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Margaret Island is a 225-acre spit of silt that bubbled up eons ago on the Danube River in the middle of what is now Budapest, the Hungarian capital. Called Margit-sziget in Hungarian, it is named after Margit, the beautiful daughter of a 13th-century king. The island is shaped like an art nouveau teardrop, an emerald jewel set in a river bordered on either side by the bustling city. It’s a retreat like none other: A strange alchemy of geography and history has lent the place a mystical aura, attracting both devout Catholics and determined lovers.
Among the island’s century-old oaks and poplars are the ruins of a Dominican convent where the princess lived. Margit—known to the world as St. Margaret of Hungary—became a legend here, beloved and pitied. It was within the convent walls that she, as a teenager, defied her father’s order that she marry a neighboring king. Instead, she devoted herself to God and died an early death.
The pious come here to celebrate that deep devotion. Lovers have other motivations. They carve into tree trunks their initials encircled by a heart, or chalk their first names on what is left of the convent’s stone walls. The truly faithful among them believe that only God can plant love in the heart, so they beseech him to reaffirm their desires. Others come simply because the island is relatively quiet and secluded, close to downtown but far from prying eyes. That, anyway, is the reason my first love cited when she proposed we visit the island many decades ago.
Born in 1242, Margit was doomed to a life without romance. She was the favorite daughter of Hungary’s King Béla IV, from the House of Árpád, who lost his realm in battle—a territory the size of France. Pursued by relentless Mongol horsemen who sacked and burned much of Europe, Béla fled to a small island off the Dalmatian coast, now in modern-day Croatia. In hiding, Béla’s fortunes shifted: The sudden death in faraway Asia of Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis, prompted the retreat of Mongol forces from Europe.
Béla returned to his capital Buda (later joined with Pest) beaten and humiliated, anxious to rebuild his devastated kingdom. He had promised the Almighty that if he and his wife, Queen Maria, survived the Mongol attack, they would offer their next child to the church. Margit was just three or four years old when her parents entrusted her to the Dominican convent. But she was lovely to look at, and European royals expressed interest in marrying her. The king and queen saw strategic advantage in this—an opportunity to strengthen Hungary’s alliances.
That was not to be. At the age of seven, according to a biography by Lea Ráskai, a Dominican nun writing in the early 16th century, Margit refused to be engaged to a Polish duke, telling her parents that she would rather die than get married. By age 18, Margit had become a nun, but King Béla planned to ask the pope to annul her vows so Margit could marry King Ottokár II of Bohemia, who was smitten by her beauty. Again she refused.
Rejecting a life of royal luxury, Margit walked barefoot and insisted on being given the lowliest tasks. She scoured pots and pans, scrubbed rough stone floors, and cleaned latrines. The Voices of the Saints, a collection of biographies published by Loyola Press of Chicago, recounts Margit’s defiance of her father. “Stop trying to turn me from my determination to remain a nun,” Margit wrote to him. “I prefer the heavenly kingdom to that which has been offered me by the King of Bohemia. I would rather die than obey these commands of yours that will bring death to my soul.” She further threatened to cut off her nose and lips to make herself unacceptable to men.
Bela backed down.
According to her biography, Margit still punished herself with “extreme self-abnegation that some observers called self-crucifixion.” Margit’s fellow nuns testified that she also performed “marvelous” services to the sick. As many as 74 miracles were attributed to her, most of them referring to her role in curing illnesses, and one instance of bringing a person back from the dead. But she neglected personal hygiene and denied herself food and sleep for long periods. Her disregard for her health shortened her life.
Margit was just 28 when she passed away. Her parents were still so angered by her refusal to marry Ottokár that they did not attend her funeral.
According to church documents, the Hungarian people venerated Margit as a saint soon after her death. At least one church was built dedicated to her memory. Her brother, King Stephen V—who had fought a brutal civil war with their father Béla—requested her canonization, at least partly because it would have burnished Hungary’s status as a recently converted nation.
Yet several early attempts to canonize Margit failed, and the reasons remain something of a mystery. Ancient disagreements between the Dominican and Franciscan Orders might have hindered the process. According to Professor Kornél Szovák of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University of Budapest, “lack of confidence in female credibility as well as in mystical experiences” might also have played a role.
It was Pope Pius XII, an adroit politician partial to asceticism, who dusted off ancient documents and took up Margit’s cause again nearly seven centuries after her death. World War II was raging, and some speculate that the pope was looking for a favor to offer Hungary’s devout Roman Catholic prime minister, Miklós Kállay, who was secretly negotiating with the Americans to break with the Axis. The pope surprised Hungarians with Margit’s canonization on November 19, 1943, at a time when Axis powers were showing critical military weakness in the war.Lovers are drawn to Margaret Island's 225 acres because parts of it are quiet and secluded—close to downtown but far from prying eyes. (Akos Stiller)
The House of Árpád was long gone by then. King Béla foresaw its demise. Described by historians as grim, ill-tempered, and often illogical, he blamed his ten children for undermining him. He was particularly troubled that his dynasty, the royal line that founded the Kingdom of Hungary in the ninth century, was running out of male heirs.
In 1301, three decades after Margit passed away, her cousin, Andrew III, died. He was the last of the Árpád kings. What followed was more upheaval. The Habsburgs, best known among the foreign-born rulers who claimed the Hungarian throne, had to contend with rebellions and conspiracies through four centuries.
In 1867, when the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I and his Hungarian subjects finally made peace, the Viennese genius of light music Johann Strauss II composed “An der schönen, blauen Donau,” the seductive waltz popular the world over as “The Blue Danube.” It became the unofficial anthem of the newly renamed Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fifty years later, however, that multiethnic empire collapsed, replaced by several bickering nation states that came under pressure from Germany, another country sharing the Danube.
The banks of the river near Margaret Island became the site of unthinkable atrocity in the winter of 1944-45. It was in that frigid season that the Nazi Arrow Cross militia hunted down hundreds of Jews of all ages, including my sister Ibolya who was in her early 20s and had a newborn child. The militiamen lined them up by the Danube, and ordered them to step out of their shoes. Then they aimed their guns at the nape of their victims’ necks, so the bodies would fall into the river and be swept away with the ice floes.
In 2005 the artist Gyula Pauer memorialized the victims of the Nazi slaughter by sculpting 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes in the fashions of the 1940s. He cemented them to the stone slabs of the Danube embankment, a short walk from the sumptuous 19th-century edifice of the Hungarian Parliament. The same building houses the sacred crown of St. Stephen (István in Hungarian), a stunning masterpiece of medieval goldsmiths, given by Pope Sylvester II to the first Christian king of the House of Árpád."Shoes on the Promenade," a project conceived by Can Togay and created with artist Gyula Pauer, consists of 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes in the styles of the 1940s. The work honors the many Jews killed and thrown in the river by Nazi militiamen during World War II. (Akos Stiller)
Through much of Hungary’s tormented modern history, lovers and pilgrims visited the ruins of Margit’s convent. Among them was Hungary’s finest romantic writer, Gyula Krúdy. “Otherworldly” was how he characterized the river Danube. One evening in 1920 he reported seeing shooting stars “fleeing the vault of heaven” and crashing into the river, “leaving silver scratch marks on the waves before drowning.” He also wrote of how he searched in vain for the footprints of the unforgettable inamorata of his youth while strolling along the well-maintained gravel paths of the island.
So it was with this writer. My first love, a delicate woman of many moods, called herself Magnet. I suspect that she was born Margit but chose for herself a name no one else had in Hungary. Soon after we met in the spring of 1956, she suggested that we walk to Margaret Island. We held hands and found ourselves agreeing on favorite poems we had memorized. Our first kiss occurred on a bench facing the ruins of the cloister. A few months later she dumped me without explanation. I long ago lost interest in why she fell in love with someone else, whom she also cast off later that year, around the same time Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution.
Everyone I know in Budapest cherishes memories of visiting Margaret Island. A friend in her late 80s recently surprised me by confiding a secret she kept from her husband and their numerous children and grandchildren: She learned about love in the lush greenery of the island, only a short walk from the madding crowds of downtown Budapest. “I was only 19,” she confessed to me. “I was, and I am, a churchgoing Roman Catholic, and I was overjoyed when my parochial school celebrated for three days her beatification in 1943. But I did not think of St. Margaret while enjoying what her beautiful island offered. Actually, my first lover and I soon broke off, which was a good thing. I found out that the handsome fellow was already married.”
My hero Krúdy wrote about his tearful loneliness when retracing his first amorous adventure on the island. He found himself drawn to the snake tree, so named because it turned and twisted in a serpentine way. To Krúdy, the tree was “teaching a lesson to lovers that love leads to heartaches.” He theorized that the tree in its long-ago youth might have been in love with a tall willow or an elegant spruce and in its disappointment its branches suffered “epileptic spasms.”
Krúdy declared his love for St. Margaret as a tragic victim of Christian asceticism. He also mourned the extinction of the House of Árpád. His writings celebrated most of the 21 kings who made up that only native Hungarian dynasty. To him, their reign was the closest Hungary ever came to a golden age.
Climbing the Parador de Navas last week, I felt it happen—a ping of pain in the rear of my leg, four inches above the heel. An ache set in as we crawled to the top of the pass, and I knew it was back—my recurring Achilles tendonitis. I spent a week in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 16 months ago lying in a hostel bed, reading, typing, visiting the local gym, sitting on benches, eying the distant Rhodope Mountains and waiting for a similar Achilles strain to heal up—and I know the boredom that can arrive with athletic injuries. But this time, I have limped into Quito, Ecuador, a fast and modern hub of sophisticated people, energy and activity. Boredom should not be an issue here. Mangoes may cost $2 a piece from sidewalk vendors—a harsh reminder for the hungry cyclist that he is no longer in the boondocks. But there is life beyond cheap mangoes, and it can be found in Quito’s clean public parks, brewpubs, wine bars, bicycle shops, historic center and so much more. Here are a few things to do that can keep one entertained in this highest (when measured from the Earth’s center) of big cities.
Sample Local Microbrews I have no love for Peruvian wine—and as an alternative, my brother and I have taken to the abundant if boring South American lagers available in every corner grocery store. Thing is, I have no love for cheap lagers, either. So when I learned that two brewpubs operated within blocks of the Hostal del Piamonte, where I have been icing and elevating my leg, I ran for them. Limped, anyway. At Cherusker German Brewery, we found a club-like scene with leather sofas and a rustic brick interior—and four beers on tap. That could leave many an American beer nerd thirsting for more options, but in Ecuador, the chance to drink a Belgian-style dubbel and a dark, smoky stout provided much needed respite from lesser beers. After one round, we walked north several blocks to sample the other city brewpub, Turtle’s Head Pub and Microbrewery. A pilsener, a Scottish amber and a stout made up the extent of the house-made beers. The amber was malty, thick and chewy, the stout creamy, smooth and sweet.
Hunt for Espresso Machines Each time we emerged from the desert or jungle into a village in the past three weeks, we listened for that sweet song of the espresso machine. One time I even asked the villagers, “Please, for mercy, is there an espresso machine in this town?” I was thirsty and desperate and hopeful, and the town’s main street boasted some relatively upscale establishments. Several men gathered around me, all frowning and shaking their heads in befuddlement. “Say, Fred, what’s this kid talking about, what with machines that make coffee and all?” “Beats me, Leroy. Does he think he’s arrived in the future?” I even made the whooshing-hissing noise that coffee drinkers so love to hear at 7 a.m.—but the men shook their heads. “Let’s go! His mind is gone.” They had not heard of an espresso machine. But Quito is fast, smart, slick, modern. In hundreds of bars, cafés and eateries, espresso machines hiss like the finest apparatuses of Europe. Cafe lattes arrive with hearts and mountains shaped into the foamy milk, and espresso comes in cups like thimbles, as smart and sophisticated as coffees enjoyed in the bistros of Paris. Top recommendation: Este Cafe, on Juan León Mera street.
Work Out on the Exercise Bars in Parque El Ejido As we rode into the center of Quito on our first day, I had my eyes peeled for that sure signature of any modern metropolis undergoing swift and progressive social development: outdoor exercise bars at the public park. After checking into our hostel, we walked several blocks back to Parque El Ejido, where we had seen among the people and the trees some playground-type structures that looked very promising. Sure enough, we found them—a rock-solid, two-tiered set of pull-up bars in the shade of the trees. A security guard (they stand around every corner and behind every tree in Ecuador) paced slowly around the jungle gym while Andrew and I got to work. My brother, ten pounds lighter than he’d been in Lima, started with an all-time best set of 20. I did only 17—but, really, who’s counting? See you at the bar. Note: The same park comes alive with scores of market vendors and thousands of visitors each Sunday. It’s a good time, but you’d better get your bar time in early, before the kids arrive.
Stalk the Aisles of the English Bookshop Quito is great—but if you need to get away fast, step into the compact, book-stuffed space of the English Bookshop, in La Mariscal. Owned by London native Mark Halton, the store—at Calama and Diego de Almagro streets—provides a refuge of wisdom and intelligentsia for English speakers craving some bookish conversation and quiet time. The shop is crammed with used quality literature (well, there’s also some sci-fi, but never mind), plus a selection of Ecuador travel guides for rent.
Enjoy the City’s Many Miles of Bike Paths Quito bears many marks of a sophisticated hub of culture and style—enthusiastic brewpubs, art museums, numerous sporting goods stores and air-conditioned supermarkets. What more could one want? Bike paths, of course. Leading through the city are miles and miles of them—two-directional lanes separated by barriers from the auto traffic and leading to all corners of the city. But bike paths can always use improvement. In Lima, for instance, the hip locals dump heaps of trash in the bike lanes and set the rubbish on fire. In Quito, businessmen who haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 8 years old use the lanes as personal sidewalks, and at intersections pedestrians gather in the bike lane as they wait for the light to change. No—not all Ecuadorians are totally wise yet to the concept of the separated, designated bike lane. But parts of Quito are almost as cool and edgy as Amsterdam or Portland, and locals will catch on.
Ride the Gondola to Cruz Loma Lookout Taking a ride on a gondola is a bitter pill to swallow for a proud cyclist with a leg injury. But the TelefériQo Cruz Loma chairlift, beginning at the western edge of Quito, ascends 2,700 feet in eight minutes, taking passengers to the best vista point in the region—Cruz Loma, near the top of Mount Pichincha. The cost is about $9, with discounts for privileged locals and even the option to bring a bicycle to the top and ride the trails back down to the city. Sounds like a blast—but I’ll wait until I can make the entire journey by my own strength.
Get Screened for Malaria at a Local Medical Clinic If you’ve got the shakes, the shivers, nausea, achy joints, stomach troubles or a headache and have traveled in malaria hot zones anytime from a week to a year prior, you had better get checked out. That’s the logic we followed when Andrew came down with sluggishness and other flu-like symptoms on our second day in Quito. We decided that if his condition persisted in the morning, we would go to the hospital. He woke up in a sweat, and off we went on a new adventure. The Clinica de San Francisco was just four blocks away from us, and by 9 a.m. Andrew was having blood drawn and his internal organs examined by stethoscope. The doctor said that Andrew’s relatively mild symptoms did not appear to be malaria-related, but Plasmodium falciparum is a disease to be taken very seriously. The most deadly type of malaria, it is especially dangerous if not identified and treated within 24 hours of the first visible symptoms. The doctor said the test results would be e-mailed within three working days—plus two weekend days. Isn’t that cutting it close, we asked? Don’t worry, the doctor answered; Andrew does not have malaria. We hope so.
And Keep That Leg Elevated
Late curator David Shayt of the museum's Work and Industry division once said, "All museum work in one form or another is digging in the dirt. We dig in the dirt of old factories to find old machines and blue prints. We dig in musty film vaults to find old films. . . . It's a process of digging, and searching, and looking for the unknown, the unexpected."
So when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Shayt said it was "a natural response for me to take interest . . . thinking about ways of preserving what quickly became a national tragedy, not just a local or regional event but one with truly national scope. And that's why we got involved."
Shayt and photographer Hugh Talman took two trips to the region, in September and December 2005. They visited areas affected by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
For the tenth anniversary of the devastating hurricane, listen to an interview with Shayt in our History Explorer podcast. You'll find out why the museum responded by collecting objects and learn about a few of the things Shayt and his team collected. (Educators, there's also a teacher guide to help you share the interview with your students.) I'll highlight a few of the moments in the interview I found most interesting.
You can also hear the podcast on our Soundcloud account.
As a museum professional, I confess that I often think museums move a bit slowly, allowing historical legacies to develop before jumping to collect objects. But Shayt explained that the decision to send a team to collect in the wake of Katrina happened fairly quickly.
"It took a few days after Katrina came and went through the Gulf Coast for me to realize that this could be a collecting opportunity. . . . There was a collective judgment made by the curatorial staff and the museum management that something needed to be done. And what that usually means in a museum is that something needed to be collected."
Disaster collecting is a specialized skill, but Shayt had experience. "I was selected in part because of my experience during the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when, due to my connections in New York City, I was part of a team that collected objects and artifacts from that experience. So I'd had some field work under my belt and knew in a sense what to expect. But we really hadn't ever before, until now, collected a natural disaster."
Shayt explained that his team decided to focus not just on New Orleans, but on the entire Gulf Coast area affected by the storm—a daunting task. "What was in our favor," he said, "was the freshness of our response. We didn't wait too long before buying plane tickets and renting a car in a fairly desolate airport in New Orleans to start making our way around. Right away, we found things and found people to talk to."
One of the people the team met was Dr. Michael White, a local jazz performer, professor, and a collector of clarinets. His house was flooded with nine feet of water. When he entered his house weeks later, he found a scene of devastation, his sheet music, records, and clarinets caked with mud and mold. His belongings were in "a very soupy condition," Shayt said.
"In the process of meeting with [Dr. White]," Shayt said, "we actually helped him empty his house and hauled out, through a broken window, clarinet after clarinet after clarinet, in moldy, rotting cases. I selected one of those with his approval to add to the collections, a 1930s Pan American Special from Elkhart, Indiana—a metal clarinet, so it has held up pretty well. Its case, which I also collected, of blue velvet and wood, is in pretty shabby shape but I wanted that as well. So that too is here. And it's dried out, of course, but it adds a certain flavor and character to this lovely silver clarinet."
Other objects the team collected also related to music history, including two photographs by jazz photographer Herman Leonard. "I met with Herman—and his studio, also flooded out, also a victim of great loss—and received from him a photo of Miles Davis and another one of Lena Horne," Shayt said. "These were badly damaged in the flood but, because they were bubble wrapped, they floated for weeks on the flood waters in his studio, so they have this very interesting vignette of mold and growth coming in from the edges of these beautiful black-and-white prints inside their frames. So those, too, are an aspect of jazz and jazz history that are here at the Smithsonian."
Shayt's team also collected objects that reflect the experiences of everyday people affected by the storm: signs.
"Signs matter," Shayt said. "Signs are symbols. Of course for us, they're straight ahead, almost self-written museum labels."
Those now in the collection include the familiar hurricane evacuation route signs, homemade cardboard signs thanking volunteers and rescuers, and many signs announcing business opportunities created by the storm, such as signs advertising "Get Rid of Your Katrina Water Stain," house cleaning, junk removal, or legal services. Shayt said these are "emblematic of the resilient American desire to make money, to have enterprise, even in a disaster zone like that."
Shayt collected about twenty-four signs. This one is particularly heartbreaking.
"One of the signs that we collected is a supplication," Shayt said. "It says 'Have we been forgotten?' a large plywood sign from the outskirts of New Orleans, people left by the side of the road as aid trucks zoomed by. I think signs like that and like the enterprising signs that offer services testify to this enduring American trust in one another, that somebody's reading these signs, that there's faith, there's hope, there is a brighter future around the corner, if they can just get their message out."
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Other objects collected in the wake of Hurricane Katrina can be found in our online collections database. Photographer Hugh Talman spoke about his experience photographing the devastation in a video by Folkways Magazine. See additional photos in the museum's collection in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a project of the the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of New Orleans.
April 29, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Broadway opening of the rock musical Hair. Hair grew out of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and focused on a group of hippies living in the "Age of Aquarius." The provocative musical featured rock music and focused on contemporary and often controversial topics of the day including the sexual revolution, anti-Vietnam War sentiments, and illegal drug use.Souvenir program from the 1968 Broadway production of "Hair."
Hair may not always be in the title, but the entertainment world is full of unique hairpieces. To celebrate Hair's debut on Broadway, I took a look at hair in the museum's entertainment collection. From clowns to comedians to Cats, the National Museum of American History has all kinds of hair-raising examples of hairpieces throughout the entertainment world. Here are nine of my favorites. Which would you crown as the best?
1. Bozo the Clown's wigThis skullcap with wig worn by Larry Harmon connects with face makeup to create the memorable character of Bozo the Clown.
The character of Bozo the Clown was created in 1946 for a children's storytelling album for Capitol Records and later transitioned to television appearances in 1949. This particular wig was worn by Larry Harmon as he played Bozo on television from 1958 to 1962. Harmon bought the rights to Bozo the Clown in 1956 and licensed and franchised Bozo to television stations across America and the world, training over 200 new actors to play Bozo the Clown through the 1990s.
2. Wig worn by Harpo MarxThis wig was worn by Harpo Marx as he portrayed his signature character on stage and film.
Harpo Marx joined his brothers Groucho, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo to form the Marx Brothers, a comedy act in vaudeville, Broadway, and film during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning as a musical act and transitioning into comedy, the Marx Brothers became well known for their improvisational comedy. They continue to be referenced in entertainment today.
3. John Wayne's hairpiecesTwo hairpieces worn by John Wayne in "True Grit," shown in their original carrying case
John Wayne's hair began to thin toward the middle of his career, and he began wearing hairpieces, even joking about them in public. Wayne wore these hairpieces while filming the 1969 film True Grit as he portrayed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne won his only Academy Award for this role.
4. Mustache worn by James Whitmore as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.One of the eight different mustaches in the collection worn by James Whitmore. This one was worn when he portrayed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
When I think of hairpieces, I generally think of something that goes on the top of the head, but the entertainment collection also includes mustaches. James Whitmore wore this mustache to depict Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the play The Magnificent Yankee at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.. The show opened in 1996.
5. Mr. Mistoffelees wig from Cats on BroadwayCats can have wigs too! This one was worn by the character Mr. Mistoffelees in the Broadway production of "Cats."
Not all wigs are meant for humans. This wig's stiff, short hair is cut in the shape of a cat's head and ears. It was worn by the character Mr. Mistoffelees, "the original conjuring cat," in the Broadway musical Cats. Winning seven Tony Awards, the original run of Cats on Broadway is one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history with 7,485 consecutive shows between 1982 and 2000.
6. Phyllis Diller's signature fright wigPhyllis Diller developed a stage persona of an incompetent housewife. In her outlandish outfits and this signature fright wig, she used her act to challenge the myth of the idealized American housewife.
Phyllis Diller broke barriers in the comedy world to become to the first woman stand-up comic recognized in households across the country. After years of bleaching her hair, it began to thin. A hair stylist gave her a special rubber massage brush to stimulate hair regrowth. While it didn't lead to any more hair for Diller, it did make her hair stand on end, which quickly became her signature style. As the style progressed, it became more outlandish, and Diller began wearing fright wigs like this one to accentuate the style.
7. Wendy Williams's wigWendy Williams used the pink mannequin head in this picture to store and display this "Twombré" wig.
Talk show host Wendy Williams refers to this wig as her center-part "Twombré"—which is partly named after her "wigologist," Antwon Jackson. It was originally entirely brunette, but Jackson dyed the wig blonde and left the roots brown for a more natural, ombré-style look. The wig even has thinner roots, which allows Williams's scalp to show through to help with its natural appearance.
8. Wig worn by Misty Copeland in On the Town on BroadwayMisty Copeland wore this wig and crown when her character Ivy Smith was named "Miss Turnstiles" in the 2015 Broadway production of "On The Town."
Ballerina Misty Copeland wore this wig when she played the role of Ivy Smith in the Broadway revival of On The Town in 2015. Earlier that year, Copeland became the first African American woman in the history of the American Ballet Theatre to be promoted to principal dancer.
9. Toupee worn by Carl Reiner as Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke ShowOne of the many toupees in the season five episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" titled "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth."
Carl Reiner served as producer, writer, and actor in the role of Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show from 1961 to 1966. In the episode "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth," the character Laura Petrie, played by Mary Tyler Moore, accidentally reveals on television that Brady wears a toupee. She visits Brady to apologize but finds him angry and surrounded by several different toupees on mannequin heads. He tells the toupees, "Fellas . . . there's the little lady who put you out of business!"
Hanna BredenbeckCorp is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.
More than 550 people have shucked the bonds of Earth and visited space. They unanimously describe the experience as profound. But it isn’t the empty blackness between stars or the power of the harnessed explosion they ride that so affects these space travelers. It’s the feeling they get when they look back at Earth.
“When we look down at the Earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet,” says astronaut Ron Garan. “It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.”
Neil Armstrong did call his first step on the moon’s surface a giant leap, but when he looked at Earth he says, “I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
This moving experience is called “the overview effect.” Space travelers have struggled to explain exactly what it is about seeing the planet as a pale blue dot that evokes this feeling. Yet artists, filmmakers and other Earth-bound creatives have been inspired by what the astronauts can share. Author Benjamin Grant, who just released a book, Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, that draws on the rich photographic resources collected by satellites, is the latest person striving to convey the feeling.
“When I learned about the overview effect, it completely changed the way I thought about the world,” Grant says.
Grant got his own taste of the overview effect after he typed the query “Earth” into Google Earth. Instead of zooming out and showing him the globe, he says the program zoomed in to Earth, Texas. Green circles, irrigated fields that pop out from the brown landscape, surround the small community in the western part of the state. “I was amazed and astounded and had no idea what I was seeing,” says Grant. “From there I became completely obsessed with finding patterns in the Earth.”
Grant’s curiosity led him to search for other striking ways that humans have altered the landscape of the planet. From the orderly grid of city streets to the patchwork quilts of agricultural areas, from the vivid hues of mining waste ponds to the sinuous curves of highway interchanges, Grant kept finding intriguing marks of civilization etched on the surface of Earth. In December 2013, he started to collect the images and explain what they were in a blog he calls “Daily Overview.”
The new book is a collection of more than 200 photographs Grant found over three years. As curator, he edited and stitched together raw images taken by satellite company DigitalGlobe. He then organized his creations into eight chapters that explore how humans are shaping the Earth. “Where We Harvest,” for example, looks at how we cultivate the land and sea to feed ourselves. In “Where We Play,” Grant shows us parks, beaches and resorts.
These images from above all have the same curious flatness one can see from a plane window. Removal from the immediate and overwhelming complexity of life on the ground encourages a sort of clarity of perspective. Life below can seem small and even quaint. But there’s also a contradiction that becomes clear from this vantage point. Some of these structures and built landscapes are enormous. Knowledge of that fact belies the neat, orderly illusion that distance gives.
The book’s photographs are saturated with color. The large pages give plenty of space for the images to take center stage, while short but informative captions lurk unobtrusively to the side. Even with the ubiquity of satellite-based images available online, this is a unique view of the globe we all call home.
Grant spoke to Smithsonian.com about the book and its message.
Can you convey the overview effect in a book, or does one need to travel to space?
I think what the images do is provide a little of that effect for all of us stuck here on the ground. They provide a new vantage point and new way to think about our species and what we are doing to the planet.
I'm trying to get people to feel awe when they look at the images. When you are looking at something that is so vast and so grand and bigger than anything you've seen before,
your brain is forced to develop new frameworks. You have to reset, in a way, to comprehend what you are seeing. You have to look for pieces of the photograph that give you a sense of scale. You have to kind of mentally go up into the camera in the satellite and back down to Earth to understand what you see.
I don't know if the project fully gets across what astronauts saw, but I was fortunate to get to speak to astronauts as I was working on it. They said that it did remind them of looking back down at Earth.
At this point, we have a lot of satellite images available to us. How is your collection unique?
I take this satellite imagery that we have access to from Google Earth and other programs and started treating it more like art, or like photographs. I take the time to compose them and enhance certain colors to get across what I want to convey in that image.
For me, the artistic composition is a way to pull people in and to make them curious. If I have done a good job of pulling people in, I get them to say more than, "That is pretty," but "Wow, what is that?"
Why do you focus on human-influenced landscapes?
I made the decision on the first day to focus on human landscapes we have created. I'm not necessarily saying these landscapes are good or bad or that we are destroying the planet. But I am creating an accurate picture of where we are now.
Before people make decisions on what to do about the planet, they need to understand what we have done. Hopefully then, we can understand how to create a better and smarter planet.
But, I think when I made that decision, I didn't know all the different ways that it would manifest.
Are there particular images that were surprising to you?
The chapter on mining, "Where we extract," is pretty remarkable to me. It started with the research to figure out what these mines were and how the materials we are extracting from the Earth are used in our home and what we eat…in everything. To see where these materials are coming from makes you more informed. You realize how much needs to happen in different places around the world to get the aluminum in your car or the coal that we burn.
At the same time, the images are profoundly beautiful. That creates an interesting tension: You know this can't be good for the planet, that chemicals are being released into the environment, and at the same time you really enjoy looking at it. Mining often creates these textures, patterns and colors that can't exist anywhere else.
There are other images too where it is pleasing to look at, but you know it can't be good. I have a beautiful image of the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. There's the stunning red of the soil and then an intriguing pattern on top of it. But then you realize that this is an expansion for a refugee camp that already has 400,000 Somali refugees, and they are planning for more.
In a weird way, this is one of the best things about the project. It shows people things they may not want to look at or read about and encourages them to do exactly that.
Why did you decide to do a chapter on "Where we are not?”
I couldn't help but be interested in creating this juxtaposition. Not only is the book showing the planet and what we are doing to it, but I also wanted to encourage people to develop an appreciation for the natural beauty of the Earth itself.
Astronauts talk about the patterns in clouds and water, where you don't see man-made lines or constructions. They develop this incredible appreciation for this oasis that is floating in darkness. The final chapter touches on that, this pure natural beauty that has nothing to do with us.
There is also this sense of time. Mountains that rose up because of tectonic activity or rivers that meander—these are things that could only have been created over lengths of time that are almost unfathomable. The previous chapters focus mostly on things that have been created very recently, in the past century. So the book is about not only what we are doing to the planet, but how quickly we are doing it.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Before people start acting in service of the planet, I think they need to have a better idea of what is going on. These images are a fascinating, relatively new way to look at our planet. Hopefully, the book encourages people to start asking questions. I think that inquisitiveness will lead to better behavior.
This planet will be here long after we are gone. We should develop an appreciation and love for it, because it's the only planet we have, for now.
The members of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project team have been poring over authentic period cookbooks as research for the refrigerators section of this new learning space. We cringed at the varied uses of gelatin; we marveled at the elegant radish roses. Finally, we decided to put the recipes into practice. We each selected one from the Product Cookbook Collection of the museum's Archives Center.
The 1930s witnessed major developments in how Americans ate and thought about food, as well as how they purchased, stored, and prepared it. More than 11 million women were in the workforce by 1930 (11.7 percent of them were married), and they looked for ways to save time in the kitchen. Many began to replace their messy and inefficient iceboxes with electric refrigerators. By the end of the decade, 60 percent of American households had one.
Refrigerators kept food reliably cold for longer periods, which meant less time spent on frequent trips to the grocery store. And thanks to the electric refrigerator, "cooking with cold" became not only a convenient way to prepare a meal but a trendy way to enhance the experience of eating. A 1929 advertisement described the process: "chill new flavor and sooth coolness into every course."
In the midst of the Great Depression, economy became just as important as efficiency. "Leftovers are valuable," declared one cookbook, "don't waste them!" To prevent the boredom of eating the same meal over and over again, home economists and cookbook authors alike encouraged home cooks to disguise leftovers by incorporating them into whole new dishes.
Armed with jars of mayonnaise, can openers, and Jell-O molds, the Taylor Foundation Object Project team set out to recreate historical 1930s recipes. Here's what we found when we put our concoctions to the taste-test:
Gelatin, of course, was an unavoidable thread throughout the meal; almost every dish jiggled. It was (and is) inexpensive, as well as a source of a protein. As fresh fruits and vegetables became more prominent in the American diet in the 1930s, congealed salads were considered an elegant way to present them. Bright colors, dainty shapes, eye-catching swirls of mayonnaise, and garnishes galore were intended to make meals attractive and appealing.
Gelled and congealed salads—sweet, savory, or both—became staples in American households to the point that "about one-third of all cookbook recipes of the time were gelatin based," according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Bits of vegetables, meats, fruit, marshmallows, and cheese could be mixed together to created molded "one-dish wonders" suitable to be served as a main course.
Team member Fernanda chose perhaps the boldest recipe, a Molded Mayonnaise Salad. Besides that key condiment, ingredients included lemon Jell-O, vinegar, American cheese, cayenne pepper, and salt.
The recipe appears in the 'Salads for Special Occasions' section of a cookbook, which states that "the more attractive, the more dainty, the more delicious the salad, the more competent delightful hostess do you prove yourself to be."
"There were not enough radish roses to make my salad delicious," Fernanda lamented.
Though our modern taste buds found this surprising combination of flavors and textures less than delicious, it would have been a highly fashionable entrée for the 1930s hostess.
And the biggest surprise? The Surprise Loaf itself. It was assembled like a cake, consisting of three tiers of bread separated by layers of a coleslaw-like mixture and relish, with a whipped combination of cream cheese and "snappy" cheddar cheese spread like icing on the outside. Garnished with parsley and radish roses, the Surprise Loaf proved to be yet another example of a fancy-looking entrée that used inexpensive ingredients.
In truth, presentation was where our potluck excelled. Along with finding creative ways to repackage leftovers, 1930s hostesses had an eye for elaborate tables. Emma made a Leftover Vegetable Casserole, unanimously voted "most edible."
"I think I could learn a thing or two about presentation from the 1930s hostesses," Emma said. "I was surprised how pretty everything looked. We made up in style what we lacked in taste. Styling my food really made it feel special."
Making these 1930s recipes ourselves, especially where molds and casserole dishes were involved, helped demonstrate a key theme in the cooking literature of the time: the emphasis on easy, make-ahead meals. The convenience that 1930s cooks desired allowed us to make our dishes at home the night before, then easily plate and garnish them when it was time for the potluck.
As Judy said, "This was certainly a celebration of home refrigeration, gelatin, and garnish!"
Emma Grahn is a museum educator and facilitator for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. Previously, she has blogged about the advent of electric refrigeration. Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for Taylor Foundation Object Project and has blogged about mid-century cooking.
See all the photos from our 1930s potluck:
The 21-year-old Mei Xiang, the National Zoo’s female panda, is taking a breather from entertaining visitors because Zoo keepers saw she was exhibiting potential signs of a pregnancy. The Zoo has announced that the Giant Panda House is now closed, but reminds visitors that they can still see the other pandas, Tian Tian and Bei Bei, playing in their outdoor yards.
Mei Xiang’s ambiguous maternal behaviors (is she, or isn’t she pregnant?) delivers heightened anticipation this time of year around Washington D.C., where cub births are welcomed with universal joy.
But just because Mei is spending most of her time sleeping, and is sensitive to noise, and is showing an increase in her hormone levels, that also could mean that she is experiencing a pseudopregnancy. The question of pregnancy will remain unanswered until either the keepers detect something in an ultrasound, or she gives birth.
Meanwhile, here for reader edification, we present our list of 14 Fun Facts About the Zoo’s Giant Pandas.
1. What other behaviors do female pandas show when they are experiencing hormonal changes?
In her den, Mei Xiang also began building a small nest of shredded bamboo. Keepers expect her to start showing less interest in food in the coming weeks. She might also cradle her toys and exhibit body-licking.
2. How many giant pandas are there in the world today?
There are only 1,864 giant pandas living in their native habitat in central China's provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu. Another 500 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the globe. For more about at-risk panda populations, check out our story “Panda Habitat is Severely Fragmented, Placing Pandas at Risk.” The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of the top leaders in conservation. Working closely with experts in China, researchers at the Zoo are leading efforts to better understand giant panda ecology, biology, breeding, reproduction, disease and proper animal care.Mei Xiang, born on July 22, 1998, has oval eye patches and a faint black band across the bridge of her nose. (National Zoo)
3. What do the names of the three pandas at the National Zoo mean?
Mei Xiang, who was born on July 22, 1998 at the China Research and Conservation Center, is an adult female with a pale black band across the bridge of her nose and oval eye patches. Her name means “beautiful fragrance.” The male Tian Tian, who was also born at the China Conservation Center on August 27, 1997, has eye patches shaped like kidney beans and two black dots across his nose. His name means “more and more.” Bei Bei is the male cub of Mei Xiang and was born at the Zoo on August 22, 2015. His name means “precious treasure.”
4. How many times has Mei Xiang given birth?
Six times. On July 9, 2005, she delivered Tai Shan, who stayed four years at the Zoo and then, by agreement, left for China on February 4, 2010. Another cub was born September 16, 2012, but died a week later from liver damage. Bao Bao was born August 23, 2013 and left for China on February 21, 2017. A stillborn cub was delivered a day after Bao Bao’s birth. Two years later Mei Xiang again delivered two cubs on August 22, one was Bei Bei, the other cub died.
5. Why must the panda cubs leave Washington, D.C. for China?
Giant pandas are on loan to the Zoo and by agreement, when the cub reaches the age of four, the animals are sent to China to become part of the breeding population. To learn more about the breeding center, check out our story “The Science Behind the Unbearably Cute IMAX Movie Panda.” The four-year-old Bei Bei is soon to leave for China, as well. Bao Bao’s departure in 2017 was delightfully reported in this piece “How to FedEx a Giant Panda.” The adult pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will continue to live in Washington, D.C. through 2020.Bao Bao was born at the National Zoo on August 23, 2013 and left for China on February 21, 2017. (National Zoo)
6. How long is a panda pregnancy?
It takes 90 to 180 days, with the average gestation lasting 135 days. Ovulation for a female panda occurs only once a year in the spring and it lasts just two to three days. Panda breeding is a specialized science, for much on that, see our story “How Does Science Help Pandas Make More Panda Babies?”
7. How are the pandas cared for at the Zoo?
They are fed bamboo, sweet potatoes, pears, carrots and apples and biscuits, all carefully monitored for proper nutrition requirements. The bamboo is grown by the Zoo’s nutritionists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Keeping the panda’s busy with fun activities is also a key to their proper care. This video shows the way keepers keep the animals entertained. Keepers are especially attuned to the animals’ needs, but are always mindful that the creatures are dangerous and are much stronger than humans. So, they never enter into the animals’ spaces.
8. Do the pandas like living in Washington, D.C.?
Because pandas are adapted to the high-altitude forests in the mountainous central regions of China, snow is their happy place. Take a look at the Zoo’s “Panda’s Play in the Snow” videos to see how much the animals love the city’s winter weather. But for hot, humid summer days, the Zoo keeps air-conditioned spaces with misting sprays where the animals can go to remain comfortable.One of the giant panda cubs born on Aug. 22, 2015 at the Smithsonian's National Zoo is examined by veterinarians. (National Zoo, Pamela Baker-Masson)
9. What does a giant panda sound like?
The Zoo’s popular Giant Panda Cam is one of the best ways to listen in for the chirps, honks, bleats, barks and squeals. According to the Zoo, the vocalizations can indicate distress (chirps and honks), pain (squeals), a friendly gesture (bleats), a defensive threat (chomp—a teeth clattering rapid opening and closing of the mouth), or a bark to scare off an enemy.
10. Why are the animals black and white?
There is really not a certain science for this question. The Zoo tells visitors that when a giant panda is sitting quietly without moving in a patch of dense bamboo, they are nearly invisible. On snow-covered rocky outcrops in their mountainous habitat, they are also quite hard to find. So likely their characteristic black and white patches are a very effective form of camouflage. The black and white patterns might also be a way for giant pandas to see and identify each other. They are solitary creatures. So a panda might use the patterns to identify other pandas in order to keep their distance. The black and white markings could also help with temperature regulation—black absorbs heat and white reflects it.
11. Do pandas have thumbs?
They have a “pseudo thumb” that helps them hold onto bamboo stems. It is formed from an elongated and large wrist bone that is covered by a fleshy pad of skin.At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, muralist Kelsey Montague (above) created a cheeky panda bearing posies. (SAAM, courtesy of the artist)
12. How long do pandas live?
The National Zoo’s Hsing-Hsing lived until the age of 28. Pandas in the wild likely have shorter lifespans than zoo animals, but some pandas have reportedly lived to the age of 38.
13. Whats’ the best time to visit the pandas?
Mornings are best, if only to avoid long lines. The panda house is currently closed for Mei Xiang’s comfort, but the outdoor yards are open all day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the summer. One cautionary item is that the pandas get to make the decision about when they want to see you. All of the animals at the Zoo have spaces where they can go to get away from the crowds. In the summer, the giant pandas prefer the cool air conditioning indoors.
14. Where else are pandas represented at the Smithsonian?
There’s a large taxidermy specimen at the entrance to the mammal hall at the National Museum of Natural History on the National Mall. Near the Luce Foundation Center on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum at 7th and F Streets, muralist Kelsey Montague created a cheeky panda bearing posies and perfectly poised for Instagram poseurs.
For many, the word “art” conjures thoughts of haughtiness and stuffy galleries, of ornate salons and elites hobnobbing over cocktails. The stereotypical museum experience, though less accurate than it used to be, puts art on display at a remove, as the product of some walled-off portion of society to which the hoi polloi have no access. This year’s By the People art festival in Washington, D.C., which began on June 15 and will continue through June 23, completely overturns this notion of art in its celebration of participatory works with strong ties to the communities and cultures of everyday people.
Launched last year by the nonprofit Halcyon, which seeks to support civic-minded artists and social entrepreneurs, By the People showcases art emblematic of the democratic ideals of America and the nation’s frequent struggles to live up to them. It is a festival rooted in lived experience, human interaction and history, and it is unfolding this week and coming weekend across D.C., including the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building and Union Market. In keeping with its mission, the festival is free to attend.
On opening weekend, Smithsonian spoke with several of the artists whose wide-ranging work is on exhibit at the Arts and Industries Building, located on the National Mall. Here’s what they had to say on their featured pieces and their approach to By the People’s core themes:
Martha Jackson Jarvis, AdaptationAdaptation examines the ways in which both art and history are shaped and reshaped over time. (Chris Ferenzi)
Virginia-born sculptor Martha Jackson Jarvis has long been known for her thoughtful mixed-media evocations of black and indigenous communities and the spaces they inhabit. At By the People 2019, Jarvis is exhibiting a piece called Adaptation, which centers on an assortment of large, abstractly painted rectangular blocks laid out across a wide stretch of floor—some in direct contact with it, some held aloft with lean metal scaffolding. Overhead, primary-source historical texts printed on semitransparent cotton descend from a vaulted ceiling like stately ghosts.
Jarvis explains that her piece was inspired by the life story of a distant great-grandfather named Luke Valentine, a freeman who was living in Virginia when the Revolutionary War broke out and who ventured north as a militiaman to do battle with the British. When he was older, Valentine was called into court to demonstrate that he had in fact participated in the war. “He got signatures from two of the generals he served under proving that he deserved his pension,” Jarvis says. She found Valentine’s “personal involvement with the urgency of his time” moving and transcendent; the documents featured in the exhibit pertain directly to Valentine’s assertion of his identity.
Each face of the blocks, meanwhile, depicts a different stage in the process of an ambitious painting project by Jarvis herself. She wanted Adaptation to offer a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the long journey of creating an artistic product. Just as each step of her process contributed to a grand, cohesive artwork, so too did each individual living in any given historical moment—like Luke Valentine—contribute to grand changes in their societies. Above all, Jarvis hopes her piece is an empowering reminder of our ability as individuals to contribute to the ever-evolving landscape of history. “We all have an extraordinary power in the process of what happens,” she says.
Ada Pinkston, More than a numberWith More than a number, Ada Pinkston set out to do the seemingly possible: memorialize 272 little-known historical figures in an intimate way. (Chris Ferenzi)
Complementary to Jarvis’s meditation on time and influence is young mixed-media artist Ada Pinkston’s take on time and memory, More than a number. Rather than focus on a well-documented single individual, Pinkston chose instead to pay homage to a collection of lives overlooked by conventional history: the 272 enslaved laborers sold in 1838 by Georgetown University’s Jesuit president to keep his school afloat.
More than a number consists of a collection of disparately proportioned boxy white blocks painted with forking blue streaks suggestive of tree branches. The quantity and closeness of the blocks taken together with the interconnectivity of their branch imagery and the simple elegance of Pinkston’s painting captures well the concept of 272 unique human souls bound together in a moment yet shunted from the history books and rendered anonymous.
These visuals are accompanied by audio recordings of living descendants of the enslaved men and women in question that continually play in the space the exhibit occupies. These recordings breathe life into the unknown 272 and give what could be a tragic piece a surprising triumphant quality. Pinkston hopes it spurs visitors to consider the histories of their own families and reflect on the gaps in the historical record in which meaningful people lived out their lives.
“How do we honor the lives of people we don’t know a lot about?” asks Pinkston. “I want people to consider moments like these with more reverence.”
Rania Hassan, Paths 7Fiber artist Rania Hassan finds beauty in the coincidence of disparate people occupying the same moment in space and time together. (Courtesy of the artist)
Where Pinkston draws on arboreal imagery to suggest connection across time and space, fiber and wood artist Rania Hassan invokes strands of thread. When you knit something, she notes, “the whole structure is from a single line of thread. To me that’s really inspiring, because my work is about connection and how we’re all interconnected.” Threads can also be interwoven, of course, like the stories of people moving through places and moments together. These thoughts inform much of Hassan’s work.
Hassan’s featured piece at By the People this year is Paths 7, part of a series examining the threads we follow as we make decisions throughout our lives—decisions which we often come to regret. Paths 7, a repudiation of this regret, takes the form of a strikingly symmetrical pile of gold leaf situated just beneath the tip of a drop spindle pendulum. It’s a clean, beautiful image that suggests serenity and perfection. Hassan sees it as a cosmic “You Are Here” sign.
Hassan explains that the wondrous quality of the piece arose from her own wonder at the fact that everyone who would be seeing it at the festival would have arrived at the exact same place and moment in Washington, D.C. despite having followed completely unique paths in their lives up until then. She finds a kind of reassuring solidarity in that—the inevitable confluences of all our respective strands through time. “All of your stories are colliding at the same time,” she says. “This is where you’re meant to be. Everything you’ve done has brought you right here.”
Jonathan Rosen, Walking on CloudsJonathan Rosen's Walking on Clouds encourages gallery-goers to come face-to-face with their dreams. (Chris Ferenzi)
Jonathan Rosen abruptly pivoted from a career in advertising to the life of an artist, so he, too, spends a lot of his time thinking about the paths not taken. In particular, he is fascinated by dreams and saddened at the ways in which life’s constraints so often lead us to abandon them.
“A lot of times we’re told by our bosses, by our parents, by religion, by society that we’re not allowed to have dreams, or that dreaming is wrong,” Rosen says. “And so, we start to forget our dreams, we start to ignore them. Life moves on and we get older, and then we let them go.” He wants his art to be a wake-up call to all who experience it. “I’m here to say: Follow your dreams!”
Rosen’s By the People installation, Walking on Clouds, is elegant in its simplicity. It consists of a series of mirrors each bearing enticing openings to sentences: “I am…” or “I could be…” or “I see…” Beneath these starters, nouns and adjectives flash by electronically at a blistering pace: “a flower,” “an asshole,” “sparkling,” “royalty,” hundreds more. When you snap a selfie with one of the mirrors, that flurry is replaced by a single, random phrase, which suddenly takes on great personal significance, having been singled out and immortalized alongside your own image thanks to the precise push of your thumb. “I am a firework.” “I see ghosts.” “I could be radiant.”
Rosen’s mission with this piece is to get people thinking about what is possible in their lives, to jar them out of complacency and link them spontaneously with a dream. He believes that in order for dreams to become reality they must first be articulated, and Walking on Clouds articulates dreams you may not even have realized you held. “If I’d never said I wanted to be an artist,” Rosen says, “this wouldn’t exist. We need to say it out loud for it to be true.”
Stevie Famulari, Engage Urban GreeningEngage Urban Greening is a joyous call to action that exhorts participants to welcome nature into their lives. (Chris Ferenzi)
Where Walking on Clouds sets out to get you thinking about yourself and what you are capable of, Stevie Famulari and her By the People project Engage Urban Greening are all about the communities and natural wonders surrounding our individual selves.
At the heart of the exhibit is a field of colorful paper flowers sloping down a staircase, each fashioned from a special sort of construction paper that contains seeds and will eventually be planted and watered to yield wildflowers. Like the plant life it celebrates, Engage Urban Greening is itself ever growing as visitors to the gallery fashion their own origami creations and take them home to plant, water and raise.
Famulari, whose art first started to take on an environmental character as she completed her master’s in landscape architecture, sees the Engage project as a novel spin on the By the People theme of “marginalized communities.” To her, plant life in urban settings is the epitome of a marginalized community—one which deserves to be welcomed into neighborhoods.
Just as she believes we are all capable of making a positive impact on our environment, Famulari is also a passionate advocate of the idea that anyone can create art if they put in the effort. “Everybody’s style should not be judged as ‘better’ or ‘worse,’” she says. “Their art has value because it’s their perspective.”
See this art for yourself at the Arts and Industries Building before the June 23 conclusion of the By the People festival. The full rundown of By the People events and locations is available here.
You've no doubt by now been inundated with the threat of global sea level rise. At the current estimated rate of one-tenth of an inch each year, sea level rise could cause large swaths of cities like New York, Galveston and Norfolk to disappear underwater in the next 20 years. But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year.
How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called “glacial isostatic adjustment.” You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.
During the glacier heyday 19,000 years ago, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, the Earth groaned under the weight of heavy ice sheets thousands of feet thick, with names that defy pronunciation: the Laurentide Ice Sheet, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet, and many more. These enormous hunks of frozen water pressed down on the Earth’s surface, displacing crustal rock and causing malleable mantle substance underneath to deform and flow out, changing the Earth’s shape—the same way your bottom makes a depression on a couch if you sit on it long enough. Some estimates suggest that an ice sheet about half a mile thick could cause a depression 900 feet deep—about the of an 83-story building.
The displaced mantle flows into areas surrounding the ice sheet, causing that land to rise up, the way stuffing inside a couch will bunch up around your weight. These areas, called “forebulges,” can be quite small, but can also reach more than 300 feet high. The Laurentide Ice Sheet, which weighed down most of Canada and the northern United States, for example, caused an uplift in the central to southern parts of the U.S. Elsewhere, ancient glaciers created forebulges around the Amazon delta area that are still visible today even though the ice melted long ago.
As prehistoric ice sheets began to melt around 11,700 years ago, however, all this changed. The surface began to spring back, allowing more space for the mantle to flow back in. That caused land that had previously been weighed down, like Glacier Bay Park in Alaska and the Hudson Bay in Canada, to rise up. The most dramatic examples of uplift are found in places like Russia, Iceland and Scandinavia, where the largest ice sheets existed. In Sweden, for example, scientists have found that the rising land severed an ancient lake called Malaren from the sea, turning it into a freshwater lake.
At the same time, places that were once forebulges are now sinking, since they are no longer being pushed up by nearby ice sheets. For example, as Scotland rebounds, England sinks approximately seven-tenths of an inch into the North Sea each year. Similarly, as Canada rebounds about four inches each decade, the eastern coast of the U.S. sinks at a rate of approximately three-tenths of an inch each year—more than half the rate of current global sea level rise. A study published in 2015 predicted that Washington, D.C. would drop by six or more inches in the next century due to forebulge collapse, which might put the nation’s monuments and military installations at risk.Some of the most dramatic uplift is found in Iceland. (Martin De Lusenet, Flickr CC BY)
Recent estimates suggest that land in southeast Alaska is rising at a rate of 1.18 inches per year, a rate much faster than previously suspected. Residents already feel the dramatic impacts of this change. On the positive side, some families living on the coast have doubled or tripled their real estate: As coastal glaciers retreat and land once covered by ice undergoes isostatic rebound, lowland areas rise and create "new" land, which can be an unexpected boon for families living along the coast. One family was able to build a nine-hole golf course on land that has only recently popped out of the sea, a New York Times article reported in 2009. Scientists have also tracked the gravitational pull on Russell Island, Alaska, and discovered that it’s been weakening every year as the land moves farther from the Earth’s center.
Uplift will increase the amount of rocky sediment in areas previously covered in water. For example, researchers predict that uplift will cause estuaries in the Alaskan town of Hoonah to dry up, which will increase the amount of red algae in the area, which in turn, could damage the fragile ecosystems there. In addition, some researchers worry that the rapid uplift in Alaska will also change the food ecosystem and livelihood for salmon fishers.
At the same time, there are a lot of new salmon streams opening up in Glacier Bay, says Eran Hood, professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska. “As glaciers are melting and receding, the land cover is changing rapidly,” he says. “A lot of new areas becoming forested. As the ice recedes, salmon is recolonizing. It’s not good or bad, just different.”The rate of uplift due to glacial isostatic adjustment around the world; Antarctica and Canada are expected to rise the most. (By Erik Ivins, JPL. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Although not as visible, all the changes caused by glacier melt and shifting mantle is also causing dramatic changes to the Earth’s rotation and substances below the earth’s surface.
As our gargantuan glaciers melted, the continents up north lost weight quickly, causing a rapid redistribution of weight. Recent research from NASA scientists show that this causes a phenomenon called “true polar wander” where the lopsided distribution of weight on the Earth causes the planet to tilt on its axis until it finds its balance. Our north and south poles are moving towards the landmasses that are shrinking the fastest as the Earth’s center of rotation shifts. Previously, the North Pole was drifting towards Canada; but since 2000, it’s been drifting towards the U.K. and Europe at about four inches per year. Scientists haven’t had to change the actual geographic location of the North Pole yet, but that could change in a few decades.
Redistribution of mass is also slowing down the Earth’s rotation. In 2015, Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica published a study in Science Advances showing that glacial melt was causing ocean mass to pool around the Earth’s center, slowing down the Earth’s rotation. He likened the phenomenon to a spinning figure skater extending their arms to slow themselves down.
Glacial melt may also be re-awakening dormant earthquakes and volcanoes. Large glaciers suppressed earthquakes, but according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, as the Earth rebounds, the downward pressure on the plates is released and shaky pre-existing faults could reactivate. In Southeast Alaska, where uplift is most prevalent, the Pacific plate slides under the North American plate, causing a lot of strain. Researchers say that glaciers had previously quelled that strain, but the rebound is allowing those plates to grind up against each other again. “The burden of the glaciers was keeping smaller earthquakes from releasing tectonic stress,” says Erik Ivins, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Melting glaciers may also make way for earthquakes in the middle of plates. One example of that phenomenon is the series of New Madrid earthquakes that rocked the Midwestern United States in the 1800s. While many earthquakes occur on fault lines where two separate plates slide on top of each other, scientists speculate that the earthquakes in the New Madrid area occurred at a place where hot, molten rock underneath the Earth’s crust once wanted to burst through, but was quelled by the weight of massive ice sheets. Now that the ice sheets have melted, however, the mantle is free to bubble up once again.
Scientists have also found a link between deglaciation and outflows of magma from the Earth, although they’re not sure why one causes the other. In the past five years, Iceland has suffered three major volcanic eruptions, which is unusual for the area. Some studies suggest that the weight of the glaciers suppressed volcanic activity and the recent melting is 20-30 times more likely to trigger volcanic eruptions in places like Iceland and Greenland.The wandering poles: Until recently earth's axis had been slowly moving toward Canada, as shown in this graphic; now, melting ice and other factors are shifting Earth's axis toward Europe. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Much of the mystery pertaining to ancient glaciers is still unsolved. Scientists are still trying to create an accurate model of glacial isostatic adjustment, says Richard Snay, the lead author of the most recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. “There’s been such software since the early '90s for longitude and latitude measurements but vertical measurements have always been difficult,” says Snay. He and colleagues have developed new equations for measuring isostatic adjustment based off of a complex set of models first published by Dick Peltier, a professor at the University of Toronto. Peltier’s models don’t only take into account mantle viscosity, but also past sea level histories, data from satellites currently orbiting the Earth and even ancient records translated from Babylonian and Chinese texts. “We’re trying to look at glaciation history as a function of time and elasticity of the deep earth,” says Peltier. “The theory continues to be refined. One of the main challenges of this work is describing the effects that are occurring in the earth’s system today, that are occurring as a result of the last Ice Age thousands of years ago.”
Added on to all the unknowns, researchers also don’t know exactly how this prehistoric process will be affected by current patterns of global warming, which is accelerating glacial melt at an unprecedented rate. In Alaska, global warming means less snow in the wintertime, says Hood.
“There is a much more rapid rate of ice loss here compared to many regions of the world,” he says. “The human fingerprint of global warming is just exacerbating issues and increasing the rate of glacial isostatic adjustment.”
And while the effects may vary from city to city—local sea levels may be rising or dropping—it’s clear that the effects are dramatic, wherever they may be. Although many of glaciers have long gone, it’s clear that the weight of their presence still lingers on the Earth, and on our lives.
Smithsonian photographer Carolyn Russo first found herself drawn to air traffic control towers in 2006 on a flight into LaGuardia when she first studied the architectural details and circular windows of that now inactive structure. Over a span of eight years, often traveling alone and carrying all of her gear, including her 33mm digital camera, she visited 23 countries. Negotiating her way through myriad bureaucratic processes to gain access to restricted areas, she took pictures of hundreds of these towering structures, some built by such renowned architects as Eero Saarinen, César Pelli and Gert Wingårdh. In the preface to her new book, The Art of the Airport Tower (Smithsonian Books, 2015), which features more than 100 of her images, Russo writes:
I viewed each tower as both an essential aviation artifact and a vessel with a powerful presence—watching over the vastness of the airport and sky; a non-judgmental cultural greeter; a choreographer or conductor; a mother bird caring for her flock; an omniscient, intelligent structure keeping humans safe. In the presence of the tower, I sensed the complex orchestration of humans.
With that sentiment in mind, these visible icons of a vast air traffic control system that governs the flights of some 50,000 daily aircraft globally, Russo’s photographs pay homage to their prosaic protective function while highlighting their strange and alluring beauty.
She spoke with Smithsonian.com about her quest to photograph the towers and the exhibition on view at the National Air and Space Museum.
What prompted this idea?
I had been looking at a lot of the work of artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. He did this series of buildings that were out of focus, skyscrapers out of focus, everything as a distortion and refraction. I looked out my plane window at the now-inactive LaGuardia tower, the huge circular, creamy quality of the tower and that’s where the idea sparked.
What’s your favorite tower?
The Edinburgh tower is. It’s the one that I use on the cover. I had a wish list of those I knew I wanted to include: one was the Dubai tower; also, the one in Sydney, Australia.
Tell me a good story.
Every tower had a story. The Bangkok tower in Thailand: I was going to be in China for a photography festival. So I thought, “Oh God, I should really try to do the Bangkok tower,” because at the time it was the tallest [control] tower in the world. And a four-hour flight away from Thailand doesn’t seem that far away. I wrote and wrote for permission and no one was answering any of my emails and so I was not getting access. But when I was a kid, I had a Thai pen pal. Long story short, I reconnected with him through Facebook because he works for a Thai airline or something like that. He actually put my paperwork in front of the right people and got me official access.
But the funny part of that story is, before going there, I have a friend who travels in Thailand and he said, “Hey stay at this hotel, you have really good access—you have a good view of the tower from the hotel.” Of course I stayed at the hotel.
Funny, I jumped through all these hoops to get access and my hotel had a complete view of the tower. However, I did get official access and I was able to get shots from right underneath the tower and up close.
You were there for the demolition of the Wittman tower in Oshkosh, Wisconsin?
I waited months and months and months. When I finally went out there, it wasn’t a one-day process, so I was there for a couple of days. It was bittersweet because a lot of people from the community—they were used to this tower, this tower was a meeting place for years during the annual air show that they held at Oshkosh. And there was this one couple that said they had had their first date at the tower.
How are inactive airport towers being used?
The Kansas Aviation museum is a former terminal and tower and the Newark administrative building used to be a tower. Yes, a lot of historic ones are turned into office spaces, and that’s always nice to see. Many are put on historic [preservation] records. However, just because something is on a historic record doesn’t naturally mean it will be preserved. They still require a funding source.
Is there an architectural period or a part of the world where you’ve found the towers particularly beautiful or innovative?
In the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai tower there and the Abu Dhabi tower—it’s in the shape of a crescent and to me it looks like a flowing robe. When you see it, it looks like something gliding across the desert.
The ones in Spain are fabulous. At the Barcelona airport, not only do you have their new tower, you have these two towers still standing—it’s great that they haven’t knocked down yet.
I was in Scotland, so I specifically went over to photograph the Edinburgh tower, but on the same property, they had their older tower. And then a car ride away was the very old tower, East Fortune, which is on their aviation museum’s property. Those were like bonuses.
The travel must have been a challenge.
I shot in different seasons in 23 countries. My last tower, in Sweden, I shot in the wintertime, with very little sunlight so that was a challenge. I would plan two big trips or a couple of little trips, so I wasn’t globe trotting constantly. I definitely had my trips planned out and I travelled when time and budget allowed.
How does the exhibition differ from the book?
First of all the book has over a hundred images. For the contemporary towers, I’m really focusing probably on the most abstract views. I threw in a couple of normal looking towers. LAX is a normal one to my eye, but it has a lot of different elements to it. And then I have the historic towers, which were more documentary than abstract. I feel like I photographed the two different types of towers in two different styles. The exhibition differs from the book because it shows just 50 of my photographs. The show was a much tighter edit, in terms of what we chose to display. For the book, I could have put in 500 pictures, I mean, I could have put in 1,000. It was so hard just getting it down to a hundred pictures.
What was involved in the preparation?
There was a lot that went into each shoot in terms of first researching the towers, finding out who to contact—lots of emails, sometimes it was 10 emails, sometimes it was 40 emails, just the amount of paperwork going back and forth to get permission was interesting. And then before going out for each shoot, I used to sit down with Google maps and map out the airport. I’d always know sunset and sunrise in terms of trying to figure out what time of day I needed to be there and where I needed to stand. I did love working with airport personnel. They’d pick me up in a truck and I’d get to work out of a their truck. When I wasn’t working out of a truck, first thing I would do was to rent a luggage carrier and put all my junk on it, all my camera stuff, my tripod, and that was always a real luxury for me because I didn’t have to carry my camera equipment, I would just lug it around on a luggage cart.
Are there any other anecdotes from behind the scenes?
I was in the Dubai World Central airport, and I had to go by seven guys with machine guns. That was kind of intimidating.
At another airport, I won’t say which; they said they’d have to review every image I took. I had just kind of showed up on the fly, literally, it was a last minute thing. But it was interesting; they really kind of had their back up when I first got there. But I felt like I was an ambassador for the Smithsonian and I could tell everybody about all of the other towers I was doing, I could tell them about the National Air and Space Museum. I felt like it was really connecting me to the aviation community. And I felt like once they learned about the book and the project, they really wanted to be part of this collective overview of airport towers. So by the time I left, I said you know, “Do you want to check my camera again?” They were totally cool about it. “No, you’re okay.” They were offering me cigarettes; we were talking about home life, kids. . .
Carolyn Russo is a photographer and museum specialist for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C, where the exhibiiton “Art of the Airport Tower” is on view through November 2016. The accompanying book, published by Smithsonian Books, is available here.
No _________ allowed! At different points during Iceland’s long history, that blank could be filled with everything from beer to man’s best friend. The country’s bans may seem arbitrary at times, but they have shaped the island’s unique way of life. Iceland’s many no-nos have resulted in major cultural shifts, from a capital city inundated by cats to the ways in which children are named. Read on for a few of the quirky bans that gave Iceland its distinctive character:
In 1924, the city of Reykjavik banned keeping dogs as pets. The city’s residents aren’t all cat people—rather, the measure was meant to prevent echinococcosis, a type of tapeworm that can be passed from dogs to humans. In the 1880s, a full 20 percent of autopsies performed in Iceland revealed the disease, which can cause blindness and severe complications. Even now, the disease is hard to treat and has a mortality rate of up to 75 percent, though it is primarily contracted in Africa.
Pooches aren’t illegal in Reykjavik anymore (provided owners get a permit and abide by strict residency, microchipping, vaccination, worming, and leash laws), but the effect of dog-free decades persists to this day. Cats are now the pet of choice in Reykjavik and, as long as they’re microchipped, can roam the streets without consequence. Now, the pets are everywhere—an estimated one cat for every ten residents. The cats of Reykjavik can be found pawing at doors, begging from tourists, drinking from water features, rolling around on the sidewalk and jingling from belled collars. Felines are so ever-present on the city’s streets that stores sell themed merchandise proclaiming that “cats rule the town.”
The city’s cats are so pervasive that they even have their own Facebook page. “The cats really add to the Reykjavik personality,” Anna Guðbjörg Cowden, admin of Cats of Reykjavik, tells Smithsonian.com. “They are pretty popular among Icelanders and tourists alike. Some people even travel the streets in Reykjavik with cat treat bags in their pockets.” Since there aren’t many cat predators in Iceland, says Cowden, felines continue to flourish—and given the city’s still-tight dog laws, many residents still prefer friends that purr.
Snakes, Lizards, and Turtles
Dogs aren’t the only pets who have faced discrimination on the island: To this day, it’s illegal to own snakes, lizards or turtles as pets. The reasoning is murky, but some suggest it’s because a pet turtle gave its owner salmonella in the 1990s, sparking fear that reptiles and amphibians might infect the island nation. Regardless of the reason, the ban hasn’t stopped outbreaks. No large wild populations of sick snakes, lizards, or turtles ever came to be, so perhaps the ban is working (or was never needed in the first place).
They were dark years in an already dark nation—between 1915 and 1989, beer was banned in Iceland. What began as a temperance-fueled, all-alcohol prohibition in 1915 morphed to a ban on just beer in 1933. The ban was mostly political, as BBC writer Megan Lane explained earlier this year: Iceland was struggling to gain independence from Denmark, and beer was associated with the Danish lifestyle. At the time, drinking beer was not only illegal, but unpatriotic. Officials also expressed concern that because beer was cheaper than other alcohol, it might increase alcohol abuse rates.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and to combat beer’s prohibition, drinkers came up with a new cocktail called bjórlíki. The drink featured non-alcoholic beer mixed with a shot of Brennivín, a vodka-like spirit referred to as the “black death” by locals. Beer was finally legalized on March 1, 1989. Each year on March 1, Icelanders remember the occasion with “Beer Day,” a drunken night out that recreates the moment the country welcomed back its beer.
Back in 1966, when the government in Iceland ran the country’s only television station, nothing aired on Thursdays. The ban was in place so residents would get out and socialize instead of staring at a box. And because July was considered a vacation month in the country, the entire 31-day period turned into TV down time. Nothing aired that month until 1983, and it took until 1987 for Thursday shows to finally become a reality. The exact effect of this ban hasn’t been quantified, but perhaps its’s part of the reason Iceland publishes the most books in the world per capita.
It hasn’t happened in about 400 years, but at one time, a Westfjord Icelander who encountered a Basque person was required to shoot on sight. The chilling ban on Basques dates to 1615, when bad weather sank three Basque whaling boats in Iceland. Eighty survivors were left stranded with no food. They took to robbing locals, which heightened tension between the two ethnic groups. The sheriff at the time, Ari Magnússon, decreed that Basques in the region should be killed on sight, leading to the murders of more than 30 Basque natives. In fact, the law stayed on the books until this year. This April, the Westfjords unveiled a memorial honoring the lost souls from the Slaying of the Spaniards, repealed the law, and welcomed Basques once more.
Iceland is the only remaining Nordic country to forbid boxing, clinging to a 1956 ban even in the face of changes of heart from Norway and Sweden, which also long opposed the sport. Boxing was originally banned because residents directly attributed an increase in violent crimes to the sport’s rise in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. As a direct response to boxing’s ban, alternative martial arts like judo, karate, MMA, and Taekwondo have gained popularity in the country. In fact, one of the most popular figures in MMA is from Iceland: Undefeated Gunnar Nelson from Reykjavik, the sport’s poster child, has spawned the launch of several Icelandic MMA clubs.
Anyone in the Icelandic phonebook is listed by their first name and profession, because last names are not the same throughout families. Each last name indicates the parent, and whether the person in question is the son or daughter of that parent—for example, the daughter of Ingunn’s surname would be Ingunnsdóttir and her brother’s surname Ingunnsson. Taking on a new family surname like Jones or Smith was banned in 1925, and is rigidly enforced today.
Plenty of first names are outlawed, too: Every first name in Iceland not on the government’s official list of 3,565 names must first be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. The goal is to preserve the language, which is the closest to old Norse, and to prevent undue embarrassment from ridiculous names. Though the pre-approved list contains 1,853 female and 1,712 male names, many common names are not on the list. Currently, names are banned when they can’t be conjugated according to Icelandic grammar rules or contain a letter not in the Icelandic alphabet. Sometimes this causes problems, preventing people from being issued passports and leaving kids without official names altogether, only to be referred to as “girl” or “boy.”
Icelanders have adapted to naming regulations in their own unique ways, mixing technology with tradition. A second phone directory called Ja lists people by mobile phone number, and because many names are so similar, yet different, University of Iceland students developed an app that can determine a user’s relatives so they don’t fall in love. A bill to abolish the naming laws surfaced in August this year, but a final decision has yet to be made.
Our blog covered a cornucopia of food history topics in 2016, but a few dishes rose to the top. Here are ten of our most-read blog posts of 2016 related to cuisine and cooking in America. Look out for some Julia Child, recipes from eras gone by, adventures in DIY food, and news about how we’re growing our food history team.
The tradition of backyard grilling, now synonymous with American food and leisure, began in the 1950s. Explore history and recipes that defined postwar America, including a pretty sweet shirt a Weber-grilling dad would love to wear (ours would!).
2. A taste of wartime rationing in 1940s product cookbooks investigates the history of World War II-era rationing through recipes from period cookbooks. Can you imagine living with a fraction of essential ingredients to your diet, such as sugar, fresh meat, butter, cheese, and canned goods? Cookbooks from the era were there to help out with shortcuts and workarounds so one would not have to sacrifice on taste. Pass the Baked Fish Molds?
Our job listing for a brewing historian was met with a hearty buzz. Here, the director of our food history program describes the responsibilities of this historian position in greater detail and explains why beer and brewing deserves to be on the menu of American food history.
The fish on Julia Child’s kitchen walls were more than mere decoration. Food curator Paula Johnson speaks with Child’s old friend and learns how her fish reflected not just a penchant for cheerful kitchen decor but the interests and hobbies of the famed chef herself.
Turns out the unassuming plastic container you stick your leftovers in helped nudge women into entrepreneurship. The Tupperware parties of our mothers and grandmothers were opportunities for women to learn sales and marketing skills and sell a product out of their home.
These days, a bartender may tip over a glass slightly after pulling a pint to pour out a frothy head. Behold the beer comb: a more elegant way to smooth the top of a glass of beer, but now a rarity in bars.
Who knew you could get a workout making common foods from old recipes? One of our interns makes ice cream the old-fashioned way—labor-intensively! How did her attempts at chocolate and strawberry ice cream come out, especially to a modern palate? Is trying old methods for making food worth the effort? Read on!
If you live in the mid-Atlantic states, especially in the District of Columbia region like most of the museum staff, we’re sure you can still recall Snowmageddon of January 2016! This blog post gives you pointers on how to eat, drink, and cook your way through the snow day. With drifts as large as they were for nearly five days, being snowed in meant one had to battle cabin fever and work with what was in the house.
A tribute to the late Chef Michel Richard, a favorite of D.C. foodies and a friend of the museum.
Think the soldiers in World War II who received chocolate in their ration packs were savoring the smooth taste of a Hershey’s Kiss or colorful “melt in your mouth, not in your hand” M&M’s? Wrong! Wartime chocolate was a far cry from the sweet confections of today’s candy aisles, and served uses beyond gustatory satisfaction for the soldiers who received them.
Thanks for reading our blog in 2016. The blog posts above received over 52,000 pageviews and we’re grateful for each one of them. What food history topics do you want us to take on in 2017? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter (we’re partial to the hashtag #SmithsonianFood) or Facebook. Make sure you don’t miss future food history happenings by signing up for our food history newsletter.
Rebecca Seel works for the Offices of Communications and Marketing and New Media. She fully supports a return of the beer comb.
A bucket from the Ice Bucket Challenge. A collection box from the 19th century. A toolbelt from a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. All these objects tell the story of how we give and receive, how we engage in philanthropy.
Sometimes the story is obvious when you look at the artifact—for instance, a March of Dimes donation tin. How you give, what organization you're giving to, and what that organization does with your gift are written on the tin. However, it isn't always this obvious.
In anticipation of #GivingTuesday, I explored how objects can help us understand the many different ways Americans give. In the process, I learned both the stories in our collections and the stories of my colleagues. Many of those stories were right around me.
One of the artifacts that caught my eye was this World War I poster for the Crispus Attucks Circle. What was this circle, and what did a Revolutionary War figure have to do with World War I?
During World War I, African Americans in Philadelphia were concerned that returning black soldiers in Philadelphia would not receive the same level of medical care as their white counterparts. Determined to address this issue, they created the Crispus Attucks Circle —named for an African American man considered the first casualty of the American Revolution—to raise money for a local African American hospital. The poster helped advertise their efforts
Mireya Loza, a curator in the Division of Work and Industry, shared an incredible story tied to an unassuming object.
It’s a little bank book issued to my father in the ’80s for an account he opened up for a hometown association that was raising money for this little village in Guanajuato, Mexico.
The village had this tiny adobe church that was falling apart. My father had this idea that they really had to replace it with a brick and mortar structure and that the migrant community in Chicago could do that.
He got together a couple of folks from that village and started a discussion: How would they tackle raising funds to rebuild this church? They decided that they'd do two things: they'd pay dues and they'd throw parties. They basically charged a cover. People cooked, and folks could come in and eat, dance, and basically have a makeshift baile—a dance. They raised the funds across four to five years, and the church was ultimately constructed.
I think it's an extraordinary example of working class and working poor folks really engaging and serving their community in philanthropy. And they're doing it one dollar at a time. When I was a kid, the kind of project that my dad took on to build this church was quite common. When you're in a particular moment you don't necessarily see the historical significance.
Loza's words stuck with me—there's historical significance in all of our lives. When I hear the word "philanthropist," the first thing that comes to mind is a wealthy benefactor donating millions. However, we can all be philanthropists—making a difference internationally or in our communities. When we give, we shape history.
To be a philanthropist, you don't have to give millions—you can give a little bit of money, or none at all. Philanthropists also help by sharing their time and talents.
Ken Kimery, the executive producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the supervisory producer of American Music History Initiatives, exemplifies this.
As a musician, I donate my time and talent through concerts in the museum, outside the museum, educational programs, and more.
One of the moments that I recall was in 2008. The full orchestra was on a pretty extensive tour to Egypt. We insisted that the concerts and what we did during this tour not only benefit those who had the capacity to buy tickets but those who did not have the means. We presented a concert in the Cairo Opera House for orphans. That, to me, was such a highlight—being able to have an impact outside the small community that I live with here in Washington, D.C., was really powerful.
As I've been getting to know the museum's collection, I've been discovering objects that tell all sorts of stories of people who have donated their talent and their time—sometimes in very creative ways.
A modest plaque reveals a story about arborists who used the bicentennial of the Constitution to raise awareness about environmental concerns. How? They donated their time researching and locating trees that had been standing when the Constitution was signed and placed a plaque on each in order to raise awareness.
Jane Rogers, a curator in the Division of Culture and Arts, also donated her time. Rogers served as a volunteer EMT and firefighter from 1990 to 1995.
At the fire department where I started, in order to become a firefighter you had to be an EMT first. When a volunteer would join the department, they would be sent to training.
While taking my EMT training course, anytime I saw a free arm, I was like, "Can I take your blood pressure?" It's really hard to do, so I bought the stethoscope and the blood pressure cuff to practice. After training, I carried those all the time, every time I went on the ambulance.
I would volunteer for one day—five hours a week. During the summer we would participate in parades, and at Christmas we would man the fire truck with Santa. The training and service took up a lot of time. For a young mother, it was a lot. But now that my kids are grown up, I am thinking of volunteering again.
A lot of times, people think of volunteer firefighters as running into burning buildings with no thought to themselves. But you don't really think like that. There is always that danger in the back of your mind. In the end you just really want to make sure people in your community are safe, so the risk is worth it.
People engage in philanthropy in so many ways, donating their money as well as their time and talent. Objects like these can help us connect to and better understand the different ways people give.
Do you give your time, talent, or treasure? Are you a philanthropist? What objects help tell your story?
Amelia Grabowski is a social media and blog assistant focusing on business and philanthropy history.
You can share the story of how you give through our #AmericanGiving activity.
The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.
The relish on my plate is Sicilian, a tangy blend of sweet and sour flavors. I can pick out some of the ingredients—eggplant, capers, celery—right away. I haven’t a clue, however, about the forces that came together to create this exquisite vegetable dish.
Gaetano Basile, a writer and lecturer on the food and culture of Sicily, does know. He has invited me to Lo Scudiero, a family-run restaurant in Palermo, as a tasty introduction to the island’s food and its history. He explains that the appetizer I am eating, caponata, exists because of transformative events that took place more than a thousand years ago. It was then that Arab forces invaded, bringing new crops, agricultural know-how, and other innovations that were far above the standards of medieval Europe.
On the first day of the conquest, in June, 827 a.d., ten thousand men arrived from Tunisia. “They were not led by a general as you might think,” Basile says, “but by a jurist, an expert in law. What was their business here? They were Aghlabids from Tunisia and Fatimids from Egypt. These guys came here for a simple operation of religious conquest.” But along with that mission they brought “so many things I can’t even list all of them,” Basile adds. “Hard grain, without which we could not make pasta, and sugarcane. Sugar alone would have already been enough, since it means having a powdered sweetener with which wonderful things could be made.”
We are sitting at a table, formally set with a starched tablecloth, sparkling glasses, silver chargers under the plates, and a menu of traditional Sicilian dishes. I think to myself that Basile has thoughtfully chosen Lo Scudiero, meaning squire, because it, too, reflects the cultural history I am eager to understand. Chargers, he says, were characteristic of the Sicilian aristocracy, and place settings were thought to have been introduced with the arrival of Jewish families who came with Spanish Muslims in the early ninth century. “They were the only ones to have tablecloths and napkins in an epoch when many here were eating on the floor.”
A succession of invaders came—among them Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, followed by the Islamic army of Arabs, Berbers, Moors, and Cretans. Then the Normans and other outsiders arrived, until 1860, when Sicily became part of the united Kingdom of Italy. These conquests left culinary marks, as foreign explorations and invasions usually do. Basile starts ticking off a long list: pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk has Greek origins (the cheesemaking of the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, he points out, is set in Sicily); Arabs introduced the grain dish couscous, still a specialty of the western Sicilian city of Trapani; rice, also an Arab import, stars in arancini di risu, or rice croquettes, typically Sicilian. And the Normans? “The Normans were a bunch of barbarians,” says Basile. “By the time they invaded southern Italy, they already had a reputation as robbers, murderers, rapists, and horse thieves.” But they didn’t come with nothing: They brought salted cod, or baccala, a dish most commonly associated with Portugal and Spain.
It wasn’t just new food that the invaders introduced. They brought better farming techniques as well. Clifford Wright, who has traced the history of Sicilian-Arab foods in two books, Cucina Paradiso and A Mediterranean Feast, points to the Arab approaches to irrigation and agronomy, which led to larger crop yields. Before the Arabs, Sicilian peasants had avoided planting in the hotter summer months. After the Arabs, the land was in cultivation all year round. The new immigrants planted lemons and other heat-tolerant fruits and vegetables that would increase the bounty of the harvest.
“Sicily became quite famous for its fruits and vegetables, and that can be traced back to the Muslim era, when the gardens probably began as pleasure gardens,” says Wright. Pleasure gardens were designed as places of repose, and for Muslims, a reminder of the paradise awaiting the virtuous. “They were eventually turned into ‘kitchen gardens,’” Wright continues, describing them as “experimental horticultural stations” to develop better propagation methods. But at the same time, they were places of beauty. “The gardens were lush with vegetable crops, flowering bushes, and fruit trees, and graced with water fountains and pavilions,” Wright explains in A Mediterranean Feast. During the 300 years that the Arabs ruled Sicily, its agriculture and economy grew, and institutions evolved. In fact, when the Normans seized power, they kept many practices of their predecessors, including the organization of the government and, in the upper classes, the wearing of flowing robes.The Cascino family gathers to toast the harvest amid olive groves that have belonged to the family for generations. (Penny De Los Santos)
Humans are bound to food by necessity first, and then by choice. The types of food you eat distinguish your country from another country, your group from another group. When new influences come—whether from conquest or colonial exploration or the popularity of a TV cooking show—there is a period of adaptation, and then often the full incorporation of a new technique or ingredient into the country’s culinary lexicon. The potatoes and tomatoes that went from the New World to Europe in the Columbia Exchange of the 15th century were first scorned by Old World diners who feared they were poisonous, then in time became emblematic of their cuisines. In its original form, Sicilian caponata would never have been made with tomatoes, but today there are versions that include them and they are considered perfectly Sicilian.
Food constantly evolves, as do taste buds. To the Western palate, Japanese food seems so distinctly Japanese, yet it went through many modifications once the country opened to the West in the 19th century, explains Katarzyna Cwiertka, the chair of modern Japanese Studies at Leiden University and a scholar of East Asian food. “New ingredients, new cooking techniques, and new flavorings were adapted to Japanese customs,” she says. “The changes were really tremendous.”
Military canteens played the role of first adopters. Once Japanese soldiers became accustomed to a food, they would eventually introduce it to the wider public when they returned to civilian life. Such was the case with curry, which started appearing in Japan in the late 19th century. It was a borrowing not directly from India, but from the British Empire. “The Japanese start to serve it as a Western food,” says Cwiertka. “It enters military menus and canteens and continues after [World War II] into school canteens. By the 1950s and 1960s it is a national dish. When you ask Japanese students abroad what they crave most, they would say ramen or curry. And ramen [of Chinese origin] is also not a Japanese food.”
What the Japanese have done—over and over again, Cwiertka points out—is move foreign foods into the category of washoku, the genuinely Japanese. They adapt and absorb foreign culinary influences this way. “It’s more like the invention of a tradition than a tradition,” she says.At Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, a cook prepares tempura. Many Japanese dishes—including this one, introduced in the 16th century by Portuguese traders—are imports from other countries. (Laurent Teisseire, REA/Redux)
For Maria Grammatico, ties to the past are what matter most. Her bakery in the misty mountaintop town of Erice, in western Sicily, turns out pastries of such seductive aroma and delicacy that they have become famous throughout Italy. (I make the detour to see her during a Sicilian vacation, but she is, on this rare occasion, out of town. Later I pose questions by phone.)
The medieval town with cobblestone streets is 2,400 feet above the plains of Trapani. Driving up these dizzying heights on a narrow road, it’s hard not to think of the visit to Grammatico’s home village as some sort of quest, which for fans of her cooking, it is. She has dedicated herself to pure ingredients and time-tested techniques. The result is classic Sicilian pastry—redolent with almonds and jams—just as she knew them as a child. The almonds she uses must come only from Avola, on the eastern side of the island. (They contain more oil than most almonds, so sweets turn out better, Grammatico explains.) Her milk comes only from local cows—and it’s crucial, she says, that they are milked by hand. “Of course this makes a difference!” she insists in a voice that brooks no dissent.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in his 1958 novel, The Leopard, describes a fabulous banquet scene where the island's memorable desserts are lavishly on display. It is 1860, a pivotal year: Garibaldi's troops have landed in Sicily; the march to the unification of Italy has begun and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will soon end. Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, stands before a table piled with sweets and considers the role of nuns in local pastry making— a Sicilian convent tradition since the 18th century: “Huge blond babas, Mont Blancs snowy with whipped cream, cakes speckled with white almonds and green pistachio nuts, hillocks of chocolatecovered pastry, brown and rich as the topsoil of the Catanian plain…” Don Fabrizio selects the pastry known as minni di vergine, made in the shape of breasts—an apparent reference to Saint Agatha, the Sicilian saint whose breasts were cut off by the Romans. “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these cakes when it had a chance?” Don Fabrizio muses. “Saint Agatha’s sliced off breasts sold by convents, devoured at dances! Well, well!”
These desserts are still Sicilian standards, and Grammatico learned how to make them in the most traditional way—from nuns. In the aftermath of World War II, when Sicily was struggling to recover from the devastation of bombings and loss of life, Grammatico’s mother was caring for five children. She was widowed and poor, barely able to feed her family. Given these circumstances, she sent her two oldest to live with a group of nuns at the Istituto San Carlo in Erice. Grammatico was 11 at the time, deemed old enough to take on a harsh routine of kitchen and household work.
The livelihood of the convent was baking. Especially on holidays and holy days, the people of Erice would go to the convent and, speaking through an iron grate, place their orders. After a short wait, the pastries would be ready and delivered.
The nuns were secretive about their recipes for the cakes and cookies. They used a variety of stones to weigh ingredients; each stone indicated a certain specific weight in grams or kilograms. They tried to make sure that Maria and other helpers would never see the exact proportions for any particular creation. But Maria had moxie. When her formal duties were over she would snoop from a careful distance, looking to see which stone was used; later she would calculate proportions, which she wrote down on a piece of paper, kept close to her chest so the nuns wouldn’t find it.
After 15 years in the convent she left to make her own way in the world. She was 26. To the alarm of the nuns, she started her own bakery just around the corner from the convent. She had a meager income, just a few molds, little else. Nonetheless, “they were jealous,” says Grammatico. “The recipes were secret. They wouldn’t give them to anyone.” She chuckles. “I’d stolen them.”
Now 76, Grammatico still dedicates much of her time to making pastries. She also runs a cooking school, popular with Americans, she says. She works every day, dressed in a chef’s coat, typically with a scarf around her neck. Her fingers move nimbly as she fashions small marzipan flowers to place on top of her confections. There is no hint that any of this routine has become drudgery. Quite the opposite. When she talks about the process of baking, she describes the almonds that are so essential to Sicilian pastry as beloved, like children. As with a child (she has none of her own), “you never get tired of them.”
But Grammatico questions whether this celebrated tradition has staying power. I ask her if young people want to learn how to make Sicilian pastries the old way. No, she says, she doesn’t think so. “It requires sacrifices,” she says.
Reflecting on her words later, I wonder if she has forgotten all those aspiring chefs who have made the pilgrimage to her mountaintop just to learn from her. Food, whether caponata or almond pastry, evolves, and often we find it far from its original home. While I fully expect there to be a pastry shop in Erice for a very long time, it’s also possible that the next great practitioner of this Sicilian art will be running a bakery not in Sicily, but in some faraway place.
For his senior thesis at Princeton, Mark Herrema studied farm subsidies and devised a market-driven solution to world hunger. Nothing seems too tall an order for the determined entrepreneur, who majored in politics.
Herrema, 33, has since shifted his focus to climate change—specifically, finding a way to capture greenhouse gases and put them to good use. He and Kenton Kimmel, a high school classmate, founded the Irvine, California-based company Newlight Technologies in 2003. After years of research, the team unveiled a way to produce plastic from carbon emissions that is actually more affordably priced than oil-based plastics. The "secret sauce" is a biocatalyst that combines air and methane, and reassembles all of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules into a thermoplastic the makers call AirCarbon.
Herrema shares his story with Smithsonian.com.
Let's start with the problem. What problem are you trying to fix?
Newlight started in 2003 with a question. Instead of looking at carbon emissions as a problem, what if we could use carbon emissions as a raw material to make materials, and what if those materials could outcompete oil-based materials on price and performance?
If we could do that, we would have a powerful process to address two issues: first, oil dependency, by replacing oil with captured carbon emissions, and second, climate change, by creating a market-driven carbon capture platform. What if the world was competing for the use of carbon emissions as a resource? There are few things we can imagine that would be so powerful in addressing climate change.
So, what exactly is Newlight Technologies? Could you give me your elevator pitch?
Newlight was founded to realize this vision. The net result, after over a decade of research and development, is AirCarbon, a thermoplastic material made by combining air and captured methane-based carbon emissions that would otherwise become part of the air. The material is as strong as oil-based plastics and significantly less expensive.
How exactly do you make the plastic?
The production process starts with methane emissions generated at places like landfills, farms, water treatment plants and energy production facilities—anywhere that methane is being emitted where it would otherwise be vented or flared. The first thing we do is capture that methane.
For example, at a farm, organic material is often held in a confined area, such as a tank, where it produces methane, and this methane is vented or routed into a pipe and eventually combusted, with essentially 100 percent of the carbon being released to air. In our process, instead of letting that pipe vent or feed a combustion device, we redirect the pipe to our conversion reactor. Inside the reactor, we mix the methane emissions with water, air and our biocatalyst. Here, the biocatalyst pulls oxygen out of the air, and carbon and hydrogen out of the methane, and combines those molecules to make a long-chain thermoplastic polymer molecule, called AirCarbon.
Next, we remove AirCarbon from the reactor, and after a downstream processing step, melt it into a pellet, where it can then be processed into shapes and used to replace oil-based plastics.What the plastic pellets look like, before being made into other products. (Newlight)
How were you able to make this process cost-effective?
The basic science to convert methane into thermoplastic polymers existed for many decades. Unfortunately, while the science existed, the key challenge, and the reason the process had never been commercialized, was cost. Prior to Newlight, the cost to produce polymers from methane emissions was about 2 to 3 times higher than the cost to produce oil-based plastics. Unfortunately, very few companies can afford to use a material at that price level. So, our founding challenge was: how do we carry out this process in such a way where we can outcompete oil-based plastics on price? Ultimately, our key breakthrough was our biocatalyst.
Specifically, in the past, all biocatalysts were self-limiting, meaning that they could only make a certain amount of polymer before they would turn themselves off and make carbon dioxide instead of polymer. Numerically, to make one kilogram of plastic, you needed to make one kilogram of biocatalyst, and that was the maximum yield, which rendered the production cost very expensive.
Over the course of about ten years of work, we developed a new kind of biocatalyst that does not turn itself off. Every kilogram of biocatalyst we make produces about nine kilograms of polymer—nine times more material for the same input than previous options, enabling Newlight to manufacture polymer from greenhouse gases at a price point that features a double-digit percentage cost reduction compared to the cost to produce plastics from oil.
How did you come up with this concept?
I read an Los Angeles Times article about methane emissions from cows in 2003, called “Getting the Cows to Cool It.” The article described the precise volume of methane—634 quarts—emitted per cow per day, and this number started a chain of questions: how much methane does a farm produce? What about a county, a state, a landfill or an energy facility?
What had seemed like an abstract concept of carbon emissions now seemed so real, so touchable. The burning question was, if so many of our materials are made from carbon, why are we letting all of this carbon go into the air? Why not use it to make materials, particularly materials that would otherwise be made from oil, like plastics?
I teamed up with Kenton Kimmel to found Newlight, and in 2006, Evan Creelman joined our team. For nine years, Newlight worked in radio-silence—no website, no public presence—because we said that until we could outcompete oil-based plastics on price, there was nothing to talk about.A chair that's made from AirCarbon. (Newlight)
How would you describe your success to date?
In August of 2013, ten years after our founding, Newlight commenced operations at the world’s first commercial-scale AirCarbon manufacturing facility in California, where we are combining air with methane from a farm to make AirCarbon thermoplastics.
Since Newlight’s commercial scale-up, AirCarbon has been used in a number of products, including chairs from KI, bags from Dell and cell phone cases from Sprint. In 2013, Newlight had five product applications. Within 12 months of our commercial scale-up, we grew to over 75 applications, and today we are working with over 60 Fortune 500 companies to launch AirCarbon in various products in the U.S., Europe and Asia, from automotive applications and electronics components, to bottles, caps and films.
Our focus today is on expansion, with our next benchmark step being to scale production up to 50 million pounds per year. One of the last major innovations in plastics production—Union Carbide's UNIPOL technology—reduced the capital and operating cost of plastics production process and grew from an idea to over 60 billion pounds per year in annual production. We see an equally significant step-change in cost savings, and we aim to achieve similar scale.
In parallel, our focus is building more conversion facilities, so that we can expand the AirCarbon production technology quickly and efficiently, at places like farms and landfills to the [fracking] flares of North Dakota and Texas, where the amount of carbon being flared and emitted every day—carbon that we could be converting into materials—is so intense that from space these rural areas light up the sky at night like Chicago or New York.Members of the Newlight team at one of their manufacturing plants in California. (Newlight)
What impact do you see Newlight Technologies having on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions?
When you hold AirCarbon in your hand, about 40 percent of the weight you feel is oxygen pulled from air and 60 percent is carbon and hydrogen from captured carbon emissions—carbon that would have otherwise become part of the air.
Our hope is that AirCarbon starts a paradigm shift, where we start to view greenhouse gas emissions as a resource, a raw material that can be used to produce the highest quality, most cost-advantaged, most sustainable materials in the world.
Do you think Newlight can help resolve the tension between those interested in restricting carbon emissions and those who feel such restrictions will be crippling to the economy? If so, how?
Absolutely. AirCarbon is one part Atlas Shrugged and one part An Inconvenient Truth. It is our belief that climate change is not going to be solved by subsidies or taxes. We think that the only way we are going to solve climate change, in the time and at the scale that is required, is through market-driven solutions, where consumers and brands are part of the solution, where the products we make cost less and capture carbon, and where we all participate in that.
Ultimately, what is so exciting to us about AirCarbon is that it changes the terms of the debate. If the reality is political deadlock, we have to stop fighting the same fight and focus on common ground and solutions. We can all agree that we would rather use domestic carbon sequestration than oil to make products, and we can all agree that we would rather use carbon capture materials that cost less than oil-based materials.
“I’ve got my dance shoes,” said San Francisco artist Jeremy Sutton minutes before ascending a riser to draw a three-hour, live digital painting of the musicians, booths and mingling guests in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Kogod Courtyard.
Eyeing Sutton’s black-and-white wingtips, trumpet player Carey Rayburn, who leads the Seattle-based Good Co. electro swing band, agreed. “Yes,” he said. “Those are spanky.”
The June 27 event, spotlighting innovation in art, was the last in a three-part “America Now” series, organized by the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History and the American Art Museum. As Sutton painted, his real-time depiction of the party loomed on a big screen.
Sutton and girlfriend Peggy Gyulai (herself an artist) were among the dozens who danced during Good Co.’s and DJ Eliazar’s (Eli Hason) performances. The wingtips also echoed the white “swirl” of a huge balloon that architect Nathalie Pozzi designed for the courtyard as part of video-game designer Eric Zimmerman’s “Starry Heavens” game. In the game, whose name derives from a quote on Immanuel Kant’s tombstone, silent players try to overthrow a ruler.The Seattle-based electro swing band Good Co. performed at the event. (Renaud Kasma)
Sutton’s painting, in a way, bound together all of the many parts of the event: the musicians, the “Starry Heaven” players and the stations where visitors could play virtual-reality, Oculus Rift games and immerse themselves in other digital worlds. Everything, after all, was fair game for his brush, or more accurately, his Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus 2 and his Pencil by FiftyThree. But everyone in the lot also had something in common—they all straddled the border between art and technology.
Take Sutton’s iPad stand. A palette that he bought at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (based on the size and shape of Vincent’s palette), it bears paint from times when Sutton used old-fashioned brushes and paint to work atop a digital painting printed onto canvas. Sutton has rigged the palette so that he has two places to connect an HDMI cable to his iPad.
Programmer and game designer Greg Aring brought his Oculus Rift “experiences,” or games, “Hellicott City”—a haunted wagon ride whose name, presumably, derives from Aring’s hometown Ellicott City, Md., and which he spent about 120 hours making for a Halloween art show—and “Vrolleyball,” which he said is a combination of volleyball, baseball, karate and pong.
“Games have come a long way as an art form in the eye of the public,” Aring said. “There’s always been a debate about whether games are art, which I think is a silly question. Just the fact the Smithsonian would put on an event like this is really encouraging. It’s a good sign for supporting local, game developers—people who do art and like technology like myself.”
The American Art Museum hosted “The Art of Video Games” in 2012, an exhibition that celebrated 40 years of the medium with vintage gaming systems, filmed interviews with game designers and opportunities to play groundbreaking games. In 2013, the museum acquired two video games, “Flower” and “Halo 2600,” for its permanent collection, noted chief of external affairs Jo Ann Gillula.
A nine-year-old named Gabriel, who played “Hellicott City” and whose mother requested be identified only by his first name, said the game was “not really that scary,” despite the appearance of “ghosts and stuff like that, and witches.” The best part, he said, was a very speedy roller coaster scene. “It’s very nice, exciting,” he said.
Other visitors chose, in between sipping “Starry Heavens cocktails” of Limoncello di Capri and a fruit juice concoction, to play the “Starry Heavens” game.
Architect Nathalie Pozzi, who designed the balloons, admitted that at first blush, her work seemed the least technological. There were two big balloons, a very large spherical yellow one (like a stylized sun) and an enormous "swirl" that floated above, and a board below where the players stood. The "ruler” spoke from a microphone, and the other players tried to maneuver about to overthrow him or her. “Although the game isn’t digital, the construction wouldn’t be possible without it,” she said, noting that she began sketching with pencil and paper, but that the construction got quite complicated with fans keeping the balloons inflated and 3D printing involved.
And, as one would expect, the musicians too had plenty to say about the intersection of art and technology. DJ Eliazar makes a point of leaving his laptop behind when he performs, he said, so that he can appreciate what he called his art’s psychological and sociological aspects, of interacting with and reading the audience. If the crowd looks exhausted, for example, he might play something mellow to calm them down.
“There are too many options inside the computer and you get sucked into the screen and you’re not interacting,” he said. Still, he added, technology is vital to deejaying. “I couldn’t do what I’m doing without it,” he said.
Sasha Nollman, a Good Co. vocalist, noted that the band has a really strong attachment to traditional jazz, but also a deep love for electronic music. “It’s very exciting to us that we do mix those two things together,” she said. “Being invited to an event where it’s all about doing that, about innovating these older traditional forms of music, that’s very exciting.”
“Jazz is America’s music. It’s our national art form,” added trombonist Colin Pulkrabek. “We have a definite ownership of it. For that reason, we need to keep it alive and constantly reinterpret it as we see fit, and try and keep it relevant to ourselves.”
The musicians—both of Good Co. and DJ Eliazar—agreed that it was pretty exciting to be painted in real time. Good Co.’s bandleader Rayburn recalled a guy at a prior concert in Eugene, Oregon, coming up after the show and drawing caricatures of the musicians. “That was awesome,” he said. Asked if the drawings were flattering, he volunteered, “Mostly. One of them kind of looks like a wizard.”
DJ Eliazar has performed at art openings before, where the artist was sketching him. He enjoyed watching his music influence the artist. “You play something and all of a sudden it goes into their piece of art,” he said, recalling some Middle Eastern music he played at a prior event. “All of a sudden a camel appeared in his painting.”Artist Jeremy Sutton avoids the "undo" button when he paints using digital media. He adds layers of color, instead of subtracting them. (Shalom Gibly)
Sutton, the digital painter, said he has been creating art at live events pretty much from when he first picked up a computer. A 1991 party changed his life in more ways than he could have known, the London native who studied physics at Oxford University said. Sutton had been living in Palo Alto since 1988, where he was selling superconducting magnets, when, as he was wont to do, he found himself sketching people at the party. Someone looking over his shoulder liked what she saw and offered to introduce him to a friend who made painting software.
“I had no idea what they were talking about but I said, ‘Of course. I’d love to,’” said Sutton, who was soon learning the program PixelPaint Pro. “That changed my life. I fell in love with this whole medium,” he said. “I felt at home with it right away.”
Despite working in a physics studio, he admitted embarrassedly he had hardly ever used a computer before being introduced to digital paint. But soon he was taking time off work to travel to Las Vegas to demonstrate how he was using painting software at the creator’s booth at the graphics show Siggraph. After losing his job, he became a full-time artist, something one doesn’t do, he says, unless you has a certain blend of complete naivete, obsessiveness and a bit of craziness.
“It’s not a recipe for any of the things that provide security,” he said.
While painting at the “America Now” event, as he always does, Sutton had his feet firmly planted in both the technological and aesthetic worlds, appearing to share things in common with both the purists who eschew digital brushes and the technology evangelists who see great promise in digital art-making.
He avoids using the “undo” button, instead adding layers of color rather than subtracting. And he doesn’t use the “eyedropper” tool, which would allow him to replicate exact colors he used earlier in his paintings. Instead, he adjusts the hue, saturation and tone afresh each time. While talking to a reporter the day before the event, he demonstrated how quickly he could match the red color on a coffee cup on his drawing program; it took a matter of seconds.
“I treat my media as a very malleable, transformative media,” he said. “It’s not correcting; it’s always transforming.”
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In the painting he created on June 27, Sutton built upon a background that he composed from three works from the American Art Museum’s collection: Malcah Zeldis’ “Miss Liberty Celebration” (1987), Marvin Beerbohm’s “Automotive Industry” (1940) and Romare Bearden’s “Empress of the Blues” (1974). Several of the musicians from Bearden’s piece appear prominently in Sutton’s final painting, as do Good Co.’s Sasha Nollman (in a distinct blue dress), Pulkrabek’s trombone, DJ Eliazar’s hat, the balloon swirl and the courtyard ceiling. Sutton often took breaks from the work, which he created with the app Sketch Club, to talk to visitors of all ages about his work, the classes he teaches mostly at his San Francisco studio and his techniques. Interacting with the public in this way, girlfriend Gyulai confirmed, is something he enjoys very much.
Perhaps more emblematic of the intersection of technology and art than even his iPad easel is the way Sutton draws on his physics training in his artmaking. Both approaches to viewing the world, he said, have a great deal to do with seeking patterns, structure and rhythm, and then being critical about what appears on the surface.
“It’s about seeing things beyond what you at first see,” he said.
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
The burgeoning Internet phenomenon was so new, it didn’t even have a name. It was so strange and hard to describe that many people felt creepy trying. It resided at the outer edge of respectability: a growing collection of YouTube videos featuring people doing quiet, methodical activities like whispering, turning magazine pages and tapping their fingers. Some viewers reported that these videos could elicit the most pleasurable sensations: a tingling feeling at the scalp and spine, coupled with euphoria and an almost trance-like relaxation.
Seven years later, ASMR is having a pop culture moment—even if many of those who use it don’t know what the acronym stands for. The phenomenon’s most popular practitioners have more than half a million subscribers, and the doyenne of ASMRrtists, Maria of Gentle Whispering ASMR, has been so successful that she’s been able to quit her job to role-play soothing cosmetologists, librarians and flight attendants full-time. But what is ASMR? What function does it serve, who is drawn to it, and why? Or, as researcher Craig Richard puts it: “Why are millions of people watching someone fold a napkin?”
As ASMR has started to come to mainstream attention, researchers have finally begun trying to answer that question. Neuroscientists are now experimenting with fMRIs and electroencephalography to see if the brains of “tingleheads,” as they are called, are any different than those who don’t tremble at the sight of napkin-folding. They’ve also surveyed tens of thousands of people who say they experience the phenomenon. So far there are intriguing—if limited—findings suggesting that ASMR may relieve some people’s symptoms of stress and insomnia, and that the brains of those who experience it may be organized a little differently.
For those who have long followed the neurological phenomenon, however, there are more expansive questions to explore. They want to know: Can probing the ASMR experience help us better understand how the senses, pain, relaxation—and even love—manifest in the brain?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a nonclinical term coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, who’s been involved in online organizing around ASMR since the late aughts. Allen, who works in cybersecurity, figured people couldn’t discuss the phenomenon unless it had a name—ideally, an official-sounding one, to lend legitimacy to a practice that can be embarrassing to share. Once ASMR had a name—and had been featured in a slew of can-you-believe-this news stories—academics became interested in pinning down what it was.
In 2015, two psychology researchers at Swansea University in Wales published the first peer-reviewed research study on the phenomenon, in which they tried to do the bedrock work of describing and classifying ASMR. After surveying 475 people who report experiencing “the tingles,” they found that a sizable majority sought out ASMR videos on YouTube to help them sleep, and to deal with stress. Most viewers found they felt better after watching these videos and for some time after, including those who scored high on a survey for depression. Some of the subjects who suffered from chronic pain also said the videos decreased their symptoms.
There’s been suspicion that ASMR is a sexual pursuit, fueled by the fact that many ASMRtists are attractive young women and that cleavage is not exactly foreign to the medium. The comments beneath videos routinely make much of the ASMRtists’ attractiveness, and terms like “braingasms” and “whisper porn” are often bandied about. But in the Swansea study, only 5 percent of respondents reported using it for sexual stimulation. Granted, this is self-reported data, but the results must be vindicating to ASMRheads who find themselves battling unsavory rumors about their nighttime video-watching habits.Maria of Gentle Whispering ASMR's hairbrush (not shown) has become an icon of the Internet craze. (photonic 2 / Alamy)
A smaller, more recent study offers a hint as to where ASMR research might go. Last year, psychology professor Stephen Smith and two colleagues at the University of Winnipeg put 22 subjects into fMRI scanners. Half were people who reported experiencing ASMR, and half were controls. Because the researchers did not know if they could reliably trigger tingles inside noisy fMRI machines—they tried this approach, and subjects seemed to have trouble relaxing—they scanned the resting states of 22 brains as the subjects simply lay there, to see if there were any differences between the two.
What caught their attention was the brain’s “default mode network,” which Smith describes as “a lot of structures along the midline of the brain,” as well as parts of the parietal lobes above the backs of the ears. “The activity of these areas tend to fluctuate together, so we assume that they work together as a network,” Smith says. The default mode network is “most apparent” when a subject is awake and at rest, and is often associated with internal thoughts and mind wandering. In a scanner, the default mode network typically shows up as certain areas of the brain “lighting up” at the same time. But the brains of subjects who experienced ASMR looked different.
The areas that typically work together weren’t firing together as much. Instead, other areas of the brain were getting more involved than usual—areas related to a visual network, for instance. These differences suggest “that instead of having distinct brain networks the way you or I would, there was more of a blending of these networks,” says Smith, who studies the neuroscience of emotion. “It does make intuitive sense that a condition associated with atypical sensory association and atypical emotional association would have different wiring in the brain.”
Smith speculates that ASMR may be similar to synesthesia, the fascinating neurological condition in which people see numbers in color and “taste” shapes. “In synesthesia,” he says, “there have been some studies that show there’s slightly atypical wiring in the brain that leads to slightly different sensory associations, and I think that may be the same thing we have here.”
However, Tony Ro, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in an email that the University of Winnipeg study “is unfortunately not as revealing or informative as it could have been,” given its small size and the fact that researchers were measuring subjects at rest, rather than while experiencing ASMR. The resting state differences could be due to other factors, like higher rates of anxiety or depression, he says. Still, writes Ro, who researches synesthesia and has also been intrigued by ASMR for a few years, “I do think that ASMR may be a form of synesthesia.”
In another study, detailed in a forthcoming paper, Smith and colleagues tested 290 people who experience ASMR for what are known as the Big Five personality traits, and compared their results to those of an equal number of “matched controls.” Smith and colleagues found that ASMRheads scored higher on measures for what’s known as “openness to experience” and neuroticism and lower for conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness—findings the researchers say warrant more study.
Over at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences, runs the clearinghouse website ASMR University, where he interviews people who’ve studied the phenomenon and blogs about ASMR in the news. Richard himself reports experiencing ASMR; nevertheless, he says scientific skepticism is warranted until more studies are published. To that end, Richard and two other researchers, Allen and a graduate student, have been conducting an online survey that he says so far includes 20,000 people across over 100 countries, almost all of them “tingleheads.”
The study is still ongoing, and results have not yet been published. But for his part, Richard has been developing a theory of what ASMR is and why it exists. His theory isn't exactly scientific, but it is beautiful: He notes that the quality that underlies almost all ASMR videos is what’s been called a “tranquil, womb-like intimacy.” That is, ASMRtists speak softly into the ears of headphone-wearing viewers, gently coaxing them to sleep by way of assiduous personal attention, comforting words, smiles and simulated stroking. At its most essential level, Richard believes, all the intimacy channeled through towel foldings and whispered affection is about triggering the felt experience of being loved.
Richard and his team ask participants to rank the way they’d most prefer to experience ASMR, if YouTube weren’t the only option. (Data from the Swansea University study shows most people have their first ASMR experiences as children, through real-life interactions with family and friends.) “Receiving light touches with my eyes closed” ranked first; sound triggers were below and visual ones lower still—an echo, Richards says, of how the senses develop in human beings.
“When a newborn is born, the sensation that is the most developed and they receive the most information through is touch, and the one that’s least developed is sight,” he says. Parents show infants love most of all through touch, he argues—coddling, stroking—and all of this helps explain why ASMR is, at its best, an in-person experience with echoes of childhood experiences.
“The reason people can get tingles and feel relaxed and comforted listening to Maria GentleWhispering is because she’s acting very much the way a parent would care for you,” he says, “with the caring glances, gentle speech and soothing hand movements. And a lot of the time she’s doing simulated touching. It’s pattern recognition. Our brains recognize the pattern of someone with a caring glance, someone with a gentle whisper, and we find that comforting.”
Richard suggests that the “extreme relaxation” of ASMR may be the mirror image of panic attacks, residing at the far end of the relaxation spectrum. If, as his data so far shows, three-quarters of his subjects use ASMR videos to help them sleep, a third say the videos help them “feel less sad,” and smaller percentages use the videos to deal with diagnosed anxiety disorders and depression, ASMR could one day have therapeutic applications, he argues.
It’s a provocative idea: that the medical community might one day be able to “elicit some of those biochemical experiences associated with love—through a video with a stranger,” as Richard puts it, and use it to treat the ails of modern life like insomnia, stress, depression. Can you, in essence, bottle love—and should you?
But so far, that’s still speculation, and far outside the realm of what scientific research can tell us. “I do think we should remain skeptical about ASMR until we are able to measure its automaticity, consistency, reliability, and underlying neural mechanisms much more carefully,” says Ro, the synesthesia researcher.
Even if the Internet has led researchers to the discovery of a previously unknown sensory phenomenon, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. There are many unanswered questions, like why only certain people experience ASMR, what percentage of the population they make up, and whether those who never have can be triggered to experience it. More immediately, there’s the ever-present challenge of getting funding to better understand an experience that still raises skepticism. Smith says that the term ASMR still “comes across as a little bit new-agey in the scientific world.”
Plus, it’s logistically difficult to study a phenomenon that requires quiet and prefers solitude. As Smith points out, fMRI machines are noisy and EEG tests (which Smith’s team also tried) involve attaching “goop and sensors” to the scalp, potentially interfering with the ability to feel tingles. As Smith puts it, “the tools we have are not relaxing.”
Yet despite its challenges, further research into ASMR comes with the tantalizing potential of helping us better understand of the brain. For psychologists, it could also help enhance treatment plans for anxiety and depression, at least for some people. More poetically, it might help us understand how people feel loved. “But mainly,” says Smith, “it’s just cool.”
In May 1848, a boisterous man named Sam Brannan charged down a San Francisco street, hollering, "Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!" and, as the story goes, started the California Gold Rush. The images of saloons, miners, and dusty ghost towns are easy to call to mind, but do you ever wonder what happened to the millions of ounces of gold harvested from the ground? Most of the gold, typically panned out in the form of gold dust, was melted and served as a part of the global supply of gold today. Few samples of gold in its natural form of dust, ore, or nuggets were preserved and traceable back to these historic gold rushes. Only a small handful of coins and ingots minted by private companies or the U.S. assay office survive to provide a glimpse at the life and times of these pioneers of yore. Here are three surviving private gold coins from Oregon, Colorado, and Utah in our collection that are extremely rare.
So what was life like during the wild days of the Gold Rush? It is hard for us to relate to this period, in our present era of credit cards and ATMs, but it was a time marked by severe monetary difficulties. Prior to the Gold Rush, coins of any denomination were scarce and the entire frontier operated for the most part as a barter economy.
Various objects later gained wide acceptance as a currency of sorts, such as wheat and beaver pelts in Oregon and cowhides in California. In fact, settlers in these sparsely populated regions were so desperate to find a medium of exchange that in 1845, the provisional government of the Oregon Territory authorized commodities such as butter, peas, and lumber as legal tender.
Shortly after gold was discovered, millions of dollars' worth of gold dust spread across California and adjacent territories of Oregon and Utah. But this didn't end the currency crisis. Difficulties arose relating to weighing gold and disagreements over its valuation. A variety of abuses occurred: traders rigged scales with faulty weight; miners diluted their pouches of gold with sand or brass filings; and, most amusingly, saloonkeepers (who sold drinks in exchange for a "pinch" of gold dust) hired men with unusually large hands to grab a larger "pinch."
All of this inevitably led to a public outcry for coined gold with standard defined values. From August 1848 through April 1852, many petitions were sent to Congress by irate merchants demanding the establishment of a mint in San Francisco, as minted coins from the Philadelphia mint and branch mints (satellite mints in New Orleans, Dahlonega, and Charlotte) required considerable expense to ship west and often remained in their respective regions to circulate. But until July 1852, these cries weren't heard by a predominantly eastern-minded Congress that seemed remote from western concerns. As a result, several private companies exploited the opportunity to fill the void by setting up businesses to coin gold either as a public service or for profit.
A forty-niner panning for gold, which usually came up in the form of gold dust. (Photo: L. C. McClure – Brinkley, Douglas: History of the United States. Viking Penguin. New York, 1998. Page 151.)
The rise of private mints all over the west made more coins available. On December 1848, Brigham Young and several other Mormon leaders established a mint of their own in Utah, striking gold coins with Mormon imagery on both sides to facilitate trade within the Mormon community and with non-Mormon merchants who supplied goods to them. By March 1849 in Oregon, several businessmen established a short-lived mint in Oregon City to satisfy their local needs. Two months later the first known examples of private gold coins were struck in California. Multiple firms competed fiercely for the business and public confidence of their respective coins, with the firm Moffat & Co. being the most successful in the end. Ten years later during another gold rush in Pike's Peak, the company Clark, Gruber & Co. set up business in Denver, Colorado, to resolve identical abuses relating to gold dust circulation in the state.
One key issue these private mints faced during their years of operation was that the value of their coins was often questioned. Acceptance of these coins was based on the reputation of the company that made them and their true melt value relative to their face value. Business owners and consumers had to figure out which company's coins were of good value and which were fraudulently debased. Firms had to balance profitability with integrity. For example, a dishonest company has a strong incentive to increase profit by using $3 worth of gold to make a coin that passes off with a $5 face value rather than using close to $5 of gold for a $5 coin and only charging a nominal service fee.
Despite this, the desperate shortage of federal coins in the west forced many to accept this temporary measure, and local minters served the needs of the community until enough federal coinage went into circulation to render these private issues obsolete. When that occurred in the late 1850s for the West Coast and the late 1860s for Colorado, nearly all of these private-issue coins went into the melting pot at the various U.S. Mints and assay offices (offices created for the express purpose to evaluate and buy gold from the public to be sent to the mint to be coined). Today only a few choice examples of each type of private issue exist. Luckily, some were saved for preservation in the U.S. Mint's collection of coins (officially known as the Mint Cabinet) thanks to the remarkable insight by William DuBois and Jacob Eckfeldt, mint assayers between the years of 1849 and 1861.
These three coins ended up in the Smithsonian in 1923 when the U.S. Mint transferred its Cabinet Collection to Washington, D.C. With fewer than 30 known for each issue and ranking among the finest specimens known, these three Great American Rarities have come back out of the vaults and today sit proudly on display in the Value of Money exhibition, carrying with them the stories of some of the most fascinating periods in American history.
Benjamin Wu is an intern in the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History.
America Participates is the museum's 2016 theme: But what does "participation" actually look like? We interviewed David Allison, director of curatorial affairs, about where he finds compelling stories of participation in the museum's collections, exhibitions, and his own life.
Why is it important for a history museum to bring greater attention to participation?
We say on the first floor of the museum in the Innovation Wing that America itself is an innovation. It was an innovation that a country would govern itself. But to succeed—and the founders knew this—the government required people to be educated, motivated, and willing to give back and participate in their society, else it would fail. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia in his retirement, and that's an example of the importance he placed on having an educated, literate citizenry. So as a history museum designed to help people understand what it means to be American, what's distinctive about America, this notion of helping our visitors see that participating in the country is essential to making the democracy we live in viable and successful.
American Enterprise is one of the exhibitions in our Innovation Wing that you worked on. Can you talk about the connection between business pursuits and participation?
Most businesses in America are small business, and America depends on people mostly being responsible for themselves. Our country is dependent on individual initiative with limited government, which provides a safety net, but society depends on you making your own way, being responsible for yourself, and taking risks. That may mean going to school to learn something new, starting a business, or bringing a new idea to the table.
We tend to think of participation as giving back but sometimes participation is just making your own way and being responsible for yourself, and that's not true in every society around the world. This requires a society that is constructed to help you participate by making your own way and not prevent you from doing that. Issues we've had with sexism, racism, discrimination of many sorts, have needed to be corrected so you can have equality and opportunity for people to make their own way.
We've talked about a lot of positive aspects of participation in America. But those haven't always been available to everyone. What about barriers to participation?
One of the things we recently opened here is our new introductory film We the People, which takes the perspective that we're a nation that is striving for fundamental ideals. But the important word there is "striving." Our ideals are democracy, opportunity, and freedom, but we point out over and over in that film that this is constantly full of conflict. For example, people come here believing that there will be opportunity for them in America and find that they're blocked, so they have to agitate, they have to fight, they have to get involved. This is most notable in moments such as the civil rights movement and woman suffrage. But it also happens in the professional sphere, when people create professional organizations to change things. Even though we want to become a more perfect union we'll never become the perfect union.
In that process of striving, things do fail. In American Enterprise, we tell the story of Prohibition. Today we ask, "How could that possibly have seemed like a good idea?" But in fact, drunkenness was a huge problem in America society. The people who pushed for Prohibition were well-intentioned, trying to solve a social problem that they thought was destroying families. The solution turned out to be wrong for our society but I will say that the issue hasn't gone away. Today we probably wouldn't pass another amendment to the Constitution to address the problem of alcohol and drug abuse, but it doesn't mean we've solved it.
In February, we commemorated the Day of Remembrance. We remember how Japanese Americans had their citizenship taken away from them or questioned during World War II. We remember that Japanese American incarceration was an abuse of the Constitution to raise the consciousness that it could happen again and we can't forget that.
Is participation an important part of your life or career? What does participation mean to you personally?
I'm a big supporter of the Salvation Army, I'm very active in my church, I believe that giving to my alma mater helps young people have the college experience that was so meaningful in my life. I feel strongly about the Combined Federal Campaign, which I think is a great opportunity for federal employees to make charitable donations. I was one of the founders of the Society for History in the Federal Government, created when we felt federal historians needed to be more organized. I've taught children with disabilities at various times in my life. Like everybody, my participation in causes and so on is episodic. The important thing is that giving is not just money, it's giving your time, giving your talent, and sometimes your resources.
Participation in early American history often came through religious organizations. What do you think led to that dynamic?
We are currently working on an exhibition opening in 2017 about religion in early America. It's hard for us to remember now but there was a big debate when the country was founded as to whether there would be an established church, a government-supported church, in America. When the founders decided in passing the first amendment that we would not have an established religion at the national level, many people thought that would lead to a decline in churches in America. But in fact it opened up a world of growth. Even today, for many Americans, it's the religious or spiritual part of their lives which is the most involved with giving back—not for everybody, but for many people in America, that is part of their experience.
Will the museum collect more objects related to participation and giving?
We're looking to collect some of those big thermometer signs that people have used in civic campaigns to show the amount of money or resources raised towards a goal. They're not as popular as they used to be, but for a long time in American history, almost every year you could find a thermometer in your community that illustrated funds raised for the hand, the local hospital. Ordinary Americans would see that thermometer go up in their community and be inspired to donate toward that goal. We're also trying to think critically about how the material culture of giving reflects the diversity of the American people.
Our 2015 theme was Innovation. Is there a connection between that theme and America Participates?
Americans have been very innovative in figuring out how to participate. Take examples like Kickstarter campaigns, online giving, and crowdsourcing. Our society readily applies new technologies and ways of interacting to our interest in giving back. The Smithsonian Transcription Center is an example of that—you can transcribe information off of 19th-century currency from your own home while watching the news. It turns out voting is one of the areas in which we've been in some ways less innovative but my guess is that will change in the next 20 years.
Erin Blasco and Jordan Grant work in the museum's New Media department.
In Europe, cultural heritage—often dating back thousands of years—seems to be around every corner in the guise of well-preserved and beautifully curated landmarks that bring the continent’s history to vivid life. But not every landmark in Europe is in as good of shape as, say, the Eiffel Tower or getting the attention that ancient Pompeii is now receiving. If you look closely enough, you can see places that are crumbling or actively endangered. In a bid to draw attention to those cultural landmarks—and preserve them for future generations—Europa Nostra, a European heritage organization, recently named seven cultural landmarks and a special eighth “most-endangered” location as Europe’s most on-the-brink sites.
Europa Nostra's list crosses regions and even millennia. It was put together by a group of international advisors with expertise in everything from history and preservation to finance. Though the organization notes that the list is aimed “to serve as a catalyst for action and promote ‘the power of example’”, it is not a funding program.
That doesn’t mean that the sites won’t receive funding and attention, however. Now that the list has been released, Europa Nostra has assembled a board of heritage and financial experts who will undertake what they call “rescue missions” to each of the seven sites. Each mission will result in an action plan to preserve the site for future generations, no matter what its condition now. And organizations like Unesco are taking note as well.
For every place that’s nominated for intervention, there are thousands more that go unnoticed and unattended. In a release, Europa Nostra cites everything from funding cuts to a lack of preservation expertise for the gaps that seriously threaten the continent’s rich cultural heritage. Regardless of the reason, the program sheds light on sites that might otherwise be ignored. Here are the sites declared most endangered in 2016:
Venice Lagoon (Venice, Italy)Venice and its lagoon are one—but the delicate ecosystem is threatened by development and fishing. (Naoo Kumagai/AFLO/Aflo/Corbis)
Shocked to see one of Europe’s most familiar sights at the top of the most-endangered list? Don’t be. The bridges and buildings of the city of Venice are threatened by rising seas, and the lagoon is in danger, too. The stretch of water doesn’t just contain the famous canals—much of the 212-square-mile lagoon is made up of sand banks and muddy wetlands, indeed, it holds the distinction of being Europe’s largest wetland. The lagoon is under threat from climate change, industrial fishing and a steady traffic of cruise and container ships. Europa Nostra cites a local project to turn the lagoon into a commercial port as a particular threat. It’s so important (and threatened) that the organization gave it a “special nomination,” bringing the count of endangered landmarks to eight instead of its usual seven.
Ererouk and Ani Pemza (Armenia)This basilica dates back to the fourth century. (World Monuments Fund)
Located near the border of Turkey and Armenia, the basilica of Ererouk dates back to the fourth century and has been in a state of collapse for centuries. The church’s remote location, as well as the devastating earthquakes it has faced has contributed to its current dilapidated condition. According to Europa Nostra, the once-important church is now “at risk of being lost before it has been comprehensively studied and documented.” Also at risk is the village of Ani Pemza a few miles away, which has been completely abandoned since a nearby mine closed in 1994.
Patarei Sea Fortress (Tallinn, Estonia)Despite its grisly heritage, the Patarei Sea Fortress in Estonia has simply been abandoned. (Andres Tarto)
In 1820, Tsar Nicholas I commissioned a sea fortress that would serve as a brutal prison once Soviet Russia came into being. Both Estonian Jews and Soviet political prisoners were interrogated, tortured and killed. “That is the reason why this building has a particularly sad and horrible reputation and why it is difficult to find a new use for it,” writes an Estonian heritage organization. The prison wasn't closed down until 2005. Rather than find a use for it, it’s simply been abandoned and is now filled with graffiti and crumbling architecture. “If no emergency actions are taken to stop the rapid decay,” writes Europa Nostra, “the buildings will be irreparably lost.”
Helsinki-Malmi Airport (Helsinki, Finland)Today, this 1930s airport is Finland's second-busiest. (Sampo Kiviniemi)
In 1940, Helsinki was scheduled to host the Olympic Games—but World War II got in the way, and the grand airport built to accommodate all of those visitors who never materialized was never used for its intended purpose. These days, the airport is Finland’s second busiest, but a development project that proposes it be shut down and rezoned for residential use threatens its pre-war runways and functionalist architecture.
Colbert Swing Bridge (Dieppe, France)Thousands of vehicles and pedestrians use this 1886 bridge every day—but officials want to tear it down. (Marie Claude Stefani / Dieppe's Colbert Bridge Protection Committee (CSPC))
Back in the day, movable “swing” bridges, which pivot to allow water traffic were the height of modern innovation. But they’ve gradually fallen out of fashion, and today the Colbert Bridge, which is Europe’s last and the longest of its kind, has fallen into disrepair. Built in 1886, the bridge still works just fine, but now it is endangered by shoddy maintenance and plans to destroy it. However, the danger doesn’t keep thousands of pedestrians and cars from using the bridge every day—the bridge is a lifeline between central Dieppe and the city’s Le Pollet quarter.
Kampos of Chios (Chios, Greece)Once studded with country manors and citrus gardens, this idyllic area has fallen into disrepair. (Courtesy of Elliniki Etairia - Society for the Environment and Culture)
Think of Kampos as the lavish historic suburb of this lush Greek island. The area, which is within the limits of the island’s main city, was once home to more than 200 fancy estates and fabulous garden orchards packed with citrus fruit. Vineyards, nut orchards and silk trading rounded out the rich economy of Kampos as the area changed hands between Genoese nobles and the Ottomans. But things changed in the 19th century, when a Turkish massacre drove many Chians from the island and a citrus freeze ruined the local economy. More recently, the beautiful area has been in decline due to what Europa Nostra calls “the inability of the owners to maintain the properties” and the gradual disintegration of the area’s historic architecture.
Convent of St. Anthony of Padua (Extremadura, Spain)This abandoned convent is the victim of wear and tear. (Courtesy of Hispania Nostra)
St. Anthony has a special relationship with Spain—not only is he the patron saint of lost and stolen articles, but his feast day on January 17 is a kind of national holiday when people bring their pets to church to be blessed. It’s not surprising, then, that a convent in western Spain would take the saint’s name. But the once lovely Renaissance building has been on the decline since Spain expelled the Franciscan priests who ran the convent and monastery and sold the building. It’s been repurposed ever since, and is now in danger of simply falling apart.
Ancient City of Hasankeyf (Turkey)This 12,000-year-old city could soon be inundated thanks to a hydroelectric dam. (Courtesy of Hasankeyf Matters)
Located on the banks of the Tigris River, this ancient city is 12,000 years old. Though to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it’s been home to over 20 cultures over the millennia. And it shows: Hasankeyf is so packed with archaeological treasures that Europa Nostra calls it “a living museum of epic proportions.” But that may not be enough to keep the city safe: Despite legal battles, the Turkish government plans to displace Kurdih locals and move forward with a controversial hydroelectric dam project that will flood 74,000 acres of the precious city.
One was the Civil War's first submarine, the other was the first sub to take down an enemy ship. One sank en route to attack Charleston, South Carolina, the other sank after defending that same Confederate harbor. One rests somewhere along the shifting ocean floor, the other rests in a well-monitored laboratory tank.
One was the USS Alligator, which sank in April of 1863. The other was the H.L. Hunley, which plunged some ten months later. For all their differences, both Civil War submarines have a rapidly improving science of shipwrecks working in their favor. Advances in that field have helped researchers narrow the search for the missing Alligator and preserve the remains of the recently recovered Hunley.
"It's a good time to be a marine archaeologist," says Michael Overfield of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Since 2004, Overfield has been searching for the Alligator near Cape Hatteras, an area off the coast of North Carolina known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for the abundance of ships it has consumed. Records indicate that's where the Alligator ended its promising but abortive existence.
Engineered by a French immigrant, the Alligator featured several innovative mechanisms, including a system for removing carbon dioxide from the vessel's interior and a chamber through which a diver could leave, plant a mine and return. The Union Navy considered the Alligator for several missions—most notably, a plan to destroy an important railroad bridge over the Appomattox River—but withdrew the submarine from each of them.
In late March of 1863, shortly after its capabilities had been demonstrated for President Abraham Lincoln, the Alligator headed toward a Confederate harbor in Charleston, towed by the USS Sumpter. On April 2, the tandem sailed full speed into a furious storm. "The Alligator was steering wildly and threatening to snap," the Sumpter's captain later wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. At around 6 p.m., the commanders agreed to cut the line, and the angry waves swept the submarine's signature green hull out of view.
Using letters and other primary sources, Overfield and his colleagues at the National Marine Sanctuary Program refined the search area to some 625 square nautical miles. From there, the crew had several new and improved tools to aid their mission. "It's almost like the computer industry," says Overfield. "Think about where we were ten years ago. Did we think we'd be where we are today?"
Image by John F. Williams / ONR. Michael Overfield examines images of the sea floor from a side-scan sonar "towfish" being pulled behind a Navy vessel during the 2004 hunt for the lost Civil War submarine USS Alligator. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. Marine archaeologists rescued the shipwrecked H.L. Hunley (above, a computer rendering) in August 2000 more than 135 years after it sank during the Civil War. (original image)
Image by David Hall / NOAA. Researchers deploy a side-scan sonar towfish from the Office of Naval Research's YP-679 "Afloat Lab" during the 2004 mission. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Robert Neyland. "When you find something, it doesn't always mean you'll recover it," says Robert Neyland, who directed the Hunley's recovery. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. In February of 1864, the Hunley (above, a painting) became the first submarine to torpedo an enemybringing down the USS Housatonic. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. "It's a scholarly field now," says pioneer George Bass of marine archaeology, "and that's what's changed more than anything else." (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. In August of 2000, Neyland and his colleagues successfully removed the Hunley with the help of a unique system that cradled the submarine with hard-setting foam, locking it in place. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. The Hunley is lifted into its holding tank. Conservationists chilled the 300 tons of water to preserve any organic remainsincluding those of the crew memberslocked inside the sub. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley. Over 160 buttons of all kinds were found in the Hunley, including this rubber US Navy button made by Goodyear Novelty Co. (original image)
One of Overfield's options was a magnetometer, which surveys the floor for any magnetic signal—particularly useful when searching for an iron ship such as the Alligator. He also used side-scan sonar, which throws down an acoustic signal to create a picture of everything beneath the boat.
Though these tools have been around for decades, they are now much easier to control, he says. Others, however, have really emerged within the past five years.
Overfield has used what's known as an ROV—a remotely operated vehicle—to further investigate a large object picked up by a magnetometer. The device scours the ocean floor and videotapes the desired area, sparing the cost and danger of sending out a diver. When he wished to cover several targets of interest at once, Overfield employed an autonomous underwater vehicle. These archaeological stunt doubles can be programmed to search a particular area and are equipped with their own magnetometers and sonar.
Though Overfield's search for the Alligator continues, these tools have enabled him to dismiss certain areas where he once believed the ship to be. "That's not always a bad thing, to say 'she is not there,'" he says. "It increases the likelihood of finding her on the next mission, and that's what keeps me going."
Not far from where Overfield conducts his searchers, marine researchers at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston work to preserve the Hunley. In February of 1864, the Hunley became the first submarine to torpedo an enemy—bringing down the USS Housatonic, the largest Union ship among those blockading the Confederate harbor. At that time, such an attack required ramming a torpedo into an opposing ship's hull and backing away to trigger an explosion. The Hunley sank on its return voyage, however, and in the end lost more men (nine) than did the Housatonic (five).
More than a century later, a search team led by novelist Clive Cussler located the lost ship. With that obstacle out of the way, the problem became dislodging the vessel safely from beneath the ocean floor. "When you find something, it doesn't always mean you'll recover it," says Robert Neyland, who is head of underwater archaeology at the Naval Historical Center and directed the Hunley's recovery.
In August of 2000, Neyland and his colleagues successfully removed the submarine with the help of a unique system that cradled the Hunley with hard-setting foam, locking the ship in place. Once the sub broke the surface, saltwater sprinklers showered the vessel to protect it from damage caused by oxygen as it made its way to the conservation facility.
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Back at the lab, the ship was transferred to a state-of-the-art tank. Conservationists chilled the 300 tons of water to preserve any organic remains—including those of the crew members—locked inside the sub. Typically, chemicals must also be added to the water to prevent corrosion of the iron hull. However, such chemicals could have damaged the organic materials, so researchers instead used a new method known as "impressed current" to preserve all aspects of the ship.
"To my knowledge, it was the first time that a team of people would use this impressed current in order to avoid using chemicals," says Paul Mardikian, the Hunley's senior conservator. Put simply, the method sprays the ship's material with a stabilizing stream of electrons. "It worked," says Mardikian, "and it saved the sub."
The researchers also used a novel mapping technology to recreate the position of objects inside the submarine when it sank. To record these data points by hand would have taken a full crew 86 years; the new surveying system completed the task in four days.
These techniques made it possible for researchers to excavate the ship's artifacts with minimal damage. Eventually, however, the salts trapped in the ship after a century of submersion must be removed—otherwise, the submarine would crumble into a pile of dust after about six months of exposure to the air. To do that, researchers have decided to soak the Hunley in a high-pH solution.
Over several years—at least until 2010, says Neyland—this process will remove the salts and prepare the sub for public display. Meanwhile, Mardikian is researching a way to speed up the procedure using "subcritical fluids," a high-temperature treatment that diffuses salts more quickly than traditional soaking. If subcritical fluids test well enough, he says, "we may be able to treat two tons of ballast blocks from the submarine in two months instead of two or three years."
Today's marine archaeology is hardly recognizable from the field that, just several decades ago, had no identity at all. "There was no standard in the 1970s for how to conduct an archaeological investigation," says marine historian Tim Runyan of East Carolina University. "You couldn't just take what you do on land and transfer it underwater."
George Bass, the founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology who helped shape the field's current reputation as a solid science, describes the early days more crudely: "We made gaskets out of leather shoes."
When Bass began searching for wrecks in the 1960s, he says, a diver could not check how much air was left in his tank, submersible vehicles had six-inch windows and the best way to locate a potential shipwreck was to talk to sponge divers. Now, divers can check air gauges on demand, plastic submersibles are entirely clear and global positioning system technology enables researchers to navigate an ocean floor with ease.
The most impressive technology looming on the horizon is a diving suit being developed by Phil Nuytten that allows excavators to work for hours underwater, says Bass. Right now, divers can only work below the surface for some 20 minutes, perhaps twice a day. "If that happens," he says, "that will revolutionize our field."
But for all the advances in searching for, rescuing and conserving shipwrecks, says Bass, the biggest change is the field's establishment as an academic discipline. "Our students take a year and a half to know 50 times more than I did when I started," he says. "It's a scholarly field now, and that's what's changed more than anything else."
There were no bright lights illuminating Nevada’s Arrowhead Highway in the 1940s, just a long dark stretch of road that passed through the desert on the way from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The place that would become known as Las Vegas was a stolid Western town like any other, replete with cowboy hats and Levi’s jeans, two dude ranches and a couple of casinos, known as “chuck wagons.” If you’re imagining tumbleweed, you aren’t far off.
Meanwhile, a 20-something Frank Sinatra had just started out as a solo artist. Even as most young men his age went off to fight in World War II, Sinatra—exempt from service because of a damaged eardrum, a souvenir from the traumatic forceps birth that permanently scarred the left side of his face and neck—made his name as a crooner amongst bobby-sock-wearing female fans.
Despite a somewhat hardscrabble upbringing, the blue-eyed boy from Hoboken, New Jersey, dreamed big, idolizing Bing Crosby and utilizing his charge account at a Hoboken department store so extensively that his top-shelf wardrobe earned him the nickname, “Slacksey O’Brien.” Sinatra’s early style sense would come to define his on-stage persona and ultimately the city of Las Vegas during the four decades he headlined there, beginning in 1951.
“Frank wouldn’t go out after dark without a sport jacket on, let alone perform out of a tuxedo,” says former Lieutenant Governor and 50-year Nevada resident, Lorraine Hunt-Bono, who remembers Sinatra from his early performances. “He was the spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous.”
During the 1950s, Sinatra’s star was on the rise once again, thanks to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, his stormy, high profile marriage to Ava Gardner (his second wife of four); musical hits such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1953); and critically acclaimed albums “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” (1956), with its blockbuster, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” At the time, Sinatra’s performance home was the Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas, where he eventually became a corporate vice president.
At some point during this period, actress Lauren Bacall, traveling with her husband Humphrey Bogart, came across Bogart’s ragtag assortment of drinking buddies, Sinatra among them. “You look like a goddamn rat pack,” she famously remarked when she found them inebriated at a Vegas casino. The name stuck, and Sinatra took it with him when he assembled his own court. The stylish fivesome of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford went on to film the original Ocean’s Eleven at the Sahara in 1960, the first of their three movies together. They were also frequent performers at the Sands’ Copa Room, where they worked by night under the direction of band director Antonio Morelli, then imbibed until the wee hours of the morning. In a 1976 interview, Morelli’s wife, Helen, described a week known as the Summit, when the Rat Pack performed at the Copa Room in two shows an evening. “You have never in your life seen such madness,” she said. “You never knew who was going to appear. You never knew when they were going to show up. They spent the whole time playing tricks on each other, and of course, the audience loved it.”
Sinatra was a regular Sin City fixture until 1994, just one year before his final performance in Palm Desert, California. He died of a heart attack at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1998. The Strip today burns brighter than ever, and many of Sinatra’s “Old Vegas” mainstays—the Sands and the Sahara among them—have since been demolished, blown up and paved over to make way for the next great neon sign. A few of Sinatra’s former haunts still remain, however, and there’s even a new joint that might just have met with his approval. The show must go on.
“The best steaks on earth” have made the Golden Steer an Old Vegas favorite since 1958, hosting everyone from Tinseltown starlets and pro-athletes to notorious Chicago mobsters, who must have felt right at home in the Steer’s dimly lit dining room, with its white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters and red horseshoe-shaped booths. Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack were regulars, and Sammy Davis Jr. would often head to the Steer after shows, since many of the hotels where he performed had segregated restaurants. Reserve a spot at Sinatra’s favorite table (commemorated with a brass plaque) and save room for one of the signature flaming desserts: cherries jubilee or bananas foster.
Image by © Bettmann / CORBIS. Frank Sinatra singing on the stage of the Sands Hotel. (original image)
Image by Barbara Kraft. Sinatra, an Italian restaurant located in Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, was created in collaboration with the singer's family. One of Sinatra's favorite dishes, clams possilipo, graces the menu. (original image)
Image by Photo courtesy of flickr user Roadsidepictures. The Rat Pack sometimes rehearsed at this mid-century modern home in Las Vegas, formerly owned by Antonio Morelli, the musical director for the Sands Hotel and Casino. (original image)
Image by Photo courtesy of flickr user Roadsidepictures. Sinatra was a regular at the Golden Steer Steakhouse; in fact, diners today can reserve the performer's favorite table, which is commemorated with a brass plaque. (original image)
Image by Photo courtesy of flickr user Christian y Sergio. In 1984, Sinatra and Willie Nelson inaugurated the Golden Nugget's Theater Ballroom. Today, the 2,400-room hotel and casino is well known for its famous 200,000-gallon shark aquarium called "the Tank." (original image)
Image by © Raimund Koch / Corbis. The 1,000-seat Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace was Sinatra's primary Vegas venue in the latter part of his career. When he was headlining, the marquee occasionally read, simply, "Guess who?" and "He's here." (original image)
Shortly after billionaire Howard Hughes—whose public feud with Sinatra was well known (Sinatra starred in several movies for Hughes’ doomed RKO pictures, including the flop “Double Dynamite”)—purchased the Sands in 1967, the Chairman’s credit line at the casino was suspended. Drunk and angry, Sinatra left the gaming tables, returning at the helm of a speeding golf cart, which he allegedly smashed through one of the Sands’ plate-glass windows. After this legendary altercation, Sinatra began, in 1968, to headline at Caesars Palace hotel and casino.
In addition to a fresh start, the 1,000-seat Circus Maximus at Caesars offered Sinatra the opportunity to reach a larger audience and to command a bigger salary; it would become the singer’s primary Vegas venue in the latter part of his career. When he played, the Las Vegas Fire Department worked overtime, trying to contain enthusiastic fans that spilled from their seats into the theater’s aisles and stairways. Caesars referred to Sinatra as "The Noblest Roman of them all”— a slogan printed on medallions the casino gave out to guests. When he was headlining, the marquee occasionally read, simply, "Guess Who?" and "He's Here.”
In 1959, Antonio Morelli, the famous orchestra conductor and musical director for the Sands Hotel and Casino, built a dream house for his wife, Helen, on an expensive tract of land known as the Desert Inn Estates. Morelli worked closely with Sinatra and the Rat Pack during their time as Sands headliners, and the troop would often rehearse at his home. A classic example of Las Vegas mid-century modern architecture, the house was relocated to Bridger Avenue and restored as a historical preservation project by the Junior League of Las Vegas in 2001. The Wynn Resort was built on its original site. Private tours of the Morelli House, now listed in Nevada’s national register for historic places, are available through the Junior League’s office.
In 1984, Sinatra and Willie Nelson inaugurated the Golden Nugget’s Theater Ballroom—a comparatively small space Frank supposedly nicknamed “the Dungeon.” For the three years that followed, Sinatra, at the twilight of his career, performed at the resort. The Theater’s intimacy and a recent abdominal surgery couldn’t dampen 71-year-old Sinatra’s spirits in a December 1986 performance, which was released posthumously in 2005 as “Live from Las Vegas." Recorded at the Nugget, it was the artist’s first major live Las Vegas album since 1966’s “Sinatra at the Sands.” Today, the 2,400-room hotel and casino is well known for its famous 200,000-gallon shark aquarium called “the Tank.”
Sure it’s a bit of Vegas kitsch, but Italian chef Theo Schoenegger’s Sinatra restaurant located in Encore at Wynn Las Vegas caters to serious Ol’ Blue Eyes fans. The menu specializes in Italian-American favorites such as hand-rolled spaghetti alla “chitarra” with tomato-basil sauce; chicken saltimbocca; and “Frank’s” clams possilipo, a Neapolitan recipe that was one of Sinatra’s favorite dishes at Patsy’s, his Manhattan retreat. Created in a collaboration with the Sinatra family, the restaurant displays priceless artifacts, including Frank’s Oscar for From Here to Eternity, a Grammy for “Strangers in the Night,” and an Emmy for “Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music”.
Five Essential Frank Sinatra Tunes to Listen to Before You Go:
Lorraine Hunt-Bono and her husband, singer Dennis Bono, are both Las Vegas entertainment veterans and lifelong Sinatra fans. Here are their favorite picks from the Ol’ Blue Eyes library:
“Where or When” —Arranged by Billy Byers, Sinatra recorded this song with big-band leader Count Basie at the Sands Hotel in 1966.
“Come Fly with Me”—This fun, swinging version by Billy May was written at Sinatra’s request in 1957. It became the title track for the album, which was thematically designed—with tracks such as “South of the Border,” “April in Paris” and “Chicago”—to offer the listener a “musical trip around the world.”
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”—Nelson Riddle was Sinatra’s most famous arranger, and his aggressive, punchy jazz style on songs such as this 1955 Cole Porter number helped to define Las Vegas’s own, belt-it-out musical genre.
“Fly Me To The Moon”—According to Quincy Jones, who arranged it, “Fly Me to the Moon” was a favorite of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the Apollo 11 crew, who took it with them (to the moon) in 1969.
“My Way”—Adapted from the French ballad, “Mon Habitude,” 1969’s “My Way” by Don Costa became one of the signature songs of Sinatra’s later career.