1945-: Postwar and Contemporary America

Cold and "hot" wars cast long shadows across the exuberance of post–World War II prosperity, while social, cultural, and technological revolutions changed how and where we live. In the 21st century, America continues to grapple with complex social, economic, and political issues in an increasingly interconnected world. Scientific and medical breakthroughs, technological innovation, political and social change, and popular culture characterize the objects in this final section of the exhibition.

Currently on view

Elmo, 1979

Sesame Street Muppet

Elmo first appeared on Sesame Street in 1979, but his character, as a cheerful three-and-a-half-year-old with a positive attitude, didn't come together until 1984. Since the Elmo has become one of the most popular Sesame Street Muppets, appearing in television specials and videos and inspiring several toys--notably, from 1996, "Tickle Me Elmo."

Gift from the Family of Jim Henson:
Lisa Henson, Cheryl Henson, Brian Henson, John Henson, and Heather Henson

Foreign-Language Political Buttons, 1952–68

Presidential campaign materials

American politicians have courted ethnic voters since 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote to all people born or naturalized in the United States, expanding suffrage to millions of immigrants. In the mid-1900s, More recently, Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls used these pin-back buttons to appeal to immigrant communities.

Alice Paul's Equal Rights Amendment Charm Bracelet, 1972

Representing eleven of the thirty-five states that ratified the ERA

Women’s roles in the home, at work, and in society changed dramatically between 1923, when Alice Paul first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, and 1972, when Congress passed it. But the ERA fell three states short of ratification, ending the last serious quest for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that men and women are granted equal rights under the law.

Gift of Alice Paul Centennial Foundation, Inc.

Adlai Stevenson's Briefcase, 1960s

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis

The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union shaped global politics for forty-five years after World War II. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1962 decision to install nuclear missiles in Cuba brought the two superpowers alarming close to nuclear war. Adlai Stevenson was one of few on President John F. Kennedy’s Security Council to argue for a diplomatic rather than military response.

Gift of Mrs. Ernest L. Ives

Prosthetic Leg Socket, 2003

Made for Staff Sergeant Justin Kautz, Operation Iraqi Freedom

Medical innovation is a necessary consequence of warfare. Whether in a lab or on the battlefield, solutions for trauma care have advanced rapidly to meet the needs of wounded soldiers. New treatments and technologies, along with better transportation, mean that more soldiers now survive devastating injuries.

Transfer from U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Department of Orthotics and Prosthetics, through Dr. Ralph Urgolites

DNA Model Template, 1953

From Francis Crick and James Watson’s original model

Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule responsible for our genetic inheritance, was one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. It opened up the world of genetic testing, crime scene forensics, and even genetic engineering.

Gift of Helen Berman, Ph.D.

Jonas Salk's Polio Vaccine, 1954–55

Vial of some of the first vaccine given to humans

Although Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine promised to eradicate one of the most feared diseases of the early 20th century, its acceptance was hardly easy. Many people feared catching the disease from the vaccine and, in fact, poor quality control by one of the manufacturers led to the infection of about 200,000 people. Others worried about the role of the federal government in administering the vaccine. Today, polio vaccines have eliminated the paralyzing disease throughout most of the world.

Gift of National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis

Apple II Computer, 1980s

Made by Apple Computer, Cupertino, California

Computers transformed how Americans experience daily life. Introduced in 1977, the Apple II series was affordable and commercially successful. It helped usher in the age of personal computing and make the United States the world leader of the computer revolution.

Gift of J. & D. J. Warner

Integrated Circuit, about 1994

Made by Analog Devices, Inc.

Before the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, many electronic devices relied on large glass vacuum tubes or transistors to create and process electrical signals. Continuing development has led to silicon-based microchips that are smaller and faster; as a rule the number of components on integrated circuits doubles every two years. The chips now hold billions of tiny electronic switches, and offer ever-greater computing power at low cost.

Gift of Integrated Circuit Engineering Corporation

Integrated Circuit, 1958

Created by Jack Kilby

Jack Kilby’s demonstration of the first working integrated circuit in 1958 revolutionized the field of microelectronics; he received a Nobel Prize for physics in 2000 for his efforts. Initially invented for military use, microchips can contain millions of diverse components. Continually improved by hundreds of innovations, they eventually made possible the development of the computers and handheld devices that have helped shape and define communication in the digital age.

Gift of Texas Instruments Incorporated, through Jerry R. Junkins

Apolo Ohno's Speed Ice Skates, 2002

Worn in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah

Maintaining traditional values can be difficult for recently arrived families in the United States. Like many immigrant children, Apolo Ohno rebelled against his Japanese-born father’s strict, traditional ways. But his father’s guidance helped Ohno become the most decorated American winter Olympian, credited with popularizing the sport of short-track speed skating.

Gift of Apolo Anton Ohno and Yuki Ohno

Muhammad Ali's Boxing Gloves, about 1974

Muhammad Ali’s religious conversion to the Nation of Islam made him a symbol of the black power movement that grew out of the quest for civil rights in the 1960s. Stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing on religious grounds to be drafted into the U.S. Army, he was eventually reinstated and went on to fight many historic matches.

Gift of Muhammad Ali Enterprises

Typewriter, about 1960

Used by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

San Francisco poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti published and promoted the Beats, a group of post-World War I avant-garde writers and artists. His 1956 arrest on obscenity charges, for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, led to a landmark legal decision affirming the right to free speech.

Video Recorder

Used September 11, 2001

In New York to work on a documentary film about local firefighters, Jules Naudet used this video recorder to capture the only known footage of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center and, later, the activity in the firefighters’ command center inside the lobby of the building.

Gift of Jules and Gédéon Naudet

Archie Bunker's Chair, about 1970

From the CBS television show All in the Family, 1971–79

As the post–World War II baby boom generation matured in the 1970s, many questioned the accepted view of the United States as an ideal and fully free society. Television began to reflect the growing awareness of social injustice with shows like the often-controversial All in the Family. It dealt with race, ethnicity, changing social mores, and the women’s liberation movement.

Gift of Tandem/TAT Productions, through Norman Lear

The objects below are no longer on view

Elphaba Costume, 2003

From the Broadway musical WICKED

Since its 1900 publication, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has inspired one very well-known movie as well as books, songs, and even Broadway musicals. Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman’s award-winning Wicked is based on a 1995 Gregory Maguire novel that explores the relationship between good and evil personified by Glinda the Good and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Gift of Wicked LLC; costume designed by Susan Hilferty and constructed by Eric Winterling, Inc., hat constructed by Rodney Gordon, Inc., broom designed and constructed by Chic Silber/Sunshine Scenic Studios

Kermit the Frog Puppet, 1970

Created by Jim Henson

Educators foresaw television’s potential as an instructional tool as early as the 1930s, but the Public Broadcasting Act was not passed until 1967.Sesame Street debuted on PBS in 1969, with Kermit as the lead Muppet. The show has been heralded for its success in combining education with entertainment, and teaching everything from the alphabet to social tolerance, as in Kermit’s hit song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Gift of Jim Henson Productions

Don Draper's Suit, 2007

Worn by Jon Hamm on AMC's Mad Men

The television drama Mad Men explored the life, work, and relationships of Don Draper, a partner in the fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show was set in the 1960s, at a time when the creative revolution changed advertising. Mad Men sparked a revival in vintage fashions.

Gift of AMC

"The Homosexual Citizen", 1966

Publication of the Washington, D.C., Mattachine Society

In the 1960s, the expansion of civil rights legislation did not extend to gays. Frank Kameny, fired from a civilian army job in 1957 for being homosexual, became one of the earliest gay rights advocates in the country. Modeling the tactics of groups such as the NAACP, he founded Washington’s Mattachine Society, the first organization to aggressively seek equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Gift of Kameny Papers Project

Generation 4 iPod, 2004

Designed by Apple in California, assembled in China

In the 21st century, America has re-emerged as a leader of innovation in music-playing technology. Apple’s introduction of the iPod in 2001 demonstrated that consumer products in the digital age could be well-designed, easy to use, and portable. Its success fueled the growth of the digital marketplace, which has revolutionized how we purchase music and countless other goods.

Gift of Luke Leyh

Sony Walkman Compact Cassette Player, about 1980

Made in Japan

By the 1960s, European and Asian manufacturers had taken the lead in innovative audio technology. Philips, a multinational Dutch company, invented the compact cassette and Japan’s Sony broke into the U.S. market with the first commercially successful transistor radio. Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979. Promoted as the first portable music player, it changed where and how we listened to music.

Gift of Sony Corporation of America 

RCA-Victor 45-RPM Roundtable, about 1949

Made in the United States

As in many areas of manufacturing, the United States dominated the phonograph industry through innovation, mass production, and competitive pricing up to the mid-1900s. But as demand for record players grew after World War II, European and Asian makers took advantage of existing technologies and lower labor costs to sell less-expensive machines. By 1970, Japanese manufacturers had captured a majority of the U.S. phonograph market.

Gift of Irving Kolodin

Quinceañera Outfit, 2006

Worn by Natalia Flores at her fifteenth-birthday celebration in Chicago

America has always been a nation of immigrants, taking in people from around the world. Celebrating a girl’s fifteenth birthday, the quinceañera is one of many ways Latino families maintain cultural and personal identity in the United States. Although Natalia Flores’s mother didn’t have a quinceañera in Mexico, she felt it was important for her daughter to experience this rite of passage.

Gift of Natalia Flores

Bob Dylan's Leather Jacket, about 1965

Worn during a performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

Musician Bob Dylan’s poignant and poetic lyrics made him a leader of America’s acoustic folk revival during the early 1960s. At the Newport Festival, he defied audience expectations and performed with electric instruments for the first time. While this infuriated many folk purists, it proved Dylan’s individuality as an artist, and remains a defining moment in the history of American popular music.

Loan from Bob Dylan

Baseball Uniform, about 1970

Worn by Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Following World War II, about one million Puerto Ricans migrated from the U.S.-held territory to the mainland in search of better opportunities. They created vibrant new communities while maintaining pride in their heritage. Baseball legend Roberto Clemente was a hero to Puerto Ricans here and in his homeland, leading the way for Latinos in professional sports in the United States.

Purchased through a gift from Sports Illustrated

Celia Cruz's Shoes, 1997

Worn by the Cuban “Queen of Salsa”

Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of the Cuban government and subsequent alliance with the Soviets meant an end to the United States’ long involvement in the economy and politics of the island nation. As the political landscape changed dramatically in Cuba, many fled the country, including singer Celia Cruz, who found her place in New York City’s thriving Latino music scene and never returned to her country of origin.

Gift of Celia Cruz 

NAACP Cap, 1963

Worn by the donor during the 1963 March on Washington

Racial inequality was one of the most critical and divisive domestic issues in the nation in the mid-1900s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. The organization worked for legislation and court rulings to secure basic liberties guaranteed by the constitutional amendments of the 1870s.

Gift of Mr. Richard Toye