You couldn't miss Abraham Lincoln in his trademark stovepipe hat. But the hat did more than just cover his head. Today, it tells us how clothing was made in Lincoln’s time, how it helped a backwoods lawyer look more sophisticated and how it became a symbol for a nation in mourning.
“The hat is so interesting on a number of levels. It’s one of the iconic things we identify him with,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Institution’s under secretary for history, art and culture. Kurin will be in Pierre on Monday, May 5, to talk about his latest book, “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.”
His list includes everything from fossils and archaeological objects from 500 million years ago to a fragment of Plymouth Rock and Kermit the Frog. Each object is paired with stories about its history, its creation or discovery, and how it came to be in the Smithsonian. As a group, the objects shape our collective memory as a nation, Kurin said.
“I find objects are a great place to enter into history,” Kurin said in a phone interview. “You have a piece of physical evidence. How does it speak to me and what is it telling me? When you can see it and hold it, it’s a way to touch history.”
In choosing objects for the book and in telling their stories, Kurin went through his own kind of “forensic” investigation, where he asked questions and pieced together the evidence.
Take Lincoln’s hat.
“You really start interrogating the hat,” he said. “Here’s Lincoln, 6-foot-4. Why is he wearing a stovepipe hat? He’s tall enough already.”
He looks at history: The stovepipe hat, made of silk, was coming into style during Lincoln’s day.
“It was really Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who made it fashionable,” Kurin said.
He puts the hat into context: Lincoln, a rail splitter and a man of humble means, was running for president of the United States.
“He has to show that he has a sophistication,” Kurin said.
And what better way to show that he is keeping up with the times than by wearing a fashionable hat?
More scrutiny: Inside the band, there is no size marking, “because sizes aren’t standardized,” Kurin said. “So you get a notion of how hats were made. Most clothing at the time was custom made. What started happening in the Civil War, we started manufacturing, because there was a war on. Then you start thinking about the history of sizes.”
And one more detail: The outside of the hat has an extra 3-inch band going around it.
“It was a mourning band because his son, Willie, had died,” Kurin said. “So why is Lincoln putting that mourning band on? Because he wanted to show the public that he was mourning his son just as other Americans were mourning their sons. It became a badge of honor in a tough time.”
The hat’s story doesn’t end there. Lincoln wore it to Ford’s Theatre on the night he was assassinated. After the tragedy, the hat went to the Smithsonian, but was locked away in the basement.
“There were a lot of ideas of Lincoln as a martyr,” he said, and the Smithsonian director at the time didn’t want that to happen.
A daunting task
Choosing the other 100 objects to include in the book required similar scrutiny. It wasn’t easy, Kurin said.
“We have 137 million objects in the Smithsonian. It’s the largest collection of stuff on the planet. It’s pretty daunting,” he said.
Kurin sifted through the hundreds and hundreds of suggestions from the Smithsonian’s museum directors, but then he did something more practical.
“I looked at where our visitors go,” he said. “We get about 30 million visitors to the Smithsonian every year. If you look at where the carpet is worn out, you know what is most popular.”
That theory led to the inclusion of popular items such as Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Julia Child’s kitchen and Chuck Berry’s guitar.
To be expected, there’s a portrait of George Washington, along with the Star-Spangled Banner and the space shuttle Discovery. Martha (the last passenger pigeon) and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine also made the list.
But among the not-so-expected items are those that tell a darker side to American history: Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Sitting Bull’s ledger, the Greensboro lunch counter that became a symbol of the civil rights movement and the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
“I wanted to present a very rounded-out, broad view of American history,” Kurin said.
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Sitting Bull’s ledger is “just a regular book that you buy in a general store,” he said.
Yet the Native American chief’s drawings are revealing about history.
“It gives you a sense of the complexity of the story between Native Americans and the government,” he said. “When you look at his drawings, there’s one in particular I focus on; it’s like he encodes messages in his drawings.”
A pattern on a horse “is so much greater than the detail on you and me,” he said. “You have to kind of do a double-take. Even the pattern of the horse’s coloration is an eagle. So the horse is embodying these other spiritual powers. And you get a sense of his mindset.”
Simple, yet significant
Some of the items in the book have not yet been in an exhibit. Among his favorite objects is the bakelizer, a device developed by Leo H. Baekeland.
“The bakelizer is the oven that cooked the first plastic. It’s a hideous object; it’s industrial, a greenish brown. It’s so unattractive for an exhibit,” Kurin said.
Nevertheless, “here’s a material that’s so significant to our lives. Some things are very plain but have very interesting stories with them.”
A Brownie camera was one of those.
“A lot of people may have had Brownie cameras, but this one is so significant because it was used by a 16-year-old girl in 1912,” Kurin said.
Before that camera was developed, “you needed to be a chemist to take a picture,” he said. “We have a history of democratizing technology. That’s one of the hallmarks of our country, and it’s good for our country.”
Bernice Palmer got the camera for her birthday, then took it along on a family trip aboard the ship Carpathia. During the journey, the Carpathia received a distress call from the Titanic after it hit an iceberg and sank, killing more than 1,500 people. When the Carpathia arrived to help with rescue efforts, the scene was recorded by the teenager with her new camera.
“She’s the one whose pictures went around the world,” he said.
In an age when everyone takes cellphone photos and shares them instantly, that may not seem like a big deal, he said.
“But here that kind of thing happened 100 years ago to document one of the most significant moments in our history,” he said.
To tell the story of labor leader Cesar Chavez, Kurin selected the short hoe, the implement migrant farm laborers used to do their work.
“Part of the issue was over wages, and there was the issue of having humane working conditions,” Kurin said. “When you look at the short hoe that people had to use for that work, when you actually see that short hoe, you see how little it is. To do that work, you have to be kneeling. You say, ‘Wow, now I see what people had to endure.’
“The materiality of the object gets you. I try to use the materiality of the objects to occasion in some ways that sense of surprise and wonder,” he said. “I think that’s what connects you.”
Another simple object with a story is a postal hand stamp from the USS Oklahoma, the ship that was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“Some of the objects are very plain, but they’re so poignant. You can’t look at that and not have a connection,” he said. “To look at that postal hand stamp and see the date, Dec. 6. And then you realize that the people who had changed the date on that never got a chance to again, because they were killed in that bombing. So a simple object like a hand stamp comes over you: Who held it? What were they doing? There’s a kind of veracity in that object that takes you back.”
But his objects also look to the future.
“The last object in the book is a telescope that is not yet built. It will allow us to see back in time, to the Big Bang,” he said.
As to objects that may show up in a future edition, “One imagines all sorts of devices that will change our sensory nature, the way we see and record information,” he said. “I imagine a whole slew of inventions in digital communication.”
But who knows?
“One-hundred and twenty years ago, the Smithsonian would have never dreamed of collecting an airplane,” he said.