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Smithsonian Snapshot: Pneumatic Mail Delivery

Pneumatic Mail Container; photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution and the National Postal Musem

Today’s Smithsonian Snapshot looks at another method of mail delivery that dominated the early 20th century metropolitan landscape: the pneumatic mail container.

In the late 1890s, networks of pneumatic tube systems were installed under city streets to move the mail. Each pneumatic tube canister could hold up to 500 letters. The canisters, also known as carriers, were air compressed through the system, traveling in a spinning motion at an average of 35 miles per hour. At its peak productivity, 6 million pieces of mail traveled through the system daily at a rate of five carriers per minute.

In 1893, the first pneumatic tubes were introduced in Philadelphia; in 1897, the service started in New York City. Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis also eventually incorporated the system. By 1915, six cities (including Brooklyn) had more than 56 miles of pneumatic tubes pulsing under the streets.

During World War I, the Post Office Department suspended the service to conserve funding for the war effort. After the war service was restored in New York and Boston. By the 1950s, it became clear that the end of pneumatic tubes was in sight as increasing mail volumes and changing urban landscapes made it impractical. While post offices and businesses moved with relative ease, the underground pneumatic system did not.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Skyhooking

Skyhook container; photo courtesy National Postal Museum

In the 1930s, U.S. postal officials tried different ways of moving the mail. One technique was called “skyhooking,” which brought the mail to rural towns that had no adequate railway or highway mail routes. Unfortunately, the towns which needed this type of service usually did not have adequate landing fields for planes.

Although a low-flying airplane could simply drop a sack of mail onto the ground, the tricky part was getting ground mail into the moving plane. The Railway Mail Service’s successful on-the-fly mail exchange system provided the inspiration for an aviation experiment. Mail would be “caught” by a plane flying overhead and reeled up into the plane. Of course, catching the mail was not going to be easy. Continue reading

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Smithsonian Snapshot: The Ubiquitous Lunch Box

Lunch Box collection; Image courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Beginning in the 1950s, television transformed the lunch box from an ordinary food conveyor into a storyteller. The screen-like sides of the lunch box offered kids a new form of self-expression. Since then, the lunch containers carted to and from offices and school classrooms have reflected American culture. Certainly, no meal received more cultural “attention” than lunch.

Box makers paid for the right to use TV shows to promote lunch box sales. The studios used boxes to gain market exposure. And children acquired a new statement of their power and influence in the emerging world of mass-marketed consumer goods.

This selection of boxes and their drink containers from the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History explores that colorful heritage. And to spice up what may be a loooong day at the office, share with us what your favorite lunch box was while growing up!

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Happy 165th!

Bison on the Mall; Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives | Photographer unknown

Today in 1846, the U.S. Senate passed the act organizing the Smithsonian Institution by a vote of 26 to 13. The act was then signed into law by President James K. Polk. Among its provisions the Organic Act specifies a Board of Regents, Chancellor and Secretary and a suitable building with rooms for the reception and arrangement of objects of natural history including: a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and lecture rooms. The Act also provided the transfer to the Institution of all objects of art, natural history, etc., belonging to the United States to Washington and the deposit in the Smithsonian of one copy of all publications copyrighted under the acts of Congress. Once established, the Smithsonian became part of the process of developing an American national identity—an identity rooted in exploration, innovation, and a unique American style.

To celebrate the Smithsonian’s 165th anniversary, the Institution is sharing the historic Smithsonian photograph above. It shows two American bison, also known as the American buffalo, in a paddock in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, now known as the Smithsonian Castle. The animals were acquired by the Department of Living Animals in 1887, which then became the National Zoological Park in 1890. This photograph was taken between 1887 and 1889.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Owney the Mail Dog

Photo courtesy National Postal Museum

Tomorrow, one of the National Postal Museum’s most interesting objects is being commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp. During his lifetime, a scruffy mutt named Owney was the nation’s most famous canine. From 1888 until his death in 1897, Owney rode with Railway Mail Service clerks and mailbags all across the nation.

The Railway Mail Service clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot, marking his travels by placing medals and tags from his stops on his collar. By the early 1890s, the traveling postal dog was a regular feature in newspapers across the country as Owney visited town after town. Owney’s unusual life and wide-spread travels have inspired several children’s books. Elementary schools across the United States continue to use the story of Owney as a way to connect their students with those in other states by sending stuffed toy dogs from school to school through the mail accompanied by messages from students to one another.

When he died in 1897, the postal clerks refused to bury their beloved mascot. Clerks across the country asked that the dog receive the honor they considered he was due by being preserved and presented to the Post Office Department’s headquarters. Owney was kept on display there and then sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1911.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Lunar Command Module

Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia"; photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Forty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Earth’s moon. Today’s Smithsonian Snapshot takes a look at the Columbia, the lunar command module for the first manned lunar landing mission. (The first Space Shuttle was named after this module.)

On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were launched from Cape Kennedy atop a Saturn V rocket. The Columbia was the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of the mission in July 1969. This Command Module, no. 107, manufactured by North American Rockwell, was one of three parts of the complete Apollo spacecraft. The other two parts were the Service Module and the Lunar Module, nicknamed “Eagle.” The Service Module contained the main spacecraft propulsion system and consumables while the Lunar Module was the two-person craft used by Armstrong and Aldrin to descend to the Moon’s surface on July 20.

The Columbia is the only portion of the spacecraft to return to Earth. It was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1970 following a NASA-sponsored tour of American cities and can be found as one of the primary exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Dumbo Flying Elephant Car

Dumbo Flying Elephant Car; Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland, the first Disney theme park and the only one created under the direction of Walt Disney, was opened to the public in Anaheim, Calif. The Dumbo car, pictured above, was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on June 9, 2005, on the occasion of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary.

The Dumbo Flying Elephant ride is an original Disneyland attraction and one of the most popular rides in the park. It features music and exciting aerial views, as well as fiberglass “elephant” cars as seen in this picture. The cars include an interactive lever that allows riders to control how high they fly. Remodeled in the 1980s, the ride was inspired by Disney’s 1941 movie, Dumbo.

The storyline of the film Dumbo is based on a 1939 children’s book written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Perl. Animated by Bill Tytla, the movie follows the young elephant as he is separated from his mother at the circus, only to be taunted by the other animals.

Interesting little factoid: When former President Truman visited Disneyland in 1957, he chose not to ride the Dumbo Flying Elephants, as the elephant is a symbol for the Republican party.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Nakhla Meteorite

Nakhla metorite; photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

On June 28, 1911, the Nakhla meteorite fell to Earth at approximately 9 a.m. in the Nakhla region of Alexandria, Egypt. Many people witnessed its explosion in the upper atmosphere before the meteorite dropped in about 40 pieces totaling 22 pounds; the fragments were buried in the ground up to a meter deep.

In August 1911, the Smithsonian received two samples of Nakhla; in 1962, it received the 480-gram piece of the meteorite shown in this photograph. By the 1970s, the Smithsonian had acquired a total of 650 grams of Nakhla’s fragments.

Nakhlites, Martian meteorites named for Nakhla, are igneous rocks that are rich in augite and were formed from basaltic magma about 1.3 billion years ago. Their crystallization ages, compared to a crater-count chronology of different regions on Mars, suggest the Nakhlites formed on the large volcanic regions of Tharsis, Elysium or Syrtis Major Planum.

It has been shown that the Nakhlites were suffused with liquid water around 620 million years ago and that they were ejected from Mars around 10.75 million years ago by an asteroid impact. They fell to Earth within the past 10,000 years.

This item is one of 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is on display at the National Museum of Natural History.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Good Humor Truck

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

This week’s Smithsonian Snapshot helps us to herald in the start of summer. Good Humor, the well-known “ice cream on a stick,” was created by candy-maker Harry Burt in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920.

His first candy invention was the Jolly Boy Sucker, a lollipop on a stick. While working in his ice cream parlor, Burt created his own recipe for a smooth chocolate coating that would be compatible with ice cream. His daughter Ruth performed the first taste test. Although it tasted good, Ruth thought it was too messy to eat. To solve this problem, Burt took the advice of his son, Harry Jr., who suggested freezing wooden sticks used for the Jolly Boy Sucker into the ice cream as handles. He named his new creation the Good Humor bar, capitalizing on the belief that a person’s “humor” or outlook on life was related to the humor of the palate. Burt immediately sent the patent to Washington, D.C.

From the beginning, Good Humor bars were peddled in gleaming white trucks by salesmen in white uniforms. By the mid-1930s, Good Humor bars were sold throughout most of the country. The pictured 1938 Chevrolet truck is believed to have operated in the Boston area.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Parachute Wedding Dress

The parachute wedding dress (120mm ektachrome); photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

This week, in honor of the 67th anniversary of the D-Day landings AND the onset of wedding season, the Smithsonian Snapshot brings you an interesting artifact that ties both World War II and weddings that is currently not on display. This wedding dress was made from a nylon parachute that saved Maj. Claude Hensinger during the Pacific campaign.

In August 1944, Hensinger, a B-29 pilot and his crew were returning from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan, when their engine caught fire. The crew was forced to bail out. Suffering from only minor injuries, Hensinger used the parachute as a pillow and blanket as he waited to be rescued. He kept the parachute that had saved his life. He later proposed to his girlfriend Ruth in 1947, offering her the material for a gown.

Ruth wanted to create a dress similar to one in the movie Gone with the Wind. She hired a local seamstress, Hilda Buck, to make the bodice and veil. Ruth made the skirt herself; she pulled up the strings on the parachute so that the dress would be shorter in the front and have a train in the back. The couple married July 19, 1947. The dress was also worn by the their daughter and by their son’s bride before being gifted to the Smithsonian.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Pac-Man Telephone

Pac-Man Telephone, 1982; photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Reportedly inspired by a pizza with one slice removed, Pac-Man was developed by Tōru Iwatani, a programmer for the Japanese company Namco. His primary motivation was to develop a nonviolent game that would appeal to male and female players alike. Unlike previous hit video games like Pong and Space Invaders, Pac-Man had a recognizable main character that allowed it to be the first video game to also be a licensing success. Pac-Man is considered today to be one of the video game classics and an icon of the 1980s.

Recognized by 94% of American consumers, Pac-Man has the highest brand awareness of any video game character ever. The character itself appears in more than 30 officially licensed game spin-offs and countless unauthorized ones. During the early 1980s, Pac-Man was everywhere. It was the first video game to spawn a marketing phenomenon, including licensed books, clocks, radios, gumball banks, a Saturday-morning cartoon and gadgets like this Pac-Man telephone.

This item is one of 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is not currently on display.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Joe Louis’ Boxing Gloves

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

For this week’s Smithsonian Snapshot, we take a look at the sport of boxing. Worn in his first historic bout with German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936, Joe Louis’ boxing gloves represent a very special chapter in American sports and social history.

While the 1936 match was a heartbreaking loss for Louis, the two boxers met again in 1938 in Yankee Stadium. After that match, Louis was declared the victor in what is considered one of the greatest sporting moments of the 20th century. The historic win cemented Louis’ place in the country’s collective memory, seen as a symbolic contest of American ideals versus those of the Nazis. By easily defeating Schmeling in the first round, Louis became a national hero.

This object is one of more than 1,000 artifacts, works of art and specimens that are on view at Smithsonian Affiliates across the country, and one of 137 million in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is on public display at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh through October 2011 in the exhibition “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier.”

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Smithsonian Snapshot: Lexington Racehorse

Lexington Racehorse, 1878; Photo courtesy of the International Museum of the Horse

This week’s Smithsonian Snapshot looks at the skeleton of Lexington, the “Official Horse of Bluegrass Country.” Known as one of the greatest racehorses of his day and sire to more winning horses than any other American thoroughbred before or since, Lexington (1850-1875) is a symbol of the town of Lexington, KY.

Originally exhibited in the Osteology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, Lexington was moved to the National Museum of American History in 1999 to be included in the exhibition “On Time.” His skeleton provided context to the story of the first mass-produced stopwatch that split time into fractions of seconds, allegedly developed to time Lexington’s feats on the racetrack.

In 2010 a team of conservators and specialists at NMNH prepared to return Lexington’s skeleton to his birthplace. They cleaned the bones, made minor repairs, and prepared the skeleton for travel to the International Museum of the Horse, where the skeleton had been approved for loan just in time for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky—the first time these games had ever been held outside Europe.

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Smithsonian Snapshot: W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution

This week’s snapshot of an artifact not on display but contained within the archives of the Smithsonian Institution is that of a W. Atlee Burpee & Company Seed catalog. This seed catalog is from the W. Atlee Burpee & Co., which was founded in Philadelphia in 1876 by Washington Atlee Burpee, an 18-year-old with a passion for plants and animals—and a mother willing to lend him $1,000 of “seed money” to start his business.

The seed trade catalogs document the history of the seed and agricultural business in the United States; they also provide a history of botany and plant research such as the introduction of plant varieties into the country. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ trade catalog collection includes about 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs dating from 1830 to the present.