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Environment or development? Lifetime net CO2 exchange and control of the expression of crassulacean acid metabolism in Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

Smithsonian Libraries
The relative influence of plant age and environmental stress signals in triggering a shift from C3 photosynthesis to Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) in the annual halophytic C3-CAM species Mesembryanthemum crystallinum was explored by continuously monitoring net CO2 exchange of whole shoots from the seedling stage until seed set. Plants exposed to high salinity (400 mM NaCl) in hydroponic culture solution or grown in saline-droughted soil acquired between 11% and 24% of their carbon via net dark CO2 uptake involving CAM. In contrast, plants grown under nonsaline, well-watered conditions were capable of completing their life cycle by operating in the C3 mode without ever exhibiting net CO2 uptake at night. These observations are not consistent with the widely expressed view that the induction of CAM by high salinity in M. crystallinum represents an acceleration of preprogrammed developmental processes. Rather, our study demonstrates that the induction of the CAM pathway for carbon acquisition in M. crystallinum is under environmental control.

The Return of the Elk

Smithsonian Magazine

When people think of elk, they usually picture them in the Rocky Mountains, wandering along trails among snowcapped peaks. But elk were once an Eastern animal, too, drifting through hardwood forests from Georgia to southern New England, till uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction led to their extermination. Now, more than a century after disappearing from their Eastern range, the elk are coming home.

In 1984, four Montana hunters created the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and now the nonprofit organization counts 115,000 members and raises millions of dollars each year for research and habitat acquisition. The RMEF works with wildlife biologists to reintroduce elk into states where there is suitable habitat and a warm welcome from the local people.

But moving the large and skittish elk is not easy. One major project that transfers elk from Utah to Kentucky has used experts from the RMEF to help them with the move. Cows and calves are captured, given a medical exam and fitted with radio collars. Then the elk are moved by truck and released in Kentucky, where reclaimed strip mines provide an excellent habitat. So far, the reintroduced elk are adjusting, but wildlife officials are vigilant against disease, poachers and injuries. By 2006, the Kentucky project is expected to have moved 1,800 elk.

While Kentucky has been the most aggressive in restoring elk, it is not the only state pursuing that goal. After years as a forgotten species, elk are the new darlings of wildlife managers, and a half-dozen or more states are moving elk or considering it.

Too Much, Too Little: How does the amount of water affect plants and their environment?

Smithsonian Education
Plants need water to survive. Some need more than others. What happens to the plant if there is too much or too little water? Do water requirements change at different periods of its life cycle? Horticulturist Cindy Brown explains the importance of water to plants and suggests ways that a gardener can help the health of a community by choosing the right plants. Presented by: Cindy Brown, Horticulturist and Educator Original Airdate: March 27, 2012 You can stay connected with the Smithsonian's upcoming online events and view a full collection of past sessions on a variety of topics.: With support from Microsoft Partners in Learning.

Pueblo environment : an address / by Walter Hough

Smithsonian Libraries
Cover title.

"Before the Section of Anthropology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Orleans meeting, December 29, 1905-January 4, 1906."

"Reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. LV, 1906." -- Cover.

Also available online.


Seminar on African Environment, Woodrow Wilson Center

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digital contact sheet available.

Requested from Photographic Services Division by Woodrow Wilson Center.

Seminar on African Environment at the℗ Woodrow℗ Wilson℗ Center Library in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, with Dr. Raimi Ojikutu.

Seminar on African Environment, Woodrow Wilson Center

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digital contact sheet available.

Requested from Photographic Services Division by Woodrow Wilson Center.

Seminar on African Environment at the℗ Woodrow℗ Wilson℗ Center Library in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, with Dr. Raimi Ojikutu.

Seminar on African Environment, Woodrow Wilson Center

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digital contact sheet available.

Requested from Photographic Services Division by Woodrow Wilson Center.

Seminar on African Environment at the℗ Woodrow℗ Wilson℗ Center Library in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, with Dr. Raimi Ojikutu.

ALSEP, Charged Particle Lunar Environment Experiment

National Air and Space Museum
This experiment is identical to one deployed on the lunar surface as part of the Apollo 14 ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package). It was designed to measure the numbers, velocities, and the directions of electrons and protons near the surface of the Moon as well as the ways these measurements change in time. Such data are valuable in the study of solar wind, the magnetosphere of the Earth and low-energy solar cosmic rays. Analysis of the Apollo 14 data revealed important information about all of these phenomena.

This unit was a qualification model stored at the manufacturer's facility until NASA declared it surplus and transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1982.

The Internet of Buttons

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
84971_64326b53a18ff00a_bThe Nest Thermostat found its way into our collection a couple of years ago. It made perfect sense at the time. The Internet of Things was quickly becoming a thing, and devices like the Nest were popping up in a variety of shapes and forms. From a design standpoint, the Nest solves a number of...

Pamphlet, Description and Directions for the Use and Fitting Up of the Coordinatgraph

National Museum of American History
This illustrated pamphlet describes the operation of the coordinatograph, an instrument for plotting graphical coordinates (e.g. x- and y-coordinates) mechanically. Coradi first sold a form of the instrument in 1887. The pamphlet, published in 1910, lists 55 purchasers by that time, most of them surveying departments. For further documentation on the coordinatograph, see 1977.0112.04 and 1977.0112.05.

The documentation was received with a Coradi rolling sphere planimeter with number 1977.0112.01

Flight of the RoboBee

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2015-23-1_view2Though it weighs in at just 80 milligrams, you’ll definitely want this little RoboBee in your corner. Designers Kevin Y. Ma, Robert J. Wood, Pakpong Chirarattananon, and Sawyer B. Fuller at Harvard School of Engineering and Applies Sciences, in collaboration with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, followed nature as their guide to create...

The Fall of Phaeton. Blow up of the Whig club or the Majesty of the People

National Air and Space Museum
The fall of Phaeton__the Blow Up of the Whig Club __ Or, the Majesty of the People

An anti-Whig satirical cartoon apparently commenting on the Regency crisis of 1788-1789, on which occasion Charles James Fox, shown as Phaeton falling from his chariot, argued that the Prince of Wales had a right to install himself as Regent as a result of his father, George III's, incapacity.

The Birth of Flight: NASM Collections

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. Enormous crowds gathered in Paris to watch one balloon after another rise above the city rooftops, carrying the first human beings into the air in the closing months of 1783.The excitement quickly spread to other European cities where the first generation of aeronauts demonstrated the wonder of flight. Everywhere the reaction was the same. In an age when men and women could fly, what other wonders might they achieve.

"Among all our circle of friends," one observer noted, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky." Single sheet prints illustrating the great events and personalities in the early history of ballooning were produced and sold across Europe. The balloon sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs.

Thanks to the generosity of several generations of donors, the National Air and Space Museum maintains one of the world's great collections of objects and images documenting and celebrating the invention and early history of the balloon. Visitors to the NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport can see several display cases filled with the riches of this collection. We are pleased to provide visitors to our web site with access to an even broader range of images and objects from this period. We invite you to share at least a small taste of the excitement experienced by those who witness the birth of the air age.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Present at Creation:

The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.

Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.

Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.

A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.

The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.

"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?

The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."

The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.

The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."

"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."

Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.

The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.

Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."

There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?

If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.

Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.

The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .

In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.

By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.

The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.

In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.

Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.

The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.

Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.

A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.

The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.

There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.

By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.

Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

The History of O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi'

Smithsonian Magazine

The story begins just before Christmas with a small sum of money: $1.87 to be exact, 60 cents of which was in pennies. For the writer O. Henry, the pittance was enough to launch his most famous work, a fable about poverty, love, and generosity, and also likely covered the drinks he plied himself with as he crafted the tale at Healy's, the neighborhood bar.

In “The Gift of the Magi,” first published in 1905, two down-on-their-luck lovebirds Della and Jim make sacrifices well beyond the cost of a boozy beverage to share their Christmas spirit with each other. The beloved tale tells of Della cutting off her gorgeous past-her-knees hair described in the story as, “rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters” for $20 to buy her man the perfect gift: a platinum fob watch chain, “simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation.” Later on that fateful Christmas Eve, Jim offers his present in kind, combs for Della’s beautiful locks, purchased after he sold his watch. The timeless, ironic twist, emblematic of O. Henry’s oeuvre, reminds readers of the oft-repeated “true meaning of Christmas.” The sentiment is tiresome and trite, but the story’s soul endures.

First published by the New York World in 1905, and then to a wider audience in the 1906 collection Four Million (named for the NYC population, it was the number of stories O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter, believed existed in his adopted city), the 2,163-word masterpiece has become a holiday standard, a slim mix of pain and joy sitting on a fireplace mantel with other redemptive Yuletide perennials like A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, and “Fairytale of New York.”

The mixture of sadness and sentimentality in “Gift of the Magi” befits a man whose life was marked by repeated human tragedies. Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in September 1862, the same month as the Civil War battles at Antietam and Harpers Ferry. His father was a prominent doctor and inventor whose life unraveled after his wife died of tuberculosis when William was only 3. His father retreated into a private world of tinkering with machinery—a perpetual-motion machine, a steam-driven horseless carriage, a device for picking cotton—and drinking away his troubles. The diseases of alcoholism and tuberculosis would haunt Porter throughout his life.

At 20, in hopes of relieving his own perpetual cough, the “family curse,” Porter left North Carolina for the dry air of Texas and livedwith a sheep herder who had Greensboro ties. William worked the ranch on the Nueces River near San Antonio for two years, apparently becoming a proficient broncobuster while also learning Spanish and memorizing the dictionary. Two years later, he went to Austin where he took various jobs including cigar store clerk, pharmacist, bookkeeper and draftsman for the state’s General Land Office. He also played the guitar and sang baritone for the Hill City Quartette and met and fell in love with 17-year-old Athol Estes, who he wooed by helping with her homework. They eloped and were married two years later on July 5, 1887. Athol gave birth to a son in 1888, who died hours after birth; the following year, the couple had a daughter, Margaret.

William Sydney Porter, pseudonym O.Henry (1862-1910) (Bettman / Contributor)

Porter’s life was rife with sorrow, but outwardly, at least, he was seen as a good-natured raconteur with a sharp wit, especially after a few belts. On the ranch, he’d begun jotting down stories, mainly with a Wild West theme, but not doing anything with them. In Austin, with Athol’s encouragement, he upped his literary output and began submitting stories to the Detroit Free Press and Truth, a New York-based magazine featuring the likes of Stephen Crane. Along the way, he took a job as a teller at First National Bank and 1894, borrowed $250 from the bank (with a note signed by a couple of drinking buddies), bought a printing press and started self-publishing a weekly magazine. The Rolling Stone. Featuring stories, cartoons, and humor pieces, it found a local audience with print runs of more than 1,000. For a hot second, times were good.

“The little cottage [Potter] rented and lived in with his wife and children is now a museum. It’s in the middle of downtown Austin’s skyscrapers and looks even more modest and sweet than it did before the city grew,” says Laura Furman, a fiction writer who served as the series editor for the O. Henry Prize stories from 2002-19. “The house doesn’t have many authentic O. Henry possessions but there’s enough in it to give you a sense of what his brief-lived family life might have been like. It’s widely believed that he was his happiest in that house. The happiness of family life didn’t last long for him.”

The Rolling Stone never made much money or made it beyond Austin, so Porter shut it down in 1895, later telling the New York Times that it had all the hallmarks of getting “mossy.” He decamped to Houston to write columns for the Daily Post, but was called back to court in Austin. The First National Bank, which had been freewheeling and informal in its lending practices, accused him of embezzling $5,000. Instead of facing the charges, Porter fled the country, eventually landing in Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the United States. (It’s where he coined the term “banana republic,” in his story “The Admiral,” which appeared in his first book, Cabbages and Kings.)

It was a short stay. After seven months, Porter returned to Texas to care for Athol who was suffering from tuberculosis. She died in July 1897. (In 1916, C. Alphonso Smith, a childhood friend of O. Henry’s, wrote that Della was modeled on Athol.) This time, he stayed in the Lone Star state and faced the music. In February 1898, William Sydney Porter was found guilty of embezzling $854.08 and sentenced to five years in federal prison at the Ohio Penitentiary. Various biographers, including Smith, have long held the evidence of serious criminal intent was flimsy and that while Porter kept haphazard records, bank mismanagement was more to blame, and he was actually punished for going on the lam. Porter who was never good with money and routinely walked the line of being dead broke, always maintained his innocence. From the North Carolina History Project:

When confronted with his crime, William would write his mother-in-law and claim, ‘I am absolutely innocent of wrongdoing in that bank matter…I care not so much for the opinion of the general public, but I would have a few of my friends still believe there is good in me.’ The Ohio Penitentiary was a harsh life for prisoners, but William received partial treatment due to his skills as a pharmacist. Allowed a higher status than the normal prisoner, William was given more free time, and it was during these long night hours that William adopted the pseudonym O. Henry and penned some of his best short stories.”

The official reason behind “O. Henry” as a pen name has never been fully established. An Inkwell of Pen Names links it to a cat from his childhood named “Henry the Proud,” a verse from a cowboy song called “Root, Hog, or Die.,” while the writer Guy Davenport, who wrote introductions to multiple collections believes it was a twist on “Ohio Penitentary” while also keeping his true identity safe in prison—the stories O. Henry wrote doing time were sent to the wife of an incarcerated banker in New Orleans to be sent out to editors—but the author himself claimed it was simply easy to write and say. The pseudonym may be a mystery, but his success was not. The first story published as O. Henry was “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” Appearing in McClure’s magazine in December 1899, it tells the tale of a “professional tramp,” a fateful gift from a passing surry, and a good night’s sleep on Christmas Eve.

Released after three years for good behavior, O. Henry moved to Pittsburgh where Margaret, now 12, lived with her grandparents. She was never told of his being incarcerated, only that dad was away on business. (Tragically, Margaret too would die at 37 from tuberculosis, three days after getting married from her deathbed.) O. Henry didn’t stay long. He headed to the heart of the publishing world, New York City, the crowded relentless cosmopolitan polyglot he fell in love with and nicknamed “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.” The streetlife of New York would be a major inspiration for O. Henry as he penned some 380-some-odd stories while living in the Gramercy Park area. The nightlife, however, would exact a bigger toll as O. Henry drank himself to an early grave at the countless number of joints just like Healy’s. On June 5, 1910, at the age of 47, O. Henry died from cirrhosis of the liver and other health complications. (Many years later, his second wife from a short marriage, Sarah Lindsey Coleman, would emphatically proclaim he died from diabetes, not the bottle.)


Nestled away on 18th St. near Gramercy Park, just a couple blocks from the bustling Union Square holiday markets, Pete’s Tavern welcomes tipplers with an awning reading “The Tavern O. Henry Made Famous.” The writer lived across the street at 55 Irving Place in a first floor apartment featuring three large windows where he could look out at his second home across the street, which was then named Healy’s Cafe. (First opened in 1864, the bar would be renamed Pete’s in 1922 after Peter Belles purchased the establishment, which today claims itself as the longest continuous tavern in New York City. During Prohibition, the flower shop in front led to the booze in the back, likely protected from police raids by its nearby proximity to Tammany Hall.)

The hard-drinking Henry became a regular at Healy’s and was said to consider it an extension of his office at the New York World, who hired him for $100 a week for a single story. Healy’s even made it into O. Henry’s story ‘The Lost Blend,’ but in disguise as “Kenealy’s,” perhaps to keep his favorite watering hole to himself.

According to biographer David Stuart, in late autumn 1905, a new World editor decided Henry’s salary far exceeded his output and ordered him fired. Unbeknownst to Henry, the World still wanted him to write up until his contract expired in December. So it came as a shock to Henry when, shortly before the World’s big Christmas special edition came out on December 10, an office boy knocked on his apartment door looking for a contribution. The lackey wasn’t leaving without a story so O. Henry sat down and banged out “Gift of the Magi” in “two feverish hours” according to the faded plaque outside his apartment building. It fit Henry’s pattern of writing overnight, on deadline, and delivering at the last minute, but usually with pristine copy that didn’t require much editorial heavy lifting.

On the whole, “Gift of the Magi” encapsulates the best of what O. Henry stories accomplish, a brief lived-in human experience. One that is often, for good, bad, or in-between, given over to an unwanted fate, only to be rescued through a combination of sentimentality and his patented surprise ending.

“O. Henry had a strong sense of form; if you read a story of his blind, you’d be able to identify it as an O. Henry story by the movement of the action, leading up to his famous trick—the twist at the end,” says Furman. “The twist is really a wringing out of the plot elements and revealing something that was there all along but the reader hadn’t noticed. He was less interested in style than in getting a reaction from his reader. That performative aspect of his stories and his relationship to the reader as audience has appeal to writers now.”

Despite the plaque on 55 Irving Place, the question of where O. Henry scribbled down his masterwork remains an open one. Folklore handed down from generations of the tavern’s owners claims it was authored inside Pete’s—a sacred booth includes multiple pictures and a handwritten letter O. Henry wrote as William Sydney Porter deferring on a dinner invitation—but at least one dissenter claims it was authored in Henry’s apartment. Written in 1936, The Quiet Lodger of Irving Place is a series of reminisces about O. Henry’s time in New York City by his friend and colleague William Wash Williams. In it, Williams says “Gift of the Magi” was written in the room O. Henry rented. No official documentation exists either way, but what truly matters is the story has become synonymous with Pete’s Tavern, the New York City holiday season, and the wonderfully brighly festooned intersection of the two.

“Some of the decorations we have are over 50 years old, so I’d say the Christmas season has always been important to us here at Pete’s,” says general manager and tavern historian Gary Egan, who started working there as a waiter and bartender in 1987. “Every year, five of us put up all the lights and decorations. We close early and go from midnight to eight in the morning for three weeks straight. And at home, I make gallons and gallons of eggnog and bring it in. It’s brutal.”

Egan means the holiday stretch, of course, not the egg nog, which is delicious. Made with brandy, a glass runs $13, which could’ve probably bought a quality timepiece and a full-length wig in O. Henry’s day, but late on a Tuesday afternoon, with a wintry mix flurrying about the setting sun, before the boisterous crowds shuffled in, it wasn’t hard to be transported to Christmases past and to toast the spirit of Della and Jim in the reflected glow of a sea of red lights.

“[O. Henry’s] such an American character and it’s too bad an ‘O. Henry’ story has become somewhat of a cliche,” says Amanda Vaill, a writer and former book publisher who edited a 1994 collection of his works. “His other works deserve a bigger audience, but I also still vividly remember reading Magi at age 10 in a holiday anthology and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. Oh, no . No! NO!’ I was struck by the cruelty of the universe and the kindness of the characters within it.”

Furman has a similar recollection, saying, “I have fond memories of reading ‘Gift of the Magi’ as a child and thinking hard about the misfortune of the two main characters. It bothered me that they both failed in their presents. That’s how I saw it then. Later, I had an appreciation of the story’s cleverness and how tightly constructed it was—and I understood that it really didn’t matter if the presents weren’t the right ones since, in O. Henry’s view, their sacrifice was a sign of their love. I was more focused as a child on the presents than love.”

One reason the “Gift of the Magi” has had a longer time in the spotlight than any of the estimated 600 other stories O. Henry wrote over his lifetime--which were extremely popular, by 1920, a decade after his death, some five-million copies of his books had been sold in the United States—is that its seasonal message and framework has been paid homage for years.

The first one, The Sacrifice, was a silent film directed by D.W. Griffith in 1909. Later versions include O. Henry’s Full House, a 1952 quintet of his stories tied together by on-screen narrator John Steinbeck in his lone acting credit, a 1999 animated riff featuring the famous Disney mice and a harmonica in Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmas, and a tender 2014 Greek short film set during the country’s recent financial crisis. It’s also been a staple television plot, be it in a 1955 “Honeymooners” episode in which Ralph Kramden pawns his beloved bowling ball, a 1988 “Saturday Night Live” parody lampooning a future president impersonated by Phil Hartman and a gold-plated jewel-encrusted golf club door, and the one that introduced many a young Gen-Xer, myself included, to the O. Henry classic. In the 1978 special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street”, Bert and Ernie follow the formula with a rubber duckie-for a cigar box/paper clip collection-for a soapdish trade. (In the end, Mr. Hooper shows up in the fuzzy roommates bedroom, returns their original items, and tells his Muppet pals they gave him the best gift of all.)

$1.87 might not buy a cup of holiday cheer anymore, but it remains holiday central at Pete’s Tavern, thanks to O. Henry’s deadline masterpiece, be it written with a stiff drink in a booth or not. The holidays are Egan’s craziest time, yet, given a chance to reflect on the Della, Jim, and the dewy-eyed scribe who made his tavern famous, the insanity of the season slips away, for a moment anyway.

“‘Gift of the Magi’ is heartwarming, a beautiful story with a hint of sadness,” he says. “It’s Christmas.”

Livin' on the Dock of the Bay

Smithsonian Magazine

Larry Moyer faced me across a cluttered wooden table in the sitting room of the houseboat Evil Eye. He was wearing a brown suede vest. His eyes gleamed benevolently beneath a purple beret. A white beard billowed down his neck, thick as the smoke from his narrow black cigar.

Though Shel Silverstein has been gone 13 years, his spirit seemed to be with us as we relaxed in his former houseboat. Moyer—a filmmaker, painter and photographer who now stewards the Evil Eye—traveled with The Giving Tree author for years, when they worked together as a writer/photographer team for Playboy during the magazine’s first two decades. That was a while ago; Moyer turned 88 earlier this year. But he clearly recalls the story of how he and Silverstein arrived here, in Sausalito’s legendary houseboat community, 45 years ago.

“In February 1967, when I lived in a Greenwich Village apartment, a friend sent me a birthday present: A woman named Nicki knocked at my door, delivering a hot pastrami sandwich and a pickle.” Having just returned from San Francisco, Nicki suggested that the blossoming Haight-Ashbury scene would make a great feature for Playboy.

“So Shel and I got sent out West. We spent three months in the Haight. While we were there, we visited a friend of Nicki’s—rock guitarist Dino Valenti—here on the Sausalito waterfront.”

Moyer and Silverstein took in the scene. “There were a few hundred boats. It was total freedom. The music, the people, the architecture, the nudity—all we could say was, ‘Wow!’ So Shel bought a boat, and I bought a boat. And that was that.”

Today, 245 floating homes nose into the five docks at Sausalito’s Waldo Point Harbor. The scene’s a bit less wild. Pilots, physicians and executives now share the Richardson Bay waterfront with artists, writers and inveterate sea salts. Some of the houseboats are simple and unpresuming, enlivened with plaster gnomes and patrolled by tomcats. Others—custom-built dream homes valued upwards of $1.3 million—have appeared in films and magazines. And though the characters are as fascinating as they were in the ’60s, there’s a notable decline in public nudity.

Walking the docks in the early morning is a calming experience: an escape into a realm of broad light, subtle motion and seabird calls.

The variety of houseboats is astonishing. Though they’re physically close, the architectural styles are worlds apart. Each reflects the imagination (and/or means) of its owner. Some look like shotgun shacks, others like pagodas, bungalows or Victorians. Most defy a category altogether. There’s the prominent Owl, with its horned wooden tower and wide-eyed windows; the SS Maggie, a former 1889 steam schooner, now appointed like Thurston Howell III’s retreat; and the Dragon Boat, with its etched glass and Asian statuary. Quite a few look like what they are: former Navy ships, reimagined as private homes. They rise up from barges, tugboats, World War II landing craft, even subchasers. A couple, including the Evil Eye, are built atop balloon barges, ships whose lofted cables were designed to snare kamikaze aircraft.

Beyond the docks, a few lone houseboats rock in the open bay. These are the “anchor-outs”: solitary water-dwellers who rely on row boats and high tides to keep their homes provisioned. One of them is Moyer’s painting studio. The others belong to more elusive souls. They lend the neighborhood an air of mystery.

Larry Moyer’s arrival story isn’t typical, but his enthusiasm for the place wasn’t unusual. For certain people, life on the water has a magnetic appeal. Even today—as the harbor prepares for a makeover that will erase much of its storied past—the docks offer a sense of community and an otherworldly ambiance found almost nowhere else.

The houseboat era began in the late 19th century, when well-to-do San Franciscans kept “arks”—floating holiday homes—on local rivers and deltas. After the 1906 earthquake, some became semi-permanent refuges.

But the modern branch of Sausalito’s houseboat evolution began after World War II. Marinship Corporation, on Richardson Bay, operated a facility for building Liberty ships: vital transports that carried cargo into the Pacific theater. More than 20,000 people worked intensely on that effort. When the war ended, though, Marinship ceased operations almost overnight. Tons of wood, metal and scrap were left behind. Richardson Bay turned into an aquatic salvage yard, a tidal pool of possibilities.

Ecologist and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, who has lived on the tugboat Mirene since 1982, tells how “the former shipyard became a semi-outlaw area and riffraff moved in—floated in.” During the 1950s and ‘60s, as the Beats gave way to the hippies, the chance to construct rent-free homes out of abandoned boats and flotsam was a siren song that drew a spectrum of characters. Some were working artists, like Moyer, who bought and improved old boats. There were also musicians, drug dealers, misfits and other fringe-dwellers. The waterfront swelled into a community of squatters who, as Brand puts it, “had more nerve than money.”

“People lived here because they could afford it,” agreed Moyer. “You could find an old lifeboat hull to build on, and there was always stuff to recycle because of the shipyards. Whatever you wanted. If you needed a beam of wood ten feet long by one foot wide, one would come floating up.” Through the early 1970s, the Sausalito houseboat scene was a sort of anarchist commune. The heart and soul was the Charles Van Damme, a derelict 1916 ferry that served as community center, restaurant and rumpus room.

Shel Silverstein wasn’t the only celebrity in the mix. Artist Jean Varda shared the ferry Vallejo with Buddhist writer/philosopher Alan Watts. In 1967 Otis Redding wrote his hit “Dock of the Bay” on a Sausalito houseboat (which one, exactly, is still a matter of controversy). Actors Sterling Hayden, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page all kept floating homes. The roll call would in time include Brand, author Anne Lamott, Bill Cosby and environmentalist Paul Hawken.

But the good times didn’t last. A paradise for some, the chaotic community—with its wacky architecture, filched electricity and untreated sewage—was an eyesore to others. Local developers set their sites on revamping the Sausalito waterfront, with its dizzying real estate potential.

At the park’s edge stand the antique paddle wheel and steam stack of the Charles Van Damme, all that remain of the now bulldozed ferry. Doug Storms, a commercial diver who has lived on the waterfront since 1986, led me past a small waterfront garden.

“In the 1960s and early ‘70s, there was the classic conflict between the haves and have-nots,” said the sinewy Storms. "Between the developers and the local community, many who were living here rent-free."

The result was a long and ugly battle known as “The Houseboat Wars.” Dramatized in a folksy 1974 film (Last Free Ride), the battle pit the waterfront’s squatter community against the combined might of the local police, city council and Coast Guard.

Ultimately, the developers more or less prevailed. Most of the houseboats were relocated along a series of five new docks, built by the Waldo Point Harbor company. Their electricity and sewage lines are now up to code. The process of gentrification on the new docks has been steady and not altogether unwelcome. Though they bristle at the monthly slip fees, many old-timers have seen the value of their floating homes skyrocket.

But a small community of mavericks, including Storms, refused to be bullied. The “Gates Co-op,” as their dock is called, remains a throwback to the old days. With its tangles of electrical wire, wobbly walkways and erratic sanitation, it looks more like Katmandu than California.

And so it will stay until July, when Waldo Point Harbor is supposed to begin a long-delayed reconfiguration process. Along with many other “improvements” (depending on your point of view), the funky co-op will be dismantled, and its residents relocated in subsidized houseboats at new or existing berths.

Will it actually happen? No one knows. The obstacles to getting anything done on the waterfront seem endless. There’s a much-loved example of this phenomenon, known simply as “the pickleweed story.”

Some years ago, the story goes, a goat lived at the co-op docks. It grazed freely, cropping all the nearby pickleweed. Then, as now, the parking lots near the docks flooded at high tides, sometimes destroying cars. The locals had a permit—approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to raise the parking lots, using landfill.

As happens every few years, the Army colonel in charge was rotated out. Around the same time, the goat died—and the pickleweed grew back. When the new colonel toured the area, he shook his head. “Pickleweed means these are wetlands," he said. “And you’re not allowed to build on a wetland.” And so, for the loss of a goat, went the permit.

“Every year they say they're going to do the reconfiguration,” Joe Tate informed me with a grin. “But nothing has changed here very much—not since they bulldozed the Charles Van Damme back in 1983.”

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Each dock at Waldo Point Harbor has its own distinct personality and a clannish pride. "South 40" hosts some of the quirkiest houseboats, including the majestic old Owl. (original image)

Image by Panoramic Images / Getty Images. Today, 245 floating homes nose into the five docks at Sausalito's Waldo Point Harbor. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Artist Jean Varda shared the ferry Vallejo with Buddhist writer/philosopher Alan Watts. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Henry and Renée Baer have lived on the "Train Wreck," one of the most remarkable dwellings on the Sausalito docks, since 1993. It was built by architect Keith Emons around the bisected carriage of a 1900 Pullman car. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. View of the kitchen from the author's rented houseboat at dock South 40. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Larry Moyer—a filmmaker, painter and photographer who now stewards the Evil Eye—traveled with Shel Silverstein for years, when they worked together as a writer/photographer team for Playboy during the magazine's first two decades. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Joe Tate arrived in Sausalito in 1964 and was the rebel leader during the Houseboat Wars. He was also the lead singer/guitarist for the legendary RedLegs, the waterfront's homegrown rock band. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Ecologist and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand has lived on the tugboat Mirene since 1982. (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Doug Storms, a commercial diver, has lived on the waterfront since 1986. According to him, "In the 1960s and early '70s, there was the classic conflict between the haves and have-nots." (original image)

Image by Jeff Greenwald. Walking the docks in the early morning is a calming experience: an escape into a realm of broad light, subtle motion and seabird calls. (original image)

The scrappy Tate, now 72, arrived here from St. Louis in 1964. He was the rebel leader during the Houseboat Wars, and lead singer/guitarist for the legendary RedLegs, the waterfront’s homegrown rock band. (Their current incarnation, The Gaters, plays most Saturday nights at Sausalito’s No-Name Bar.) Tate grew up along the Mississippi, where his father was a riverboat pilot. His boating and building skills—and reckless good humor—are evident to anyone who’s seen Last Free Ride.

 “I’m known as the ‘King of the Waterfront,’ and I don't know why.” Tate conceded. “I did lead the charge against the developers—but in 1976, in the middle of the whole thing, I sailed away with my family.” Tate, weary of the constant struggle, headed south. “We went to Costa Rica, to Mexico and to Hawaii. I thought we were going to find something better.” He shrugged. “We didn’t.”

Tate moved back to the waterfront in 1979. He now lives on the Becky Thatcher: the same houseboat (albeit renovated) that Larry Moyer bought in 1967 for $1,000. From his living room window Tate can look onto a broad channel, flanked by floating homes. “They say they’re going to fill all that up with boats from the co-op. I’m not looking forward to that,” he sighed. “But a lot of the people they’re going to bring over are old friends of mine.”

I asked Tate if he feels that, in retrospect, the Houseboat Wars were won or lost.

“We didn't lose completely,” he said. “I mean, they were going to run us out of here!” By fighting back, the Gates Co-op people reached an agreement with the developers; those who moved onto the Waldo Point docks got 20-year leases. “So we’ve settled into a steady state of exploitation,” the former rebel sighed, “where the rent goes up every year.”

“But we’re managing,” he allowed cheerfully. “With all the old ‘Gaters’ and the new people, too. After all these years, we’re still a community.”

There are pros and cons to houseboat living, but Tate hit the nail on the head. One afternoon, while exploring the docks with a San Francisco physician named Paul Boutigny, I understood the importance of community to this enclave of Sausalito.

Boutigny and his wife are new arrivals on Main Dock, having moved there from the Haight in 2010. Young and affluent, they represent the oft-maligned trend toward gentrification. Still, they’ve been welcomed by their neighbors. Sharing a meal with Boutigny, who’s clearly enchanted by his new neighborhood, it’s easy to understand why.

“Everybody who moves here brings something different,” he said passionately. “And everybody, rich or poor, is part of the waterfront—from the anchor-outs to the huge houseboats at the ends of the docks. Everybody’s connected by one fact: We live on the water. Now that doesn’t mean that we all know each other. But there’s a commonality we all share.”

“There are people on welfare, there are millionaires, there are outstanding artists, there are computer whizzes,” agreed Henry Baer, a retired dentist on dock South 40. “I’ve lived in apartment buildings with 20 units; maybe you know your next-door neighbor, because you meet them at the mailbox. Here, walking to and from your boat, you meet half the people on the dock. Yes, we all come from diverse economic backgrounds. But when there’s a problem, everybody comes out and helps one another.”

Day after day, on dock after dock, I heard confirming stories: people going out in kayaks, checking their neighbors’ moorings before an El Niño storm; houseboats rescued from fire or flood, even while the owners were on another continent. There’s an unwritten code of cooperation, tempered by a hard-wired respect for privacy.

“It’s not something we indoctrinate people about,” said Larry Clinton, president of the Sausalito Historical Society and a houseboat resident since 1982. “We don’t put people through an orientation when they move here. They just get it. It’s the most amazing phenomenon of self-help in a community that I’ve encountered.”

Another big perk is that the community, as Clinton pointed out, is not limited to humans. “The fish and birds change from season to season—even with changes of the tide, because some birds prefer low tide. The egrets and herons come out then and peck thru the mud.”

A sea lion swam past, glancing briefly at its bipedal neighbors. Clinton laughed. “My wife says that looking out our glass doors is like having the Nature Channel on all day long.”

Not all the creatures are as benign. At low tide raccoons can invade houseboats through open windows, causing culinary mayhem. And in the summer of 1986, Richardson Bay residents were bedeviled by an eerie thrumming that sounded like a Russian sub, or an alien spaceship. A marine biologist was called in. He discovered that the noise came from creatures called humming toadfish, which attached themselves to the hulls during mating season. (Instead of fighting the creatures, the community named an annual festival after them.)

What else goes wrong? Well, the parking lots still flood at high tide. And carrying a load of groceries between car and boat is no fun in the driving rain.

Sometimes, just the notion of a “floating home” is enough to panic newcomers. Henry and Renée Baer have lived on the “Train Wreck,” one of the most remarkable dwellings on the Sausalito docks, since 1993. Built by architect Keith Emons around the bisected carriage of a 1900 Pullman car, it’s a masterpiece—and a monumental investment.

“In the early days, every time we came back from a trip I would run up the dock in a panic,” Renée confessed, “until I could see our roof. Then I’d breath a sigh of relief, because I knew it was still there. It hadn’t sunk, or floated out to sea, with all my clothes and everything gone.”

Realistically, though, houseboat owners have fewer natural catastrophes to contend with than their friends in San Francisco or the Oakland Hills.

“We don’t care about earthquakes here,” Stewart Brand pointed out as we shared lunch aboard Mirene. “Or wildfire. We don’t even care about sea level rise very much…yet.” (Of all the houseboats, I learned, Mirene is the only seaworthy vessel. The docks are more like a trailer park than an RV campground, with most of the houseboats encased in concrete hulls. It’s a Faustian bargain: They’re protected from rot and ocean organisms at the price of immobility.)

“And I was surprised to discover,” he continued, “that the absence of trees is not a bug, its a feature. Leaves do not fall on your deck. Trees do not fall on you. And if you want to see the sun, its always there.”

South 40, “A” Dock and Liberty; Main and Issaquah; each of the five-plus Waldo Point docks feels like a tribal settlement, with bloodlines extending across the waterfront. All have a distinct personality and a clannish pride. Some are known for their lush plantings, others for their oddball sculptures, cocktail parties, feral cats, or flights of architecture.

South 40, where I spent several stormy nights, won my fealty. It hosts some of the quirkiest houseboats, including the majestic old Owl, the Train Wreck, the Becky Thatcher and the Ameer, the only original 19th-century ark still afloat on Richardson Bay (and the former home of beloved Sausalito writer and cartoonist Phil Frank).

Though every dock is different, together they’re a subculture. It’s not easy to categorize the people who gravitate toward houseboats—but fascination with the ever-changing marine environment is a common denominator.

Cyra McFadden, a writer and editor whose 1977 The Serial peeled the veneer off the Marin social scene, has lived at Waldo Point for 14 years. Her spacious home, with its fireplace, framed artworks and picture-book view of Mount Tamalpais, “is really a town house on a barge,” McFadden acknowledged. “It doesn’t feel particularly like a boat. But it moves—ever so slightly—and the view will change through the window. Or I’ll be at the table having breakfast, suddenly aware that the wind is coming from a different direction. I love the creaking noises, and the bubbling that the boat makes when the tide comes. I love the fact that this house is alive.”

“I think people come here because they don’t want to feel boxed in,” added Susan Neri, a portrait artist who lives aboard the small but cozy landing craft Lonestar. “It’s an ecosystem where the water meets the land, and nothing is quite the same from day to day. There’s also the reflective quality of living here. It may come from the reflections that we live with every day, off the bay and the boats, in the house and all around us.” She looks out her window, a kinetic view of clouds and gulls. “For me, its a bit of living on the edge,” she said. “It’s magical. I can’t imagine living on the land again.”

My final afternoon, I stop by the Evil Eye for a word with Larry Moyer. The waterfront sage greets me warmly and lights up a cigar.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed,” I tell him. “I’ve heard more stories than I can possibly absorb. But I’m still searching for a through-line; something to tie it all together.”

Moyer nods. A war-torn tomcat curls up in his lap. “Look behind you,” he says, “and weep.”

I turn around. There’s a bookshelf above his desk, overflowing with film reels, videotapes and cassettes. During his decades as a photographer and artist, Moyer has shot hundreds of hours of film: scenes of the houseboats, the community, the music, the bawdy shenanigans on the docks. I turn back to him, amazed by this treasure-trove of footage. Moyer grins and shrugs his shoulders.

“I’ve lived here 45 years,” he says. “And I don’t have a through-line!"

The (display) case of the Ruby Slippers

National Museum of American History

Many noses are pressed against the case that houses Dorothy's Ruby Slippers each day. The famous shoes from The Wizard of Oz attract a lot of attention—the site of many selfies and squeals during the gallery's opening weekend.

But how many people notice the case that holds them? Very few.

Acting like a "preservation chamber," it does much more than provide security for the precious shoes. It keeps all 20 materials in the Ruby Slippers in an ideal environment to preserve them for generations to come.

Here's what's special about the case of the Ruby Slippers.

In a display case, the Ruby Slippers, kitten heels covered in red sequins with a bow. Behind them, "We're not in Kansas anymore" quote in white, all-caps, bold typeface on a mural that is green with big, red poppies.Back on display after a trip to the museum's Conservation Lab, the Ruby Slippers sparkle in a new, hard-working display case.

Finding just the right environment for an 80-year-old pair of shoes

Each material in the Ruby Slippers reacts to temperature and humidity differently, so identifying the perfect environment for long-term preservation was a big challenge for Objects Conservator Dawn Wallace and Chief Conservator Richard Barden. To determine the conditions preferred by each material, Wallace and Barden worked with scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute to identify the materials and research their particular needs. Most of the materials are organic—the leather in the shoes' construction, the gelatin in the sequins—and those can be tricky because they can be very sensitive to some humidity and temperature ranges.

After identifying ideal conditions for each material, it was a game of finding just the right compromise. Many materials require a cooler temperature with a steady humidity level around 47–50%. If the humidity level drops too low, other materials may become brittle.

Woman wearing purple latex gloves presses gently into the inside of one of the Ruby Slippers into a case.Objects Conservator Dawn Wallace installs the Ruby Slippers in the museum's new gallery.

Lights! Camera! No wait, LESS lights! 

Light is one of the most damaging environmental factors and has to be minimized, but visitors also need to be able to see and appreciate Dorothy's sparkling shoes. The case's glass protects the shoes against harmful ultraviolet wavelengths.

Keep it steady

Once Wallace and Barden had the light, temperature, and humidity settings just right, their work wasn't done—and it never will be. Maintaining a steady environment with minimal fluctuations is critical. In Washington, D.C., we have heat waves, snow days, and lots of unpredictable weather in between. Our Preservation Services team will be monitoring carefully to make sure conditions for the Ruby Slippers remain optimal. The Ruby Slippers' case provides that data in real time and can detect sudden changes. It will notify staff so they can set things right.

Keep out the bad guys

Yes, protecting against theft is important. Another pair of Ruby Slippers was stolen from a Minnesota museum in 2005 and recently recovered—and we take object security extremely seriously. But there are other baddies we need to keep at bay: pollutants. Dust and other environmental pollutants are not welcome in the case, thanks to a sophisticated system to filter out harmful particles. After Wallace individually cleaned each sequin with a tiny vacuum, she's especially motivated to keep this pair of shoes as clean as possible.

Ruby Slippers in a case with a black bottom and clear top. Rectangular. Gallery has a green circle on the floor with grey around it. "There's no place like home" in white on wall with mural of red poppies on green background.Surrounded by a curtain and a mural featuring big, colorful poppies, the Ruby Slippers gallery is carefully lit to maximize visibility while protecting the objects.

Don't steal the spotlight

Despite the many components working hard within the case to keep the Ruby Slippers preserved, the case's exterior remains sleek to give the shoes the spotlight. The case fits attractively into the gallery's overall design without calling attention to itself. When the Ruby Slippers move to our entertainment exhibition, the case will work seamlessly into its new setting.

So when you come to admire the Ruby Slippers, take a moment to behold the case that preserves them. Everyone at the museum is especially thankful for our "Keep Them Ruby" Kickstarter backers who not only supported the conservation of Dorothy's shoes but also helped us provide them with this hardworking, sophisticated case.

Group photo in front of a colorful mural. Many smiling staff members, most of them wearing red shoes. One in front has a section of prop yellow brick road.The museum's staff members pose with their red shoes to celebrate the return of the Ruby Slippers.

Erin Blasco manages the museum's social media and blog. She highly recommends this blog post on 10 things you should know about exhibition installation

The Museum extends its thanks to supporters of the Ruby Slippers conservation effort through Kickstarter.

Erin Blasco
Posted Date: 
Monday, April 22, 2019 - 08:30
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The Poisoning of America

National Portrait Gallery
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