Treasures Q&A

Treasures Q&A

Treasures of American History

While the Treasures of American History exhibition was on view from November 2006 through April 2008, the public was invited to submit questions about the objects on display. Below is a selection of questions with answers from the museum's curatorial staff.

Q: What size are Dorothy's shoes in "The Wizard of Oz"? What were they actually made of?

A: The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland during the filming of "The Wizard of Oz" are truly a treasure of American history. They have fascinated people for years and evoke many strong emotions, no greater than "There is no place like home."

The ruby slippers are size 5. The bottoms are covered with felt to muffle the sound of footsteps on the uneven surface of the yellow brick road during filming, particularly during vigorous dance numbers. The slight variation of the placement of the bow on the shoes has prompted the observation by some that the shoes are a mismatched pair. Documentation, however, is inconclusive on this question.

By age, markings, and overall craft in evidence, it is clear that these slippers were created by the MGM Studios and were used in the film. The slippers have leather insoles, fabric uppers, and an overlay of netting. The red gelatin sequins were then sewn onto the netting. The decorative bows are encrusted with tubular glass beads and faceted glass beads set in metal mounts.

(Question submitted by Deborah of Pueblo, Colorado.)

Q: Were there any notes taken in Jefferson's Bible?

A: There are a few annotations in the margins of the Jefferson Bible; however, there is not much blank paper on the pages of this small book so there was little room to write. The annotations that do exist are not interpretive sentences. Jefferson's thinking is more clearly represented by what he included and omitted from the assembled work. Passages are clipped from New Testaments in Latin, Greek, French, and English, ca. 1820.

According to a Library of Congress exhibition, Jefferson used excerpts from New Testaments in four languages to create parallel columns of text recounting the life of Jesus, preserving what he considered to be Christ's authentic actions and statements, eliminating the mysterious and miraculous. He began his account with Luke's second chapter, deleting the first in which the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. Jefferson deleted the part of the birth story in which the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. The text ends with the crucifixion and burial and omits any resurrection appearance.

(Question submitted by Erica of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.)

Q: How do you preserve the items in the collection like Jefferson's Bible?

A: The Museum takes its mission to care for its collections very seriously.  Preserving collections is a complex undertaking involving control of the environment, proper storage materials and techniques, consideration of potential exhibit hazards, conservation treatments, and careful object handling.  Even when collecting objects the curatorial staff tries to select objects that are historically important yet structurally stable.  Making sure that the collection will last for the future involves nearly all departments of the Museum.  

Changes in the environment cause dimensional change in objects which in turn can lead to damage—controlling humidity and temperature for storage and display is essential for long term stability of the collections.  All materials used for storage must be stable for decades, if not longer, and not adversely affect the artifacts.  Exhibition designers in concert with conservators analyze the materials used for exhibit cases to ensure that they do not have detrimental effects on the objects.  Light can also cause damage so it must be carefully controlled.  

Conservation involves examination, scientific analysis, and research to determine the original structure, materials, and extent of loss of the artifacts. Conservation also encompasses the structural and chemical treatment to stabilize the object and delay any future deterioration. The Museum has four conservation laboratories dedicated to the preservation of our collections.

Steps taken to display of the Jefferson Bible illustrate some of our preservation work.  The light levels are kept low and the page to which it is displayed is changed every three months to prevent fading of the printing or discoloration of the paper.  The binding is very brittle so a special cradle supports the Bible.  Aside from protecting the Bible from dimensional changes, temperature and humidity are kept at a specified level in order to keep the glue in the binding from desiccating if the humidity is too low or from mold growing if the humidity is too high.

Preservation is a very complicated and involved process. Protecting and caring for the national collections is a major focus of the Museum.

Q: What was Abraham Lincoln's hat size? What is the top hat made of?

A: The answer to this question provides insight into the broader context of 19th-century life and manufacturing processes.  Abraham Lincoln's famous top hat does not have a specific size because hats during most of the 19th century were not made in standard sizes. In fact most clothing in pre-industrial America was custom-made for a particular individual, either at home or by a tailor or dressmaker. Important exceptions were the so-called "slop shops" which produced and sold cheap, ready-made garments for unmarried laborers, sailors on long voyages, and, increasingly after the 1810s, for Southern slaves. Seeking to broaden their markets and utilize idle resources during slow business periods, both slop shops and high-end tailor shops in the 1800s began to produce a full range of ready-to-wear garments for men. This expansion was aided by new technology, a shift in popular taste to looser-fitting fashions that required less precision tailoring, the rise of mail-order catalogs, and the growing social acceptability of ready-made clothing.

Although a few articles such as cloaks, corsets, and hoop skirts were commercially produced, most women’s clothing in the mid-19th century was still custom-made at home or by paid dressmakers.

Like shoes, hats are made on wooden forms called lasts. A specific hat maker would have a series of lasts but one maker's lasts were not necessarily the same as another's. A customer would try a hat on for fit rather than look for a specific size. In a survey of the Museum's collection of hats produced between the 1830s and 1900, none have a sizing label although many have a maker's label. Standard hat sizes probably became popular somewhere between the late 19th and early twentieth century.

Abraham Lincoln's hat, while not marked, equates to a modern hat size of 7 1/8.  It is made of silk fibers over a paper base and fabric lining, trimmed with a silk 3" grosgrain ribbon band (presumably a mourning band added after purchase) and a silk 3/8" ribbon with small metal buckle.

(Question submitted by Drew of Woodruff, South Carolina.)

Q: Do you have a silver bullet from Clayton Moore's "The Lone Ranger" to complement the mask?

A: Yes, the Museum does have one of the Lone Ranger's silver bullets. The mask and a stage prop .45 caliber bullet were given to the Smithsonian by Clayton Moore's daughter, Dawn Moore, in 2002. The bullet is actually made of aluminum. While the "Treasures of American History" exhibition opened with only the Lone Ranger mask on view the bullet was added to the display.

(Question submitted by Kevin of Harbor City, California.)

Q: How is the decision made to collect an item, such as Seinfeld's "puffy shirt," for posterity? How do you know that it will someday be historically significant?

A: Good question! Knowing what to collect is very difficult and there is no one right answer. Most curators prefer not to collect present day artifacts because it is difficult to separate the seeming importance of current events from what is of long lasting historical importance. The advantage of collecting current day events is that artifacts are available, objects that are ephemeral have not been destroyed, and the individuals involved can be interviewed. It is much easier to collect an event present day than twenty or fifty years after the fact. The disadvantage of collecting present day is that things that seem important today can prove to be marginal in the future.

In the case of the puffy shirt (given the number of episodes of "Seinfeld" that were filmed) it is pretty clear that the show is relatively significant in the pantheon of television programs. Of course it is hard to predict whether people will think that "Seinfeld" is important to the history of television comedy (or some other issue) in fifty or 100 years.

Q: Why wasn't September 11 represented in the 'Treasures' exhibition?

A: The single-most asked question posed to the curatorial team regarding the "Treasures of American History" exhibition is why September 11 wasn't represented. Of course a sharp viewer would have recognized that the hard hat worn by iron worker Dennis Quinn (who participate in the World Trade Center clean-up) is included in the "American Identity" section. However, the bigger question is why not include September 11 in the "National Challenges" section of the show? Ignorance of the collection can be dismissed as the two exhibition curators Katy Kendrick and Peter Liebhold were very familiar with the September 11 collection. Katy Kendrick co-authored the "Bearing Witness to History" exhibition and Peter Liebhold was part of the September 11 collecting team.

The reasons that this chapter of American history was omitted were space constraints and, more importantly, the question of what the historical significance of September 11 really is. The terrorist attacks that resulted in the destruction of the World Trade towers, a portion of the Pentagon, and four jetliners were despicable. Yet, as egregious as they were, the long-lasting effect is not clear. Is this an opening chapter in a world war? Would the acts of September 11 be followed by similar attacks? Was September 11 justification for the invasion of sovereign nations? None of the answers is clear. The Smithsonian is committed to a balanced and fair representation of history, yet how to characterize September 11 is difficult. In 20 years the topic will probably be well-researched and considered by dispassionate historians but today September 11 is still part of current events - a topic that we have all lived through and with which we are personally invested.

[Note: The Treasures exhibition was put together in 2006 when the impact of the event was less clear than it would be in subsequent years.]

Q: How do you research an item? For example, how do you know the light bulb you have is Thomas Edison's from his first public demonstration.

A: Authenticity is always a major issue when collecting artifacts. Knowing whether something is truly what it is alleged to be is a major challenge for curators. Physical examination can be very revealing. Is an object technically what it appears to be? With the New Year's Eve 1879 Edison demonstration bulb the object appears to be technically correct. Of course, a fake is always possible. The accession records, however, document the provenance and explain exactly how the donor Frank A. Wardlaw, Jr. and his father Frank A. Wardlaw of New York, New York donated the bulb in 1933. The elder Wardlaw had worked for Edison at the time of the donation and was the secretary of the Edison Pioneers.

Q: What is the composition of the filament in the Edison light bulb? Have you tried to light it?

A: If you look closely at the image of the light bulb you can see the filament is broken and thus the bulb is inoperable. Early incandescent bulbs had fairly short lives because the filaments would either burn out or break.

Thomas Edison was not the first person to invent a light bulb - in 1802 Humphrey Davy demonstrated that a wire would glow when electricity was passed through it and in 1820 Warren de la Rue created an incandescent bulb using a platinum wire. Edison's real honor is that he greatly improved the light bulb and made it a commercial success. Earlier several inventors experimented with different approaches to incandescent bulb design. Some materials like platinum wire were prohibitively expensive. Other materials like carbon burned out quickly. Edison combined experiments with carbonized materials and improved bulb design (creating a vacuum) to create a successful bulb.

Around October 22, 1879 Edison (and his lab workers) successfully made a light bulb using carbonized cotton thread - it burned for about 14 hours. Later that year Edison switched to carbonized paper which is what he used in the bulbs demonstrated on New Years Eve Day, 1879 (the bulb in the Smithsonian collection came from this first public demonstration.) The filament of the New Years Eve bulb was still very fragile so Edison switched to carbonized bamboo.

(Question submitted by Gerard)

Q: Does the compass used by Lewis and Clark still work? Is it accurate?

A: Yes, the Lewis and Clark compass still works. There are very few moving parts in a compass and assuming they don't get dropped or heavily jarred they tend to hold up well. During the installation of the "Treasures of American History" exhibition, there was a lively conversation about how the compass needle still points north.

(Question submitted by Kassandra of Anza, California.)

Q: What is Kermit the Frog made of?

A: Kermit the Frog is a much loved star of the TV shows "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show." Jim Henson first introduced the character in 1955 but the puppet in the Museum collections was made around 1970. The green frog puppet is made of rayon and felt with eyes that are each half of a plastic ping pong ball.  Kermit has a hollow body with wire in the arms to make them bend and the legs are stuffed and hang loosely.

(Question submitted by Caroline of Fairfax, Virginia.)

Q: Helen Keller's watch doesn't seem to be in Braille, how did she know the time?

A: Helen Keller's watch is indeed interesting and it is not immediately visible how it works. This unusual watch, originally made to tell time in the dark, made the perfect present for Helen Keller. Deaf and blind from the age of nineteen months, Keller (1880-1968) grew up to become an accomplished writer and renowned champion for human rights. In 1892, when she was twelve, Keller met John Hitz, the superintendent of Alexander Graham Bell's Washington, D.C. establishment for the deaf, the Volta Bureau. Hitz, a retired diplomat, was the proud owner of a Swiss-made "touch watch." This uncommon watch has a case studded around the edge with pins that correspond to the hours on the watch dial. A revolving hand stops at a point between the pins that corresponds to the hour and approximate minute. With the hand and pins as locators, it was possible to feel the approximate time in the dark or, in the case of a diplomat like Hitz, discreetly. Hitz presented the watch to Keller, who prized it and used it her entire life. Once, in 1952, Keller accidentally left the watch behind in a New York City taxi. She feared it was lost forever. With ads in newspaper lost-and-found columns and the help of the head of the city's pawnbrokers, she recovered her prized possession from a hock shop.

(Question submitted by Nancy of Grand Haven, Michigan.)

Q: How many holes did Custer's buckskin coat have—gun, arrow, or lance?

A: We doubt the Custer jacket in the Smithsonian collection ever saw battle. It has not bullet, lance, or arrow holes. The jacket was donated to the museum by Custer's widow Libby. As Custer was very interested in clothing he owned numerous jackets including the one in the collection. The small stains on the lapel are not blood but just deterioration from age.

(Question submitted by Terral of Columbia, Maryland.)

Q: How did you get the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter from the 60's sit-in?

A: The acquisition of the Woolworth lunch counter is an interesting story about the process of collecting. In 1993 Bill Yeingst, a curator is what was then the Division of Domestic Life, heard an evening news report that F.W. Woolworth Corporation planned to close 900 stores nationwide. He immediately wondered whether the Elm Street store in Greensboro, North Carolina was one of the targeted locations. The next day Bill called the Greensboro store, confirmed that is was set to be closed, and then was referred to the corporate office in New York. After talking to several people he won the company’s support to acquire a portion of the lunch counter, site of perhaps the most famous civil rights sit-in of the 1960s, and preserve it in the Smithsonian collections. The company’s one caveat was that the Smithsonian should first obtain the support of the local community.

The tension between local and national history is something with which Smithsonian staff members constantly wrestle. A story like the Greensboro sit-in is both local and national and the danger is that a big institution such as the Smithsonian might swoop into town and deprive a community of their own history. Sympathetic to this concern Bill and other members of the National Museum of American History staff traveled to Greensboro to meet with members of the City Council, leaders of the African American community, and representatives of a small museum set up to preserve the store and eventually convert it into a civil rights museum. After extensive discussions everyone was comfortable that it would be in the best interests of all if an eight foot section of the lunch counter would be removed and shipped to Washington, DC.

Since its arrival at the National Museum of American History the lunch counter has been on almost constant display earning the brave protestors of Greensboro, North Carolina the respect and honor they deserve in helping end “Jim Crow” segregation.

Q: How did the Smithsonian get these things? Were they purchased or donated?

A: The Smithsonian Institution acquires almost all of its collections as gifts. Donors understand that placing much-loved and often valuable artifacts in the national collections means that they will be accessible to a broad public and cared for and preserved for perpetuity.

While most donations have come from the owners themselves, some of the National Museum of American History’s most prized objects have been “inherited” from other institutions, such as the desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. It was given by Jefferson to his favorite granddaughter, Eleanora Wayles Randolph Coolidge, and her husband, Joseph Coolidge Jr., as a wedding present in 1825. For over 50 years the desk was much revered by the family and occasionally exhibited in Boston. Upon the death of Joseph in 1879 (Ellen had died in 1876), the children presented the desk to President Rutherford Hayes as a gift to the country. For more than forty years it was displayed at the Department of State as an icon of American democracy. In 1921 Secretary of State Charles Hughes transferred the desk to the Smithsonian, recognizing that the Museum could better preserve and display this treasure.

A full list of individuals and organizations who donated artifacts featured in the "Treasures of American History" exhibition is provided on the donor page. It includes many famous names—Muhammad Ali donated his boxing gloves, and Alexander Graham Bell donated his telephone, for example—as well as ordinary Americans who generously chose to share their treasures with the nation.

Q: Is there a list available to the public of all the items that the museum has collected over the years?

A: I am afraid there is no single list of all the objects in the National Museum of American History collections. We are slowly putting object descriptions and photographs of the collection on the web but with over 1.8 million pieces it will many years before the entire collection is available to the public for perusal.

(Question submitted by Valerie of Chesterfield, Virginia.)

Q: When you put dates under the items you have on view does that mean that it's the date you found the item? Or is it the date when the person was alive?

A: In the "Treasures of American History" exhibition, the date next to the object name refers to the date of the object. In other words Jacqueline Kennedy's inaugural gown was worn in 1961. The watch presented to Helen Keller by John Hitz was actually made around 1880 (ironically the year of her birth.) The Thomas Edison light bulb is one that he used to demonstrate his invention on New Year's Eve December 1879. The date the museum collected these artifacts is often much later and not provided.

(Question submitted by Kelsey of Spring Mills, Pennsylvania.)