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When the Virginia all-state student orchestra launched into the first thrilling notes of John Williams's Star Wars theme, the lump in my throat was not just due to the fact that my daughter was a member of the violin section. Though parental pride and mixed feelings about her approaching high school graduation were definitely factors, the emotional significance was heightened by the fact that Star Wars, the movies and the music, has been an ever-present part of my life since my own childhood, a long time ago in faraway Southern California. It felt like coming full circle.
May 25, 2017, marks the 40th anniversary of the release of George Lucas's first Star Wars film, the "space opera" that took the world (er, galaxy?) by storm. I was solidly in the movie's target demographic, an eight-year-old when the movie hit the theaters. At the release of the final episode of the initial trilogy, Return of the Jedi, I was 14. Like so many others, Star Wars was simply baked into my identity during those formative years. Knowing I am but one of many who are fans of the franchise (and by no means the most knowledgeable), as an anniversary tribute, I offer four reasons why the films became such an important part of my life.
1. The marriage of timeless familiarity and futuristic "otherness"
Lucas drew on a wealth of cultural tropes, familiar character types, and well-worn storytelling techniques in the creation of Star Wars. This made the story and the characters instantly comprehensible, even to an eight-year-old. There were good guys, there were bad guys, and there were rascals just looking out for themselves. There was even a sort of spiritual element that rang true. And yet, the setting was totally exotic and unfamiliar—and looked fantastic in fleshed-out detail, from the famous opening shot onward. This combination of factors meant that I (and so many others) could comfortably dwell in this world and grasp its moral code, while at the same time remaining free from any Earth-bound limitations. Through the exercise of imagination, it became both intimately personal and infinitely expandable. I realize now that the films' famous tagline, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…" sets up this dichotomy and is just another bit of Lucas's genius.
Star Wars' sticking power was given a generous boost by the availability of a host of toys, books, and other ancillary products. Lucas's plans for a licensed merchandise campaign were ambitious for their time. Even so, the supply of Star Wars figures and toys could not initially keep up with demand, taking a year or more to catch up. Who knew the movie would be so popular?
My nearby cousins, who were close in age and also avid fans, did their part to make the Star Wars merchandising effort a multi-billion dollar juggernaut (their parents were a little less tight-fisted than mine). We spent hours "playing Star Wars" together. My favorite memory is of a miniature cantina set we created using multiple figures, complete with music and disco light. We enjoyed poring over Star Wars encyclopedias, and traded notes about novels set in the Star Wars universe. For so many of us, this type of play kept Star Wars alive in the imagination, especially during those long waits between movies.
And still it continues as another generation "plays Star Wars," though some of the forms might have changed. Fueled by books, Star Wars Lego sets, video games, and the like—including of course, the movies, which can now be seen on demand—my kids have become perhaps even bigger Star Wars nerds than I am, though it pains me to admit it.
3. Movie-watching technology
Technology is but one of many lenses through which the Star Wars phenomenon can be viewed. Though as a kid (and OK, as an adult) I was fascinated to learn the techniques behind the movies' groundbreaking special effects, there were other tech developments that had a more immediate impact on how we experienced Star Wars.
The first time I saw the original movie was while my family was on vacation in Hawaii, in a little theater with tinny sound that had been converted from an old Quonset hut. The setting didn't do much to convey the desired effect. When we saw it again in a better-equipped theater at home, it was an entirely different movie. Fast-forward six years, and for the debut of Return of the Jedi, Lucas introduced his THX quality assurance system for movie theaters, which helped ensure accurate, high-fidelity sound reproduction. I knew that I wanted to experience this movie right off the bat in its full THX-certified, 70mm glory (which I did at the giant Avco Cinema in West L.A.). THX, Dolby, and other standards and technologies would raise the bar for how movies sounded and looked from the 1970s and '80s onward.
On the other end of the spectrum, home video came of age in the era of Star Wars. In fact the first VHS video cassette recorder was released in the United States the very same year—1977. It would be some time before my family owned a VCR, but once we did you can bet that some of the first videos I wanted to own were Star Wars films. In particular, a cherished copy of The Empire Strikes Back was our go-to when my high school friends came over to hang out. It is hard to describe to younger generations how revolutionary it was to be able to watch a favorite movie whenever, and as many times, as you wanted to.
4. The soundtrack
Dum dum dum dum-dee dum, dum-dee dum! Even without hearing the notes, you and about a billion other people may recognize this as the Imperial March (Darth Vader's theme). I don't have data to prove it, but Star Wars music must be some of the most universally recognized around the world, and we cannot conceive of the films without the inspired John Williams soundtracks.
From a young age I was very into music and attuned to sound—for a time I wanted to be an audio engineer—and the sounds of Star Wars were every bit as pleasurable to me as the visuals. The original soundtrack double-album by the London Symphony Orchestra was one of my prized possessions. I spent hours listening to the records while looking at the pictures on the inside of the album cover, and I attempted to pick out the tunes on the piano (ach, those chord progressions!). It gratifies me to know that today Williams is considered as more than just a writer of "background music," but rather as a top-tier American composer worthy of our great concert halls.
Which brings me back to my daughter's concert, and the milestone anniversary. Forty years on, I have to thank George Lucas and all his collaborators. Whether it's the excitement of young people having the opportunity to play this beloved (and challenging!) music they have grown up with, or the thrill of getting to experience a new generation of films with my own kids, or a weekend movie night putting on one of the old favorites at home, Star Wars has brought me, and millions upon millions of other people, a lot of escapist pleasure and rather innocent fun. And that's not a bad contribution to make to the world.
For more on Star Wars in the museum's collection, see this blog post. Matthew MacArthur is the Digital Experience Program Director at the National Museum of American History.
Confession: This month, we celebrate Mother's Day and I'm jealous of you if you still have your mom. I lost mine to breast cancer when I was 30 and a mother myself for all of six months. And sometimes the anniversary of her death, May 7, falls just before Mother's Day.
Admission: It's Mother's Day and if you've lost your child, my heart breaks for you.
A day that celebrates the importance of mothers, which is rightfully joyful, can also heighten underlying pain and sorrow for many. A pair of images in the Photographic History Collection by Gertrude Käsebier embody the emotional and psychological power that we often attribute to motherhood. Their beauty and drama are an ode to the significant relationship that helps shape us as individuals and as a culture.
Käsebier, a mother of three, became a photographer in her early forties, around 1895, in part to escape an unhappy marriage. Pictorialism, the soft focused and often sentimental style of photography, was an artistic style and a mode in which photography emulated and referenced other forms of art. Drawing on her strong views of life, her interest in the lives of women, and her artistic skills, she would become and remain one of the most influential photographers in the history of photography. Motherhood is a common theme in Käsebier's work, often tinged with sentimentality and religious connotations, but these two photographs in particular are less heavy-handed than some of her other works. Today, over a century later, her photographs still resonate with us.
Blessed Art Thou Among Women
In Blessed Art Thou Among Women, a young girl stands in the space between two rooms with a woman wearing a lightweight shift leaning in toward her. Images such as this, of a girl on the threshold of womanhood, represent a theme long represented in literary and artistic traditions. Note the image behind the woman's head that suggests the photographer is hinting at a classical reference. In fact it's an annunciation image, but most of us won't know that. It's enough to for us to think it's a classical image of some sort because then we are thinking that perhaps there is some long-standing human truth for which this image is about. The title of the photograph does come from a Bible verse, Luke 1:42. This work has many layers to be interpreted. For today, I read this as mostly a secular image because Käsebier has placed her version of this trope in a specific time period with the girl's contemporary dress. She stands in the doorway of an inner domestic space ready to take a metaphorical step into a new, bigger world.
Is the woman her mother or some other significant woman in the girl's life, a muse, or perhaps even an angel? What could she be saying or whispering? Or is she looking behind at the girl's childhood? What guidance and advice will the girl take forward? The experience of receiving advice as a youth is universal, and Käsebier's balance of cues and specifics creates space for the viewer to bring her own memories, ideas, and emotions to the photograph to make it meaningful to the viewer. The aesthetics of the images, the lightness, soft-focus, and delicacy, lend a feeling of optimism and hope
The photograph takes on additional power when we know that the girl, Peggy, died not long after the image was made. Hope and anticipation for her future are changed to grief. It is a grief that no one wishes upon a parent, but it remains all too common.
The Heritage of Motherhood
The woman in both photographs is Peggy's mother, a poet and friend of the photographer named Agnes Lee. In The Heritage of Motherhood, she is placed in a vaguely desolate, gloomy space. It is a physical space but also represents emotional and psychological states of grief. Lee's closed eyes, upturned face, vulnerable neck, and tightly clasped hands combine to suggest a sorrowful prayer. There are several versions of this photograph. This version brings Lee closer to the center and foreground of the photograph so that she fills much of the frame. The minimal information in the background and her prominence make it difficult to avoid her. Käsebier compels us to intrude upon the moment in which she is focused on an internal contemplation to acknowledge that while we may wish to move on, the mother's grief looms large.
Blessed Art Thou Among Women has always been one of my favorite photographs. One of the things that makes it so powerful is its subsequent pairing with The Heritage of Motherhood. I am grateful that these two women did not render these precious expressions as saccharine sentimental images. They partnered to give us a moment of their truth depicted in an artistic manner, leaving the viewers space to find their own truth, too. When the first photograph was made, none of its participants knew what was going to happen. But that's how it is, right? We do our best each day to prepare ourselves, and those we guide, for the best future we can imagine for them. But life, made only more precious by its opposite—death—is fragile and can be unpredictable. Käsebier's and Lee's willingness to acknowledge and visualize a most personal and yet shared pain of loss, gives viewers a chance to examine and value the gift, and its loss, that is the real and idealized relationship between mothers and their children. We all have a timeline that is unknown to us, so whether the women who guide you through life are near or far, within your clasp or in your heart, I wish you peace and gratitude on Mother's Day.
Shannon Perich is curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.
Cultivating America’s Gardens, our newest exhibition produced with Smithsonian Gardens is now open in the National Museum of American History and features many colorful seed catalogs from our collection. This post, highlighting seedsman John Lewis Childs, was written by social media intern Trudi J. Antoine. While some children played games and chased the pavement, John more »
The post John Lewis Childs: A Profile of an American Seedsman. appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.
Taking on Fannie Farmer: How a baking-impaired intern negotiated a 100-year-old bread recipe in a modern kitchen
I do not bake. My cookies burn, my pie crust is either too dry or too sticky, and my pies turn out watery. So how did I find myself lead baker testing a 100-year-old bread recipe? The bread recipe, Entire Wheat Bread, came from the 1911 edition of the 1896 Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time because it was "reliable, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow," everything I needed more than a century later. My predicament sprang from my involvement in a new Smithsonian Food History program, Harvest for the Table, a free daytime hands-on activity exploring the technological innovations in wheat and flour production over 100 years ago. It was my job to test the bread recipe in preparation for possible future programs in our demonstration kitchen.
First came the flour. I used the coarse, brown, stone-ground flour milled by museum visitors during our Harvest for the Table program. (See our calendar for dates and times.) Until the 1880s, this type of "entire" or whole wheat flour was standard. The introduction of the steel roller mill, still the dominant mill type today, changed the flour industry by stripping the bran and germ from the wheat kernel, producing a whiter flour (desired by customers) with a greater shelf life and enhanced baking performance. Over 100 years ago, Farmer experienced firsthand these technological innovations and witnessed the rise in white flour. She felt its impacts on home baking, observing how "entire" wheat flour was only available in health food stores and, much to her disapproval, how manufacturers marketed identical flour under a variety of new brand names.
Next on the ingredient list, one yeast cake. What in the world was a "yeast cake?" Research led me to specialty food sellers still carry these small, moist cakes enclosed in tin foil. Sold by Fleischmann's and others, this is a product with which cooks in the 1890s would be very familiar—but I sure wasn't. I used a modern conversion chart to figure out how much of my dry yeast to add.
According to Farmer, yeast is a necessary addition to the bread dough because it acts as a ferment and "attacks some of the starch in flour, and changes it to sugar, and sugar in turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide, thus lightening the whole mass." Yeast also gives bread its distinctive flavors and irresistible smell while also interacting with the protein in flour, gluten, to give the bread its structure. When the dough is kneaded, the act stretches the gluten and allows it to fill with gas bubbles from the yeast while the dough rises. However, Farmer warns, "If risen too long, [the bread] will be full of large holes; if not risen long enough, it will be heavy and soggy." She continues, "If proper care is taken, the bread will be found most satisfactory, having neither 'yeasty' nor sour taste." That was my goal: to make a "most satisfactory" loaf.
Experienced bakers will notice that I haven't mentioned the salt or milk Farmer would have used or the modern equivalents. These ingredients certainly have interesting stories to tell, but I need to get this loaf in the oven before my internship is over!
When it came time to put my dough in the oven, I found myself playing the bread whisperer. Farmer's oven was still fueled by fire. Her cookbook even describes how to control airflow and fuel in the cookstove in order to control its temperature. Most recipes classified temperature in three ways: hot, moderate, and cool. Bakers tested their oven's temperature by placing their hand in the oven and seeing how long they could bear the heat or by placing flour on the oven floor and waiting for it to brown or catch fire. According to Farmer in her 1896 cookbook, "Experience is the best guide for testing temperature of [the] oven." Her readers in 1911 had coal- and wood-burning ranges without temperature controls, but I never learned that intuition using today's calibrated ovens. Choosing to avoid oven fires or burning my hand, I did as Farmer suggested and drew from past baking experience. I set my oven to 400 degrees.
With trepidation I placed my doughy loaf into the oven. Even with modern equipment, it had taken me several hours to make a single loaf of bread, having kneaded and let the bread rise twice before baking it for approximately 40 minutes. While there is a movement today to make artisanal bread as an alternative to mass-produced loaves, most modern bread comes from a supermarket. It is hard to imagine making bread every day as a necessity, let alone lighting a fire to bake bread!
Innovations over the past century have distanced most consumers from their bread, trading nutrients and control for convenience and efficiency. My foray into baking will help reveal to visitors just how distanced some of us have become, and, hopefully, give them a new appreciation for the complex processes that go into making a simple loaf of bread. Baking this recipe on the stage of our demonstration kitchen, using the flour made by visitors in our stone hand mill, with the backdrop of a highly advanced kitchen, juxtaposes the old and new baking technology, demonstrating just how much our bread has changed over time. Who knows how technology will change baking in the next hundred years!
And my entire wheat bread? I cut into my loaf, exposing an even, perfectly baked crumb and releasing a sweetly nutty, maple aroma—a crumbly, moist loaf of whole wheat bread that, hopefully, would make Fannie Farmer proud.
If you'd like to hear about the latest food and agriculture history happenings at the museum, be sure to sign up for our Food History newsletter.
Rachel Snyder completed a summer 2016 internship in the Office of Audience Engagement working on food and agriculture programs.
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery and valor that can be bestowed upon a member of the United States military. Modern military medals have lengthy citations that often vividly portray the sacrifice and heroism displayed by the recipients. At the Medal of Honor's inception during the Civil War, however, the curt citation often belied the extraordinary circumstances behind the award. One such citation is that of the Medal of Honor for Johann Christoph Julius Langbein:
"A drummer boy, 15 years of age, he voluntarily and under a heavy fire went to the aid of a wounded officer, procured medical assistance for him, and aided in carrying him to a place of safety."
J.C. Julius Langbein was born in Germany in 1845 but immigrated to the United States as a small child. He spent his young life in Brooklyn, New York, before joining in the fight between the Union and the Confederacy. At the age of 15—and with his parent's permission—Langbein enlisted with the Union Army's 9th New York Volunteers, also known as Hawkins' Zouaves, where he served as a drummer boy. He was young and small, with feminine features that earned him the nickname "Jennie" by the soldiers in his regiment. In January 1862 Langbein and his regiment joined General Ambrose Burnside's North Carolina Expedition.
On April 19, 1862, during action at the Battle of Camden in North Carolina, Lieutenant Thomas L. Bartholomew was hit in the head by shrapnel. The officer, delirious from his wound, wandered dangerously between the lines of fire and collapsed. Langbein ran to his aid despite continued heavy enemy shelling and rifle fire, and managed to guide the officer to relative safety. He then dashed off to find help, only to be told by the regimental surgeon that the officer was too far gone to save. Langbein, however, was determined that the lieutenant would not be left behind to die. With the help of another soldier he brought the officer to a nearby home and then snuck him into the wagon of other wounded headed to the federal hospital on Roanoke Island. Because of Langbein's actions, the officer received the medical care that enabled him to recover, and the drummer boy was subsequently recommended for the Medal of Honor.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, but perhaps due to Langbein lying about his age to enlist, his Medal of Honor wasn't approved until January 7, 1895. In 1905 he applied to the Record and Pension Office of the Adjutant General's Office and finally received his Medal of Honor based on his actions at the Battle of Camden more than 40 years before.
Because of the delay, Langbein's medal is the 1904 army pattern, the third design of the army medal since its introduction in 1862. Each branch—army, navy and air force (after 1956)—has a distinct design for the Medal of Honor it bestows on recipients from their branch of service. Marines receive the navy medal, as does the coast guard. According to the Congressional resolution that created it, the medal was intended to recognize "such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection."
Langbein left the regiment in 1863 and returned to his home in New York City. He took up the uniform again in 1869, this time as an infantry officer with the New York National Guard, where he rose to the rank of captain. Returning to civilian life once again, Langbein became a lawyer and then judge in the state of New York. In 1905 he was elected commander of the Medal of Honor Legion. The Medal of Honor Legion was created on April 23, 1890, in Washington, D.C., and was composed of officers and enlisted men of the Union Army who were awarded Medals of Honor during the Civil War. Of the Medal of Honor Legion members, 1,500 were awarded Army Medals of Honor, and 600 were awarded Navy Medals of Honor. Sixty-nine of the 600 were awarded medals from their service in the Spanish-American War. The Medal of Honor Legion disbanded in 1918, eight years after the death of J.C. Julius Langbein, the 15-year-old drummer boy awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery and valor on a Civil War battlefield.
Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History, whose collections hold approximately 24 Medals of Honor, from the Civil War to Vietnam. One of our newest acquisitions is the Medal of Honor of William Thomas Perkins Jr., a marine combat cameraman killed in action on October 12, 1967, during Operation Medina.