 1999

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History inaugurates a new focus on American identity with the opening of its new permanent exhibition, “Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America.” Opening Feb. 12, the exhibition focuses on 19th century industrial workers and managers in Bridgeport, Conn.; Jewish immigrants in Cincinnati, Ohio; and slaves and free blacks in the low country of South Carolina. Dynamic panoramas, more than 200 historical artifacts and almost 400 photographs, illustrations, graphics and personal recollections explore what the promise of America meant to the three different communities. 

The pursuit of America’s promise of freedom, opportunity and equality is illustrated through the challenges, successes and constraints of people in the three communities. The exhibition offers a thought-provoking examination of industrialization, immigration and the experience of African Americans in the rapidly evolving society of the 1800s. 

“This exhibition marks the museum’s commitment to explore the history and evolution of an array of American communities and how those communities have shaped the American identity,” said Spencer R. Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. 

The 5,000-square-foot exhibition is divided into five areas: 

An introductory section which sets the stage for the period with icons such as the compass that guided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to unexplored Western territories in 1804

The three community segments titled: 

“Owners, Mechanics, and Operatives: The Promise of Industrialization”

“Jewish Immigrants: The Promise of a New Life”

“African Americans in Slavery and Freedom: Promise Deferred” 

A conclusion which juxtaposes the promises of the 19th century with the realities of the 20th. 

“Owners, Mechanics and Operatives: The Promise of Industrialization” looks at the new world of mills and factories through the eyes of the Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Co., Bridgeport’s then largest employer. The world within and outside the factory gates in Bridgeport comes to life, contrasting the struggles of a new working class with the social mobility of newly wealthy industrialists. Workers, who often toiled in dangerous conditions, began to build supportive communities in the form of labor unions. Union badges, a worker’s tool chest and other artifacts symbolize the occupational pride and investment employees had in their trades. Their story is contrasted with that of factory owner Nathaniel Wheeler, for whom the promise of prosperity became reality. 

“Jewish Immigrants: The Promise of a New Life” considers the experiences of the 200,000 central European Jews who arrived in the United States between 1820 to 1880. Focusing on Cincinnati, this section uses personal recollections, photographs and objects to tell the stories of immigrants like Sophia and Philip Goldsmith, Isaac Bernheim, and Emily and Alfred Seasongood. Seeking economic opportunity and equality, they relied on a strong sense of family and community to make the economic transformation from peddlers to merchants and manufacturers. All the while, Jewish immigrants struggled to maintain their traditions as they integrated into American society. The Cincinnati-area Jewish community made an important contribution to the development of American Reform Judaism. 

“African Americans in Slavery and Freedom: Promise Deferred” provides insights into the experience of slavery and the limits placed on free blacks through the eyes of people who lived in low-country South Carolina in the 1800s. Artifacts, words, photographs and a re-creation of a weather-worn slave cabin illuminate the spirit that helped African Americans to survive in an often hostile world. Meeting places such as churches and the Charleston Market allowed the area’s diverse black population to develop into a cohesive community. While the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction promised citizenship, economic opportunity and education to this community; it was a promise soon deferred. 

“The 19th century was a time of promise – freedom, equality and opportunity,” said Lonnie G. Bunch, associate director for curatorial affairs at the museum and the curator of the African American section of the exhibition. “Yet, as the exhibition reveals, not all the promises became reality for everyone. But in seeking a better life, ultimately these 19th century Americans defined, re-shaped and formed the United States we live in today.”

At the close of the 19th century, the United States had became the industrial powerhouse of the world. The pursuit of the American Dream was the catalyst that made this growth possible. The promises of America – equality, democracy, land, abundance, progress, opportunity, freedom, and independence – are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s. 

As visitors exit “Communities in a Changing Nation,” a dramatic display of the possibility and promise of America today invites them to contemplate what the promise holds for the 21st century. 

In the future, the museum intends to explore other communities such as the ones in the West – the “Promised Land” for some Americans, but already home to Latino and American Indian communities. 

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photos and slides are available from the museum’s Office of Public Affairs, (202) 357-3129 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.