Published: March 30, 2004
Treasures from the National Archives
Original documents, photographs and rdf_Descriptions that endure in the national conscience like the bedrock events in US history they represent are compelling touchstones in an exhibition currently on view at Hartford University’s Museum of Political Life, “American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives.” Finishing up a three-year national tour in which it has showcased everything from Thomas Edison’s 1879 patent application for the light bulb to John F. Kennedy’s handwritten notes for his 1961 inaugural address, the exhibition is on view at the university through May 16. Hartford is its sole New England venue. Prior to this, it has been seen in New York City; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; Kansas City, Mo.; San Antonio, Texas; and Los Angeles.
Of the 27 documents included in the exhibition, only four are specific to Hartford, but Connecticut historical ephemera and memorabilia buffs are getting a double treat by way of a companion exhibit, “Connecticut Originals,” curated by Marianne Curling, which presents a selection of more than 40 examples from the “Constitution” state’s heritage – ideas, personalities and inventions that have each made their mark on the nation and the world.
About one year in the making, “Connecticut Originals,” according to Curling, was created to complement “American Originals.” In contrast to the one-dimensional nature of the revered documents, however, “Connecticut Originals” showcases “objects that are three-dimensional and do not always require low light levels,” said Curling. In short, everything from a Hitchcock armchair, circa 1835, courtesy of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society’s Isham-Terry House in Hartford, to the colorful and loopy Pez dispensers from the Orange, Conn., candy manufacturer, that have been part of the American scene since 1952 and are hot collectibles for adults and children are included in this exhibition.
Curling pointed out that there is some tracking with “American Originals.” For example, she said that among the four documents relating to Hartford in “American Originals,” the Amistad saga is represented by an opinion of the Supreme Court (United States versus The Amistad, March 9, 1841), in which Senior Justice Joseph Story wrote and read the decision of the court ruling that the Africans on board the Amistad were free individuals. In “Connecticut Originals,” is a copy of The Connecticut Courant (precursor to The Hartford Courant) with a page 1 story in its Saturday, March 27, 1841, edition reporting on “The Amistad Case.”
“But we also display a printing press, circa 1800,” said Curling.
Three other documents in “American Originals” relate to Hartford. One is a statement of Bahoo, a native African, to the US Circuit Court in Hartford, on September 29, 1839, testifying that two of the little girls then being imprisoned with the Amistad Africans were native Africans who came to Cuba on the same slave vessel as he had. Another is the patent application of Elisha Graves Otis, founder of the Otis Elevator Company, a division of United Technologies Corp, dated August 13, 1860, outlining “an improved hoisting apparatus” – that allowed city skylines to soar soon thereafter. Then there is the deposition of Harriet Beecher Stowe, from the case Stowe v Thomas, March 11, 1853, defending her claim to a copyright on her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.. Stowe’s most famous work, which she wrote in 1850, opened up the realities of slavery to the entire world.
Yet another Connecticut heroine is highlighted among the documents comprising “Connecticut Originals.” Educator Prudence Crandall (1803-1890) is widely acclaimed for advancing the rights of blacks to pursue an education and was named Connecticut’s female hero in 1995. An advertisement for her Canterbury, Conn., school placed in the Vermont Chronicle, Windsor, Vt., March 15, 1833, is one of the exhibit’s featured rdf_Descriptions.
Crandall stirred up white anger when in September 1833 she admitted Sarah Harris, a 20-year-old black woman who aspired to become a teacher. As a result, white parents took their daughters out of Crandall’s school and she was threatened and harassed. But instead of bowing to popular opinion, Crandall advertised that her school was seeking “young ladies and little misses of color,” which attracted more than 20 such hopefuls to Canterbury from places like New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.
Connecticut reacted by instituting the “Black Law,” barring students of color from out of state and thus making it illegal for Crandall to operate her school. Arrested, briefly jailed, and subjected to three court trials, Crandall ultimately prevailed. While the final court case was dismissed in July 1834 due to insufficient evidence, Crandall received continued harassment, and when a mob of local citizens attacked the academy in September 1834, she closed her school and moved. More important, Harris got her education, Connecticut repealed the “Black Law” in 1838, voted Crandall a pension in 1886, and named her the state female hero in 1995.
“There are two documents in ‘American Originals’ that explicitly deal with women in history, whereas in ‘Connecticut Originals’ we have examples like Prudence Crandall, Ella Grasso and the two Hepburns,” said Leslie Lindenauer, professor of history at the University of Hartford, who helped to bring the exhibition to the public. “There has been a tremendous amount of energy in this state’s history, and a lot of it has to do with democratization,” said Lindenauer, who also serves as executive director of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
Grasso (1919-1981), who in 1974 became governor of Connecticut, was the first woman elected state governor not following an incumbent husband. She won again in 1978. In the exhibition the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat is represented with campaign memorabilia, cartoon drawings and the official 1983 state portrait by Herbert E. Abrams.
The two Katharine Hepburns – Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1878-1951), who became an active champion of women’s right to vote, and her daughter Katherine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003), who became a four-time Oscar-winning actress and the exemplar of American female independence – merit a significant segment of the exhibition. On display are Connecticut Women’s Suffragette Association pins and sash, circa 1925; photographs, including the actress Hepburn on the set of Dragonseed, 1944; Asian-inspired silk trousers, shirt and jacket from Hepburn family, circa 1933; and the Oscar awarded to Katharine Hepburn as Best Actress for Morning Glory, 1933.
The exhibition’s curator Curling provided an interesting aside about Hepburn’s Oscar that she gleaned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s website. The statuette is officially named the “Academy Award of Merit,” and the origins of its nickname are not clear. A popular story has been that an academy librarian and eventual executive director, Margaret Herrick, thought it resembled her uncle Oscar and said so; and that the academy staff began referring to it as “Oscar.” In any case, by the sixth awards presentation in 1934, Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky used the name in his column in reference to Hepburn’s first Best Actress win for Morning Glory. The academy itself did not use the nickname officially until 1939.
And, speaking of popular names, Colt is a name that is tied closely with Connecticut’s manufacturing history, and “Connecticut Originals” includes rdf_Descriptions made by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, founded in 1847 in Hartford by Sam Colt, a 33-year-old Connecticut native. Both an army and navy revolver, as well as a photograph of the factory, all from the Connecticut State Museum, are included in the exhibit to mark Colt’s stature as one of the most celebrated icons of the American industrial age.
Firearms buffs will also be able to see an early musket by Eli Whitney that promised – but did not quite live up to – exemplifying the industrial holy grail of a product with interchangeable parts.
In 1798, in anticipation of a war with France, the federal government awarded Whitney a contract of $134,000 to produce and deliver 10,000 muskets. Such a large order in a short timeframe required Whitney to apply his revolutionary “Uniformity System” of manufacturing interchangeable components. But when skepticism and delays in implementing his new production method arose, Whitney traveled to the US Capitol with several boxes of parts, enough for ten muskets. He placed ten each of gun barrels, triggers and stocks in separate piles and challenged the government inspectors to select pieces at random from each of the these piles. Using the chosen pieces, Whitney quickly assembled them into a complete musket. The parts filled perfectly; as did the parts for the other nine muskets. Close examination and detailed measurement of the guns however, showed evidence of filing and hand fitting, which meant that their parts were not interchangeable.
It took ten years for Whitney to deliver the last of the muskets, but the federal government’s investment and support enabled him to eventually prove the feasibility of the modern assembly line. The firearms factory he built in New Haven, Conn., was thus one of the first to use mass production methods.
An Eli Terry (1772-1852) clock prototype, circa 1816, from the Connecticut Historical Society, will be of interest to clock collectors. Terry, who began making clocks as an apprentice at the age of 14 and at 21 opened his own clock shop, was also an early proponent of standardization. In 1807, he and two other like-minded entrepreneurs successfully set out to produce 4,000 clocks in three years.
A macabre rdf_Description discovered in a house in Litchfield in the 1920s may give exhibition visitors a chill. Patented in the 1870s and marketed by C. Rogers & Bros of West Meriden, Conn., a corpse preserver, properly iced, kept corpses available for viewing during wakes and other memorial services before the widespread introduction of embalming techniques. Ice placed in the upper portion cooled the air in the chamber below. A transparent porthole enabled mourners to view the head of the deceased.
Connecticut’s industrial heritage is artistically explored in a mural by Michael Borders, an artist, teacher and lifelong Connecticut resident who has represented the state’s 350-year record of industrial history with an oil on canvas mural stretching 32 feet wide and 10 feet high. The product of 25 years of research, planning, design and execution, the mural comprises eight panels, each of which represents the heritage of one of Connecticut’s counties.
A highlight of “American Originals” will be a special four-day public display of pages from the original Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that marked a major milestone in the final destruction of slavery in the United States. Although the document is powerful in stating President Abraham Lincoln’s intention to free American slaves, its condition is fragile, so organizers are limiting its display to between Thursday, March 25, and Sunday, March 28.
Stacy Bredhoff, curator of “American Originals,” says that winnowing an exhibit-size sampling from the some 4-5 billion documents maintained by the National Archives presented a complicated challenge. “We wanted to have a selection of documents that included serious milestones in history but also had examples on a lighter note. For example, John Wayne’s application for a commission with the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] lists his athletic abilities, noting that his movie stunts are not as easy as they look.
One of Bredhoff’s favorites in the exhibit is a letter that President Harry S Truman wrote to his wife, Bess, in 1945, describing White House “ghosts.” “It’s such a personal rdf_Description and tells you a lot about who he is,” says Bredhoff. “He’s writing late at night, she’s away in Independence [Mo.] and he’s describing how quiet the house is, except for the old house noises, and he goes on to describe imaginary scenes of former presidents walking through the halls. You get a sense of the loneliness of being there by himself.”
More chilling is “In event of Moon Disaster,” a standby statement drafted by President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, to be read in case the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were stranded on the moon. After making condolence calls to the astronauts’ widows, the president would have said, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
“It’s actually one of the most powerful pieces in the show,” says Bredhoff. “Whether we remember the event or not, to read it is to realize the seriousness of space travel.”
“American Originals” was created by the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and the Foundation for the National Archives. The exhibition’s contents were drawn from the vast holdings of the National Archives, which preserves and makes public those records of the United States that have permanent value.
Lacking the flourish of signatures and official seals but nevertheless poignant is John F. Kennedy’s handwritten draft of his 1961 inaugural address. Written three days before the inauguration, the draft exemplifies the “raw stuff” of history, including 15 statements by Kennedy, many of which surfaced in the final speech, having survived revisions and refinements of subsequent drafts. Kennedy’s thoughts, scrawled in nearly indecipherable longhand on a yellow legal pad, included the kernel that became the capstone of the speech – “Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.”
George Washington’s first inaugural address, delivered on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City is also included in “American Originals.” He presented the speech following an eight-day journey from Virginia to the then seat of the federal government, a trip that was marked by cannon salutes, church bells and cheering crowds.
Hours for the exhibition, which is free, are Tuesday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm. The Museum of American Political Life at the University of Hartford is at 200 Bloomfield Avenue. For information, 860-768-4090 or www.Hartford.edu.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm