Founded in 1846 using a donation from a British scientist, James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum. It holds well over 154 million items in its 21 libraries and 19 museums, operates research centers, and works with affiliate museums in 45 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Panama. The National Zoo in Washington DC is operated by the Smithsonian. All of its museums are open to the public, most free of charge. The original Smithsonian building in Washington, known as The Castle, is one of the icons associated with the nation’s capital.
With so many facilities and such a vast collection there are understandably some decidedly odd items held in the Smithsonian. Some are on display in the diverse museums. Others are held in the “Nation’s Attic,” the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. The Support Center is not open to the general public. Some of the items held there are prepped for later display in the museums, others have been deemed unsuitable for public display.
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of oddities in the museums and vaults of the Smithsonian and its affiliates. Here are 10.
10. A 17 and half foot long beard, once sported by a sideshow performer
At the age of 19, Hans Langseth, a Norwegian-born Iowa farmer, decided to enter a beard growing contest. Whether he won or not is unknown, but following the contest he opted to continue growing his beard. As it grew Hans braided his beard in coils, which strengthened it and gave it more body. As he grew older Hans toured the country as a side-show performer, appearing in circuses and carnivals. Between appearances he carried the beard, wrapped around a corncob, in pockets or a satchel. According to Smithsonian curators, bits of corn are still present in the beard. By 1922 Langseth’s beard reached the length of 17 feet, officially recognized as the longest in America by a group which called themselves the Whiskerinos.
Hans died in 1927. Per his wishes, his beard was removed but retained intact. It remained in his family’s possession, boxed and stored, for many years before his son donated it to the Smithsonian. There it remained on display from 1967 until it was removed and stored in the National Museum of Natural History. Today it remains in storage, though Langseth’s descendants have been able to view it periodically. If and when the beard is returned to display is up to the curators’, who retain the beard as part of their research of the human body collection.
9. A stuffed carrier pigeon that served in World War I
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History holds many artifacts reflecting America’s military history, both on display and in its storage vaults. One item on display is the stuffed body of Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon. Cher Ami (Dear Friend, in French) served in the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917-1918. Pigeons were an important part of the communications and signals operations during the First World War, as well as the even larger World War which followed. Before the Americans arrived in France, pigeons had been deployed to deliver messages to the extent the Germans introduced falcons to bring them down.
Cher Ami served with distinction, delivering 12 messages before being wounded while on another journey. Buckshot from an enemy marksman cost the pigeon an eye and a badly wounded leg, yet it arrived at its destination with the message capsule intact. Cher Ami succumbed to his injuries. The French awarded the bird the Croix de Guerre for its final mission, which helped save the lives of nearly 200 soldiers. The bird was then preserved. Cher Ami is one of many exhibits honoring the use of animals in warfare on display in the Smithsonian’s museums and libraries.
8. Vince and Larry (crash test dummies)
In 1985 a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs), which are usually somewhat sobering, introduced a humorous approach to a serious problem. The problem was the lack of seatbelt use among American drivers. The humor came from the presentation of Vince and Larry, crash test dummies, to demonstrate the perils of being in a collision while not wearing a seatbelt. Vince and Larry PSAs ended with the tagline, “You can learn a lot from a dummy.” The tagline, and the spots, became an immediate hit across America in the late 1980s. Vince and Larry became celebrities.
The campaign ended in 1998, and the costumes for the characters Vince and Larry were placed in storage. In the first decade of the 21st century, researchers for the Smithsonian conducted a search to locate the dummies, with the idea of adding them to their collection. In 2010, the National Museum of American History opened a display focusing on the evolution of automotive safety, including items such as early seatbelts, airbags, real crash test dummies and their sensors, and other like equipment. Among them sit Vince and Larry, former comic stars, now artifacts displayed by the Smithsonian Institution.
7. Archie Bunker’s chair
It’s safe to say the 1970s sitcom All in the Family could not be made today. Its central character, Archie Bunker, was unabashedly bigoted, prejudiced, anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-liberal, and very, very funny. Portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, Archie lampooned the typical conservative, blue-collar, family man of the time. His wife Edith, daughter Gloria, and son-in-law Mike endured his diatribes, which often included the latter being informed he was a “meathead.” Archie also referred to his son-in-law with a derogatory descriptive reserved for those of Polish descent. The program was as politically incorrect as it could possibly be, but it was a long-standing top ten television series.
One running gag on the show featured Archie’s chair, and his reaction to anyone else having the effrontery to sit in it. Invariably he responded with the command to get out of his chair, often with an expletive thrown in. Archie often pontificated over the issues of the day while seated in his chair. Across from Archie’s chair stood an obviously less comfortable chair, which Edith used. The two were separated by a small table, holding an ashtray for Archie’s cigar, and usually a can of beer for his enjoyment. All are displayed in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, just as they appeared on the set of All in the Family for many years.
6. The “boy in the bubble’s” bubble
David Philip Vetter became famous during his short life (1971-1984) as the “boy in the bubble.” Born with a hereditary disease described as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), David entered a closed sanitary environment at birth, and remained in such environments for most of his life. Eventually a mobile enclosed and sanitized environment, resembling a space suit, allowed him some limited movement outside his contained environment. When he outgrew the suit, NASA provided him with another, though he reportedly never used it. According to The American Experience, David disliked the original suit, and only used it a total of 7 times. He died of lymphoma at the age of 12.
David’s short life generated considerable controversy, which faded after his death in 1984. Some considered the medical care he received was more for the benefit of research than an attempt to cure him of his debilitating illness. Eventually he became the butt of ill-considered humor by stand-up wags. The Smithsonian contains a large collection of artifacts from his story, including medical correspondence, photographs, medical equipment, and the suits provided by NASA. They are held in the Museum of American History, though not on public display. Many of the items can be viewed online.
5. More than a dozen locks of Presidential hair
Before the Smithsonian Institution, a popular museum of American artifacts in Washington was in the Patent Office. Officially known as the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, the museum drew visitors interested in its many patent models and other objects. As President, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed visiting the Patent Office, often with his younger sons. Around 1850, a worker at the museum, John Varden, began collecting locks of hair from distinguished personages, including General Winfield Scott, Sam Houston, and all the Presidents from George Washington to Franklin Pierce. Varden advertised in newspapers soliciting donations from those holding the locks of hair. Mounted on a plaque, the locks went on display at the museum in 1853.
Around 1855, Varden removed the presidential hair from the plaque, creating another which contained them. In 1883 the Patent Office transferred the hair plaques, along with much of its museum collections, to the Smithsonian, which retains them today. They are held in the Museum of American History, and as with much of the collection, can be viewed online. Whether the locks are indeed those of the men they represent is uncertain, as DNA testing on them has not been completed.
4. A hand phaser from the original Star Trek
As hard as it is to believe more than 50 years later, the original series of Star Trek failed in the ratings and lasted only three years. Yet its impact on the entertainment industry is nearly immeasurable. It made a significant contribution to American culture as well, introducing phrases such as “beam me up”; “I’m a doctor, not a [insert profession here]”; and of course, “Warp speed.” It also introduced new weapons; photon torpedoes and phasers. Phasers could be large powerful weapons capable of destroying cities, asteroids, and other targets. Or, they could be small, hand-held devices which could be used only to stun, rather than kill, an enemy. They could also be used to heat rocks or other handy items to keep people warm.
The Smithsonian Institution holds several phasers from Star Trek TOS (The Original Series) which often go on display in their traveling exhibitions. The Smithsonian also holds the original model of the USS Enterprise used to film the series in the 1960s, though not with its other television artifacts. For years the model hung from the ceiling in the Air & Space Museum’s gift shop. After restoration, it was relocated to the Boeing Milestones of Flight Exhibit at the Air & Space museum, a vision of the future consigned to history. In October 2019, it and other nearby exhibits were removed due to renovation of the hall, though it will return to public viewing when the construction is completed.
3. A life mask of Abraham Lincoln
Contrary to widely-held belief, a death mask from the slain Abraham Lincoln does not exist. During his lifetime, Lincoln twice sat to have molds taken from his face, to create a life mask. The first was created in 1860, while Lincoln maneuvered to obtain the nomination of the Republican Party to run for President. As such, the mask features a beardless Lincoln. Its creator, a sculptor named Leonard Volk, later reported that Lincoln did not enjoy the procedure, finding it uncomfortable, tiring and a little painful. Nonetheless, Lincoln approved of the resultant life mask, describing it in a self-deprecating manner as, “the animal itself.” Lincoln sat for the second mask in February, 1865, having won re-election and awaiting his second inauguration.
The second mask, created by Clark Mills, is often referred to as Lincoln’s death mask, though the President was very much alive when he sat for the mold to be made. The Mills mask is held by the Smithsonian. As of this writing it is not on public display, though images of the mask are viewable online. The artist’s son, Theodore Mills, donated the mask to the Smithsonian in 1889. The molds for the earlier Volk masks were donated to the Smithsonian in 1886, after numerous bronze castings were made from them. One such casting showing the visibly younger Lincoln is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
2. The original Teddy Bear
During a hunting trip in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt declined to personally shoot a bear which had been run to exhaustion, though he did direct that others put the animal out of its misery (or so the story goes). When the press learned of the incident he was either lauded or lampooned, depending on the politics of the reporters and cartoonists. Images of “Teddy’s Bear” appeared in editorial cartoons, posters, and pamphlets. An entrepreneur named Morris Michtom created a small, stuffed bear toy after the images in the cartoons, and displayed it in his shop, with the name “Teddy.” By 1907 sales of subsequent bears modeled from the original led Michtom to create the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Michtom contacted Roosevelt for permission to use the name Teddy’s Bear, which the president granted, though he despised being called Teddy.
In the early 1960s representatives of the Ideal Toy Company contacted the Roosevelt family, hoping to get them to pose with one of the original bears for publicity purposes. After several refusals, Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson, agreed to allow his children to be photographed with the bear, after which it was to be given to the Smithsonian. Kermit’s children liked the bear, and balked at giving it away. According to family lore they hid the toy from their parents. Parental authority, or perhaps persuasion, prevailed. The Smithsonian received the original Teddy Bear in January, 1964, as a gift from the Roosevelt family. It resides in the Museum of American History
1. A pigeon-guided missile system from World War 2
During World War II the famed behaviorist BF Skinner designed a missile guidance system operated by pigeons housed in the weapon’s nose cone. The pigeons were trained through conditioning to peck at certain images they observed during flight. The pecks activated sensors which steered the missile toward the target. The program was finally canceled in October 1944, having not completed any successful tests, though Skinner claimed to have made significant progress training the pigeons. He faulted the military for not having taken the project seriously.
A nose cone designed by Skinner and his associates is held by the Smithsonian. Skinner’s design featured three separate compartments, each containing a single pigeon. Each pigeon controlled one of the three axes of flight, lateral, longitudinal, and vertical. During experiments, despite obvious experience with flight, the pigeons frequently overreacted to stimuli, either pecking too frequently or not at all. According to Skinner’s notes, during one experiment a pigeon delivered more than 10,000 pecks in a period of 45 minutes. The Smithsonian’s nose cone is not on public display at this time, but images of the experimental guidance system are available online.