Female athletes represent almost half of the competing athletes in Rio, which is playing host to the largest contingent of women in Olympic history. As they break new records and win more medals, some commentators have begun to dub 2016 the “Summer of Women.”
Yet most are still not competing under the same conditions as men. Female boxers have three types of events instead of ten, women cyclists cover 88 miles instead of 147 miles, and female tri-athletes have 27 fewer miles to cover. Thanks to the dominance of Katie Ledecky in the pool, calls are growing more strident to replace the women’s 800-meter freestyle swim with a 1,500-meter swim at the 2020 games in Tokyo.
The history of American female Olympians has always been one of catch-up and perhaps it’s not too surprising that this also applies to portraiture. Most of the images of women athletes held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery are photographs dating no earlier than 1970. Why? Because portraiture is always tied to advancements in history and art, and female Olympians—and their likenesses—were principally made possible through changes in civil rights legislation and the rise of photojournalism.
Another reason, is the history of the National Portrait Gallery and how the collection was created in the first place.
It was under President John F. Kennedy in 1962 that Congress decided to dedicate a museum to acquire the portraits of men and women who have made significant contributions to the development of America. The Portrait Gallery opened to the public in 1968 and—important for this conversation—it was not permitted to collect photographs until 1976, just 40 years ago. We also did not collect portraits of living people (other than U.S. presidents) for the museum's permanent collections until 2001.
Previously candidates had to have been dead 10 years and undergone the “test of time.” And finally, the history of American portraiture favored those who could vote; white men who owned land. So, we can perhaps be forgiven for now having to look back in order to truly reflect the words on the Great Seal of America: E Pluribus, Unum—Out of Many, One.
Returning to portraits of sporting champions, it is worth noting that the launch of the modern Olympic movement had a somewhat confused start. In 1896, 14 nations and 241 athletes—all men—came together to compete in Athens, but it was not until 1924 in Paris that the Olympics truly caught on as the recognized international event we know today. Women were first allowed to compete in only six sports: lawn tennis, golf, archery, figure skating, swimming and fencing consecutively.
And when we reflect upon the achievements of past champions such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track and field history, it seems remarkable that athletics and gymnastics have only been open to women since 1928. Keep in mind, that this year is only the second time that woman are enrolled in all the sports thanks to the 2012 decision to allow female boxers to compete.
This history of absence is reflected in our national collection. Of the 13 women athletes whose portraits date prior to 1970, four are tennis players, four are ice skaters, three are swimmers, and two, Wilma Rudolph and "Babe” Didrikson, excelled at track and field.
Missing from the collection however, is golfer Margaret Abbot, the first woman to medal in the Olympics in 1900; Matilda Scott Howell, the first woman to win Olympic gold in 1904; and Elizabeth Robinson, the first woman to win gold in track and field in 1928.
The turning point for American female athletes began in 1964 with the passage of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and that moment was further bolstered by the 1972 Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act that would define sports as a component of “education” and prohibited institutions receiving federal funds to discriminate on the basis of gender.
According to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, Title IX increased the number of women playing college level sports more than 600 percent, although women athletes still have significantly fewer opportunities than their male counterparts from scholarships to coaches and facilities.
In a similar vein, women earn on average of 23 percent less once they become professional, and depending on the sport, inequities can be much higher; players in WNBA today earn only 2 percent of what men earn in the NBA. Similarly although almost a quarter of the 2016 Team USA represent a racial minority—the most diverse Olympic team in history—minority women are a much smaller subset of the whole. The arts, I’m afraid, tell a similar story. Of all the athletes found in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection search, less than seven percent depict women.
While the Ancients famously commemorated their Olympic champions by means of profiles created on sculptures, ceramics and minted coins, around the turn of the 20th century photojournalism—the combination of documenting current events with thrilling photography that could be easily distributed via printing technology—was the main form of sports portraiture. A significant gender bias, however, has existed with regards to depicting women athletes; with the most notable example being Sports Illustrated that despite having launched in 1964 has featured women athletes less than five percent on their covers. How wonderful then to hear that they, too, are becoming more inclusive with the news that this week’s magazine cover features Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles wearing their combined total of 14 medals from the Rio Olympic games.
Despite the historical challenges we are thankful for the keen eye of a range of artists who first got behind the camera for TIME magazine, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and other popular publications that the national collection now includes fabulous portraits of such champions as figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Debi Thomas, soccer star Mia Hamm, and tennis greats Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
Collecting images of past athletes proves difficult as many were never recognized in their time with any sort of visual documentation. However amazing finds are still possible. Last year, for example, we were overjoyed to acquire a very rare albumen silver print of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett by George K. Warren that dates to 1865. Hewlett, a professional boxer from Brooklyn, became the first African-American appointed to the Harvard University faculty and the first superintendent of physical education in American higher education.
The future looks brighter. As sportswomen advance to equal their male peers, and photojournalists become more inclusive with regards to whom they feature, the National Portrait Gallery looks forward to adding more amazing women—and men—to the nation’s family album.
Gene Kloss felt that immersion in nature was essential to the production of art. Her paintings and etchings were directly informed by nature and she couldn't conceive of making art any other way. "An artist must keep in close contact with nature... in order to produce a significant body of work," she said, and she was prepared to live by her words. Taos, New Mexico had no electricity or running water when she first visited the town on a honeymoon camping trip in 1925, and yet, she chose to make it her home. She and her husband, Phillips, built an adobe house where they lived by the light of kerosene lamps and used water carried from a nearby stream.
For more than a century, artists have traveled from across the United States to live and work in New Mexico. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of amenities, artists found a source of inspiration in the desert that was worth forgoing modern conveniences. The dramatic landscape of the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains and their distance from the bustle of industry captured the imaginations of artists who felt confined by life in major American cities. Georgia O'Keeffe is perhaps the best known of these artists, but there were many who traveled to the southwest to live a life that was inaccessible anywhere else. Our open storage Luce Foundation Center cases 32B and 33A display the work of artists who made their home in New Mexico, often in Taos, in order to enjoy and document the beauty of the landscape.
Gene Kloss painted what she saw. While others used the mesas and mountains of New Mexico to bridge the transition between figurative and abstract imagery, Kloss remained steadfast in her devotion to realism. Artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley stretched and molded natural forms to express their individual points of view. Kloss, however, considered abstraction a fad. In her own words, abstraction lacked the "conscious development in the language of art to express the significance of a subject that gives a 'fullness' to art."
Kloss developed a style of etching she called "painting" that allowed acid to bite deeply into the copper plate and create the large areas of darkness, which she used for night scenes. She dug into plates again and again with a dental implement shaped like a small spatula in order to achieve soft variations in light.
Midwinter in the Sangre de Cristos, the work on view in case 33A, is an oil painting, but her distinctive use of light and shadow is evident in any medium. Subtle variations in the gray of the sky give the impression of an oncoming storm. A common theme for Kloss was the insignificance of human creations when compared with the overwhelming scale of nature. The grandeur of the mountains turns the little house at their base into a toy. For Kloss, it was nature, not human enterprise that gave art its true purpose.
December 7, 2016, marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base by the Japanese Imperial Navy. In commemoration of this anniversary, the museum has collected and digitized a series of letters written by a civilian, Beth Slingerland, as she watched the attack from her home in the hills above Pearl Harbor.
Honolulu, [Territory of Hawaii]
Between 8-9 Am.
Under Attack by an Enemy – Japan
Dearest Mother and Dad,
How can I write at such a time? I have to do something because I can see the smoke pouring up into the air from Pearl Harbor and the sound of the guns and the bombs bursting in the water right before us keeps me in such a nervous state that I must do something. John is at Pearl Harbor. He left early this morning because he was supposed to go today—they have been rushing so. I know they have hit places there because I see so much, much smoke.
Beth was a teacher and lower school director at the Punahou School in Honolulu. Her husband, John, was a hammerhead crane operator working as a civilian employee at the naval base. During the surprise attack, on a previously quiet Sunday morning, nearly 200 Japanese planes flew over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs and raining gunfire on the largely undefended American fleet.
The guns began some time ago but I thought they were our own usual gun fire. Then I just got nervous and went out to take a better look to discover all the smoke and just then great spouts of water began rising out of the ocean. . . . The great spouts rose all about some of our battle ships. . . . I turned on the radio just in time to hear that we were under attack by "the Enemy". All I can think of is John down there where they are [attacking.] How do people face bravely the fact that their husbands are in places where they may be killed any day and I can't get any news, of course, and I do not know how long it will be before I shall know anything. I love him so I can't look into the future without him.
A second wave of attack came shortly after the first, with roughly 170 Japanese planes converging on Pearl Harbor. By the end the Japanese had damaged or destroyed more than 18 American ships and over 300 American planes.
Another attack came and I watched it. My only comfort is being up here where I can see so much. Eight Japanese planes flew over the house on to Waikiki and out to sea. Their big red circles showed up so plainly. Lots of planes were high and the anti-aircraft tracer bullets are all over Pearl Harbor. . . . I can see our ships guarding the entrance to the Honolulu Harbor. At times the bombs fall about these ships. Right now things are more quiet but I can still feel the jar of the big guns. . . . I can see lots of smoke in back of the big hangers at [Hickam] Field. . . . Where I sit to write this I can look out all over the sea so I watch and write at the same time. No planes are in the sky right now. . . . What I thought were submarines seem to be cruisers and destroyers. The water is breaking high over them.
…More enemy planes have come since I wrote last. . . . Big fires burst out below and are still raging with great flames shooting up into the air. . . . We hear planes and then we see the tracer smoke puffs of the anti aircraft being fired from Pearl Harbor.
Although the entire attack lasted only a few hours, by the end almost 2,500 Americans had been killed and over 1,000 more had been wounded. Happily for Beth, her husband was not among those killed.
…[At] about four-thirty or five…I heard the familiar sound of John's [shoes] coming up our driveway and I do not ever remember hearing anything more welcome.
[John's] experience had been very horrible and I imagine it will be a long time before he is back to his old self again. He heard the unusual explosions coming from Ford Island way, went out to see what was up and beheld the Japanese planes flying no more than 50 feet off the ground coming right before him. The [USS Oglala] was blown up right before his eyes and the men worked hard to get all the men off before she turned over on her side and sank. They were not entirely successful. . . . Then [the Japanese] got three battle ships and three cruisers, and some destroyers. John cannot bear the thought of seeing our beautiful big ships sent to the bottom with just funnels sticking out of the water. Later in the morning he was called to try to move the huge crane…just as more Japanese planes came. He ran to as much cover as he could find but it wasn’t enough for from the rear of the planes flying low they machine gunned at him and one young man. The bullets so close lent wings to their feet and they threw themselves over some sort of a high iron wall…so that they were between that and some cement. A piece of shrapnel came through a hole and scraped his side but not seriously, thank goodness. . . . He dug the shrapnel out of the cement after all was quiet and brought it home. I had no idea how jagged and heavy they would be.
They fought fires and did all kinds of things all day. The last big raid came at about twelve o'clock. His praise for the boys on the USS Pennsylvania knows no bounds. He said that they were at their posts so quick that he cannot even know now how they managed to do it. They had their [anti-aircraft guns] at work almost immediately.
The next day, on December 8, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress describing the attack and memorializing December 7, 1941, as "a date which will live in infamy." Following his speech the United States officially declared war on Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. America had now officially entered World War II.
The islands have been put under military rule. . . . Do not worry unduly for now things are really organized as they have not been and the whole island is on its toes. I am sure that the army and navy will handle the situation much better – now that they know the enemy has arrived.
I am so glad you are not here. It isn't that I am afraid to be here but it is nice to know that you are safer where you are just now. . . . It will all end right I know, only it is hard to really know war has actually begun.
Much, much love to you all and have a Merry, Merry Christmas even if you do wish we were with you, as I know you do. We are together here and we love it here and this will all be over eventually.
The war would last almost four more years, involving over 30 countries and resulting in more than 50 million deaths. The Slingerlands remained in Hawaii during the war, with Beth continuing to teach at the now army-occupied school and John continuing to work at Pearl Harbor. After the war they moved to Washington state, where Beth became a well-known educator and pioneer in the field of dyslexia. She founded the Slingerland Institute for Literacy in 1977, which continues to train teachers around the world to work with students with dyslexia. Beth and John were happily married for 64 years until Beth's death in 1989 at the age of 89. John passed away three years later at the age of 92.
Digitized copies of Slingerland's letters and envelopes are available here, including transcripts.
Patri O'Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She has also blogged about how Americans served in World War I.
It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention, but it can be the father of invention too. Here’s the story of an innovative father whose solution to an everyday problem is still in use today.
On November 14th, 1961, David and Doris Wagner of Illinois welcomed Jane, their fourth child and first daughter, into the world. Feeling that their family was now complete, Doris soon began taking oral contraception.
The Food and Drug Administration had approved the first oral contraceptive pill only about two years before, in May 1960. Soon known simply as "the pill," it quickly gained popularity, taken by over 1 million women by 1963, most of whom were married.
The oral contraceptive promised a convenient and reliable form of birth control, but it also demanded a certain amount of attentiveness and discipline on the part of the user. When first developed, the pill was dispensed in a bottle of twenty—one pill each day for twenty days, five days off, and then the cycle began again.
Nevertheless, David Wagner explained to historian (and former National Museum of American History curator) Patricia Gossel, "there was a lot of room for error in whether 'the pill' was actually taken on a given day... I found that I was just as concerned as Doris was in whether she had taken her pill or not. I was constantly asking her whether she had taken 'the pill' and this led to some irritation and a marital row or two."
The couple eventually developed a system of laying the pills out on a makeshift paper calendar on the bedroom dresser, which worked well enough for a time. "This did wonders for our relationship," Wagner stated. "It lasted for about two or three weeks until something fell and scattered the pills and the paper all over the floor."
Realizing that the system necessitated a kind of carrying case to be truly efficient, Wagner began sketching ideas.
His background in engineering helped him to build a prototype dispenser using just "a ¼' drill, a fly cutter to be used in the drill, paper, a saw, a staple, pencil, double-faced transparent tape, several drill bits, a snap fastener that [he] took off a child's toy, and several flat, clear sheets of either acrylic or polycarbonate plastic." In choosing a shape, he made the case "indistinguishable from a lady's cosmetic 'compact' and adapted to be carried among the personal effects of a lady in a purse without giving a visible clew [sic] as to matters which are no concerns of others." His prototype is recognizable as the father of the still familiar compact-shaped dial packs for oral contraceptives.
David received a patent for his invention on August 4, 1964. Nearly every American pharmaceutical company who brought a birth control pill to the market in the 1960s employed some adaptation of his design. Though other forms of packaging have since joined the market, the compact-style dial pack remains a common sight in medicine cabinets (and purses) throughout the country.
Come see the pill pack prototype in person! It's on display in the exhibition case The Early Sixties: American Science through August 2015.Can’t make it to the museum? Enjoy our digitized collection of historic birth control. Diane Wendt is a curator of pharmacy and public health in the Division of Medicine and Science. Mallory Warner is a curatorial assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science.
April Fool's! It is not Yo-yo Heritage Month, so we unfortunately will not be sharing yo-yo facts all month. But we do have a few for you today!
The origins of toys like yo-yos are said to stretch way back to ancient Greece or China, but it is believed that the yo-yo we know today comes from the Philippines, where "yo-yo" means "come come" in one of the local languages. The popularity of the toy in America began growing in the 1920s, when a Filipino bellhop at a Southern California hotel, Pedro Flores, attracted attention with his yo-yo tricks on his breaks. Seeing an opportunity, Flores began manufacturing the toys, and was soon bought out by entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan, who began a wildly popular marketing campaign for yo-yos.
Our yo-yo collections span the decades. Here are a few of my favorites:
This "Musical Ka-Yo" was made in the early 1930s by the Caro Manufacturing Company. "Musical" comes from the holes in the side that cause the steel yo-yo to whistle as it travels up and down. "Ka-Yo" comes from the Cayo Company avoiding the term "yo-yo," which had been trademarked by the Duncan toy company.
Yo-yos and pop culture often go hand-in-hand. This Round Up King yo-yo from the 1950s features cowboy actor Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. The yo-yo was made by Nebraska's All Western Plastics. The yo-yo's packaging (not pictured) reads: "It's smooth and fast, it's inside walls are slick as glass, no rough wood to catch the string, does all the tricks…it's Roundup King."
For those with memories of the Happy Meal toy and/or appreciation for anything food shaped: The McDonald's Hamburger Yo-Yo of the 1980s.
Yo-yos aren't all fun and games. This yo-yo, manufactured by the Hummingbird Toy Company in about 1990-1991, commemorates Operation Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia. For every one bought in the U.S., one was sent to a serviceman overseas.
Competitors and record-setters take their yo-yos seriously. Trick yo-yos are specially made to perform all the maneuvers you might have tried to master as a kid: "walk the dog," "rock the cradle," "loop the loop." This yo-yo was made by Mega SpinFaktor in 2001, to help yo-yo master Rick Wyatt set a world "sleep" record. "Sleep" is when a yo-yo spins at the end of the line. Wyatt successfully set a new record with this yo-yo in 2001, with 13 minutes and 5 seconds of sleep.
Here's a yo-yo that we here at the museum get excited about! This colorful wooden specimen was made by What's Next Manufacturing Inc in 1995 as part of the BC yo-yo line. It bears a golden Smithsonian Institution sunburst logo.
Take a minute to explore our yo-yo collections online. Which one is your favorite?
Julia Falkowski is an intern in the New Media Department of the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about hearing historic voices on fragile recordings.
Phyllis Diller, the groundbreaking stand-up comic, would have been celebrating her 100th birthday on July 17, 2017. The Smithsonian honored her career earlier this year as we worked with hundreds of volunteers to digitize and transcribe Diller's gag file, a large cabinet where she kept her jokes categorized by theme. Now that all of her jokes are available to the public, here are some ways you can celebrate her birthday!
1. Dress for the Occasion
Phyllis Diller knew how to dress to make a statement. She was known for her wild hair and her even more eccentric performance outfits. A fun, birthday-worthy example of her style in our collection are the white fringed cowboy-style boots she wore to Bob Hope's 93rd birthday party in 1996. Diller paired these boots with a knee-length fur coat and a pink scarf around her neck as she danced with Hope to celebrate his birthday.
2. Tell A Joke
Whether you think a joke about birthdays (Drawer 7), old age (Drawer 12), gift ideas, or greeting cards (both Drawer 37) would be most appropriate for Phyllis Diller's 100th birthday, look no further than her own gag file! Thanks to the help of over 1,200 volunteers, the Smithsonian celebrated Women's History Month this past March by digitizing and transcribing all 52,569 joke cards in Phyllis Diller's gag file. All of these jokes are now available for your enjoyment through the Smithsonian's Collections Search Center and the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
3. Learn More or Reminisce
When I started working on this project, I didn't know much about Phyllis Diller or her career. If you are in the same boat that I was one year ago, you can learn seven fascinating things about her on the blog. After this project went live, many people shared personal stories about Diller on Twitter and Facebook. A few even reached out to the museum to share their stories, including a couple of women who worked for Diller during the height of her career. It was exciting to hear their stories about traveling with Diller or simply spending time with Diller around her home. I learned from Ingrid Chapman, the woman hired by Diller to create the organizational system, that the jokes were not always as meticulously organized. Chapman explained that the jokes were originally recorded in a book, which made it harder to find specific gags in a hurry.
Take some time today on her birthday to learn more about Phyllis Diller, or perhaps refresh your memory, and explore the many objects in the museum's collection that represent her career.
Hanna BredenbeckCorp is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.
The digitization of Phyllis Diller's index card collection was generously supported by Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan.
It was a cold January afternoon 150 years ago this week. Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was working in his office on the second floor of the building commonly known as the "Castle." He was interrupted by a loud crackling sound from above and, looking up, quickly realized that the building was on fire. The blaze was the result of a stove that had been incorrectly installed in the Picture Gallery on the second floor. When it was all over, the damages to the Castle and its collections amounted to what The New York Times called a "national calamity."
But not all was lost, of course. Today, objects and equipment that survived, and artifacts collected as a direct result of the fire, are housed throughout many of the museums here at the Smithsonian, where we still do our best to guard against fire, flood, and even earthquake. The National Museum of American History holds a number of objects that speak to the legacy of that tragic day as well as the resilience of the Institution.
This telegraph sounder was manufactured by Charles T. and John N. Chester of New York City, a firm that began making batteries and telegraphic equipment in 1855. The sounder is thought to have belonged to Joseph Henry as part of his experimental equipment while he served as Secretary of the Smithsonian. As such, it may well have been housed in the Castle building, where Henry both worked and lived, along with his family. Indeed, Henry's pioneering work in electricity and electromagnetism in the 1830s was instrumental in the invention and development of the telegraph, as well as the electric motor and the telephone.
When it came to telegraphy, however, Joseph Henry was not only concerned with scientific theory. He was also a leading force behind the development of modern meteorology, and as Secretary, he created a network of over 600 volunteer weather observers through Central and North America who would send data to the Institution regarding local conditions. Their timely information was transmitted to Henry by—you guessed it—telegraph.
This beautiful and detailed engraving, a version of the biblical scene of the adoration of the Magi by Hendrik Goltzius, dates to 1594. It came to the Smithsonian when the Institution purchased a large collection of fine art prints and books in 1849 from George Perkins Marsh, an American congressman, linguist, and diplomat who also served as a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. The engravings, numbering around 1,300 in total, constituted the first collection purchased by the nascent Institution and the first public print collection in the nation's history.
In 1865, the print collection was held in the library, which was housed in the West Wing of the Castle, an area that was fortunately spared from damage by the fire, which was concentrated in the center of the building. Later that year, with the fire in mind, Secretary Henry deposited the Smithsonian's library, along with portions of the Marsh collection, with the Library of Congress. Today, some books and prints from this pioneering Smithsonian collection are still held at the Library of Congress, as well as by the National Museum of American History.
Just six years before the fire, Joseph R. Priestley, grandson of the chemist Joseph Priestley, donated his famous grandfather's burning lens and condensing air pump to the Smithsonian Institution. Secretary Henry, who was against the idea of the Smithsonian Institution becoming a national museum, nevertheless presented the objects to the Smithsonian Board of Regents as precious scientific relics. He described the lens as, "undoubtedly connected with the history of one of the most important chemical discoveries of the latter part of the last century," referring to its use in the discovery of the gas oxygen. Sadly, as the apparatus room of the Castle went up in flames, so did Priestley's lens and air pump.
Priestley, however, would once again find his place at the Smithsonian in 1883. After hearing of the death of a Priestley descendant, Secretary Spencer Baird (Henry's successor) wrote to the surviving family members inquiring about the potential to donate more Priestley relics. The Smithsonian, he was careful to note, had recently completed the construction of a "thoroughly fireproof building" (today known as the Arts and Industries building) where the new donation could be stored.
Perhaps convinced that these objects wouldn't also meet a fiery fate, the family agreed to the gift. Today, the gift, comprising more than 20 pieces of glassware and scientific instruments, remains an important part of the museum's Chemistry and Electricity collections.
Timothy Winkle is an associate curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. Mallory Warner is a project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science. The Smithsonian Institution Archives has more about the January 24, 1865, fire on their blog and in historic correspondence.
Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research.
On the surface, disability history and social networks such as Pinterest do not appear to have anything in common. One is a story of a fight for the passage of laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. The other is a popular social media site that allows people to exchange information and ideas on everything from recipes, to crafts, and more.
However, the answer to the question is quite simple: Pins! Disability rights activists used pins for clothing (also called buttons or pin-backs) to convey quick, simple messages aimed at raising awareness for disability issues as well as trying to convince people to support the passage of the ADA.
As a person who grew up during the digital age, I have to confess that I thought pins were a thing of the past. It was not until my friend Chelsea showed me her backpack covered in buttons that I realized how wrong I was. When I asked her what was so special about buttons, she told me that the pins served multiple functions. For Chelsea, they are a way to "add personal flair to an accessory." She told me that many of her pins were gifts from friends and that "it always feels good to carry something with you that is both portable and has sentimental value." On the other hand, Chelsea also uses the pins to raise awareness for a number of issues, including her union, body positivity, gender politics, and reproductive rights. In this way, she uses them "to show solidarity with other activists in the community, or peers who might be struggling with these issues."
Chelsea showed me that despite the proliferation of digital pins, physical pins still have the power to spread messages while also serving as a neat collectible. The power of physical pins made me wonder just how long these pins have inspired similar feelings of activism and collecting. I found out that political pins have been used for hundreds of years. Commemorative garment pins were used for every presidential election or administration. The museum even has a clothing button souvenir from George Washington's inauguration!
In the 1820s, political candidates began to use buttons and other material objects specifically for campaigning purposes. In 1893, a Boston woman named Amanda Lougee invented a button where a textile surface was covered by a thin sheet of transparent celluloid (a material considered the first semi-synthetic plastic) with a fastener on the back. The Whitehead and Hoag Company from New Jersey acquired the patent to her design in 1896. According to Roger Fischer, author of the book Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: The Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984, "no other innovation in the history of material culture in American politics ever gained acceptance so rapidly or on such a massive scale." Lougee's design is basically the same as modern-day buttons; the only real difference is the current use of paper rather than textile.
In the early 20th century, pins became easier and cheaper to manufacture, which facilitated their use by politicians and activists alike. Disability activists certainly used this easy method of increasing awareness. One interesting pin in the museum's collections is one that says "National Committee, 504, We are Watching" with a caricature of Ronald Reagan. The number "504" refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a predecessor to the American with Disabilities Act. The presidential administration of Ronald Reagan often sought to weaken the regulations of Section 504 and successfully eliminated disability benefits for nearly half a million people. Thus, this pin represents the views of a person who disapproved of the actions of Reagan and promised to continue watching the administration.
Physical pins have a long history in American culture; digital pins are much newer, but the digital version certainly has a significant place in current activism and communication. On Pinterest, users post virtual pins to boards based on a theme, such as Activism, Recipes, History, Places to Go, or Disability Pride. Though many users' pins focus on crafting or fashion, there are no limits to the themes. The Smithsonian actually has many boards that showcase museum collections, such as Critters in the Collection and Fashion Backward.
The pins also contain links to their original source (i.e. a website). Physical pins work the same way. Through short, pithy sayings, the pins entice people to ask a wearer about what the button refers to. It's the same thing as when Twitter users post short messages with a hashtag. If Twitter had existed during the fight to pass ADA, many activists might have used tweets containing #ADA or #SignTheBill, not only to draw awareness to their message but also to connect to the wider community of activists.
No matter what pins people wear on their clothes or on their social media pages, they ultimately are an expression of interests and causes, as well as membership in a wider community of people who share the same views. Anybody looking at my Pinterest page could immediately see that I am a graduate student from the Midwest/Upland South who loves pithy quotes, Christmas, and innovative home designs. Other people use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to convey their interests, often through the use of quick, catchy slogans, hashtags, or graphics—all of which could have been used on clothing pins in earlier times.
Today, buttons are still fairly cheap and proliferate at social activities, sporting events,and rallies. Of course, social media pins and tweets are even cheaper and quicker, but it seems that physical pins have quite a bit of staying power for not only spreading political messages but also as a neat collectible.
Rebecca Schmitt is a graduate student in the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also an avid social media user and has a Pinterest board dedicated to all things history, featuring pins of objects from the Smithsonian collections.