Souvenir Nation

The History Collection: Part 1

The objects pictured here are from the collection of the Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s history collection began in 1883, when the US government transferred historical artifacts, including George Washington’s uniform and household effects, from the US Patent Office to the new National Museum building (now known as the Arts & Industries building) on the Mall. 

The Patent Office loaned the government’s historical relics for special occasions of national significance. This group of George Washington relics was displayed at the 1876 centennial celebration in Philadelphia. The display included (from left to right) a leather bag containing George Washington’s Revolutionary War field tent, a pair of pistols, the Benjamin Franklin cane, a camp chest, dress uniform, dress sword in a leather scabbard, dispatch case, camp pots and pans with trivet, and a bellows. 

George Washington relicsCentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1876 

George Washington relics
Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1876 

[SI #74-388-35]

Visitors to the United States National Museum (now the Arts & Industries building), about 1881 

Visitors to the United States National Museum (now the Arts & Industries building), about 1881 

[SI #5787]

The transfer of the government’s historical collections from the Patent Office established the history collection of the United States National Museum. However, the scientists who directed the Smithsonian had no plans for a separate history department. Historic objects, such as Washington’s household effects from Mount Vernon, were assigned to the Division of Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology. Eventually a Section of Historical Relics was created within the Division of Ethnology.

Catalog card recording the transfer of the government’s historical artifacts to the United States National Museum, 1883–84

Catalog card recording the transfer of the government’s historical artifacts to the United States 
National Museum, 1883–84

This case held relics deposited by the Daughters of the American Revolution. They included a Revolutionary-era spinning wheel that had belonged to the great-grandmother of museum director George Brown Goode.

North Hall exhibits, Arts & Industries building, 1897 

North Hall exhibits, Arts & Industries building, 1897 

[cyanotype SI #14414]