National Museum of American History Exhibits Art’s Contribution to Economy

“The success of our industry now depends on the union of the artisan with the artist.” "Every Saturday" magazine, Boston 1871

A lamp with a shade

What do a toaster and the Empire State Building have in common? Industrial design. “Art in Industry,” opening March 22 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, looks at how training in visual arts, design and craft contributed to the country’s economic development. The 30-foot-long display is a companion case to the museum’s permanent exhibition “Giving in America,” which will add a focus on art and culture as related to philanthropy and its role in shaping the United States.

“Art in Industry” is a one-year exhibit that showcases the evolution of art and design from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s through a design evocative of the period with three arches forming alcoves, each with a focus on one aspect of the story: learning, working and selling.

“This exhibition captures an era in our history when many people recognized the value of the arts in the pursuit of opportunity,” said Amanda Moniz, the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy. “By embracing and fostering artistic skill through education and marketing, Americans industrialized the United States and turned it into the powerhouse that it is today.”

The display looks at artistic industries as varied as publishing and pottery and showcases objects from the Arts and Crafts movement to industrial design. Visitors will see objects such as an 1894 ornate cash register, electric toasters, pocket watches, cameras and ceramics, including vases and tableware. Other objects relate to education and include drafting, engraving and drawing tools, including those developed to help Americans learn perspective and an early drawing manual. An example of how even children honed artistic skills at home is the Chautauqua Industrial Arts Desk from the early 1900s.

The publishing industry boomed in the mid-1800s, and it not only provided jobs for men and women, it also inspired many to learn to draw. Drawing education expanded into design education, which was taught by a large network of institutions geared toward teaching art for the purpose of employment. These institutions included industrial design schools and settlement houses. Art objects such as pottery and glass range from those made by Charles Louis Tiffany’s company to Steubenville Pottery to lesser-known companies.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th Streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

Media only:
Melinda Machado
Meredith Hessel